Pongal and the Earthen Pot

Pongal is the harvest festival in Tamil Nadu, a thanksgiving to nature for all her bounty.

Pongal pot and sugarcane

Pongal means overflowing and a special dish is cooked with rice, mung dhal, ghee (clarified butter), molasses (gur) and milk and garnished with cashewnuts, raisins and cardamom powder. It is traditionally cooked in  a new earthen pot. Nowadays we cook it in a pressure cooker.

‘Pongal’ is the biggest festival of Tamil Nadu and  is traditionally celebrated at harvest time by the common man, the farmer. It is a thanksgiving to the sun god, nature, rain and the farm animals that have helped in the harvest.

The earthen pot used for the festival Pongal

This day is very significant as it occurs three weeks after the Winter Solstice on December 21st or 22nd in the Northern Hemisphere which is the beginning of the gradual increase of daytime. A kolam (a geometrical free hand pattern) in the shape of a chariot is drawn on the floor and decorated with sugarcane, fresh turmeric and ginger plants. An earthen pot or bronze ‘vengalai paanai’ decorated with haldi and kumkum is placed on the fire and milk is boiled. When it starts to overflow the whole family joins in the chorus ‘Pongalo Pongal’–the milk overflows signifying abundance and prosperity.

In India, the earthen pot is an important part of rituals. Archaeologists have found pot shards in excavations and have called the pot and the potter as one of the earliest symbols of civilization. The pot was versatile and was used in many ways—for cooking, for storing grains and belongings, for growing plants and in religious rituals. It was adapted with modern ingredients like paints and enamel to become a decorative piece in weddings, in homes and as gift items. Clay became so sophisticated with the addition of other natural elements that it became crockery to embellish tables and homes.

Ancient Rishis developed a pot called the Kalashto port water when travelling.

Kalash--the auspicious pot

They invoked the god of the oceans, Varuna in this container. Thus began the worship of the Kalash and the association of the symbolism associated with it. The mouth of the Kalash is supposed to represent Vishnu, the throat Lord Shiva and the base Lord Brahma. The belly of the pot was the representation of all the goddesses and thus in a small pot the divine was invoked and invited to inhabit the pot.

The pot with the water inside, the mango / betel leaves symbolic of freshness and prosperity, the red-yellow sanctified thread tied around its neck and the coconut placed on the neck of the pot represent the cosmos. When the ceremony is over, the pot and its accessories are dismantled. The gods and goddesses are bid adieu to return to their abodes—‘yathasthanam’—with a little prayer. The kalash is said to represent the body, the leaves the five senses, and water the life-force.

The kalasam, made from copper or brass and plated gold is an important feature and symbol of temples.

Kalashams on temple towers (gopurams)

These inverted pots decorate the tops of the temple towers. When a temple is consecrated anew or after renovations in a ceremony called kumbabishekam, the pots of water play an important part of the rituals.

In Tamil Nadu the festival of Sankranthi is the first day of the month ‘Thai’. It comes after the austere month of Margazhi, devoted to devotion and prayers and temple celebrations. In Tamizh the saying ‘Thai pirandal vazhi pirakkum’—the month of Thai will herald good things and all obstacles will be removed—is symbolic of this anticipation. All auspicious events like house warming, marriages etc. await Thai or Makara.

Pongal as this festival is called in Tamil Nadu, is a harvest festival, a thanksgiving to nature for all her bounty. It is a time for new beginnings and a positive mood takes over Tamil Nadu. The farming community cash in on their harvested produce and can afford to buy new clothes, equipment etc. The sun is also on the positive path of Uttarayana Punya Kala, the auspicious northward journey of the Sun. It marks the transition of the Sun from Dhanur Rashi (Sagittarius) into Makara Rasi (Capricorn).

The Sun is worshipped on this day. Beautiful kolams are drawn in the courtyard of homes and sugarcane, vegetables, fresh turmeric and ginger plants are placed. A new earthen pot, decorated with auspicious symbols is placed on the fire. The milk is boiled and as it overflows, the assembled clan cry out in joy, ‘Pongalo Pongal’, “let the milk boil over or spill over.” This moment is auspicious and augurs the fulfilment of all the wishes of the family. Then new rice, split moong dhal or payatham paruppu is added and cooked to a mash. Finally new jaggery is added and the dish Pongal is garnished with cashewnuts and raisins roasted in ghee with a dash of cardamom powder. The dish is then offered to the Sun God with the blowing of the sangu / conch to announce that it will be a year blessed with good tidings. This offering is distributed to all. The pot is carefully preserved until the next year when another pot is initiated.

About padmum

You could call me Dame Quixote! I tilt at windmills. I have an opinion on most matters. What I don't have, my husband Raju has in plenty. Writer and story teller, columnist and contributer of articles, blogs, poems, travelogues and essays to Chennai newspapers, national magazines and websites, I review and edit books for publishers and have specialized as a Culinary Editor and contributed content, edited and collaborated on Cookbooks. My other major interest used to be acting on Tamil and English stage, Indian cinema and TV. I am a wordsmith, a voracious reader, crossword buff and write about India's heritage, culture and traditions. I am interested in Vedanta nowadays. I am now an Armchair traveller/opinionator/busybody!
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6 Responses to Pongal and the Earthen Pot

  1. Rummuser says:

    Pongalo Pongal! I got Mangal to make venpongal today and the old man was mightily pleased.

    “Thai Pirandhal Vazhi Pirakkum”


  2. Grannymar says:

    I would have great trouble with this because of the milk!


    • padmum says:

      We can cook the same dish for you without the milk! It tastes just the same…in fact I am working on Pan-Indian vegan book. Your copy will be reserved–when it is done.


      • Grannymar says:

        I love reading your stories about your traditions and culture, they are so full of colour.
        The smell of warm milk, be it straight from a cow or heating on a stove, is enough to upset my stomach and it blinds me to all else going on around me.

        The Pan-Indian vegan book sounds interesting and I look forward to reading and trying some recipes.


  3. conhake says:

    The richness of your mythology and interwoven with nature seems always so colorful, both literally in all its artistic and craft depictions and in its descriptions. Again, when I think of your culture, I think of the rich ancient ties.

    I am glad you share this so beautifully with us, Padmini!


    • padmum says:

      Thank you Conrad…I love writing about our heritage and culture. The fear that it will get submerged under a surge of technological and consumeristic tsunami makes people like me write to keep the traditions alive…and to make it relevant to a modern gen. The meanings of most traditions are not explained or rationalised when actually every civilizations culture grows from the roots of nature and its cycles and behaviour. This gets lost in dictats of do’s and dont’s, without proper explanation about its significance, by religious leaders who are afraid that their control will be eroded.

      Watch this space for more about Hindu practices and traditions.


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