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Magazine Web Edition > April/May/June 2010 > Festivals: Sankranti or Pongal

Sankranti or Pongal

To Earth, a Festival of Thankfulness



Hindus acknowledge the sacredness of Earth and all life. Nature is a creative force worthy of respect, even veneration. Each year at harvest time, agrarian communities all over India celebrate this festival with enthusiastic abandon. They dance, fly kites, sing and exchange gifts in a grand thanksgiving celebration.

What is the nature of this festival?

Makara Sankranti is four days of giving thanks to four great forces of influence and protection: Indra, the giver of rain; Surya, the Sun; gracious cattle and beloved ancestors. This happy occasion is known as Pongal by Tamils, Pedha Panduga among the Telugus and Lohri by Punjabis. It begins on the day the sun enters Makara (Capricorn), between January 13 and 15. This is a special time of giving blankets, pumpkins, sugarcane and other items to the poor. Married women are honored, and gifts are given to newborn children.

What is done on the first day?

The day before festivities begin, Hindus thoroughly clean their homes, discarding unwanted, worn out or broken items and obtaining replacements for the year ahead. This clears away stale, negative energy and brings an influx of dynamic blessings into the home. It is a time for clearing the mind as well, to begin the year with focus and confidence. On this day, Indra, the celestial power of lightning and rain, is worshiped.

What happens on the second day?

Using colored rice flour, women draw patterns on the floor called kolam or rangoli, depicting the Moon and the Sun in a chariot. Prayers are directed to Surya, the Sun, with offerings of freshly harvested sugarcane and vegetables. The main event happens at sunrise when everyone gathers in a gaily decorated compound where freshly harvested rice is cooked with milk in a new pot. In Tamil communities, the moment the pot boils over, all shout, "Pongalo Pongal!" ("It's boiling over!"). All watch to see whether the froth overflows toward the East, which auspiciously indicates abundance for the year ahead. Conches are sounded and children dance for joy. A portion of the boiled rice, the season's first food, is offered to Mother Earth as a gesture of gratitude, and to all creatures and nature spirits. The remainder is eaten by the families. Wearing new clothes, families visit one another, exchanging gifts and enjoying feasts.

What happens on the third day?

On the third day, Hindus offer thanks to cattle, the farmer's gracious helpers. Bulls and cows are lovingly adorned with cowrie shells, embroidered shawls, colorful ropes and bells. They are fed sweet rice and sugar cane.

How is the final day celebrated?

On the fourth day, ancestors and wildlife are venerated. It is a day for picnic outings and family visits. Young girls and women receive blessings from older women for happiness and prosperity. Youth honor their elders. Brothers and sisters exchange gifts and express mutual respect and allegiance. Poets and their works are revered. In Tamil Nadu, it is also called Tiruvalluvar Day, in honor of the author of the famed ethical scripture Tirukural.

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