If you have Indian colleagues who celebrate Pongal or are from Tamil Nadu and observe this holiday in India or abroad, this article will offer some insight into the festival and also offer conversation starters with your Indian colleagues.
Is Pongal a government or public holiday?
Do my colleagues in the US from Tamil Nadu celebrate Pongal?
What is Pongal –the food item?
Pongal is freshly harvested rice with moong dhal boiled to a consistency of porridge. It is made both salty and sweet. When it’s made salty/savory – salt, mild spices and ghee are added (known as ven pongal – ven means white). Sweet pongal, known as chakkara pongal, is boiled with jaggery (raw brown sugar), raisins, nuts and milk. More menu items eaten for pongal here.
How do people wish Pongal greetings to each other?
“Happy Pongal” is an easy way to greet with the mixture of English. A traditional way of wishing is “Pongal-o Pongal” which is often said right after the pongal has boiled on the stove. In the village, kids would dance and sing ‘Pongal-o Pongal’. Loosely translated this means ‘It’s boiling over, oh! It’s boiling over!”
Is Pongal associated with a religion?
Because Pongal is a harvest festival, anyone can celebrate the harvest, but I would venture to say Hindus are more apt to celebrate this festival than non-Hindus, especially when Indians of various religions move outside India.
Do people give each other gifts on this holiday?
For most holidays, the woman of the house would buy new dresses for each member of the family. People are not giving each other gifts. These new dresses would also not be wrapped and unwrapped, simply presented to god with a prayer then handed to the recipient for use. Also, on Pongal, it is important to clean the house on Bhogi and present the clean home with some new items. Some will buy new kitchen utensils, appliances or other household requirements. My friends actually had bought a new ceiling fan to install after Bhogi.
If I am invited for Pongal to someone’s house, should I bring something?
Bringing a food item may be a best bet, and something vegetarian. Feel free to ask ahead of time. Often Indians would tell you not to bring anything. Then, ask what’s on the menu so far. Once they mention a few items (more menu items listed here), if you can cook or purchase something to take, that could be a good idea. If you do not have access to Indian food, taking fruits like bananas or apples is a good idea. Stay away from cookies and cakes as these have eggs and some people may not want to eat these items. If you want to take a non-food item, kitchen towels or small gadgets for household use may be a good thought (can openers, jar openers, spatulas, etc). When you leave the gathering you may be offered a small parting gift as a token of appreciation, called Thamboolam. I often present my guests a small hand towel used for kitchen chores. More about thamboolam and parting gifts here.
Do people eat meat on Pongal?
Usually, no. Hindus that are non-vegetarians (meat-eaters), as my friends were in the village did not eat meat on Pongal. This includes the sambar- the stew broth is fully vegetarian as well. No eggs, meat or meat products were consumed on this day. Milk products such as ghee, yogurt and milk are eaten, however. Not sure if this is true for everyone, but I would venture to say it’s true for most people. So, while food tends to be vegetarian (no eggs), it is not vegan.
Are there any symbols associated with this holiday?
Ponga panai, or the earthen pot decorated and used for cooking pongal in. This pot is often decorated with turmeric leaves.
Household doorways are decorated with mango leaves and or [raw] coconut leaves.
Symbols of the sun are used for Surya Pongal and cows and bulls for Maatu Pongal.
People also use banana leaves for eating their meals on during Pongal, even in cities.
In addition to these items, “Turmeric tufts, koorai poo, Aavaram poo, banana leaves and mango leaves. Koorai poo is believed to keep evil away and so it is placed in front of houses.” (source)
Many of the symbols of this holiday are recycled in the art and temporary decorations people draw on the ground with rice flour called kolam. Pongal kolangal (kolams) are symmetrically drawn, colorful ground art made with colored rice flour and other items (maybe flowers, grains, etc). Though drawn as a welcome mat daily, for Pongal these ground decorations are specially created with combination of Pongal symbols.
Have you ever celebrated Pongal?
Yes. I celebrated Pongal in India, twice. Once in an urban setting, and once in a village (as in the picture above). I have also celebrated Pongal in the US with other Tamil and Indian families and in my own home by hosting Pongal potluck parties. Below is a Pongal Kolam I made while living in the US. The yellow is the sun, the orange/rust colored lentil symbolizes the pongal pot, the tan grains on top of the pot is the pongal boiling out, the black line between the pots is sugarcane stalks, and the green on top is the sugarcane leaves. (The design was created in a Christmas tree stand for portability and easy clean-up!) Click on photos to see a bigger size.
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As of July 27, 2020 this blog ranks #7 on Google for the keywords “facts about Pongal.” See some more of our high ranking blogs. Old title changed July 27, 2020 ( What is Pongal? – Fun Facts about Indian Festivals).