Pongal is one of the oldest festivals celebrated in South India. It is celebrated as Lohri in North India. The history dates back to the Sangam Age (200 BC–300 AD). It is also called Thai Thirunaal as it is celebrated on the first day of the Tamil month of Thai (mid-January).
Pongal Celebrations during the Sangam Age
During the Sangam age, young girls observed the ‘Pavai Nonbu’ during the Tamil month of Margazhi, which was concluded on the first day of Thai. It was considered to be an important festival. During the Nonbu, the young girls refrained from consuming milk and other dairy products, oiling their hair and usage of harsh words. This was done to invite abundance and prosperity. The girls used to bathe early in the morning and worshiped Goddess Katyayani, the idol of whom was carved out of clay. This practice evolved into the celebration of modern-day Pongal. The Tiruppavai and the Tiruvembavai have mentions about this.
Legends Related to Pongal
There are some interesting legends about the festival of Pongal, out of which the famous ones are mentioned below.
One legend goes like this. Once, Lord Shiva asked his vehicle, Basava, to go and ask the people on earth to have oil massage and bathe every day, and to eat only once a month. By mistake, Basava asked everyone to eat daily and have bath only once a month. This enraged Shiva who cursed Basava, and banished him to live on earth forever. He ordered him to plow the fields and help people in producing more food. Thus arose the association of the festival to cattle.
Another legend of Pongal is associated with Lord Indra. Lord Krishna, during his childhood, decided to teach a lesson to Lord Indra, who became arrogant with power. He stopped the people of his kingdom from worshipping Lord Indra, a practice that was happening for a long time. An enraged Indra made thunderstorms torment the kingdom of King Nanda, Krishna’s father. To protect the people and cattle from the rains, Krishna lifted the Govardhan Mountain with his little finger, much to the amazement of worldly and celestial beings. This made Lord Indra regretful and he apologized for his attitude.
As per sacred texts, the first day of Thai marks the beginning of daytime for the Gods. A special Pooja is conducted for the Sun God and the sweet dish of Pongal is made to overflow the clay pot. This is done to mark abundance and prosperity. This is offered to God during worship. The tools for harvest, like the plows and sickles, are smeared with sandalwood paste. These are used to make the first cut of the harvest.
All the three days of Pongal mark different festivities. The first day is for Bhogi, a day to get rid of old and useless stuff. The second day of Surya Pongal is for the worship of Surya, the Sun God. The third day Mattu Pongal is marked for the worship of cattle.