Most South Indians celebrate Pongal (in Tamil Nadu) or Makara Sankranthi (in Karanataka and Andhra Pradesh) as the ushering in of a new beginning. This starts in the beginning of the Tamil month of Thai (தை: mid-January to mid-February). It marks the beginning of the Suns journey northwards (known as Uttarayana) – from mid-January to mid-July.
After 3 months of monsoon, rain, dark clouds, damp, cool weather (which has shifted to a shorter cycle due to global warming) – the Sun comes out, bathing the countryside with its warm bright rays. Pongal marks the celebration of the life giving energy from the Sun. It is the represents the beginning of a new cycle of harvest.
The entire food cycle starts from the Sun, followed by plants, which convert basic elements of nature into simple carbohydrates driven by the energy from the Sun. Without this we’d be nowhere. According to Ayurveda, the energy from the Sun is locked inside the plant. There is merit to that, as eventually when you break down the carbohydrates from plants, to glucose, eventually the energy locked in the glucose is unlocked and used as fuel by our body — where did that energy come from? Carried from millions of miles away from the Sun.
Food is such an important part of life that we take for granted. Even the Gita, has verses that has food as its starting point.
अन्नाद् भवन्ति भूतानि पर्जन्याद् अन्नसम्भवः |
यज्ञाद् भवति पर्जन्यो यज्ञः कर्मसमुद्भवः ||
— Bhagavad Gita 3.14
Existence (of living beings) comes from food. Food comes from rain. Rain comes from yajna (sacrifice). Sacrifice comes from action.
Meaning: if you don’t respect nature it won’t respect you. Here sacrifice means giving up of conveniences, like the convenience of a car and using public transport or give up the convenience of using disposables. Then you’ll reduce pollution and your impact on global warming, and thus gain back the respect of nature… and the monsoons will come on time.
Pongal is our way of showing gratitude to Nature (the Earth, the Sun, the rain, etc.) and everything that is involved in creating a bountiful harvest (the people, the machines, the cows, etc.).
A decaying tree, a rotting corpse, a pile of refuse, into things of beauty they are transformed, the fragrance of a flower, the sweetness of a fruit, the shade of a tree. Such is your alchemy, Mother Earth. I bow down to thee.
— I read this in the Ramayana or Srimad Bhagavatam (slightly paraphrased from my recollection).
Pongal is celebrated very lively (4 days duration, the first being the most important). The festive spirit of Pongal season is visible all around as one can see just about every vehicle (car, bus, bicycle, trucks, bullock carts, tractors,…) decorated with banana leaves, sugar cane stalks, flower garlands, and swastikas (using turmeric and kunkumam).
- In the first day salutations are given to the Sun. This is done by boiling rice outdoors, under the Sun, making brown-sugar rice (aka “pongal”), and offering it along with other condiments to the Sun. The adjacent picture shows a typical offering.
- The second day is known as maatu pongal (maatu = cow), where gratitude is expressed towards cows. On this day cows are colorfully decorated with flower garlands and bells.
- The third day is known as kaanum pongal (kaanum = to view), where people visit their friends and relatives to enjoy the festive season. Everyone wears their new cloths, have fun chewing sugar cane. Traditionally on this day people thank their relatives and friends for their support in the harvest.
The eve of pongal is known as Bhogi. It’s a time when everyone cleans out their house of old stuff. In villages you’ll see small bonfires, burning old things (which is a pretty bad practice these days given the amount of synthetic materials, it can cause lot of toxic air pollution).
Also, rishis and siddhars are known to actually postpone their death for this particular auspicious day, as to die when the Sun moves into uttarayana cycle (northward journey) guarantees a better transition to the next life (or in some cases even be spared from rebirth). Bhisma in the Mahabharata, layed in the battlefield with body pierced with bed of arrows, for 26 days so that he can die on Makara Sankranti, the day the Sun begins its northward journey.