Many countries across the world celebrate harvest festivals. Harvest season may differ from country to country, as it depends on the climate, region, and the crops. Some tend to be first-fruit festivals that mark the start of the season and the first crops. Others render thanks for a bountiful harvest. In some regions, harvest festivals have become secular. The autumn festival of Thanksgiving in Canada (2nd Monday in October) and in the US (4th Thursday in November) is a national holiday. Other festivals, like the first-fruits festival Lammas, also called Lughnasadh (in Celtic) and observed by Neo-Pagans and Wiccans, have ceased to be popular celebrations. There are also some which continue to be major events or are major religious holidays.
Some of the famous harvest festivals of the world are the Rice Harvest Festival of Bali, Indonesia (May 1-June 30), the Mid-Autumn Festival (September-October) in China, Vietnam, and Taiwan, the Ewe people of Ghana’s Yam Festival (August or September), the Jewish festival of Sukkoth (September – October), and Pongal (January) of Tamil Nadu in India.
Why Is Pongal Celebrated?
Pongal is celebrated in the month of Thai (mid-January – mid-February) in the Tamil calendar. Thai month also happens to be the first month of the Tamil Almanac.
Pongal is actually a festival of thanksgiving. Farmers observe it to thank Mother Nature, the Sun, and their livestock for giving them a good harvest. The others celebrate Pongal to honor the farmers for producing food for their needs. The festival contributes to social cohesiveness as it brings everyone together.
Pongal is actually a 4-day festival. The 4 days are Bhogi Pongal, Surya Pongal, Maattu Pongal, and Kaanum Pongal.
This is the first day of the Pongal celebrations. On this day, people clean their homes thoroughly and get rid of old things to signify a fresh start. They also wear new clothes and decorate their homes.
The second day is Surya Pongal, and it is the main day of Pongal. On this day, people worship Surya, the Sun God. They draw beautiful and colorful rangolis or kolams at the entrance of their homes. Women of the house prepare a pot of Pongal in the courtyard at the auspicious time. As the rice boils and overflows from the pot, everyone shouts, “Pongalo Pongal!” Pongal comes from the Tamil word, ‘Pongu’, which means ‘to boil over’. People offer the Pongal dish to the Sun God first. They also cook other Pongal dishes and eat them after this ritual.
This is the third day of Pongal. Tamils worship cows (Maadu) on this day. Cows are very important to farmers as they help plow the land. They are given a bath and decorated with flower garlands, multi-colored beads, and bells. Their horns will be painted in red, blue, yellow, and green colors. The farmers also smear the cows’ foreheads with turmeric and kumkum. After a Pooja is performed for them, they are given Pongal to eat.
This is the fourth day of Pongal. On this day, people meet up with their friends and family and have fun. They have a sumptuous meal and also visit beaches, zoos, etc. The young seek the blessings of the elders. Traditional folk dances like mayilattam and kolattam take place.
Pongal is a celebration to express joy over life’s renewal. On Thai Pongal or Surya Pongal, people awake at dawn, have a bath, wear new clothes and gather in the front yard to cook the Pongal (rice pudding). They make a flat square pitch and decorate it with kolams. It is exposed to the sunlight, and a fire wood hearth is created using three bricks. The women place a clay pot with water on the hearth.
A senior female member of the family does the cooking while the others help or watch the proceedings. When the water boils, the rice is put into the pot. But first, a family member ceremoniously puts three handfuls of rice into the pot. Then the other ingredients – chakkarai (jaggery) or kalkandu (sugar candy), milk (cow’s milk or coconut milk), green gram dal, raisins, cashew nuts, edible camphor, and some cardamom, are added.
When the dish is cooked, people first put some on a banana leaf. The family then prays to thank Mother Nature, the Sun God, and the farmers.
The Pongal is then served along with fruits to the family members. It is also given to friends, neighbors, and relatives. Some scholars feel that the rice is ceremoniously cooked on the day of Thai Pongal, as it is a symbol of auspiciousness and fertility. In the evenings, people attend cultural events or visit relatives and friends.
Thai Pongal is a joyous occasion for Tamils. It’s also very auspicious and significant, as it recognizes the importance of paying tribute to Nature, for without the blessings of Mother Nature, human beings cannot thrive or prosper.