Pongal or Thai Pongal is a winter solstice feast celebrated particularly in Tamil Nadu, while in other parts of India the Makar Sankranti is celebrated. Thai Pongal in the past used to be celebrated on the day of the winter solstice. In Tamil Nadu, the new year begins with Pongal.
Pongal is also known as the Tamizhar Thirunal. The festival usually takes place on 14 or 15 January in the first day of the Thai month of the Tamil calendar. A Tamil proverb says Thai Piranthal Vazhi Pirakkum or the birth of the month of Thai paves the way to new opportunities.
The celebrations lasts four days. The first day of Pongal celebrated on the last day of the Tamil month of Margazhi is called Bhogi and is celebrated in honor of Indra, the vedic deity. Old fabrics and clothes are thrown and burned, marking the beginning of a new life. Food and clothing are offered to the poor.
During this period people consume sugar cane and decorate their houses with with banana, mango leaves and embellish the floor with kolam, drawn with rice flour lined with red clay. People buy new clothes and the women prepare traditional dishes.
The second day called as Perum Pongal is the most important and is dedicated to the sun, for good harvest and consecrate the first grain to him, who is offered rice cooked in milk. The payasam is cooked in the early morning at sunrise, just as the new month begins. People boil rice with fresh milk and molasses or brown sugar.
In each family the men gather in new clothes and watch earthen pots in which rice is cooked in milk. When this preparation goes beyond the pot everyone cries pongalo, pongal and the women slam their tongue in order to remove evil spirits. Women also prepare snacks and desserts, visit each other and exchange greetings.
On the third day, Mattu Pongal is intended to give thanks to the cows and buffaloes, as the cattle helps the man to till the fields. They are washed and their horns are painted. Garlands of flowers are tied around their necks and the harnesses are colored. They are fed with a feast of pongal and bananas. The cattle are then released into the streets to the delight of the villagers, who make a lot of noise by tapping on kitchen instruments and chasing the animals with the loud cries of pongalo pongal.
A jallikattu race is also organized where a scarf is tied around the neck of a vigorous bull that must be untied by a man in the midst of a crowd of participants. On the last day called Kanum Pongal, young people gathered on the banks of rivers to look for a future companion, a practice that has now less in practice. It is also the time to dance traditional dances like kummi kolattam. Women pray for the prosperity of their brethren.
Even those who work far away do not fail to return home to participate in the feasts. Everyone sits together to share the meal and evoke the past. There are two types of Pongal dishes the sweet Pongal Sakkarai and spicy Pongal. The rice cooked with milk and jaggery during the festival of Pongal also receives the same name. This sweet variant is made in containers of clay cooked on wood fire.
Sakkarai means sugar in Tamil. The dish tastes sweet and contains rice, sugar or palm sugar, coconut pieces or mung bean. The sweetening agent is usually palm sugar, but sometimes candy is used in its place. Ven Pongal is a popular dish in homes typically served for breakfast. The Pongal milagu is a variant made with spicy pepper, rice and mung beans.