In a bid to thank nature’s spirit – the Sun and farm animals; Tamils - the farmers in particular - celebrate the Thai Pongal ceremony on the first day in the month of Thai. Farmers offer first harvest of the farm produce to nature’s spirit, the Sun, in the form of cooked rice. They do not forget to make this an occasion to thank the farm animals who contribute to the prosperity of agriculture in a big way.
The recipients of these gratitude are farm animals including cows, oxen and buffaloes. Thus the farmers thank the Sun God for energizing them and the animals for helping them to produce rice in abundance. Meanwhile, the rice consumers in the rest of the population are obliged to venerate and thank the Sun God and the farm animals also the farmers for producing rice.
Obligation of the rice consuming community
Every rice consuming human is bound by this obligation because they cannot keep on living if not for the rice produced by the farmers with the blessings of nature. Hence, Thai Pongal is an occasion celebrated not only by almost all the Tamils but also by all those who consume rice throughout the world. This is probably the merriest occasion and the most popular Hindu festival celebrated worldwide.
The epoch of Thai Pongal
Thai Pongal is celebrated in the first month of the Tamil calendar. The festive season coincides with the period when the sun enters the zodiac sign of Capricorn (Makara). We, in Sri Lanka, and a large number of people in many other parts of the world suffered a lot due to recent heavy rains and floods and we were compelled to depend on nature’s spirit to cast away the rain and welcome the sun.
Boiled to overflow
The Pongal means boiling (of milk or rice) till it overflows. In a sense, Thai Pongal means the preparation and enjoying the first meal of the year with hopes and aspirations. In other words, this is the celebration of the previous year’s achievements with bountiful reap and also a celebration in anticipation of a flourish during the New Year which paves way for future prospects.
“Pongal, Pongal, we are getting exactly what we expected
The rituals of this family festival commence with the boiling of a pot of rice at sunrise at the front door step of the house. All the members of the family gather around it and enjoy the occasion wishing one another with the delightful cry “Pongal, Oh Pongal, we are getting exactly what we expected.” They have in their hearts the feeling that the universe, God Sun and Mother Earth offer them a rich and abundant harvest. They have a belief that it overflows their requirements and that their lives will be full of blessings in many ways for the years to follow.
The cooked rice is called Pongal prepared with Dhal and Sugar. This variety is called Ven Pongal. “Ven” means white. Another variety is also prepared with dhal and jaggery called Sakkarai Pongal. Sakkarai means sweet. They serve the Ven Pongal withVadai, Idli and spicy accompaniments.
The purpose of the Thai Pongal
In actual fact, the four-day festival is a “Thanks Giving Ceremony.” It is the Sun which brings prosperity to agriculture. Hence the Sun deserves the honour and respect of farmers. Farm animals including the cows, oxen and the buffaloes help them immensely in the farm. Therefore farmers thank the Sun, the nature as the fore runners of a bountiful yield. It is a festival to encourage social cohesiveness and building unity and harmony among people.
Legends connected with Thai Pongal
Pongal has many legends. The most popular one is the incident of Lord Krishna lifting Vindhan Mountain with his little finger to save his people from being washed away from rain and flood. Another interesting story related to Pongal says that Lord Siva commanded his bull Nandi to go to planet earth and tell his devotees to have an oil bath daily and have food twice a week. However, Nandi got it all mixed up and requested the devotees to eat daily and bathe twice a week. Lord Siva was annoyed and said “Now the people need to eat more. You stay on earth and help my devotees to plough the land.”
The first day of the festival which falls on the last day of the Tamil month, Margazhi is called Bhogi. Bhogi is dedication to God Indran. He is the God of clouds and rain that helps crops grow. Bhogi is the day of the family. On this day all the people clean their houses and separate all junk for disposal. On this “Bhogi” day, the rain God is worshipped.
The second day is Suriya Pongal day on which offerings are made to the Sun and the rain Gods to invoke the blessings on the family members. The ritual festivities begin early in the morning, bathe, dress and gather at the front door step of the house or in the front garden.
Preparation of the Pongal meal
A senior member of the family, preferably a grandparent conducts the cooking. The other members of the family assist him/her. When the water is boiled sufficiently they put three handfuls of rice into the pot, add cow’s milk or coconut milk, dhal, jaggery or sakkarai or kalkandu (sugar crystals) and roasted green gram, raisins, cashew nuts and some pods of cardamom.
When the meal is ready the family members lay plantain leaves on the floor and tip the pudding on the banana leaves. Before taking the meal they pray and thank the Sun.
Kolams are designs drawn in the front yards of houses with Rice flour paste. Presumably the idea is to provide food for ants and insects so that they too would bless the bliss to the family members. At the centre is a lump of cow dung holding a five-petal pumpkin flower which is a symbol of prosperity. The designs are decorated in a bid to purify the place. God is invited to bless the inmates.
The third day is the Pongal for farm animals. Farmers are well aware the agricultural activities depend largely on the assistance provided by farm animals including the cow, which gives us milk and the ox and the buffalo which help the farmer to plough the land.
These animals also provide manure. Hence, the farm animal is a companion, friend and a close associate of the farmer. Based on that understanding Maattu Pongal is celebrated by farmers. This is exclusively a festival of thanksgiving to the animals for their sound contribution in helping the latter in their agricultural pursuits. On the Maattu Pongal day domestic cattle are bathed, anointed and fed. They are garlanded with freshly picked flowers around their necks. In South India, there is a custom to hang bags of valuables, including money on the horns of vigorous bullocks and young men muscle them down and take the valuables.
Thanksgiving to farmers
While the farmers thank the sun and the farm animals, the rest of the community takes this opportunity to thank the farmers for producing rice and food for the universe. Although the people in urban areas are not directly involved in agriculture, they too celebrate Thai Pongal with the same gusto and spirit as they too consume rice and are obliged to thank the farmer and share with the rural folk.
An occasion for Family reunion
Thai Pongal is also an occasion for family reunion and an opportunity for a get-together with old animosities and rivalries forgotten. Farmers belonging to other ethnic groups also join the festivities because agriculture is a common interest to all. Hostilities are healed and reconciliation restored. It is a festival of freedom, unity and compassion crystallized in the last hymn on unity in the Indian spiritual text “Rig Veda”. Let us resolve on the occasion of Thai Pongal to defeat all forces endangering disunity and disharmony to march towards unity and prosperity.