Ponggal or Pongal, also known as Makara Sankranti, is celebrated in mid-January by South Indians as a festival marking the rice harvest. Pongal, a mixture of sweet boiled rice is made and offered to Surya, the Sun God. The name is derived from the Tamil word pongu, meaning “boil over” or “flourish”.
Ponggal marks the solar movement from the ninth sign of the zodiac to the tenth which the Indians mark as the month of Thai (January–February in the Gregorian calendar).1 Thai is considered as the luckiest month of the year.2 Ponggal celebrates the fruit of a farmer’s labour. The rice grains cultivated are of primary significance to the Indians, as rice is the staple food.3 It is also a time they pay a tribute to Surya, the Sun God, as the sun is believed to be the giver of all life.4 Cows are decorated with garlands as they are acknowledged for helping to till the land and reaping such a rich rice harvest.5 In a non-farming country like Singapore, it marks a time of thanksgiving.6
Rites and Rituals
The harvest festival spans four days. The first day is Bhogi, dedicated to Lord Indra, the lord of the seasons.7 The second day, Surya Pongal, is when the Sun God is honoured.8 The third day is Maattu Pongal, a day dedicated to cattle.9 The last day is Kaanum Pongal, when family and friends gather.10
New clothes are donned and festivity fills the air in the household of a South Indian during Ponggal.11 A colourful kolam (decorative floor pattern) is made out of rice paste, outlining Surya's chariot.12 Traditionally, a clay pot or pongal panaai is placed over an earthen stove in the centre of the kolam.13 The pot is filled with milk and fresh rice and adorned with ginger and turmeric stalks, and marked with sacred ash.14 While the newly harvested rice grains boil in milk, brown sugar or jaggery is added along with cashew nuts, raisins and ghee.15 As the rice mixture boils furiously frothing freely over the pot, family members cry out “pongalo pongal” (Hail Pongal).16 Visitors greet each other with “Paal pongitha?” which means, “Has the milk boiled over in your house”?17 Traditionally, the rice is cooked over a brick stove in the open yard of the house. In Singapore, with most families living in high-rise flats, this has become a rare sight as most boil their pongal over their gas cookers in the kitchen.18 The pongal rice is distributed to all members of the family, relatives and guests who are present.19
Apart from the boiled sweet rice, sugar cane, spices, vegetables are also offered to the deities for thanksgiving.20 Offerings are also made at the local temples, where a delightful array of vibrant-coloured sarees adds life to the high-spirited atmosphere.21 The festivities can be caught at Little India and various community centres.22
1. Sinnappah Arasaratnam, Indian Festivals in Malaya (Kuala Lumpur: Dept. of Indian Studies, University of Malaya, 1966), 7. (Call no. RCLOS 294.536 ARA)
2. Lonely Planet Publications (Film), Discover Malaysia & Singapore (Victoria: Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd, 2013), 42. (Call no. RSING 915.9504 DMS-[TRA]); Arasaratnam, Indian Festivals in Malaya, 7.
3. Arasaratnam, Indian Festivals in Malaya, 7, 9.
4. Yasmin Das, “Rites of Spring,” Straits Times, 10 January 1992, 11. (From NewspaperSG); Arasaratnam, Indian Festivals in Malaya, 8.
5. Arasaratnam, Indian Festivals in Malaya, 8.
6. Rhama Sankaran, “Thank You Rain, Sun and Cattle,” Straits Times, 11 January 1991, 7; “Festive Cheer in Little India,” Straits Times, 14 January 2008, 22; “Stars of the Parade,” Straits Times, 17 January 2007, 33. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Das, “Rites of Spring.”
8. “Pongal (Harvest Festival),” Singapore Tourism Board, last retrieved 11 April 2016.
9. “Stars of the Parade”; Prema, V., “Tamil Hindus Celebrate Harvest Festival by Cooking Rice with Milk,” Straits Times, 15 January 1991, 27. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Das, “Rites of Spring.”
11. Arasaratnam, Indian Festivals in Malaya, 7.
12. Das, “Rites of Spring.”
13. Das, “Rites of Spring.”
14. Samuel S. Dhoraisingam, Peranakan Indians of Singapore and Melaka: Indian Babas and Nonyas--Chitty Melaka (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2006), 48. (Call no. RSING 305.8950595 SAM)
15. Das, “Rites of Spring”; Dhoraisingam, Peranakan Indians of Singapore and Melaka, 48.
16. Arasaratnam, Indian Festivals in Malaya, 7; Das, “Rites of Spring.”
17. Das, “Rites of Spring.”
18. Das, “Rites of Spring”; “Hindus Give Thanks at Harvest Festival,” Straits Times, 16 January 1995, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Dhoraisingam, Peranakan Indians of Singapore and Melaka, 48.
20. Marión Bravo-Bhasin, Culture Shock!: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette, Singapore (N.Y.: Marshall Cavendish Corp., 2012), 251. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BRA-[HIS])
21. Das, “Rites of Spring.”
22. Singapore Tourism Board, “Pongal (Harvest Festival)”; “Celebrating First Harvest of the Season,” Straits Times, 18 January 2016, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.