India’s economy, culture and traditions are usually based on agriculture. The seasons, the produce grown typically at the time of the year are all important features of the celebration of festivals. Food cooked and shared at these festivals is made from ingredients that are abundantly available in that season. ‘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.
Sankranthi is the day in every Hindu month when the Sun transits from one Sun sign to another. Makara Sankaranti is the day on which the sun begins its journey northwards as Sankramana means “to commence movement”. It marks the transition of the Sun from Dhanur Rashi or Sagittarius into Makara Rasi (Capricorn). It is the start of Uttarayana Punya Kala, which means the auspicious northward journey of the Sun.
This day is very significant as it occurs three weeks after the Winter Solstice on December 21st or 22nd in the Northern Hemisphere which marks the beginning of increase of daytime. Traditionally, this is an important harvest time in India.
Makar Sankranti is one of the largest and most auspicious festivals in the Indian subcontinent. Usually occurring on January 14th or 15th, in the month of Pausha or Thai the festival is celebrated all over the country as a Farmer’s festival. The farming community gets money in their hands by selling the harvested produce and can afford to buy new clothes, equipment etc. In South India the festival comes after the austere month of Margazhi when only devotion and prayers reign supreme. All auspicious events like house warming, marriages etc. are postponed till the month of Thai or Makara is ushered in.
Sankranthi, the main day of this three day celebration starts in households with a puja to Lord Suryanarayana, the Sun God. A kolam in the shape of a chariot is drawn and decorated with sugarcane, fresh turmeric and ginger plants. A bronze ‘vengalai paanai’ or rice pot is decorated with haldi and kumkum and placed on the fire and milk is boiled. When it starts to overflow the whole family joins in the chorus ‘Pongalo Pongal’. In Tamil the word ‘Pongal’ means “boiling over or to spill over.” The boiling over of milk in the clay pot is auspicious and denotes the fulfilment of the wishes of the family in abundance. Then new rice, split moong dhal 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. In many families in rural Tamil Nadu a new earthen pot is used to cook the dish. The wooden fire is built in the middle of a rangoli decorated courtyard and the dish is cooked, offered to the Sun God with the blowing of the shanku (a conch) to announce that it will be a year blessed with good tidings. This Prasad is distributed to all.
Sweets, made with new gur or vellam, til or sesame are prepared all over India and distributed. Til laddu, revadi are some of the popular sweets. Til generates heat in the body and improves the system that has become sluggish in the winter. So, food prepared in this festival is meant to keep the body warm and to provide high energy.
Brothers give gifts to their sisters, mothers honour their married daughters and farming Landlords give gifts of food, clothes and money to their workers. Gurus visit their devotees to bestow blessings on them.
On the day after Makara Sankranti, called Maattu Pongal in Tamil Nadu, the animal kingdom, in particular the cows are honoured. The famous sport of ‘jalli kattu’ or bull fights take place on this day. This has been recently banned due to accidents where people have been gored by enraged bulls. In coastal areas, cock fights are held. Young girls feed the animals, birds and fishes as a symbol of oneness with all God’s creations.
Travel in many parts of India is considered to be inappropriate, as these days are dedicated for re-union of the families. However, the fourth day is picnic time in Tamil Nadu and is called ‘Kaanum Pongal’ when everybody goes sightseeing.
Kite flying is an important feature of this festival when the sprightly winds catch the soaring kites and take the messages of human beings to the Gods.