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Thai Pongal on Thursday:

Giving thanks for a bountiful harvest



Kolam decorations



Paying homage to cattle

The two Tamil words "Thai" and "Pongal" are important. "Thai" means the month of January. The word "Pongal" means milk rice. The first day of January in the Tamil calendar, would always fall between January 12 and 15 of the Christian calendar. On the first day of January in the calendar, Tamils all over the world celebrate Thai Pongal which is a Hindu religious festival. Thai Pongal is variously called as "Thai Thirunal" or "Thai Thingal".

Pongal is an ancient festival of the Tamil people of South India. Its history can be traced back to the Sangam age. i.e. 200 BC to 300 AD. It is referred to in the Sanskrit Puranas. The women of the Sangam era observed "Pavai Nonbu" at the time of 'Thai Niradal' which was a major festival during the reign of the pallavas (4th to 8th century AD). During this festival young girls prayed for rain and prosperity. They used to bathe early morning without using oil on their heads. They worshipped the idol of goddess Katyayani which was carved out of wet sand. Their prayer was to have plenty of rain for the paddy fields. Their prayer ended on the first day of the month of Thai-January. These customs and traditions were the origins of the Thai Pongal celebrations.

Andal's Tiruppavai and Saint Manickavasagar's Tiruvem bavai describe the festival of Thai Niradal and the observance of Pavai Nonbu. Chola King Kiluthunga had gifted lands to the temples especially for Pongal celebrations. Evidence of this gifting of lands is available in the inscription found in the Veeraragahava Temple at Tiruvallur.

Pongal is celebrated by the Indian state of Tamil Nadu as well as Tamils worldwide, including those in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Mauritius, South Africa, USA, Canada and Singapore. Some believe, the festival is more than 2000 years old. According to epigraphic evidence, it was celebrated as puthiyeedu during the days of the medieval Chola empire. Puthiyeedu meant the first harvest of the year.

Legends

There are some legendary stories associated with the Thai Pongal festival. Two common legends are in relation to Lord Shiva and Lord Indra. The legend in relation to Lord Shiva was that Lord Shiva asked his bull, Basava, to go to Earth and ask the mortals to have an oil massage and bath every day and to eat once a month. Basava had mistakenly stated that everyone should eat daily and have an oil bath once a month. Angered by this message, Lord Shiva cursed Basava and banished him to live on Earth forever. He had to plough the fields and help people to produce more food. This is why the day is associated with cattle.

The other legend was associated with Lord Indra and Lord Krishna. Lord Indra became arrogant after he became the king of all deities. Lord Krishna wanted to teach Lord Indra a lesson. Lord Krishna asked all the cowherds to stop worshipping Lord Indra. Enraged by this, Lord Indra sent forth his clouds for thunderstorms and three days of continuous rain.

The festival is celebrated at harvest time. It is a thanksgiving celebration associated with the harvest - by thanking the rain, the sun and the farm animals that have helped in the bountiful harvest. It is the equivalent of the US Thanksgiving Day. In Japan too the harvesting day is celebrated on January 15 every year and is called "Kosho Katsu".

Thai Pongal is a three day-long harvest festival celebrated by Tamils living all round the world. Pongal day and the day following are national holidays in Tamil Nadu. Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu declared that the day after Pongal be celebrated as Thiruvalluvar day in the entire Tamil Nadu. He also declared it as a government holiday. Thiruvalluvar day is celebrated in Tamil Nadu since 1974. In 2008 the Tamil Nadu government passed new legislation declaring Thai 01 (January 1 of the Tamil calendar) as the dawn of Tamil New Year. There is endless debate as to whether Thai Pongal day - January 1 of the Tamil calendar or the April New Year day is to be reckoned as the New Year day of the Tamils. In Tamil Nadu, January 1 (Thai Pongal) is declared as New Year Day.

Three-day festival

This harvest festival is spread over three days and it is the most important festival of South India. A special Pooja is performed on the first day of Pongal before the harvesting of paddy. Farmers worship the Sun and Earth by anointing their ploughs and sickles with sandalwood paste. The newly harvested paddy is cut with these consecrated tools.


Preparing the pongal rice

The three days are marked by different festivities. The first day - Bhogi Pongal - is a day for the family. The celebration of the Bhogi Pongal festival is done in Hindu homes by cleaning the courtyards, discarding old ware and replacing them with new ones. The homes are colour-washed and decorated. The second day is Suriya Pongal - the day dedicated to worship the Sun God. Boiled milk and jaggery are offered to the Sun God. The third day of Pongal is known as Mattu Pongal. It is for the worship of cattle known as Mattu. Cattle are bathed, their horns are polished and painted in bright colours. Garlands and flowers are placed around their necks. The pongal that has been offered to the Gods is given to the cattle to eat.

On the morning of the Pongal day the members of the family wake up early in the morning, bathe, put on new cloths and gather in front of the garden (muttram) to cook the traditional pongal or sweetened milk rice. A flat square pitch is made and decorated with Kolam which is exposed to the direct sunlight. A firewood hearth is set up using three bricks. The cooking begins by putting a new clay pot with water on the hearth; rice pongal or milk rice is cooked with the newly harvested grain. The hearth is encircled with a Kolam and the pot decorated with the strands of grass, ginger and saffron leaves all entwined into a string and tied round the neck of the pot with mango leaves hanging from the string symbolising prosperity. The pot filled with milk is placed on the hearth by the head of the family assisted by the wife and children. The moment of climax is the spillover of the pongal or bubbling over of milk during cooking.

The spillover of milk is a propitious symbol of abundance and is a good omen and is followed by shouts of 'Pongalo Pongal'. Thereafter the head of the family ceremonially drops a handful of new rice inside the boiling pot, having circled the pot three times. The other ingredients of pongal are chakkara (brown cane sugar) or Katkadu (sugar candy), milk (cow's milk or coconut milk), roasted green gram (payaru), raisins, cashew nuts and a few pods of cardamom. It is said that the side on which the milk spills reflects what the New Year will hold for the family. For example, if the milk spills over the east side, the year will be lucky.

Serving the pongal

When the pongal is ready it is first put on a banana leaf and the family prays for a few minutes thanking nature, the sun and farmers. Thereafter the pongal is served with fruits (banana and mango) among the family and later it is shared with neighbours, friends and relatives. There are many people living in apartments where there is no garden or courtyard.

They conduct the pongal, observing all the rituals inside the apartment - in gas cookers, pray to the sun having put the pongal on banana leaves. On this day the Hindus go to temples and make offerings and worship Gods. Savoury or piquant items like vadai, murukku and sweets like kesari and Payasam are also prepared and served on Pongal day.

Thai Pongal is followed by Mattu (cattle) Pongal. This is a special day devoted to thanksgiving to cattle. The farmers are grateful to the cattle which had ploughed the fields and drawn the carts throughout the year.

To show their gratitude to the invaluable service rendered by the cattle, the farmers bathe the animals, paint their horns in red, blue, yellow and green and smear their foreheads with turmeric and Kumkum. Their necks are adorned with colourful garlands.

Pooja is offered to them and pongal is given to them in plenty.

The richness of the Tamil culture and historic tradition is symbolised in the Thai Pongal festival. It is a joyous and happy occasion when the poor, rich, the farmer and the villager all celebrate the harvest festival together. On this festive day we should sink all differences, banish superstitious beliefs, the darkness of ignorance and egoistic arrogance and have the light of knowledge and the warmth of human love and compassion among all people.

There is a saying 'Thai piranthal Vazhi Pirukkum' which means the birth of the month of Thai will pave the way for new opportunities. With the dawn of Thai, weddings take place and other important ceremonies too follow. Pongal conveys to humanity the message of peace, unity and brotherhood for a better tomorrow. It's indeed a festival of freedom, peace, unity, and compassion. Love and peace are the central theme of Thai Pongal. The ancients have said, "whatever you hate you are its slave".

The war in Sri Lanka went on for three decades when we experienced agony and frustration. The war ended in 2009. We are now free and freed. We are free to celebrate the Pongal of 2010 with joy and love. This year's Pongal festival is significant and unique as there is peace after three decades of war.

(The writer is Advisor, All Ceylon Hindu Congress)

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