Pongal is an important festival of the Tamilians. It is observed on the first day of the Tamil month of Thai which falls in the middle of January. It marks the end of the harvest season in Tamil Nadu. A plentiful harvest of rice and sugarcane ensures a period of prosperity and plenty.
The word 'Pongal' actually stands for a mixture of rice, moong dal, sugar or jaggery and milk. It is derived from 'Ponga' which means 'to boil', and the pot containing the 'Pongal' mixture has to boil over to symbolize prosperity and plenty
The Pongal festivities last for four days. On the first day, which is also called Bhogi, the house is scrubbed clean before sunrise. A huge bonfire is lit in which all that is old and useless is discarded and burnt. This symbolizes the beginning of a new year. Elaborate kolams (designs) are made in front of door ways and the houses are decorated with mango leaves and plaited coconut leaves.
The actual festival falls on the second day. In an open court yard, the Pongal dish is cooked in a new pot on a new stove.
The third day, called Mattu Pongal, is dedicated to cattle. Cows and bulls are washed and their horns decorated. They are fed with specially cooked Pongal. At certain places, bull fights are also arranged on this day. A bag filled with money is tied to the horns of a bull and young men try to wrest it away from the animal.
It is also on this day that sisters make rice balls and keep them in the open for birds and insects, praying for the well being of their brothers.
The last day of the festival is spent either in visiting friends or sight-seeing.