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Pongal is a Hindu festival celebrated by Tamil people in Southern India and Sri Lanka, and by Tamil diaspora all around the world. Also known as Thai Pongal, it begins on the first day of the month of Thai in the Tamil calendar. It is a winter harvest festival, marking the end of the northern hemisphere winter solstice and the sun’s entry into Makara (Capricorn).
The name Pongal comes from the Tamil meaning “bubbling up” or “spilling over” and refers to the special rice dish prepared during the festival.
Celebrations last for four days. On the first day, Bhogi Pongal, houses are cleaned and painted, old and disused items are discarded, and new ones are celebrated. Prayers are offered to Indra, the god of rains.
The second day of Pongal is known as Surya Pongal and is dedicated to the sun god Surya. This is the main festive day and coincides with Makar Sankranti, which is celebrated throughout India. Tamils draw intricate floral patterns known as kolam on the floor at the entrances of their houses on Surya Pongal. This day is also when the special rice dish is prepared. Chakarai pongal is made by boiling freshly harvested rice with milk and jaggery in a clay pot until it boils over, symbolising abundance and prosperity. The first serving is offered to Surya before being shared amongst those present. Pongal is traditionally cooked in the open at sunrise.
The third day is Mattu Pongal, a day of giving thanks for the hard-working cattle who help in the fields. According to legend, Lord Shiva once requested that the bull Nandi, visit Earth and tell humans to take an oil bath once per day and to eat once per month. Nandi misunderstood and inverted the message, telling people to eat daily and take the oil bath monthly. Shiva, furious that this mistake would result in a lack of grain in the world, ordered Nandi to stay and help the humans plough the fields. Hence Mattu Pongal, a day dedicated to cattle, when cows are decorated with paint and flowers and are fed special meals. Prayers and temple visits take place on this day, as well as sports, games, and races.
The fourth day is Kannum Pongal, a day for family reunions, community social events, and visiting friends and neighbours. Children pay respects to their elders and sometimes receive pocket money in return.
Pongal celebrations in Aotearoa New Zealand grow a little more in stature each year, with the first ever Pongal celebrations in the New Zealand Parliament taking place in 2021.
Pongal begins on the first day of the month of Thai in the Tamil calendar, marking the end of winter solstice and the sun entering Makara, or Capricorn. In the Gregorian calendar, this usually takes place on the 14th of January.