The most popular festival celebrated in Tamil Nadu is Pongal. Pongal is a 4-day harvest festival that is celebrated at the start of the Tamil month of Thai which usually takes place in mid-January. This festival is named after the ceremonial "Pongal", which means "to boil" and "overflow".
Pongal festival is dedicated to the Hindu sun god, the Surya, and celebrated to give thanks for the year's harvest. It is a time when crops such as rice, sugarcane, and turmeric are harvested, wishes are exchanged between family and friends, and a big feast is held within every family.
- Pongal is a 4-day harvest festival that marks the first day of the sun's journey back into the northern hemisphere.
- The first day of Pongal honors Lord Indra and is celebrated by cleaning and decorating homes.
- A special prayer is performed on the second day to honor the sun god.
- The third day is dedicated to cows and they are decorated, fed, and taken around the village.
- On the fourth day, birds are worshiped through a ritual where they are fed different food items served on a turmeric leaf.
Pongal is a 4-day long harvest festival celebrated in Tamil Nadu in mid-January. The festival marks the first day of the sun's return to the northern hemisphere and enters the zodiac Capricorn, widely known as Makar Sankranti in India.
During this festival, people harvest the crops that they had grown throughout the year including rice, cereals, sugar-cane, and turmeric. They also gather together and celebrate the day with great enjoyment and feasts.
Friends and family often exchange Pongal wishes, hoping that it will bring them good luck, good fortune, and happiness.
Cows are a holy animal in Hindusim and are celebrated during Pongal. The cows are often brought through towns and cities in parades and are decorated with multi-colored beads, tinkling bells, stalks of corn, and flower garlands. During the festival, they are also allowed to graze freely.
When is Pongal?
Pongal is celebrated after the winter solstice when the sun has reached its southernmost point and turns northward again to reenter the sign of Makara, or Capricorn. This happens at the start of the Tamil month of Thai and usually takes place between January 14th and 17th.
Upcoming Pongal dates:
- 2020: January 14th to 17th
- 2021: January 13th to 16th
- 2022: January 13th to 16th
How is the Pongal Festival celebrated?
Pongal is celebrated for a period of 4 days and each day has a specific corresponding ritual.
Day 1 - Bhogi Pongal
The first day is called Bhogi Pongal and honors Lord Indra who in South India is known as the supreme ruler of the clouds and the one responsible for bringing the rains. Lord Indra is thanked for the abundant harvest and prosperity brought to the land.
On this day, houses are thoroughly cleaned and decorated to get rid of any negativity. The entrances are adorned with rangoli, a pattern placed on the ground that is made of materials such as colored rice, flour, sand, and flower petals.
A ritual called Bhogi Mantalu is also performed and includes throwing old newspapers into a fire made of wood and cow dung. Girls dance around the bonfire, singing songs in praise of the gods, the spring, and the harvest. The bonfire is symbol meant to keep everyone warm during the last stretch of winter.
Day 2 - Surya Pongal
Surya Pongal is the second day of Pongal and the main day of celebrations. On this day, a special ritual or prayer is performed where rice and milk are boiled together in an outdoor earthen pot and symbolically offered to the sun god along with other items including sticks of sugarcane, coconuts, and bananas. The sweet rice pudding called pongal is the main offering and its preparation is the festival’s most significant practice.
The clay pot used to make pongal is typically decorated with a turmeric plant or flower garland. Once the milk is boiling in the pot, freshly soaked rice grains and cane sugar are added. As the dish boils and begins to overflow, the participants will blow a conch shell and shout “Pongal!” then wish each other good fortune in the next year.
When the dish is done, it is traditionally offered to the gods and goddesses first, mainly Surya and Ganesha. After being offered to the gods, the pongal is sometimes offered to village cows and then finally shared among the family.
In rural areas, it is common for women to gather and sing traditional songs while the pongal dish is boiling. At the same time, the men chant sacred mantras and offer prayers to the sun by performing sun salutation yoga postures. Tamilians also decorate their homes with banana leaves and embellish the entrance with rangoli which are decorative designs made from flower petals and colored rice.
Day 3 - Mattu Pongal
The third day is known as Mattu Pongal and is when cows are honored. Mattu means ‘cow’ which is an animal regarded in Hinduism as an important source of wealth for providing dairy products and agricultural labor.
On this day, cows are decorated with multi-colored beads, bells, stalks of corn, turmeric water, and flower garlands and then worshipped. They are also fed pongal and taken to community centers.
The sound of bells rings through the streets as young men race each other's cattle in celebration and the atmosphere becomes festive and full of fun and rivalry. A ritual is then performed on the cows to ward off evil.
Temples and communities hold large processions and parade statues of deities through the streets in wooden chariots accompanied by dance performances. It is also common for people to visit nearby temples and offer prayers.
Day 4 - Kaanum Pongal
Kanum Pongal is the last day of the festival and marks the end of Pongal festivities for the year. The word “Kanum” means “to visit” and this day includes family gatherings, visits from friends, and greeting neighbors while the children go out to pay respects and seek blessings from older relatives.
A traditional custom called Kanu Pidi also takes place on this day. During the ritual, turmeric leaves are washed and then placed on the ground and the leftover pongal and other food such as rice, betel leaves, betel nuts, sugarcane, and plantains are placed on the leaves. Then the food is left outside for the birds as thanks for their help over the growing season.
The women of the household often carry out this ritual before bathing in the morning. This ritual is believed to help the house and family of the woman prosper.
Where Can You Celebrate Pongal Festival?
The whole state of Tamil Nadu rejoices and holds a big feast to thank the gods for a good harvest during this holiday, so if you are anywhere in the state you are likely to see the celebrations. Still, some cities celebrate with more intensity than others.
These are the best places to visit during Pongal.
Madurai has many temples, fields, and villages all of which work hard to capture the true essence of Pongal. Despite the crowds, visiting the temples in Madurai during this festival is an unforgettable experience.
Here, travelers can also see houses decorated with sugarcane, mango leaves, and flowers.
Thanjavur is a city filled with ancient temples, lush green fields, and mouth-watering food. During Pongal, the entire city becomes vibrant and the houses are decorated with kolams which are patterns drawn out with rice flour. Cows are also lined up by the owners to be worshipped at the Brihadeeshwara Temple.
Salem has a unique event during the Pongal celebrations called 'Fox Darshan'. For this activity, the male members of the village will search the forests for a fox. They then carry it back to the village for everyone to see and worship before releasing it back into the wild.
Pongala in Kerala
This festival is also celebrated in Tamil Nadu’s neighboring state of Kerala where it is called Pongala. Pongala is observed on the same day as the Tamil Pongal and includes the same rituals of cooking a sweet rice pudding dish, worshipping the sun, family gatherings, and the honoring of cattle.
Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala, organizes the largest pilgrimage and annual gathering of local women at the Attukal Bhagavathy Temple. They come to the temple to cook the pongala dish together and then offer it to the temple goddess Bhagavathy.
How to Celebrate Pongal Festival as a Traveler
There are so many things to photograph during this festival including the decorated homes, women and children wearing newly bought dresses, and quaint farms with their decorated cows.
Travelers can also enjoy the festival performances. There are plenty of options to see rural folk art such as the martial arts performances of Thappatam, Karagattam Kavadiattam, Poi Kal kuthirai and silambam.
Travelers can also try the special Pongal dishes. Venpongal is the main dish of the festival and includes rice and beans cooked with butter, cashew nuts, raisins, and spices.
To get the best experience celebrating Pongal, you can try staying at a homestay in order to celebrate with an Indian household. They will know the correct procedure for this holiday so you can experience it to the fullest.
Legends and Stories of Pongal Festival
According to legend, Lord Shiva had a bull named Nandi. One day, Lord Shiva asked his bull to deliver a message to the people on Earth. He wanted to tell them to have an oil massage and bath every day and to only eat food once a month.
At that time, Nandi was very sleepy and he did not remember the exact message Lord Shiva had told him. So, Nandi instead announced to the people living on Earth to have an oil massage and bath only once a month and to eat food every day.
Realizing Nandi's mistake, Lord Shiva became angry and told Nandi that for here on out there would be no grains left on Earth. He then banished Nandi to live on earth forever and to help the people plow the fields to grow food. Mattu Pongal, the third day of the Pongal celebrations, started with this legend.
History of Pongal
The history of Pongal can be traced back to the Sangam Age. Some historians believe that this festival is at least 2,000 years old and was once celebrated as Thai Niradal.
In the past during Thai Niradal, unmarried girls prayed for the agricultural prosperity of the country and observed penance. Throughout the month, they would refrain from consuming milk and milk products. They would also not oil their hair or use harsh words.
Experience Pongal with Asia Highlights
Celebrating Pongal is a great way to experience part of South India’s rich culture while also trying great food and exploring a beautiful state. If you want to plan your trip during Pongal but would like some more advice about the festival, then Asia Highlights can help. At Asia Highlights, our experts will create the perfect trip for you that is tailor-made to only include what you want to see and experience.