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Poṅkal is a festival and a food item, both of which celebrate the good feelings and fertility associated with an abundant harvest, animals, and the sun god. This is the main harvest festival celebrated in the southern Indian state Tamil Nadu.
The holiday Poṅkal takes place over 2 days, beginning on the last day of the Tamil month Mārkaḻi and marking the start of the Tamil month Tai (Thai) in mid-January. The holiday marks the rebirth of the sun at the end of the winter solstice. In addition to its role as a harvest festival, Poṅkal has recently been appointed as the Tamil New Year. Celebrations take place in the following sequence.
Families prepare for the Poṅkal festival and new year by thoroughly cleaning the home and the purchase of new things such as new kitchen utensils, sleeping mats, and clothes. On the first day of Poṅkal, known as Pōki (Bhogi), all of the old and worn mats, clothes, and other replaced items are burned in a bonfire. This activity marks an opening for prosperity to enter into both homes and businesses. This day is also associated with Indra and his conflict with Krishna. According to the tradition, Indra brought great rains during a dispute with Krishna. Krishna saved all creatures from the deluge by lifting Mount Govardhan with one finger as a grand umbrella.
The second day of Poṅkal is called Tai Poṅkal. This is the main day of Poṅkal and takes its name and date from welcoming in the new Tamil month of Tai. On Tai Poṅkal, people decorate their homes and neighborhoods with garlands of folded mango leaves, banana leaves, stalks of sugarcane tied into tripods, and marvelous kōlams (see ). They bathe and dress themselves in crisp new clothes. Even the clay pot in which the namesake Poṅkal dish is cooked is decorated with attractive designs and tied with a turmeric plant. Overall, this day is dedicated to enjoying large meals and showing gratitude to Surya, the sun god, for a bountiful harvest.
On Tai Poṅkal, the food dish poṅkal is cooked out in the sun and is offered to Surya. First the mixture of water, ghee, milk, and rice is brought to a frothy boil. (The word poṅkal itself means to boil.) Eventually, the liquid bubbles up to the lip of the pot to the delight of witnesses and symbolizes the overflowing harvest season. Then, the remaining ingredients, such as cardamom, raisins, cashews, salt, or jaggery (juice from sugarcane), are added. Finally, it is ready to be presented to the deity and then eaten.
In a fascinating study of color in South Indian rituals, Brenda Beck explains the ritual transformation of the color white to red and back to white. Red, or the heat of a fire, serves as a point of transition between two states of cool white (see , pp. 557–558). In the Poṅkal ceremony, white milk and rice are transformed by the heat of red fire into a new and improved white substance (namely, poṅkal) which is then offered to god and shared with the guests. In this way, Poṅkal, like many other South Indian Hindu rituals and especially life cycle ceremonies, follows the white-red-white sequence.
The third day of Poṅkal, and the second day of the month Tai, is Māṭṭu Poṅkal. On this day cattle are decorated and celebrated for their contribution to the successful crop and for the wealth that cows and bulls bring to their farmers. The threshold designs known as kōlams often include drawings of the ornamented cows on this day. This is also the day that sisters celebrate their brothers. The cows are washed, fed, and worshipped with pujas. People enjoy decorating their cattle, especially their horns! Bells, beads, metal cones, and even balloons can be attached to the horn tips, their horns are painted in bright colors, and the animals’ necks are also hung with flower garlands. In recent years, farm vehicles such as tractors that do the work traditionally done by cattle are also decorated and blessed in the same manner. In addition to the parade and blessing of decorated cattle, there are also significantly more raucous activities traditionally conducted on Māṭṭu Poṅkal, including various forms of bull running, bull chasing, bull baiting, or Jallikkaṭṭu (or Callikkaṭṭu). For Jallikkaṭṭu, bundles of money or flags are tied to a bull’s horns, and then the animal is released to run wild. Young men run with the bull to try to retrieve the cash, often resulting in serious injury to both the men and the animals. In another version of running with the bull, a young man attempts to catch the hump of the bull and then hang on to win a prize. Sometimes this event includes a group of men in a pen where the bull is tethered by a long rope. During these contests bulls may be subjected to various taunts and physical torment to increase the excitement of all who participate. In recent years, animal welfare groups have proposed bans on Jallikkaṭṭu, each of which has elicited counter-protests. The practices remain contested today. Annual coverage of the festivities and protests can be found in all major Tamil news outlets (see ).
The fourth day of Poṅkal is called Kanya Poṅkal. This day includes an offering of leftover sweet and salty Poṅkal, or colorful rice balls to small creatures especially birds, and the feeding of calves. Married women are honored on this day and offered gifts from their brothers. Families enjoy the last day of Poṅkal by exchanging gifts, relaxing, site seeing, and other leisure activities.
Poṅkal is celebrated in major cities and small communities around the world (see ). January 14th has been declared Poṅkal Day in Virginia. In Canada, the entire month of January has been declared Tamil Heritage Month and includes celebrations for Tai Poṅkal. Tai Poṅkal is celebrated at the same time as Makar Sankranti, a holiday celebrated in North India (see ).
Like many major Hindu holidays, Poṅkal has a strong presence online including websites with cultural and religious information such as http://www.pongalfestival.org (see ). One can also find online shopping for Poṅkal greeting cards and gifts. Recipes and tips for successfully cooking a pot of Poṅkal are widely available online from lifestyle, culinary, and religious sources.
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