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Thai Pongal is the harvest festival of Tamil Hindus. Explore all about its customs, traditions, celebration and dates.

Thai Pongal is a harvest festival and one of the most significant Hindu festivals celebrated by the Tamils in India and across the world with great fanfare. This four-day festival is celebrated in the month of Thai when rice and several other crops are harvested and generally falls from January 13 to January 16. In Tamil the word 'Pongal' means 'to boil' and the festival symbolises thanksgiving to the Sun God for providing solar energy for agriculture. During the festival people perform different rituals, offering crops to gods and cooking new rice in new pots until they spill over symbolising bountiful harvest and prosperity.

History & Origin
This ancient festival that is mentioned in the Sanskrit Puranas was initiated as a harvest festival by the Dravidians. The historians however identify Pongal with the major festivals of the Pallavas, the 'Thai Niradal' and the 'Thai Un', which goes back to the Sangam Age, (200 B.C. to 300 A.D.). It is said that during the Sangam Age the young unmarried girls used to observe some customs including refraining from putting oil in hair, avoiding milk and its products, abstaining themselves from using rough or crude words while communicating and praying to god for rain, well-being and bountifulness. The women would get up early in the morning and after bathing they would worship Goddess Katyayani by carving the idol of the Goddess on wet sand. On the first day of the Thai month they would end their penance that would bring sufficient rains leading to good cultivation and harvesting. It is believed that these celebrations observed during the Sangam Age led to the festival of Pongal. An inscription at Tiruvallur's Veeraraghava Temple mentions that lands were bestowed to the temple by the Chola King Kiluttunga for the festival of Pongal.

Legends Associated With Pongal
Traditional festivals mostly carry with them some legendary stories and Pongal is no different. One of the most popular stories is that of Lord Shiva and his bull Basava. Basava was instructed by Lord Shiva to go to the earth to convey the mortals to have food once a month and massage oil and take bath daily. However Basava in his carelessness conveyed all to eat daily and take oil massage and bath once in every month. Such carelessness of Basava infuriated Lord Shiva who eternally banished Basava to earth and cursed him to assist human beings in cultivation by ploughing the fields.

According to another popular legend, Lord Krishna once in his childhood instructed the cowherds not to worship Lord Indra any longer to teach the latter a lesson for his arrogance that cropped up after the latter became king of all deities. Outraged with such act of Lord Krishna, Lord Indra emanated his clouds that led to thunderstorms and rains for three days. Lord Krishna saved humans by lifting Mount Govardhan, which made Lord Indra realise the power of Lord Krishna as also his own mistake.

Significance of Pongal
Pongal is the sole Hindu festival that follows a solar calendar. Astronomically the festival marks commencement of the six-month journey of the Sun towards north or Uttarayana. The first day of the Thai month of Tamil calendar is celebrated as the second day of the festival and is referred as Thai Pongal or Pongal, and is the most important day of the festival. This day corresponds to the Sun's entry to the 10th house of the Indian zodiac Makara that is Capricorn and that is why it is also referred as 'Makara Sankaranthi'. This marks the end of the winter season and beginning of spring and the entire six months period that is considered to be most auspicious and is referred as 'Uttarayan Punyakalam'. It is believed that during this time the deities wake up following a six-month sleep and any mortal who expires during this period achieves moksha.

People celebrate this festival with much pomp and zeal conveying their gratitude to the Sun God for providing solar energy to enable cultivation thus leading to a prosperous life. The farmers offer prayers to the Sun God and Mother Earth by applying sandalwood paste to their sickles and plough as a sign of consecration and then cut the paddy with such tools. The festival marks the end of a farming season with new rice being boiled in new pots till the time they spill over to symbolise prosperity and well-being. Many crops and vegetables are offered to gods which are later consumed by the devotees to relieve themselves of their past sins.

Days of the Festival
Pongal is a four day festival that starts from the last day of the month of Maargazhi of the Tamil calendar to the third day of the month of Thai. Different rituals and customs are followed through these four days.

On the very first day which is referred as Bhogi that falls on the last day of the month of Maargazhi, people honour Lord Indra who gives rain that leads to good harvesting. The ritual Bhogi Mantalu is carried out on this day that includes discarding old clothes and unwanted items to make way for new. These are then destroyed by fire by the people setting a bonfire signifying an end of the old and commencement of the new. The ceremony of 'Kappu Kattu' is observed by villagers. People clean their homes and decorate them; farmers paint horns of buffaloes and oxen and protect their crops from pests by keeping medical herbs like avram and neem. To remove all evil forces they keep neem leaves along the roof and walls of their homes.

People worship Sun God on the second day that is referred as Thai Pongal or Surya Pongal. It is the most important day of the festival and falls on the first day of the Thai month that corresponds with the winter harvest festival of 'Makar Sankranti', a ceremony observed across India. On Thai Pongal homes are decorated with mango and banana leaves and women decorate the floors with patterns using rice flours. They also decorate the central courtyards and doorsteps with kolams using rice flours and embellish the borders with red clay. Milk is boiled in a new pot and when it spills over the pot newly harvested rice grains are poured in it. As the rice starts to overflow from the pot, people shout 'Ponggalo Ponggal' and Sanggu or conches are blown, a tradition that signifies commencement of a good and blessed year ahead. The dish thus prepared is offered to Sun God at the time of sunrise and later served to all in the house.

Maattu Pongal, the third day is celebrated to honour the cattle that are a source of dairy products and fertilizer and also aids in farming and transportation. People bathe their cows, embellish them with garlands, bells and vermillion and feed them sugarcane and sweet rice. The Jallikattu contest that includes taming wild is organised in many villages.

Kaanum Pongal is the last day of the festival when some rituals are observed by women of the house. This day also marks reunion and thanksgiving to family, relatives and friends for their support and assistance in harvesting. Exchange of gifts between family and friends also takes place on this day.

Other Similar Festivals in India
Many other festivals are observed across the country during this auspicious period. While Thai Pongal is observed in Tamil Nadu, states like Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Orissa, Bengal, Bihar, Manipur, Maharashtra, Goa, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh celebrate 'Makara Sankranthi'. 'Lohri' is celebrated in Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana; 'Bhogali Bihu' or 'Magh Bihu' is celebrated in Assam; and 'Uttarayana' is celebrated in Rajasthan and Gujarat.