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Pongal (Makara Sankranti)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Hindu)
Date of Observation: Three days in mid-January
Where Celebrated: India
Symbols and Customs: Cow, Rice


The three-day Pongal festival is part of Hinduism, which many scholars regard as the oldest living religion. The word Hindu is derived from the Sanskrit term Sind- hu (or Indus), which meant river. It referred to people living in the Indus valley in the Indian subcontinent. Hinduism has no founder, one universal reality (or god) known as Brahman, many gods and goddesses (sometimes referred to as devtas), and several scriptures. Hinduism also has no priesthood or hierarchical structure similar to that seen in some other religions, such as Christianity. Hindus acknowledge the authority of a wide variety of writings, but there is no single, uniform canon. The oldest of the Hindu writings are the Vedas. The word "veda" comes from the Sanskrit word for knowledge. The Vedas, which were compiled from ancient oral traditions, contain hymns, instructions, explanations, chants for sacrifices, magical formulas, and philosophy. Another set of sacred books includes the Pongal

Great Epics, which illustrate Hindu faith in practice. The Epics include the Rama- yana, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita.

The Hindu pantheon includes approximately thirty-three million gods. Some of these are held in higher esteem than others. Over all the gods, Hindus believe in one absolute high god or universal concept. This is Brahman. Although he is above all the gods, he is not worshipped in popular ceremonies because he is detached from the day-to-day affairs of the people. Brahman is impersonal. Lesser gods and goddesses (devtas) serve him. Because these are more intimately involved in the affairs of people, they are venerated as gods. The most honored god in Hinduism varies among the different Hindu sects. Although Hindu adherents practice their faith differently and venerate different deities, they share a similar view of reality and look back on a common history.

Pongal, one of the most colorful festivals observed in southern India, honors the sun, the earth, and the COW . Believed to be the survival of an ancient harvest festival because it falls around the time of the WINTER SOLSTICE, the three-day festival coincides with the harvest season and with the end of the monsoons. It is called Pongal in the state of Tamil Nadu; in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka; and in Gujarat it is known as Makara Sankranti because it takes place when the sun starts to move south in the zodiac from Cancer to the House of Makara (the Alligator), otherwise known as Capricorn (the Goat).

The first day, known as Bhogi Pongal, is observed as a family festival and is usually spent cleaning everything in the house. Shops, offices, and factories are cleaned as well-a symbolic washing-away of material sins. The second day is Surya Pongal, and it is set aside for worship of the Sun God, Surya. The third day, Mattu Pongal, is reserved for worshipping cattle (see COW ). The fourth day, which is not always observed, is spent paying visits, reestablishing old relationships and forgotten connections.

Orthodox Hindus make a pilgrimage to Allahabad, the holy city where the Ganges and the Jumna Rivers meet, on Makara Sankranti. Sometimes as many as a million people arrive in this northern city to have their sins washed away by bathing in the Ganges. Because the festival is a time for banishing quarrels, it is common to serve visitors sugared sesamum seed, advising them to "Eat sweetly, speak sweetly." Chewing on raw sugar cane is another favorite pastime during the festival.

In some parts of India, women who want to have children take coconuts and secretly leave them in a Brahmin home-or they bring gifts of betel nuts and spices to Brahmin wives. Sometimes they take coconuts to their neighbors and exchange them for fruit, saying, "Take a boy and give a child."

In Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat, Makara Sankranti is a time for competitive kite-flying. Kitemakers from other cities gather here to make their kites and see whose flies the highest. As darkness falls, the battle of the kites ends. But new kites, each carrying its own paper lamp, fill the sky with flickering lights.



The third day of Pongal is known as the Festival of the Cow. Cows and oxen are bathed, their horns are cleaned and polished, and garlands of flowers are hung around their necks. The main event in many Indian villages is bull-chasing: Bags of money are tied to the horns of ferocious bulls, who are allowed to stampede through the streets of the town. Young men try to catch a bull by the horns and claim the bag of money. Sometimes the horns have been sharpened and painted, which makes the chase even more dangerous and exciting.

Although bull-chasing is popular, Pongal is really a day to recognize the importance of cattle to the agricultural community. They are fed some of the newly harvested rice and showered with affection and attention. No cow is expected to work on Pongal; instead, they roam the countryside in all their flowers and finery (see RUNNING OF THE BULLS under SAN FERMIN FESTIVAL).


The most characteristic feature of Pongal in southern India, where rice is the staple food, is the cooking and eating of rice from the newly gathered harvest. On the second day of the festival, rice boiled in milk is offered to the Sun God, Surya-a symbolic expression of thanksgiving for the bounty of the harvest. Friends greet one another by asking, "Is it boiled?" The answer is always, "Yes, it is cooked." One of the literal meanings of pongal, in fact, refers to the foaming of milk without its boiling over, which is considered a very auspicious sign.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Gaer, Joseph. Holidays Around the World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Oki, Morihiro. India: Fairs and Festivals. Tokyo: Gakken Co., 1989. Sharma, Brijendra Nath. Festivals of India. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1978. Thomas, Paul. Festivals and Holidays in India. Bombay: D.B. Taraporevala Sons, 1971. Pongal


Society for the Confluence of Festivals in India www.pongalfestival.org


A colorful four-day harvest and thanksgiving celebration in southern India, Pongal honors the sun, the earth, and the cow. It is called Pongal in the state of Tamil Nadu; Karnataka in Andhra Pradesh; and Makara Sankranti in Gujarat.
The first day is called Bhogi Pongal and is for cleaning everything in the house. On the second day, freshly harvested rice and jaggery ('palm sugar') are put to boil in new pots. When the mixture bubbles, people cry out, "Pongal!" ('It boils.') The rice is offered to Surya, the sun, before people taste it themselves, thus the second day is called Surya Pongal. On the third day, called Mattu Pongal (Festival of the Cow), village cows and oxen are bathed, decorated with garlands of bells, beads, and leaves, and worshipped.
On the fourth day, known as Kanyapongal, the festival of Jallikattu takes place in villages near Madurai in Tamil Nadu as well as in Andhra Pradesh. Bundles containing money are tied to the sharpened horns of bulls. The animals are paraded around the village and then stampeded. Young men who are brave enough try to snatch the money from the bulls' horns.
In Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat, the celebration is a time of competitive kite-flying, and is termed the International Kite Festival . The skies are filled with kites, and kite makers come from other cities to make their multicolored kites in all shapes. As darkness falls, the battle of the kites ends, and new kites soar aloft, each with its own paper lamp, so that the sky is filled with flickering lights.
Tamil Nadu Tourism
Tourism Complex, No. 2 Wallajah Rd.
Chennai, Tamil Nadu 600 002 India
91-44-25383333; fax: 91-44-25381567
Ministry of Tourism, Government of India
Rm. No 123, Transport Bhawan, No. 1, Parliament St.
New Delhi, Delhi 110 001 India
91-11-23715084; fax: 91-11-23715084
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