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Pongal is one of the most important festivals of Tamil Nadu, akin to the Makar Sankranti celebrated in South India. This is the story of the festival of many names, celebrated across India.
From the world of Religion and Spirituality
Nilan was sitting with his father on an early morning flight, His father could sense that Nilan didn’t seem particularly happy. It almost seemed like he was sulking. So Nilan’s father asked, “What’s the matter, my boy? Is something bothering you?”
Nilan looked at his father and then spoke with a sense of hesitation, “All my friends are planning to get together and fly kites on Makar Sankranti, and I’ll miss that because I’m going with you to Grandma’s. Why did we have to go this week? Can’t we go some other time?”
Nilan’s father was amused at such an innocent reason for this much brooding, “I’ll answer you, but first you answer my question. Why is Makar Sankranti celebrated?” Nilan felt confused at this reverse questioning, “I don’t know, I just know we fly kites on that day.”
Nilan’s father leaned in closer to him, “Well how about I make you a deal, I’ll tell you a story about why we are going and why Makar Sankranti is celebrated and at the end of that if you still feel like going back to your friend’s, We’ll take the next flight back.”
To a 12-year-old Nilan, this seemed like a good deal, whatever the story might be, it surely can’t be better than flying kites he thought to himself. “Okay, I accept it”. Nilan’s father then began;
“To tell you simply, We are going to Grand Ma’s to celebrate Pongal.”
“What’s that?” Nilan inquired.
“Just like your friends celebrate Makar Sankranti, We celebrate Pongal. Both of these festivals are celebrated to mark the beginning of the sun’s journey northwards.”
“So they are the same festival? Do we fly kites too?”
“Easy my kid, India is a land of great regional variety, different regions have different customs and rituals. So while the reason behind the celebration might be the same. The way different regions celebrate it varies greatly. It has different names in different regions of India, In Assam, it is known as Magh Bihu, In Gujarat as Uttarayana, People of Bihar and other northern states call it Makara Sankranti and we in Tamil Nadu celebrate it in the form of Pongal”
“But why do different regions celebrate it? What is so special about the sun moving northwards?” Nilan asked, brimming with curiosity.
“You studied about the two kinds of crops India produced right?”
“Yes, Rabi and Kharif.”
“Very good, so you see, This festival falls after the harvesting of Kharif crops and in the early phases of the Rabi crops, when crops have been planted and the heavy work in the fields has mostly ended Farmers across India have an ancient tradition of celebrating this festival. The Pongal celebration is roughly 2000 years old, an inscription of Chola king Kulotunnga in the Viragraha Vishnu temple talks, from 11th Century, talks of Pongal celebration.”
Nilan by now was fascinated by the story and wanted to know more, “So, how do we celebrate Pongal?” And why is it called Pongal?”
Nilan’s father was happy to see him taking an interest in the story, he promptly answered his question “The festival is named after a sweet dish, made with freshly harvested rice, milk and jaggery. And we celebrate the festival, not for one but four days, the first day is called Bhogi Pongal, on that day we wear new clothes, decorate houses, light a bonfire and pray to Lord Indra, we thank him for plentiful rains and pray to him for similar kindness moving forward.
The third day of the festival is called Mattu Pongal, on this day we worship our cattle and offer them a special meal. After all, cattle are such an important part of our culture and tradition and they are equally important in agriculture. The last day of Pongal is called Kanum Pongal, on that day we meet our family members, get together with the community and even some cultural activities are organised.”
“Do only people celebrate Pongal only in Tamil Nadu?” Nilan had his next question ready.
“Of course not, Pongal is also celebrated in our neighbouring state of Kerala. In fact, the Attukal Bhagavathy Temple at Thiruvanathapuram hosts the largest pilgrimage women during this time. They assemble in the streets, where residents host and assist with supplies, cook together, and present the Pongala meal to the goddess Bhagavathy. With an estimated 2.5 million women in attendance, the Attukal Pongala has been named the world's largest assembly of women by the Guinness Book of World Records. There are Kathakali and musical performances by boys and girls, as well as large processions with the temple goddess during the festival.”
As Nilan’s father finished his answer, their plane landed, “So, tell me now, do you want to go back?”
“No way, now I want to eat Pongal from Grandma’s hand.”
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