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The religious and Cultural Significance of Pongal Celebration

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The religious and Cultural Significance of Pongal Celebration

When daytime for the gods begin, after a six-month long night, is the begining of the Pongal festivities and is spread over three days; it is the most important and most fervently celebrated harvest festival of south India. In fact this harvest festival is celebrated in mid January in most parts of India, albeit by different names - Shankranthi, Baisakhi, Pongal etc.

Spirtual connection to Pongal Festival

Pongal is associated with many legends but one of the most popular ones is the legend of Govardhan Mountain and legend of Lord Shiva and his bull, Nandi. According to the legend of Govardhan Mountain, Lord Krishna lifted the mountain on his little finger on Bhogi, which is the first day of Pongal, to protect the cattle and people from Indra, an angry rain god.

According to the legend of Lord Shiva, on the third day of Pongal, Lord Shiva sent his buffalo Nandi to tell people to have oil bath daily and eat once a month. However, Nandi became confused and told people to eat daily and bathe once a month. This angered Lord Shiva so he placed Nandi on earth to help humans harvest for more food, therefore Pongal became a harvest festival.

Another legend is about a sage named Hema (who was actually Brighu maharishi in a earlier birth). Sage Hema did penance to lord Vishnu on the banks of the Pottramarai tank in Kumbakonam. On Perum (main)/ big) Pongal day, the lord is believed to have taken the form of Sarangapani and blessed the sage. How this came about is interesting. A number of saints had assembled on the banks of the river Saraswathi to perform a sacrifice. They wanted to know the greatest of the three lords-Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh. It was decided that sage Bhrigu should meet the three lords individually and pronounce a judgment. He met them and declared that Vishnu was the supreme lord. This he said was because when he kicked lord Vishnu he did not lose his temper but showed the greatest of respect and even washed the feet of Brighu maharishi. Brighu repented, and wished to serve lord Vishnu in two births.

During his first rebirth he was known as Guha and lived during the period of Ramayana. In his next birth he was known as sage Hema. As Hema, Brighu maharishi did the afore mentioned penance, got the darshan of lord Vishnu who granted him three boons. The first one was that goddess Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu should be born as his daughter; the second, Vishnu should become his son-in-law; and the third he should get sayujaya moksham ie liberation. Vishnu granted these boons. He directed him towards Lakshmi who was on a thousand petal lotus, where she had been waiting to get reunited with Vishnu. She had left in a huff when Brighu gave her spouse, the lord of the universe, a kick in her presence which she felt was insulting . Further without reprimanding him, lord Vishnu honoured Brighu. It is believed that to fulfill the boons of him being the son in law of the sage, lord Vishnu appeared as Sarangapani and got married to sage Hema’s daughter. This place hence is also known as Kalyanapuram.

There is yet another legend that is about lord Shiva performing a miracle where a stone image of an elephant ate a piece of sugarcane. This is also the reason why sugarcane is associated with pongal.

Abidhega Pandian, the Pandian king was a great devotee of Shiva and one day lord Shiva decided to grace him. Shiva came as a miracle performer appearing simultaneously in a number of places in the Pandiya kingdom. He changed older people to look younger, he turned iron into gold and cured many of chronic illness. He came to be known as a miracle performer. The king wished to see him and sent his guard to fetch him to the palace. The miracle performer refused and said that whoever wished to see him had to visit him, and not the other way around. One day the king decided to pay a visit to this strange performer of miracles. He went to a temple where the miracle performer was staying.

All his subjects stood up and bowed in respect on seeing the king, but the miracle performer did not stand up. The king felt that he was rude. He asked him for an explanation and the miracle performer told the king that he had travelled a lot and found his niche among the poor and that every poor person was related to him. His travels had made him the master of all arts and that there was nothing for him to learn from the king. Naturally the king was taken aback by his reply, and thought that he was arrogant and so wanted to teach him a lesson. The king saw a farmer with some sugarcane standing next to him. He then challenged the miracle performer that if the performer was that powerful as he claimed, he should then be able to feed the stone elephants with the sugar cane. The miracle performer took the sugar cane and looked at the stone elephants on the temple walls gracefully. To everybody’s astonishment the elephant trumpeted loudly and stretched out its trunk and took the sugarcane from the miracle performer’s hand. After eating the sugarcane the elephant turned back to stone. The king immediately fell at the feet of the miracle performer and declared that a person who had such powers could not be an ordinary man but the lord himself. The lord then blessed the king and disappeared.

This year Pongal Festival falls on January 15, 2015

In Tamil Nadu this festival is called Pongal, Bhogali Bihu in Assam, Baisakhi/ Lohri in Punjab, Bhogi in Andhra Pradesh and Makar Sankranti in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal. As the dates for this festival are calculated by the solar calander (ie western calendar), it is probably the only Hindu festival that falls on the same date year after year. pongal is celebrated from the 13th to the 15th of January. This marks the beginning of Uttarayana – the sun’s movement northwards for a period of six months. Makara Sankranthi refers to the event of the Sun entering the zodiac sign of Makara or Capricorn.

Pongal is the thanksgiving or harvest festival of south India.This festival marks the harvest of crops with special thanks giving to god, the sun, earth and the cattle. Majority of Indians live in the villages and this thanksgiving is related to every aspect of their daily life , a major part of which are activities for their livelihood that depends solely on agriculture.

History of Pongal

It is not known when exactly this festival began but it can be traced back to the Sangam age ie 200BC to 300AD, as historians have identified pongal with Thai Un and Thai Niradal which were celebrated during the Sangam era.

As part of the festivities, maidens of the Sangam era observed penance during the Tamil month of Margazhi (December-January).

A major festival during the reign of the Pallavas (4th-8th century AD) was “pavai nonbu” observed by maidens during Thai Niradal, in the Tamil month of Margazhi. Young girls (kanyas) prayed for rain and prosperity and avoided milk and milk products the entire month. They would bathe early in the morning, not put oil on their head, and did not use harsh words in their speech. They worshipped goddess Katyayani whose idol was they made with wet sand. This penance would end on the first day of the Tamil month of Thai (mid January - mid February). This tradition is supposed to have given birth to the festival of Pongal.

Andal’s Thiruppavai and Manickavachakar's Tiruvembavai also describe the festival of Thai Niradal and the observance of pavai nonbu. Andal performed pavai nonbu to merge with Sri Ranganatha (Lord Vishnu).

Nowadays, women and girls undertaking pavai nombu during Margazhi month take bath at dawn and visit temples and read a verse from Thiruppavai composed by Andal. There is also an inscription at the Veeraraghava Swamy temple at Tiruvallur about the Chola king Kiluttunga who had gifted land to this temple especially for the Pongal celebrations.

The Celebration:

The main dish of course is the offering to the sun god- "pongal" (rice pudding)of rice and milk.The women in the household partake in the drawing of the kolam and decorate the central courtyard of their homes with beautiful kolams, done with rice flour and bordered with red clay. Apart from the kolam at the entrance of the home and the central courtyard, a kolam is drawn at the sacred area where the pongal is prepared. Firewood is traditionally used to cook the rice. The pongal-paanai (pot, vessel) is set up in the direct view of the sun (east) at the auspicious time. Conventionally, the pongal is made in the front or side of the house, but in modern days as people live in flats and as cooking indoors with firewood is hazardous, the pongal is prepared in the kitchen and on the gas or electric stove and in a brass/bronze vessel instead of the clay pongal-paanai.

The moment of climax is the spill over of the milk during cooking. The spillover of milk is a propitious symbol of abundance. Sometimes, firecrackers are lit to signify the moment, but usually a loud sound is made by thumping of the utensils with ladles and loudly shouting “pongal-o-pongal.”Once the pongal is ready an offering is first made to the Sun god with a prayer. Then sharing of the pongal with friends and relatives follows.





Pongal in India
The religious and Cultural Significance of Pongal Celebration - Advaita Vedanta - IndiaDivine.org
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