Makar Sankranti: Why The Festival And Dish Are Called Pongal?
Image Credit: Pongal overflow, Shutterstock

Makar Sankranti is one of the rarest festivals, which falls every year on the same date, i.e., 14th January. But that is not all about its exclusivity. Another element of this celebration that drew my attention was the name associated with it and a dish included in the festive spread. As you might have guessed, it is Pongal. In the southern regions of India, Makar Sankranti is also known as Pongal. Likewise, this harvest festival in these regions witnesses the preparation of rice and lentil-based culinary fare called Pongal. Interesting, isn't it? But how did this happen? What got them their monikers? Why do the festival and food related to Makar Sankranti share the same name? Let's try to solve the puzzle. 

The Festival

The Tamilians of India celebrate Pongal, also known as Thai Pongal, a harvest festival. It corresponds to Makar Sankranti, the harvest festival observed across India under a range of local titles and is devoted to the sun god Surya. One can say it's the Indian Thanksgiving festival for good crops and expressing gratitude to the sun god, rain god and cattle. Bhogi Pongal, Surya Pongal, and Mattu Pongal are the names of the three festival days that make up the Pongal celebration. Kanum Pongal, the fourth day of Pongal, is observed by some Tamils. The natives refer to Makar Sankranti, also known as Sankranthi, as Pongal in Andhra Pradesh. Pongal is an equally grand festival in Sri Lanka, and the country celebrates it with much fervour. 

A woman boiling over pongal, Image Source: Shutterstock

It's In The Name

The ceremonial Pongal, which comes from the word pongu, meaning to overflow or boil over, inspired the festival's name. According to Hindu beliefs, the overflowing of milk symbolises prosperity and abundance. Hence, pongal alludes to a traditional dish made with freshly harvested rice that has been boiled in milk and jaggery.

The specific ceremony of boiling rice and milk together in an earthen pot is carried out on the second day of Thai Pongal. A turmeric plant is fastened to this container and left exposed as a gift to the sun god. Bananas, coconuts, and sugarcane sticks are offered.

Pongal, The Ceremonial Dish

The sweet Pongal delicacy, which is cooked to commemorate the celebration, is first served to the gods and goddesses, including Surya. After being offered to the deities, the pongal is fed to the cattle before being devoured by the family. The traditional dessert contains newly harvested rice cooked in milk and clarified butter and sweetened with jaggery. As time passed by, there was a slight modification in the dish. 

Sweet pongal, Image Source:

It sometimes includes split green gram, cardamoms, raisins and cashew nuts. The dish Pongal is also called Sakkarai Pongal and Chakkara Pongal in the local dialects of the South Indian state. There is also a savoury version of the dish known as Venn Pongal or Khara Pongal. 

The Festival And The Food In The Pages Of History 

The Viraraghava temple has an inscription that mentions the Pongal festival. The description, attributed to the Chola monarch Kulottunga I (1070–1122 CE), records a land given to the temple for the celebration of the annual festival of Pongal. Similarly, the event is beautifully described in the Shiva bhakti work Tiruvembavai by Manikkavachakar from the ninth century. Andrea Gutiérrez, a specialist in Sanskrit and Tamil traditions, asserts that the history of the Pongal dish dates back at least to the Chola era. With different names, it appears in several manuscripts and inscriptions. Early documents refer to it as ponakam, tiruponakam, ponkal, and other terms of a similar nature. Some of the most notable temple inscriptions from the Chola Dynasty to the Vijayanagara Empire contain comprehensive recipes nearly identical to the Pongal recipes used today.

A traditional recipe of pongal, Image Source: Wikimedia

Numerous connotations are tied with the phrases ponakam, ponkal and their prefixed forms. It either indicated the celebratory pongal delicacy served by itself as prasadam or the pongal served as a constituent of the entire platter, now popularly known as alankara naivedya.