Pongal is a harvest festival - the Tamil equivalent of Thanksgiving. In an agriculture based civilization the harvest plays an important part. The farmer cultivating his land depends on cattle, timely rain and the Sun. Once a year, he expresses his gratitude to these during the harvest festival.
With the end of the wet month of Margazhi (mid December to mid January) the new Tamil month of Thai heralds a series of festivals. The first day of this month is a festival day known as "Pongal Day". Pongal means the "boiling over" of milk and rice during the month of Thai.
According to the calendar based on the solar system the year is divided into two halves following the apparent movement of the Sun northwards and Southwards. The farmer is termed Uttarayanam and the latter is Dakshinayanam.
On the first day of the Thai, the Sun leaves the zodiac sign of Sagittarius and enters that of capricorn, the latter is known as Makaram. The event thus is celebrated as Pongal.
It is held to honor the Sun, for a bountiful harvest. Families gather to rejoice and share their joy and their harvests with others. The Sun is offered a "Pongal" of rice and milk.
Preparations for this festival start early and the first thing that is always found in Hindu homes before the start of Pongal is the 'kolam'. This is a form of decoration for the Hindus' homes. This decorative pattern is made with rice flour & is usually drawn on the floor outside the door. The kolams serve as a symbol of welcoming guests to the entrance of the house.
At the center of the Kolam is a lump of cow-dung, which holds a five-petaled pumpkin flower-a symbol of fertility and an offering of love to the presiding deity.
The houses are cleaned and decorated to prepare for Pongal. For the festival, the Hindus buy new clothes and the ladies of the households would prepare sweetmeats. There is also a belief in the Hindus that the harvest festival will bring great wealth and goodness to their homes. All the four days of Pongal have their own significance as separate deities are worshiped each day.
The first day is celebrated as the Bhogi Pongal and is usually meant for domestic activities and of being together with the family members. This first day is celebrated in honor of Lord Indra, the supreme ruler of clouds that give rains.
The second day is known as 'Pongal' the most important day of the entire festival, where prayers are offered to the Sun. On this day, the Sun is given great importance and hence the day is called Surya Pongal.
The third day is known as Mattu Pongal, the day of Pongal for cows. The cattle are washed, their horns are painted and covered with shining metal caps.
Kanu Pongal is celebrated by sisters for the welfare of their brothers. This festival is reminiscent of Raksha Bandhan and Bhai Dooj of North India.
The rice is cooked and prepared as a dish called Pongal, which is rice with dhal and sugar. This Pongal variety is called venpongal, ven meaning white.
Sweets, puddings, cooked rice or 'Sarkarai Pongal' are prepared on this day. This is prepared with dhal and jaggery (sweet), called chakra pongal, chakrai meaning sweet.
To accompany the venpongal, people eat sambar (stew), vadai, idli and spicy accompaniments.