Thai Pongal on Thursday:
Giving thanks for a bountiful harvest
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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)