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Thai Pongal (தை பொங்கல்) or Pongal (பொங்கல்) is a thanksgiving or harvest festival celebrated in South India at the end harvest season. It is one of the most important festivals celebrated in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry of India and also in Sri Lanka.

Pongal marks the beginning of the northward journey of the Sun from its southernmost-limit, a movement traditionally referred to as uttarayana. It coincides with the festival Makara Sankranthi celebrated throughout India as the winter harvest, and is usually held from January 13–16 in the Gregorian calendar i.e. from the last day of the Tamil month Maargazhi to the third day of Thai. The second of the four days or the first day of month Thai is the main day of the festival which is known as Pongal or Thai Pongal. This also represents the Indic solstice when the sun purportedly enters the 10th house of the Indian zodiac i.e. Makar or Capricorn.

The word pongal itself refers to the "boiling over" of milk and rice during the month of Thai. The saying "Thai Pirandhal Vazhi Pirakkum" meaning "the commencement of Thai paves the way for new opportunities" is often quoted regarding the Pongal festival. Tamilian thank the Sun god (Surya) for the good harvest and consecrate the first grain to him on this 'Surya Mangalyam'. Tamilians decorate their homes with banana, sugarcane and mango leaves and embellish the floor with decorative patterns drawn using rice flour.

The history may well be more than 1000 years old although some are of the view that the festival is older than that. Epigraphic Evidence suggests the celebration of the Puthiyeedu during the Medieval Chola empire days. It is thought that Puthiyeedudoodle meant the first harvest of the year. The link between that fast and today's harvest festival needs to be further researched. Tamils refer to Pongal as "Tamizhar Thirunaal" (meaning "the festival of Tamils") Makara Sankranti in turn is referred to in the Surya Siddhanta.

Thai refers to the name of the tenth month in the Tamil calendar, Thai (தை). Pongal in Tamil generally refers to festivity; more specifically Pongal means "boiling over" or "spill over". The boiling over of milk in the new clay pot symbolizes material abundance for the household. Pongal is also the name of a sweetened dish of rice boiled with lentils which is ritually consumed on this day. Symbolically, Pongal signifies the warming i.e. boiling of the season as the Sun travels northward towards the equinox.

Besides rice and lentils, the ingredients of the sweet dish Pongal dish include cardamom, jaggery, raisins, and cashew nuts. Cooking is done in sunlight, usually in a porch or courtyard, as the dish is dedicated to the Sun god, Surya. The cooking is done in a clay pot called kollam which is decorated with coloured patterns. There are two versions of pongal, one sweet the other salted. The prepared dish is served on banana leaves.

Apart from Pongal Day celebrations, cooking Pongal is a traditional practice at Hindu temples during any Temple Festival in Tamil Nadu. The community will convene to cook Pongal rice, partake of it and distribute it to those present.

The day preceding Pongal is called Bhogi when people discard old things and focus on new belongings. The disposal of derelict things is similar to Holika in North India. The people assemble at dawn in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh to light a bonfire to discard old used possessions. The house is cleaned, painted and decorated to give a festive look. In villages, the horns of oxen and buffaloes are painted in colors and in most rural parts of Andhra Pradesh people celebrate it in a grand way as most of them would have their harvest ready or even would have made money out of the harvests.

This tradition is observed on the same day in Andhra Pradesh where it is also called "Bhogi." The fruits from the harvest are collected (such as regi pallu and sugar cane), along with flowers of the season, in a ceremony called Bhogi Pallu Money is often placed into a mixture of Bhogi Pallu, and the mixture is poured over children, who then collect the money and sweet fruits.

This day is celebrated in Punjab as Lohri and in Assam as Magh Bihu / Bhogali Bihu.

The same day is celebrated in Andhra Pradesh, Bengal, Kerala, Bihar, Goa, Karnataka, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Manipur, Uttar Pradesh - as Makara Sankranthi or Holi.

It is in Gujarat and Rajasthan celebrated as Uttarayana and Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab - celebrated as Lohri.

In Nepal it is celebrated as Maghe Sankranthi.

Pongal itself falls on the first day of the Tamil month of Thai (January 14 or 15). It is celebrated by boiling rice with fresh milk and jaggery in new clay pots. The rice is later topped with sugar, ghee, cashew nuts and raisins. This tradition gives Pongal its name. The rice is traditionally cooked at sun rise.

The moment the milk boils over and bubbles out of the vessel, the tradition is to shout of "Pongalo Pongal!", introduce freshly harvested rice grains in the pot and blow the sanggu (a conch). Tamils consider it a good sign to watch the milk boil over as it connotes good luck and prosperity. The newly cooked rice is traditionally offered to the Sun God at sunrise to demonstrate gratitude for the harvest. It is later served to the people present in the house for the ceremony. People prepare savories and sweets such as vadai, murukku, paayasam, visit each other and exchange greetings.

The second day is dedicated to Lord Surya, the Sun God, who is offered boiled milk and jaggery. A plank is placed on the ground, a large image of the Sun God is sketched on it and Kolam designs are drawn around it. This icon of the Sun God is worshipped for divine benediction as the new month of 'Thai' begins.

Tamils draw kolams/rangolis on the door step, consume sugar cane, prepare sweetened rice, milk and jaggery in new earthen pots and dedicate it to Sun God. The family elders present gifts to the young. Elsewhere in India, there is kite flying in Gujarat and Andhra, the Jahangir Dance in Punjab and the Ganga Sagar Mela in Bengal. Millions of people immerse themselves in rivers in North India and offer prayers to the Sun God - Suryan. People offer thousands of their colorful oblations to the Sun in the form of beautiful kites.

The Sun stands for “Pratyaksha Brahman” - the manifest God, who symbolizes the one, non-dual, self-effulgent, glorious divinity blessing one and all tirelessly. The Sun is the one who transcends time and also the one who rotates the proverbial wheel of time.

This third day is meant for the cattle ('mattu') - the giver of milk and puller of the plough. Mattu Pongal/ Cattle play an important role in the traditional Indian farmstead be it with regards to the provision of dairy products, its use for ploughing and transport and its provision of fertilizer. This explains the Tamil reference to cattle as wealth. On the day after Pongal, cattle are felicitated. In rural Tamil Nadu, adventurous games such as the Jallikkattu or taming the wild bull are features of the day. Maattu Pongal is intended to demonstrate our recognition and affection to cattle and decorate them with garlands, apply kungumam (kumkum) on their foreheads and are feed with a mixture of venn pongal, jaggery, honey, banana and other fruits

Kanu Pidi is a tradition that the ladies and young girls of the house follow. Women feed birds and pray for the wellbeing of their brothers. Women of the family place different kinds of coloured rice, cooked vegetables, banana and sweet pongal on a ginger or turmeric leaf and invite the crows, which descend in hordes to share and enjoy the "Kaka pidi, Kanu pidi" feast. Women offer prayers in the hope that the brother-sister ties may remain forever strong like the family of crows.

Maatu pongal is a festival celebrated together by the villagers to thank the cows for their favour in farming . People bath their cattles and paint their horns with colourful paints. In the evening people offer prayings to Lord Ganesh made out of mud and all the cattles of the village are gathered together and are decorated with garland, manjalthanni (turmeric water)only for cows, oil, shikakai, kumkum is applied on the forehead and fed with a mixture of venn pongal, Jaggery, honey, fruits etc.At the people torch out of coconut leaves and burn with fire and run around cattles thrice and run to the border of the village and drop their,this ritual is performed to remove all Drishti.

Kaanum literally means ‘to see’ and is the fourth day of the Pongal festival in Tamil Nadu. As the name indicates, Kaanum Pongal is essentially a day of relaxation and socializing and people either visit relatives or go out on a picnic.

The fourth and final day is also called the Kanya Pongal, when birds are worshipped. Girls prepare colored balls of cooked rice and keep them in the open for birds and fowls to eat. On this day sisters also pray for their brothers' happiness.

This is a time for family reunions in Tamil Nadu. Brothers pay special tribute to their married sisters by giving gifts as affirmation of their filial love. Landlords present gifts of food, clothes and money to their workforce. During Kaanum Pongal (the word kaanum means "to view"), people visit relatives and friends to enjoy the festive season. In the cities this day is synonymous with people flocking to beaches and theme parks to have a day out with their families. They also chew sugar cane and decorate their houses with kolam. This day is a day to thank relatives and friends for their support in the harvest. Although it started as a farmer’s festival, today it has become a national festival for all Tamils irrespective of their origins or even religion. It is as popular in urban areas as is in rural areas.

One of the most important events on the day is the visit to the banks of Kaveri River. Many people pack their lunch and a have a picnic lunch on the riverbank. In many places special prayers are offered to Mother Kaveri.

In certain parts of rural Tamil Nadu, people use the opportunity provided by Kaanum Pongal to perform the ritual ‘Kummippatu’ or ‘kumi patu.’ This is a ritual performed for the speedy marriage of girls whose marriages are unduly delayed. The girl whose marriage is delayed is made to sit in the center of a circle formed by women dancing to the tune of ‘Kummi pattu.’

In Andhra Pradesh, Mukkanuma, the final day of Sankranthi festival, is celebrated to worship cattle. Mukkanuma is famous among the non-vegetarians of the society. People do not eat any non-vegetarian dishes during the first three days of the festival and eat it only on the day of Mukkanuma.

Like all Hindu festivals, Pongal too has some interesting legends attached to it. But surprisingly, this festival has little or no mention in the Puranas, which are usually bristled with tales and legends related with festivals. This is perhaps because Pongal is preeminently a Dravidian harvest festival and has somehow managed to keep itself away from the preponderance of Indo-Aryan influences.

The Mt. Govardhan Tale:
The most popular Pongal legend is the one associated with the first day of the celebrations when Lord Indra is worshipped. The story behind it is, on this day Indra being honored by all, became proud and arrogant. To teach him a lesson, Lord Krishna asked his cowherd friends to worship Mount Govardhan instead of Indra on the Bhogi Pongal day.

Awfully infuriated, Indra sent forth the clouds to generate thunder, lightning and heavy rains and flood the land. But, as the tale goes, Lord Krishna lifted up the Govardhan Mountain on his little finger and sheltered the farmers, cowherd and their cattle. Indra then begged Shri Krishna's forgiveness and the latter re-permitted Bhogi celebrations in honor of Indra.

The Nandi Bull Story:
According to another legend associated with Mattu Pongal, the third day of celebrations, Lord Shiva once asked his Nandi bull to go to earth and deliver a special message to his disciples: "Have an oil bath every day, and food once a month."

But the baffled bovine failed to deliver the correct message. He told the people that Shiva asked them to "have an oil bath once a month, and food every day." The enraged Shiva then ordered Nandi to stay back on earth and help the people plough the fields, since they would now need to grow more grains.
COURTESY: en.wikipedia.org; hinduism.about.com ; hindu-blog.com

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