Sun, Harvest and Prosperity
By Chandana Ranaweera
Being a multi-ethnic island nation Sri Lanka possesses people belonging to different faiths. Despite differences in their religious beliefs, the citizens of Sri Lanka celebrate their religions and affiliated ceremonies in harmony. Last Friday (14), the Tamil Hindus of Sri Lanka celebrated one such pivotal religious festivals of theirs – the Thai Pongal festival. Being the first religious festival in their calendar Hindus eagerly and enthusiastically prepare to celebrate Thai Pongal. Just like the running theme of many other religious celebrations, Thai Pongal too focuses on peace, reconciliation, and prosperity. This is a small note about the harmonious Hindu celebration that falls in early January.
Thai Pongal for whom?
Since the ancient times, Thai Pongal has been recognised as the main Hindu religious celebration. Being followers of a polytheistic religion, Hindus venerate a multitude of deities; among them is the Sun God. Hindu religious scripts show that in ancient times there had been shrines dedicated specially for the Sun God. The ancient Tamil script, Thalhappiam has a passage dedicated for the Sun God.
Thai Pongal celebrations are all focused on the veneration to Sun God. In the ancient times, Thai Pongal was mainly celebrated by the farmer folk but nowadays it is celebrated by all Hindus around the world. There is a Tamil saying that roughly translates to, “The world lives, thanks to farmers and farmers live, thanks to the sun,” which goes to show how much of a high regard the Hindus have towards the sun.
Being a farmer is by no means an easy way of life. Their months-long labour comes to fruition during the harvesting time which falls in January. A bountiful harvest fuels hopes into farmers’ lives for a prosperous future and hence, Thai Pongal is also a celebration of prosperity.
Dawn of Thai Pongal
According to Hindu belief, the year commences with Thai Pongal. “The year dawns when the month ‘Thai’ (January) dawns,” is another popular Tamil saying which is affiliated with Thai Pongal celebrations. Another popular belief about the New Year dawn is that it happens when the sun moves from the star constellations Sagittarius to Capricorn.
Celebration of Thai Pongal
The Hindus prepare for Thai Pongal a month in advance, giving much attention to related religious observances. The month before ‘Thai’ (January) is ‘Margali’ (December). Since the dawn of Margali, the Hindus refrain from consuming meat or fish to purify themselves for the upcoming Thai Pongal. This is done under the belief that doing so has the power of solving all their problems following Thai Pongal. Since the dawn of Thai, every Hindu household prepare clean and new pots for the overflowing of milk. In Tamil this is called Pongal Panai.
A suitable place in front of the house is selected for the overflowing of milk. The area is first cleaned and then plastered using a mix of clay and cow dung. Kolam designs are made in this place. Kolam designs mainly consist of the sun and various floral designs. They are made using coloured rice flour. Instead of using any other coloured powder, Hindus opt for edible rice flour so that the Kolams can be a source of food for insects and other small creatures living on and in the ground. They believe this to be a meritorious act.
A special Pongal food item is prepared as Thai Pongal dawns. The sweet milk rice which is made out of the first harvest of rice, jaggery, and coconut is first offered to the Sun God. This dish is prepared outside the house as the sun dawns on the Thai Pongal day.
The day following Thai Pongal day is called Mattu Pongal or Patti Pongal. This day is dedicated to pay tribute to all the animals which helped to gain a bountiful harvest, mainly cows and bulls. Since the help of cattle is sought from the time of preparation of the paddy field to the time of harvesting, cows get special treatment on Mattu Pongal.
First, the cow shed is cleaned and plastered with clay mixed with cow dung. Then the shed is decorated using mango leaves and wild flowers. The cattle is then fed with milk rice and fruits, their horns are painted, and kum kum is applied on their foreheads. On this day, the cows are not made to work.
Kaanum Pongal is the last day of Thai Pogal celebrations. On this day, sisters pray to gods and wish good health for their brothers. Although not much witnessed in Sri Lanka, Kaanum Pongal celebrations are quite popular in South India.
Thai Pongal games
Throughout Thai Pongal celebrations various games depicting the Hindu cultural identity are played; among them are Manjul Veerattu, Jalli Kattu, greasy pole climbing, and games played using wooden sticks. Manjul Veerattu is a game that depicts the strength and vigour of youth. A piece of cloth is tied to the forehead of a strong bull and the person who unties it, wins the game. This depicts the heroics and bravery of men, and it is practiced even today in many parts of South India.
Aim of Thai Pongal
The main intention of Thai Pongal celebrations is to spread peace, harmony, and prosperity to the village, country, and the whole world, starting from the household. On Thai Pongal, Hindus enjoy food, drinks, and games together as a unit. The food items of Thai Pongal are not just sweet but sour, spicy, and sometimes bitter as well. This symbolises how life can be sweet and bitter at different times. Thai Pongal teaches us to be mindful of how life can be smooth as well as tough in the year ahead and the importance of be prepared to face both sweet and sour moments of life with same grace.
(Translated by Sanuj Hathurusinghe)