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Pongal Festival

The word 'Pongal' means 'boiling over' in Tamil. Pongal is a harvest festival, a celebration of the prosperity traditionally associated with the harvest of crops. Harvest plays an important part in agricultural based societies. Since the Sun is vital to the bounty of paddy and other plantations, this festival is a thanksgiving to the 'Sun God'. Hence Pongal is important for farmers and this festival is celebrated in a grand manner in villages.

Pongal is predominantly celebrated in the Southern States of India and especially in Tamil Nadu. This festival is also called 'Tamizhar Thirunal' or the 'Festival of the Tamils'. In North India, Pongal festival is called 'Makara Sankaranthi', while in Punjab and Haryana it is celebrated as Lohri festival.

History of Pongal festival

Pongal is an ancient festival of Tamilnadu and can be traced back to the Sangam Age, between 200 to 300 BC. Historians identify Pongal festival with Thai Un and Thai Nirandal, which were major festivals during the reign of the Pallavas. This festival is vividly described in Andal's Thiruppavai and Manickavachakar's Thiruvembavai. There is also an inscription found in the Veeraraghava temple of Tiruvallur in Tamilnadu, where a Chola King Kulotunga gifted lands to the temple during Pongal celebrations.

When is Pongal celebrated?

Pongal is celebrated in the middle of January from 13th to 16th. These dates remain constant every year as this festival is calculated according to the Gregorian or Western calendar. In Tamil the popular saying 'Thai Pirandal Vazhi Pirakkum' means Pongal festival marks the 'birth of the month of Thai which will pave the way for new opportunities'.

Pongal marks the end of the cold winter and the advent of spring. Pongal festival is celebrated for a period of four days. All the four days of Pongal have their own special significance and separate deities are worshipped on each day.

Astronomical significance of Pongal festival

Pongal festival marks the beginning of 'Uttarayana' during which the sun moves northward for a six-month period. It is on the first day of 'Thai' that the sun leaves the zodiac sign of Sagittarius and enters into Capricorn, which is called 'Makara' in Tamil. Uttarayana is considered as auspicious as opposed to 'Dahshinayana' or the southern movement of the sun for six months. According to mythology, this is the time when the days of the Gods begin, after a six-month long night. This event is celebrated as Pongal.

Pongal - The harvest festival of Tamilnadu

The first day of the Pongal festival is called 'Bhogi'. This is celebrated on the last day of the month of Marghazhi. Bhogi symbolically suggests the end of the old and emergence of the new. This is celebrated by destroying old clothes and unwanted materials from home and setting bonfires to them. Houses are cleaned and whitewashed. Bhogi is celebrated in honor of Lord Indra who is the supreme rules of the clouds and rains and the provider of abundance of harvest.

The second day is called 'Surya Pongal' or 'Perum Pongal'. This day symbolizes thanksgiving for the Sun God 'Lord Surya' who is considered the chief of the Hindu solar deity for providing prosperity. Sweets and savories are prepared and families get together and share greetings.

There are several legends associated with Perum Pongal. It is on Perum Pongal day that Lord Vishnu is believed to have taken the form of Sarangapani and blessed Sage Hema on the banks of Pottramarai tank in Kumbakonam. It is on this day that Lord Shiva conducted a miracle when a stone elephant ate sugarcane.

On Perum Pongal day, the new rice that has been harvested is cooked in pots until it 'boils over' and bubbles out of the vessel. Boiling over represents plentiful and excess yield. This overflowing of rice is considered a joyous occasion and an expression of the happiness that the new harvest should be enjoyed. This rice is cooked and a dish called 'Pongal' is prepared with dhal, jaggery or sugar. Two types of Pongal are prepared. One is the 'Ven Pongal'. Here 'Ven' means white. Another popular variety is the 'Chakra Pongal' where 'Chakra'denotes sweet. Jaggery is added to prepare this chakra Pongal.

The third day of Pongal festival is called 'Maattu Pongal'. Maattu means cattle. The purpose is to pay homage to the cattle that provide milk and are used to plough the lands. The cattles are decorated with bells and new clothes tied to their neck and horns painted in vibrant colors. In some villages in India 'Jallikattu' contest where the violent bulls are tamed is the main event of this day.

The final day of the Pongal festival is called 'Kaanum Pongal', where the word 'kaanum' means 'to view'. On this occasion, people visit beaches, theme parks and places of interest. This day is also celebrated as 'Kanu Pongal' which is similar to Raksha Bandhan and Bhai Dooj of North India. On this day, sisters pray for the welfare of their brothers. This day, the younger members of the family offer respects to the elders and take their blessings. Food is left on banana leaves for the crows and other birds to take.

Pongal celebrations

The four day celebrations of the Pongal festival marks peace, plenty and prosperity. Pongal signifies the end of the traditional farming season and the time for harvest. It is a break for the farmers from the monotonous routine. In Hindu temples, drums and conch shells herald the joyous occasion of Pongal.

Pongal is a time for 'Kootanchoru' when families gather on the riverbanks and have sumptuous meals. It is time for 'Kummi' and 'Kolattam' and other traditional dances. It is during Pongal time that elaborate 'Kolums' and 'Rangolis' are created with colored rice flour on the floor outside the house. This is a form of decoration for the Hindu homes.Kolams is a symbol of welcoming the guests who enter the house. Normally at the center of the kolam a cow-dung lump with a pumpkin flower, symbolizing fertility is placed. It is a traditional belief that the Sun God moves in a chariot drawn by seven horses. This picture is normally drawn, with a small sun in the center of the chariot.

People wear new dresses and use new utensils and household items, which replace the old ones discarded on the 'Bhogi' day. Sugarcane is chewed in plenty during these four days, denoting a joy and sweetness to come. Pongal infact sets the pace for a series of festivals to follow during the course of the year.

Pongal is celebrated throughout India on the same day but with different names in different regions of the country. Bonfires and feasts mark the festivity throughout the country. Singing and dancing and a general spirit of camaraderie and bonhomie prevail during Pongal. Be it 'Pongal' of Tamilnadu, 'Bhogali Bihu' of Assam, 'Sankranti' of Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Bihar, 'Lohri' of Punjab and 'Bhogi' of Andhra Pradesh, the harvest festival ushers happiness.