Pongal is a harvest festival – the Tamil equivalent of Thanksgiving. In an agriculture based civilization the harvest plays an important part. The farmer cultivating his land depends on cattle, timely rain and the Sun. Once a year, he expresses his gratitude to these during the harvest festival. With the end of the wet month of Margazhi (mid December to mid January) the new Tamil month of Thai heralds a series of festivals. The first day of this month is a festival day known as “Pongal Day”. Pongal means the “boiling over” of milk and rice during the month of Thai.
According to the calendar based on the solar system the year is divided into two halves following the apparent movement of the Sun northwards and Southwards. The farmer is termed Uttarayanam and the latter is Dakshinayanam.
People celebrating Pongal should be aware of the meaning & significance of the important rituals associated with this harvest festival. Pongal or Thai Pongal is also called Makara Sankaranthi, since it is celebrated on the first day of Thai when the Sun enters the Makara Rasi (Capricornus). This signals the end of winter and the onset of spring throughout the northern hemisphere. For the next six months, the days are longer and warmer.
The period is referred to as Uttarayan Punyakalam and is considered auspicious. Legend has it that the Devas wake up after a six-month long slumber during this period. And so it is believed that those pass away during Uttarayana attain salvation. In fact, Bheeshma is believed to have waited for the dawn of Uttarayana before he gave up his life.
The four day celebration of Pongal Marks a period of plenty, peace and happiness. There is a Tamil saying that “Thai peranthal Vali Perakum”. That paraphrased means with the dawn of the month of Thai, there will be peace, happiness, prosperity, brightness and harmony in the life of everyone. It is held to honor the Sun, for a bountiful harvest. Families gather to rejoice and share their joy and their harvests with others. The Sun is offered a “Pongal” of rice and milk.
Preparations for this festival start early and the first thing that is always found in Hindu homes before the start of Pongal is the ‘kolam’. This is a form of decoration for the Hindus’ homes. This decorative pattern is made with rice flour & is usually drawn on the floor outside the door. The kolams serve as a symbol of welcoming guests to the entrance of the house. At the center of the Kolam is a lump of cow-dung, which holds a five-petaled pumpkin flower-a symbol of fertility and an offering of love to the presiding deity.
The houses are cleaned and decorated to prepare for Pongal. For the festival, the Hindus buy new clothes and the ladies of the households would prepare sweetmeats. There is also a belief in the Hindus that the harvest festival will bring great wealth and goodness to their homes. All the four days of Pongal have their own significance as separate deities are worshiped each day.