Celebrating The Harvest Festival of India
Written by Meera Srikant
Did you know? The harvest festival celebrated in mid-January (usually 13th — 15th), commonly referred to as Pongal down South and as Makar Sankranti in many parts of the country, is incidentally not unique to this period. Rather, it refers to the period between the transition of the Sun from Dakshinaayana (the southward movement of the sun) to Uttaraayana (the northward movement of the Sun).
In other words, Uttaraayana + Daksihnaayana = One year and, the period starts and ends with Makara Sankaraanti.
Tracing its history
The celebration of Pongal festival can be traced back to the Sangam Age, sometime between 200 BC and 300 AD. Historians believe Thai Un and Thai Niradal celebrated in this period are precursors to Pongal, which is also mentioned in ancient texts.
What is Thai Niradal? Maidens are believed to have fasted — observing the Pavai Nonbu — during Thai Niradal, a major festival of the Pallavas (4th to 8th Century AD) in the month of Margazhi (December-January), praying for rain and prosperity. This rigorous austerity was observed by eating frugally, avoiding dairy products, avoiding dressing up and waking up early to worship Goddess Katyayani (also known as Shakthi or Durga) carved out of wet sand. The fast ends on the first day of the Thai (mid-January to mid-February) month.
The Significance of Pongal
During the transition period, this harvest festival is celebrated with much fanfare across the country, especially by farmers (also known as the sons of soil). On this occasion, they offer their gratitude to the Sun God and share their crops in exchange for other crops, with the intention that everyone gets everything. The idea that everyone should share (and not sell) and have everything is meant to be the actual significance of the harvest season.
Down South, Pongal celebrations begin with Bogi, celebrated a day before the main festival. On this day, people clean their homes, burn old belongings and celebrate new possessions, thus ushering in a new period of prosperity. The next day, on the day of the main festival, at an auspicious hour, they boil milk in a pot, under the Sun, with fresh rice grains strewn in. The moment it reaches its boiling point, it is offered to the Sun God (as a sign of gratitude for providing energy for Agriculture), and later distributed to family and friends. In some villages, the villagers gather around the banks of any water body and perform this ritual accompanied by ululation, following which a feast is prepared and served.
Usually, a common dish and a main attraction during this festival is Chakkara Pongal — rice sweetened with jaggery.
On the third day, Mattu Pongal, the farmers offer their gratitude to the cattle, the bull and cow, by washing and decorating them. Why? In the days of yore, the bull was used to plough the land and the cow gave milk. Even today, this ritual is followed in many pockets of the country.
The fourth day is what they call Kanu Pongal. On this day, in some communities, the leftovers from the previous day are offered to the birds on turmeric leaves and the women of the house pray for the welfare of their brothers.
This is also the day that the farmers indulge in a retreat of sorts, taking their families on picnics and enjoying a day of leisure. In fact, it is on Kanu Pongal that the now controversial Jallikattu is held in some places such as Madurai, Tiruchirapalli and Tanjavur. In this play, money is tied in a bundle to the horns of ferocious bulls, and villagers put their life at stake to retrieve it. Particularly in Tamil Nadu, this day is celebrated as Tamizhan Tirunal.
Pongal In Rest of India
Makar Sankranti is celebrated as Lohri in the North and in Assam, it is called Bhogali Bihu. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar celebrate it as Sankranti, and Telegus as Bhogi. In Gujarat and Maharashtra, this festival is celebrated by flying kites, added to which, homemade Til (sesame seeds) and Gur (Jaggery) laddoos are exchanged on this occasion.
In Karnataka, Sankranti is celebrated by decorating the cows and bullocks, which are then fed Chakkara Pongal. In the evening, cattle are led out in procession accompanied by the beating of drums and music. At night, a bonfire is lit and the animals are made to jump over the fire.
Cuisine wise, the localites exchange sesame peanuts, dry coconut laddoos and sugar blocks (known as Shakkare Achchu). At Gavi Gangadhareshwara (Siva) temple in Bengaluru’s Gavipuram, it is said that the setting Sun’s rays pass through the horns of the Nandi to fall on the Lingam in the sanctum for a short while.
A landmark symbol of the festival is the lighting of the Makara Jyothi (Makara meaning Capricon and Jyoti meaning Light) in Sabarimala in Kerala, which is witnessed by lakhs of pilgrims every year.
It is believed that Lord Shiva instructed his bull, Basava, to inform the inhabitants of the earth to have oil massage every day and eat once a month. By mistake, Basava gave the exact opposite instruction and we know the result — man eats everyday but has an oil bath once a month. Enraged, Shiva banished Basava to the earth forever, to plough the fields so that more food can be produced. Hence, the worship of cattle.
According to another legend, this festival is also associated with Lord Krishna lifting Mount Govardhan to save the people and cattle of Gokulam from Lord Indra’s wrath, and the latter’s realization of the greatness of Lord Krishna.
Although these legends are not remembered in association with the Pongal festival itself, what is given greater importance is worship of nature — sun, rain, cows and birds — all associated with farmers and farming.
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