Pongal: A Culinary Showcase Of Togetherness
Image Credit: Shutterstock

“Pongala Pongal” —the joyous cry goes around in most areas in Tamil Nadu in the wee hours of the eponymous harvest celebration. The four-day harvest festival, beginning this year on January 15 and ending on January 18, has tremendous cultural and culinary significance for Tamilians. 

But what is truly interesting is that it is probably the only Indian festival that is named after the dish prepared to celebrate it. Another unique facet is that there are two dishes named after Pongal — Ven Pongal and Chakkara Pongal — offered as naivedyam or offering to the Gods. The sweet version symbolises prosperity and joy, while the savoury one represents a balanced life.

Ven Pongal is akin to a khichdi infused with delightful notes of cumin, asafoetida, curry leaves, ginger, black pepper, and topped liberally with homemade ghee. Chakkara Pongal is made with rice, milk, ghee, jaggery, raisins, and dry fruits, and yes, oodles of ghee. 

And this sweet variant is the one most loved by the old and young alike. When the milk boils and overflows, people shout "Pongalo Pongal”, which symbolically marks Mother Earth's blessing on their farmlands and invokes her to bring prosperity into the agrarian household. It also epitomises the strong connection that the people have with the land, as they offer the first harvest to the Sun God as a token of their gratitude.

The simple act of cooking of Pongal symbolises the transformation of the gift of agriculture into nourishment for the gods and the community alike. Nikita Sharma, CEO of SP Motels, who runs Thane-based South Stories, said that in Tamil Nadu, the traditional way of cooking Pongal involves using makeshift brick or clay stoves outside their homes with fresh sugarcane stalks forming a pyramid. 

If you are wondering why this dish is prepared outdoors instead of the household kitchen, well, it has an interesting tradition attached to it. Charu Alagesh, who hails from Tamil Nadu but now works in Mumbai, revealed that since this dish is supposed to be an offering to the sun god to bless the harvest, the first rays of the sun should fall on it when it is boiling over.

Urbanisation and migration have led to a change in how Pongal is celebrated, with many households now opting for modern home kitchens. Yet, in several areas of Mumbai with a concentration of Tamilian families, one can still witness how they have managed to preserve the tradition by cooking Pongal outdoors, maintaining a connection to their agricultural roots. Many throng Dharavi’s 90-Feet Road where the entire street is cordoned off so that the people can cook Pongal publicly.  

Sharma said, "Cooking Pongal on the streets rather than in homes is a way for the community to come together and celebrate the festival away from their hometowns. It gives them a sense of community, nostalgia, and solidarity to celebrate and share their joy with their people. The stoves act as a shared space to celebrate the festivities with each other. It helps them resonate with their roots and bond over the spirit of Pongal."

Dressed in their finest saris, I see Charu and several ladies sit by the makeshift stoves, stirring brass pots of Pongal and singing harvest songs. Many even tie fresh turmeric shoots around the neck of the cooking pots and smear kumkum (vermillion powder) on it. Incidentally, Pongal is always made with freshly harvested rice and fresh lentils, especially the Seeraga Samba variant.

Of course, there is much more to the festival than just the food. It is also when the women get busy with vigorous spring cleaning of their households, including gathering and discarding all old clothes. Charu said that back in her hometown, people would make a bonfire of their old garments outside their homes, but in cities, they just give it away or throw it in the garbage. "We do not give these castaways to anyone since we believe it is giving away all the bad vibes of the year gone by and welcoming a wholesome new one," she added. 

The women draw elaborate rangolis or kolams from dried and ground rice flour outside their homes and decorate their thresholds with fresh flowers. They then head to temples and partake in Puliyodharai Prasadam, a tangy tamarind and peanut-based rice. 

Over the next two days, they visit their friends and families, where the youngsters end up playing games like Uri Adithal (breaking a suspended clay pot), Sarukku Maram (climbing a pole) and Paramapadham (a board game similar to Snakes and Ladders) or Paandi (one-legged chase). The elders lounge around playing Dhaayakattam (a game of dice) or Pallanguzhi (a wooden board with 14 pits challenging hand-eye coordination). 

In most villages of Tamil Nadu, the big draw remains Jallikattu. A massive bovine, typically of indigenous breeds like Pulikulam or Kangayam, is set loose amidst a gathering, and numerous individuals endeavour to seize the prominent hump on its back, clinging to it as the bull tries to break free. 

The aim is to maintain this grip, bringing the bull to a halt. In certain instances, participants must ride until they can remove flags attached to the bull's horns. This game has even inspired a movie and several political slugfests. 

However, the standout of the festival remains the food. After all, as Julia Child said, "People who love to eat are always the best people." And the folks from Tamil Nadu sure know how to live it up. 

Recipe for Chakkara Pongal


1 cup rice

1/4 cup split yellow moong dal

1 cup grated jaggery

1/2 cup ghee

10-12 cashews

1/4 cup raisins

1/2 teaspoon cardamom powder

A pinch of edible camphor (optional)

A few strands of saffron (optional)



- Rinse the rice and moong dal together and cook them in a pressure cooker until they are soft. Mash them slightly once cooked.

-In a separate pan, dissolve the jaggery in a little water over low heat to make a syrup strain to remove any lumps or impurities.

-Add the jaggery syrup to the cooked rice and dal mixture, stirring well. Allow it to simmer until the mixture thickens.

- In another small pan, heat ghee and fry cashews until they turn golden. Add raisins and continue frying until they plump up.

- Pour the ghee, cashew, and raisin mixture into the rice and jaggery mixture. Mix well. Add cardamom powder for flavour. You can also add some saffron for colour.

- Stir everything together and let it simmer for a few more minutes until it reaches a pudding-like consistency.

Recipe via The South Stories

(Photos 3 and 4 in this article are courtesy the writer Vinita Bhatia)