To the town-dweller “darkness” simply means “lights switched off”. But to the real villager, not yet tainted by alien cultures, “darkness” carries a different meaning for he lives one with Mother Nature. All the gods he worships are omnipotent to him and the festivals he celebrates to appease them have a deeper significance. One such festival is Pongal, celebrated for four continuous days.

Bhog Pongal, the first of the four day celebrations, pulls out people from their homes even before the crowing rooster could wake up the sleeping Sun. They come out with their old torn mats and sacks, worn out brooms and other such things which are piled in a heap and a bonfire is made of them. January being  somewhat chilly, the villagers sit on their haunches around the fire.

It is commonly believed that when the unwanted things are burnt, the home would have space enough to accommodate things new. In symbolic language, it means the evil desires in human beings too get burnt and thereby cleanse the body and soul.

But Hindu mythology has something more to say about this. What a year to the mortals on Planet Earth is just a day to the immortals in their heavenly abode. Hence out of the 12 months of the Tamil calendar six (Aadi, Aavani, Puratasi, Aippasi, Karthikai and Margazhi) pass for night and the rest (Thai, Masi, Panguni, Chitrai, Vaikasi and Aani) for day. While the former period is known as Datchinayanam, the latter is known by the name Uttarayanam.

As night is usually associated with evil, Datchinayanam is considered an inauspicious period. The last of the months that fall under this period is Margazhi, the most abominable month. No wonder people call it ‘peedaimasam’ or ‘soonyamasam’, meaning month of distress, in which Evil influences its power.

It is on the last day of Margazhi that Bhogi Pongal is celebrated. The burning of rubbish is symbolic of getting rid of the undesired Datchinayanam. This is the reason why the first day of the Pongal festival is also known by the name ‘pokki’, meaning departure or dispel.

But the word Bhogi also calls for an explanation. Among the many names, Bhogi is one by which Lord Indra is known. God of the firmament, He commands thunder and lightning, and also the refreshing showers that fall to render the earth fruitful. The crops as we know very much rely on the showers from the firmament, the thankful villagers filled with gratitude praise Bhogi for His help.

The houses put on a new look. The floors are washed clean with cow dung diluted water. Kolams are drawn with powdered rice. This month makes people in villages very happy for it is time to reap what they have sown. Their barns are full and money flows into their coffers. The word ‘pongal’ literally means ‘brim over’ or ‘overflow’.

The second day of the festival, Perum Pongal pays tribute to the Sun without whose grace the crops could not have come up. And so the villagers find delight in offering  the first yield to the Sun god. Milk is poured into a new mud pot kept on a new mud oven. When the milk brims over, the people shout in glee, “Pongalo Pongal… Pal Pongal!”  A good quantity of rice from the first harvest is pushed into the boiling milk and stirred till the rice is overcooked.  This tasty food, also called pongal, is taken to a specific spot in the courtyard or backyard of the house to be directly exposed to the Sun. The chosen spot already readied with lovely decoration of kolam on red earth, adorned with flowers and rice. The pot with pongal is kept at the centre of the spot while accessories of worship like sugarcane, turmeric plants, coconut and banana find their predominant place around the pot.

The head of the family performs the pooja. His family members and guests worship the Sun, the all-powerful force. A feast with vadai and payasam completes the pooja.Next, a bunch of neem leaves and peelam twigs with flowers are pinned to the threshold of the house.

This act is known as Kaappukattu, meaning protection from evil. On this day the Sun enters the tenth sign of the zodiac “Makaram” (Capricorn). This movement of the Sun is known as Makara Sankranti. Sankranti is an evil goddess. It is believed that she will never dare to enter the houses whose thresholds exhibit neem leaves and peelam flowers, the real devil repellents.

With new clothes on, the people greet each other “Pal pongidutha?” meaning ‘Did milk brim over in your house?’ an auspicious sign indeed.

The third day is Maattu Pongal and this is in honour of the cattle, for it is the cattle that have toiled with men to raise the crops in the fields. Pious Tamils believe that cows and bullocks have godly qualities in them and so worship the cattle. On this day their horns are painted and bells are tied to their necks.

Their foreheads are daubed with kumkum, turmeric and sandal paste, they are garlanded before they enjoy a pooja and fed with pongal. Immediately after this, pairs of bullocks are yoked together to well-decorated carts. Children get onboard along with the drivers shout  “Pongalo…Pongal…Maattupongal!”

What really takes the cake on this day is a blood-curdling sport called ‘jallikattu  or  manjuvirattu’(bull fight) staged before an enthusiastic crowd. Jallikattu commences usually in the afternoon with a call of the trumpet. The waiting bull-tamers get ready for the occasion in an inverted L-shaped area.

The temple-bull, the supposed mount of Lord Shiva, enters the arena with all honours. Custom demands that this bull goes untouched as its entry marks the start of the game. The real game begins with the entry of a charging bull garlanded with currency notes.

Wild catcalls and whistles rend the air as the bull tamers manage to jump onto the bull’s back all the time holding its hump with one hand and its oil smeared horns with the other. The one who succeeds removing the garland of currency, garlands himself.

Sometimes jewellery too adorn the neck of the bull to be taken by the conquering heroes for ‘jallikattu’ simply means ‘tie the coin’. When the first bull tamer displays his prize with pride, the next bull rushes in. In their attempt to tame the bull and win the prize money, many get injured and the unlucky few are gored to death for the ferocious bull can easily lift a man with its horns and toss him up in the air. By sundown the game comes to a close. The enthralled public carry the heroes on their shoulders and the zeroes to the grave.

Karinaal, also known as Kaanum Pongal marks the fourth and final day of the festival. Led by the head of the family, all the members visit the fields to feel proud of their produce. ‘Kaanum’ means ‘to see’ and feast their eyes on the greenery. The elders find delight in giving money to the young ones. The poor visit the moneyed ones and everybody is happy to see others and exchange greetings.

This day is also known as Anni Pongal. Charmingly dressedfor the occasion, young girls, women and children shuffle their way to the banks of the river holding varieties of food on platters. Pongal is rolled into small balls and placed on turmeric leaves. Such balls are partly left for the crows and partly thrown into the river and they shout “Kakkaipidi…kannipidi” meaning ‘a handful to the crows… handful to the river’. Crow is the mount of Lord Saturn. And the river valley civilisation brought up Tamils consider the river as affectionate mother.

Can there be life without ‘mother’?