Pongal is a harvest festival - the Tamil equivalent of Thanksgiving. It is held to honor the Sun, for a bountiful harvest. Families gather to rejoice and share their joy and their harvests with others. The Sun is offered a "Pongal" of rice and milk. Literally meaning "Boiling over", Pongal, signifies the advent of prosperity. Pongal is normally celebrated over a period of four days, starting on the 15th January. Since the calculation to determine the day is based on the solar calendar, the date doesn't change.
It is considered a very auspicious occasion when the Sun transits the Capricorn sign. A rich and abundant harvest of paddy and other crops depend on the availability of good rain, as most of the rivers in Tamil Nadu are not perennial. Hence, there is the invocation of the Sun God and the God of Rain at the time of Pongal.
The period is referred to as Uttarayan Punyakalam and is considered auspicious. Legend has it that the Devas wake up after a six-month long slumber during this period. And so it is believed that those pass away during Uttarayana attain salvation. In fact, Bheeshma is believed to have waited for the dawn of Uttarayana before he gave up his life.
As is customary, cleaning of every house a few days prior to the Pongal festival is an indispensable ritual. Not only every house is cleaned, but it is also dusted and whitewashed. Wearing new clothes on Pongal is also customary. Attired in a new "Lehanga" and half sari for young girls and lungi and angavastram, the men, women and children prepare themselves for celebrating the first day called Bhogi Pandigai. This day is dedicated to Indra, who is also called Bhogi. It is believed that on this day Lord Krishna had urged the people to neglect Indra and not worship him.
People take oil bath on this day. Using rice paste "Kolam" is drawn and this represents the Sun. The items that are generally used to celebrate Pongal; Sandalwood paste, vermilion, mango saplings, coconut fronds, sugarcanes, banana leaves, ginger pieces, white flour, new vessels for cooking, turmeric, and a "thali" or metal plate in which the sun is viewed.
The first day, Bhogi, is celebrated on the last day of the month of Margazhi. Scholars have often compared Bhogi to the Indra Vizha celebrated by the Chola kings at Kaveripattinam, also known as Poompuhar. Indra Vizha was celebrated in honour of Lord Indra, also called Bhogi, the God of thunder and rain.
The second day is Surya Pongal also called Perum Pongal. It is the most important day and people worship Surya, the Sun God and his consorts, Chaya and Samgnya. There are several legends associated with Surya Pongal. A sage named Hema prayed to Lord Vishnu on the banks of the Pottramarai tank in Kumbakonam. On Surya Pongal day, the lord is believed to have taken the form of Sarangapani and blessed the sage. Yet another legend has it that Lord Shiva performed a miracle where a stone image of an elephant ate a piece of sugarcane.
The third day is Mattu Pongal, celebrated to glorify cattle that help farmers in a myriad ways. On this day, the cows are bathed and decorated with vermilion and garlands and fed.
The last day is Kaanum Pongal. It is that part of the festival when families used to gather on the riverbanks and have a sumptuous meal (kootanchoru). It is also time for some traditional dances such as kummi and kolattam. In recent years, that day is celebrated as Uzhavar Tirunal in honor of farmers.
The dishes prepared during these days are "Sarkarai Pongal", "Ven Pongal", Dosai and Sambhar, Vadai and Payasam (a sweet rice pudding).