A typical traditional Pongal celebration has a number of rituals attached to it. The preparations for the festival are quite elaborate. The place where the Pongal puja is to be performed is cleaned and smeared with dung, a day prior to the festival. The place chosen for this purpose usually happens to be in the courtyard or an open terrace. Kolams (ground patterns made out of rice flour) generally drawn with rice flour are special to the occasion. The idea behind using rice flour is that the insects would feed on it and bless the household. The kolam also bears sociological significance and is even today religiously performed daily as a threshold ceremony before dawn in traditional Tamil homes.
The Sankranti Rath (chariot) is a typical Pongal kolam. The ropes of the rath are supposed to be kept open till on the next day they are “joined” from house to house to symbolize a collective desire to realize an uninterrupted cosmic cycle. At the centre of it a lump of cow dung holds a five petal pumpkin flower, which is regarded as a symbol of fertility and an offering of love to the presiding deity.
Sweet rice, known as Pongal, is cooked in a new earthenware pot at the same place where puja is to be performed. Fresh turmeric and ginger are tied around this pot. Then a delicious concoction of rice, moong dal, jaggery and milk is boiled in the pot on an open fire. This Pongal, according to ritual, is allowed to boil and spill out of the pot. Once the Pongal is ready it is tempered with cashew nuts and raisins fried in ghee. Pongal, once ready, is offered to God first, on a new banana leaf along with other traditional delicacies like vadas, payasam, etc.
Like all Hindu festivals, Pongal too has some interesting traditions and customs attached to it.
This four-day festival of thanksgiving to nature takes its name from the Tamil word meaning "to boil" and is held in the month of Thai (Jan-Feb) during the season when rice and other cereals, sugarcane, and turmeric are harvested. The festivities of Pongal usually take off in mid-January and continue for many days ending in mid-February.
Pongal is celebrated on the same day as Bihu, Lohri and Bhogi. But Pongal stretches over four days.
The first day, Bhogi Pongal is devoted to Bhogi or Indran, the rain god.
The day is linked with the famous mythological tale about Krishna lifting Gobardhan parbat on his little finger.
The day begins with a til oil bath and in the evening there is a bonfire made of old cloths, files, mats and rugs.
The second day, Surya-Pongal, is dedicated to the Sun (Surya). On this day, pongal (rice cooked in milk and jaggery) is boiled by women who offer it to the Sun.
Mattu-Pongal, the third day, is dedicated to the worship and veneration of cattle (mattu). The horns of the cattle are decorated with turmeric and kumkum, small bells and flowers are hung around their neck and they are paraded in the streets. The pongal that has been offered to the local deities is given to the cattle to eat.
The last day is known as Kanyapongal. Colored balls of the pongal are made and are offered to birds. A kind of bullfight, called the 'Jallikattu' is held in Madhurai, Tiruchirapalli and Tanjore in Tamil Nadu and several places in Andhra Pradesh.
Bundles containing money are tied to the horns of ferocious bulls, and unarmed villagers try to wrest the bundles from them. Bullock Cart race and cockfight are also held. In Andhra Pradesh, every household displays its collection of dolls for three days. Community meals are held at night with freshly harvested ingredients.
People generally go for sightseeing, shopping and exchanging pleasantries with relatives and friends. The farmers, during this point of time, are generally flushed with money having sold their produce.
On all the four days during Pongal festival, people make it a point to visit temples and invoke the blessings of the God for a good and prosperous beginning to the year.
Even though Pongal was originally a festival for the farming community, today all celebrate it. In the south, all three days of Pongal are considered important.
However, those south Indians who have settled in the north usually celebrate only the second day. Coinciding with Makara Sankranti and Lohri of the north, it is also called Pongal Sankranti.