We're Live Bangla Saturday, March 06, 2021

The many facets of the Tamil festival Thai Pongal

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Tamil women draw coloful designs at the doorstep of their houses with powdered rice. Photo:  Ajith Perera/Xinhua

The Thai Pongal, a Tamil harvest festival, is being celebrated from January 14 to 17, with traditional fervor by Tamils in Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia and other countries, despite restrictions on gatherings at temples.

In Sri Lanka, Malaysia and other parts of the world, Thai Pongal is essentially a religious, family affair. But in Tamil Nadu, in South India, it is more of a social event, and has, in addition, a political and ideological dimension. 

The Dravidianor Tamil nationalistic parties, which have been ruling the State since 1967, havemade it a State festival because it is deemed to be a “Dravidian” “Tamil” and “secular” festival, unlike Deepavaliand Navarathri which are seen as ‘Sanskritic’ festivals and therefore as “impositions”of Aryan Hinduism over Dravidian Tamils.

The Dravidian or Tamil nationalistic parties which have been ruling the State since 1967, have made it a State festival because it is deemed to be a “Dravidian” “Tamil” and “secular” festival, unlike Deepavali and Navarathri which are seen as ‘Sanskritic’ festivals and therefore as “impositions” of Aryan Hinduism over Dravidian Tamils.

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Drawing an auspicious design at a doorstep. The Kolam is drawn with a mixture of coloured rice and chalk. Photo: Ajith Perera/Xinhua

In a way, Thai Pongal is secular as it is essentially a rural, harvest festival. However, Muslims and Christians do not celebrate it because it has come to involve the worship of Hindu gods and visits to Hindu temples. As it happens with every activity in a traditional society, the secular harvest festival of Thai Pongal has acquired a religious color or a religious basis. The festival was woven into Hindu mythology when the Cholas were ruling the Coromandel Coast from the 9th., to the 13th., Century. The Cholas were instrumental in Sanskritizing the Tamils.

However, the rural and agricultural basis of Thai Pongalremains dominant. Everything about Thai Pongalis linked to agriculture, such as the harvesting of paddy. Milk, food, the cow, the sun and rain are worshiped. The goal of Thai Pongalis attaining agricultural prosperity. “Pongal” itself means boiling or effervescent overflowing, and this is illustrated by boiling milk mixed with jaggery, coconut, cardamom, raisins, green gram, ghee(clarified butter) and cashew nuts, until the pot overflows.

The resultant sweetmeat called Sakkarai Pongal (sweet Pongal) is then offered to the gods. After rituals conducted by Brahmins (if the venue is a Kovil or temple) it is distributed among the worshippers as a “prasadam” (Sanskrit for a gracious gift). 

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Thai Pongal. Milk is allowed to boil over to suggest the overflowing of good fortune following a good harvest. Photo: Ajith Perera/Xinhua

While in the urban areas, Thai Pongal is a single day event, in the rural areas,the festivities are spread over three or four days. A pooja is performed on the first day of Pongal before the cutting of paddy. Farmers worship the sun and the earth by anointing their ploughs and sickles with holy sandalwood paste. It is with these consecrated tools that the newly-harvested rice is cut.  

Thai Pongal begins with Bhogi Pongal which is the last day of the Tamil month of Margazhi. On this day, people discard old belongings and replace them with new ones. New clothes are worn. Old stuff is consigned to flames joyously. Houses are cleaned, painted and decorated. The horns of oxen and buffaloes are decorated with fancy paintings in bright colors. The deity of Bhogi Pongalday is Indra, the Hindu god of rain. Surya Pongalday is devoted to the worship of the sun and Kanum Pongal day is reserved for social visits and the establishment of new ties or the renewal of old relationships. Jallikattu, a spectator sport in which young men try to tame a raging bull, is held in the villages around Madurai. An attempt to ban this sport was met with a State-wide agitation. The ban was lifted subsequently as it was portrayed by Tamil nationalists as being symbolic of Tamil valor and Tamil nationalism.   

Although a harvest festival, Pongal is of special significance to all Tamils as it is linked with the beginning of the Tamil month of Thai which is regarded as the harbinger of good luck. There is a saying that with the birth of Thai, the way forward will open (Thai pirandhaal Vazhipirakkum). To make best use of the day, new Tamil films are released on Thai Pongal day. Producers and distributors compete to get theaters to start showing their new films on Thai Pongal day. Magazines come up with special issues to markthe beginning of Thai.

There are variation of Thai Pongal in other parts of India. It is celebrated as Makara Shankranthi, which represents the day on which the Sun enters the zodiac sign of Makara or Capricorn.