[Warning: This is a longer-than-usual piece!]
Many colorful festivals are marked in the Hindu calendar. Each has its own particular mode of celebration. But there are also local variations. This should not be surprising in a vast country like India where many languages and customs have evolved in different regions. It is the same in Europe also, where, for example, the way in which Christmas is observed in Germany is very different from the way in which it is celebrated in Spain. Such variety makes cultures that much richer in their expressions.
In the Hindu world, even the significance of a festival may change from place to place. Thus Divali means one thing to the Hindi speaking world, and something quite different in, say, Bengal or Maharashtra.
Similarly, Pongal corresponds to a more general Hindu day of observance, yet it is a specifically Tamil festival. Normally, festivals are devoted to one or another of the various divine manifestations in Hinduism. But sometimes they also have astronomical or seasonal origins. Pongal is an example of this.
To see this, let us turn to a little astronomy. As we all know, the earth is rotating like a top about its axis, giving rise to the phenomenon of day and night. Also, in the course of the year, it makes a complete revolution around the sun. Now, it so happens that the axis of rotation of the earth is slightly tilted, somewhat like a spinning top which is not spinning vertically. A consequence of this is the seasonal variation: from spring to summer to autumn to winter, and to spring again.
From the point of view of the earth, of course, the earth’s rotation appears as the rising and setting of the sun each day. And the earth’s revolution around the sun appears as if the sun is moving back and forth between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn every six months, passing over the equator during both journeys.
Now, aside from the sun and the moon and the planets, there are also countless stars in the sky. The stars appear to be arranged in patterns, and with a little imagination we can picture them as forming groups that resemble the shapes of people or animals or things. Such groups of stars are called constellations. In its apparent motion in the heavens, the sun has one constellation is its background during a period of about a month. Thus there are twelve major constellations in the background of the sun as it seems to move in the heavens in the course of a year. These are the twelve signs of the zodiac (called râshis in Hindu astronomy).
Also, during the year the sun seems to be moving from the southern hemisphere to the northern, in the course of which people living in the north go from winter to summer through spring; and then from the northern hemisphere to the southern during which we pass from summer to winter again, via autumn.
Now let me introduce a few Sanskrit words that will be of relevance here. The apparent passage of the sun from the southern to the northern hemisphere is called uttarâyana or the northern movement. The reverse passage from the north to the south is the dakshinâyana or southern movement. The day when the sun enters a new constellation is referred as a sankrânti, which literally means a union or a going together. The sankrântis are considered to be auspicious days in the Hindu calendar.
In December/January, the constellation in which the sun finds itself is Capricorn. In Sanskrit this is Makara. In June/July the sun is in the constellation of Cancer, known as Kataka in Sanskrit. Thus we get Makara sankrânti and Kataka sankrânti. Makara sankrânti is, in effect, the first day of the sun’s northward journey or Uttarâyana with the sun on the Tropic of Capricorn. In astronomical terms, this corresponds to the winter solstice, which is around the 22nd of December. But Hindu reckoning which is based on more ancient systems, takes this to be around the middle of January. This is an important day throughout India. The famous Kumbh Mela in Prayag at the confluence of Ganga and Jumuna, is a major event in Hindu culture. It is this day that is celebrated in the Tamil tradition as Pongal.
Now what is so important about Makara sankrânti? Well, remember that as the sun moves farther and farther away in winter, it gets colder and colder in the northern hemisphere, and unless it turns back to return we will experience greater and greater intensities of winter and all life may freeze to death in the northern regions. So, every time the sun stops in its dakshinâyana or southward course, and turns back on its uttarâyana or northward course, it is a matter of jubilation and thankfulness to the Sun. We should never forget the unseen forces of Nature that make life on our planet possible and pleasurable. Enlightened religious experience is achieved when we become consciously aware of the unknown principles that guide and govern our existence on earth.
In the Tamil language, Pongal means three things: Its literal meaning is to boil. In particular it refers to the boiling of milk. When we ask on this day, “pongiyâcca? (Did it boil?),” what is meant is, “Did the milk boil?”, for this is an auspicious sign. The longer it takes to boil, the better will the year be. The second meaning is the name of a delicacy made by boiling rice with milk or lentils. Pongal may be sweet or salted. The third meaning is this festival for which we make pongal, offer it to the gods and share it with friends and family.
Many colorful practices have evolved in the Tamil tradition for the celebration of Pongal. Early in the morning, a ceremonial bath is taken. In olden times the workers in the fields would carry sugar cane and freshly harvested paddy with coconuts and plantains to their land lords. Nowadays such offerings are made only to the gods at home. Brothers give gifts to sisters. In the countryside where there are cow-sheds attached to the homes, the horns of the cattle are smeared with turmeric and red by a senior member of the household, the cows are fed with sugar cane and banana leaves, and escorted to the river or the local tank for a special drink. Harvest and agriculture have always gone hand in hand with cattle in ancient cultures. In some parts of Tamil Nadu – in the regions of Kauveri and Vaigai especially – there are or were bull fights in the Indian style in which garlanded and adorned bulls with bells around their necks are provoked and let loose in an open meadow where they are subdued by sturdy young men, to the applause of an admiring audience that includes young women. The event is described in a renowned Tamil novel called Kamalâmbal Caritram by Rajam Iyer. No, it is nothing like the gory slaying with swords of bulls which have already been pierced by painful darts, by richly attired matadors, to much pomp and ceremony, such as what I once witnessed in the famous arena in Madrid at the insistence of a Spanish friend.
Like all festivals, Pongal is a colorful event in the Tamil tradition. It is a welcoming gesture to spring which is also a harvest season in that part of the world. It has its typical delicacies around a sumptuous feast and there is much rejoicing. Hindus who have moved far away from our native land, need to continue our ancient traditions, even if it be only in modified forms. It is good for our children to know of these festivals, and we may hope that when they grow up and have their families, they too will remember and celebrate these festivals.
It is not simply for the good food we share and the happy hours we spend together that we celebrate festivals. More importantly, in the act of celebrating we remember our past and recall the events and symbols that gave meaning to our parents and grandparents. When we celebrate Pongal, or any festival for that matter, we communicate implicitly with our distant ancestors, we are saying to them, “We have not forgotten you. We remember how you spent Pongal with your children, and they with their children, and so on …. until the day of the festival has come down to us. And we intend to pass these on to generations yet unborn.”