Pongal is an important Tamil festival, since it is, probably, a Dravidian harvest festival. It falls in January after winter (Makar Sankrati) and marks the favourable course of the sun. Ponga means "boil", hence Pongal means upsurge and is derived from the surging of rice when it is boiled in milk. It is celebrated in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh
. This is a three-day harvest festival observed on 13th, 14th and the 15th of January.
1st Day - Bhogi Pongal
It is a family festival meant for enjoyment and it is similar to the Lohri festival in Punjab. The old custom of lighting a bonfire is not prevalent today. It is called Bhogi Mantalu, when useless household articles are thrown into the fire. For the fire, logs of wood and cow-dung cakes are ignited. Girls dance around the bonfire and they sing songs in praise of the gods, spring and the harvest. In Andhra Pradesh, in the morning, they take an oil-bath. Then, the girls burn their old clothes and wear new ones. The bonfire is kept burning throughout the night while boys beat little drums known by the name "Bhogi Kottus" made from the hides of buffaloes.
2nd Day - Surya Pongal
On this day, sun is worshipped and people boil rice with milk and jaggery and offer it to the sun. This preparation is called Pongal. This festival is connected with the harvesting of paddy crop and only new paddy is used in the Pongal preparation. The Puja of the Sun God starts after the auspicious moment of the start of the new month "Thai". They pray to the Sun God to seek his blessings. People break the old earthen pots and replace them with new pots. This occasion is called Pongal Panai. The new pots are decorated with Haldi (turmeric), flowers and mango leaves. These new pots are used for the preparation of Pongal and are called Pongapani.
The neck of the Pongapani is tied with fresh turmeric and fresh ginger saplings with tender green leaves for the Puja. The green leaves are symbols of prosperity, the turmeric of auspiciousness and ginger of the spice of life. The special dish called "Sarkkarai Pongal" is cooked in this pot. After the rituals of puja, "Sarkkarai Pongal" with sticks of sugarcane is offered to the Sun god. This is an act of thanksgiving for the abundant harvest. Sugarcane that is offered is symbolic of sweetness and happiness in life. It is said that on this day Lord Sundareshwar in the Madurai temple breathed life into a stone elephant that could eat sugarcane. The carving of this incident is in Meenakshi temple. From this month of Thai, starts the marriage season in Tamil Nadu.
Pongal has different varieties. Rice with dhal and sugar is a Pongal variety is called venpongal. Ven means white. Another variety prepared is rice with dhal and jaggery, called chakrai pongal. Chakrai means sweet. With the venpongal, people eat brinjal, sambar, vadai, idli, and spicy accompaniments.
3rd Day - Mattu Pongal
The third day is Mattu Pongal when people worship mattu (cattle), which are bathed ceremoniously. Their horns are cleaned, polished, painted and decorated with flowers and they are given Pongal to eat. Arati is performed before the cattle, so as, to ward off the evil eye. There is a legend behind the worship of cattle. Shiva asked his bull, Basava, to tell the people to have an oil bath every day and to eat once a month. Inadvertently, Basava announced that everyone should eat daily and have an oil bath once a month. These mistakes enraged Shiva who then pronounced the curse that Basava should go to earth and plough the fields from the month of Ashadha to Makara Sankranti and help people produce more food.
The cattle are taken to the village centres and the villagers gather at the centres and watch as the young men race each other`s cattle. Big uproar is seen when the game "Manji Virattu" starts in which groups of young men chase the running bulls. At some places "Jallikattu" is arranged. It is a bull-fight in which money bags are tied to the horns of ferocious bulls and unarmed young men try to snatch the wads of currency that are tied to the horns of the bull. Sometimes, a red cloth is tied and the one who gets that cloth off the horns of the running bull is rewarded. Competitions like chewing of sugarcane are arranged.
On the Mattu Pongal day, Lord Ganesh and Goddess Parvati are worshipped and Pongal is offered to them in the `puja`. Sisters for the welfare of their brothers celebrate Mattu Pongal, also called Kanu Pongal. A large-sized, unbroken and uncut plantain leaf is taken. It is washed and left on the ground, near the basil plant altar with a branch of the amla. At the four corners of this leaf, are placed the leftovers of sweet pongal and the salty pongal called Vand Pongal. Along with this, placed is rice coloured red, yellow as well as white, with five betel leaves, two betel nuts, two pieces of sugarcane, turmeric leaves, and two or three Ber. In Tamil Nadu
women do this before bathing in the morning and light a lamp before it. In Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, the festival starts after everyone has bathed.
Arati is performed with haldi water, chuna (limestone) and rice and this water is sprinkled on the rangoli in front of the house. Before the arati is performed, all the young and old women of the house assemble and the oldest woman, who is not a widow, distributes a handful of the coloured rice to everyone and all of them sing an auspicious song. The rice is then put in the centre of the plantain leaf with the saying that "the house and family of the brother should grow from now onwards." Sisters apply a tilak to the foreheads of the brothers, and give them fruit, sweets, til and gur. The brothers thank their sisters for their `good wishes and give them gifts. This festival is reminiscent of Raksha Bandhan and Bhaiya Duj of north India.