Pongal is celebrated with much fanfare by the rural farming communities and is a harvest festival that takes place for a period of 4 days. It is normally celebrated between the 13th and 16th of January.
The first day of the Pongal celebrations is called Bhogi and honours Lord Indra, the deity of the heavens, lightning, thunder, storms, river flows and war – who provides the farmers with rain. And since it marks the end of an old month, people discard something old and get something new to symbolise a new beginning. On this day, at the break of dawn, many people light up a fire to burn up old things. Houses are well decorated, the cows are dressed up, sugarcane is harvested and there’s excitement in the air.
The second day is the most important, as it symbolises the birth of a new tamil month. People sport new, traditional clothes. This day is dedicated to thanking the Sun God. The astronomical significance is that it marks the beginning of Uttarayana, which is the northward movement of the sun for the next six months as it moves into the zodiac of Makaram.
Pongal is the name of a dish that is common in Tamil Nadu. This is cooked in a colourful pot with milk and fresh rice that has just been harvested, and allowed to overflow. The entire family witnesses this and chant Pongal O Pongal. This day is also called the Uzhavar Thirunal – the farmer’s festival.
The third day of the festival is celebrated as a thanksgiving to the bulls which worked hard to help the farmers plough the land and for the cows for providing milk. The word Mattu means cows and bull. Beads, bells and garlands adorn the cattle, their horns are painted as well, and jingling bells are tied. They are fed well with Pongal, sugarcane and other goodies cooked for the celebration and taken around the village devotedly.
On this day Jalli Kattu or Manju Virattu is held in the southern districts. Alanganallur is very famous for its Jalli Kattu. Large, thoroughbred bulls are taken into an arena to be tamed by a group of brave volunteers. This is the moment of prestige for bull owners. In some cases the bulls even gore some people to death – but this tradition has been followed for hundreds of years, and thus even vociferous animal activists have not been able to intervene.
The final day of the festival is called Kaanum Pongal and is treated as the “sightseeing day”. This is the day when the farmers come into cities to view the sights with their families and spend time together.
This day is also celebrated as Tiruvalluvar Day, in honour of a tamil poet and philosopher who created the epic thirukkural.