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Sunday, 15 January 2012





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Today is Thai Pongal:

Festival dedicated to the Sun God

Thai Pongal is an important festival to Hindu Tamils all over the world.

The celebrations are believed to have started from very ancient times when people stopped being hunter gatherers or nomads and settled down as cultivators. It is an annual event of which the main concept is thanksgiving to the Sun, the cattle, other natural elements and the gods. The concept of the celebration is known to various farming communities across diverse regions and communities.

The celebration has special significance to Sri Lankan Hindus, especially to the Hindu Tamils of the North and the East, because they are now celebrating it in an atmosphere of peace and harmony for the third successive year after the end of three-decades long unrest and uncertainties.

Virtually all irrigation tanks in the North and the East have been renovated or rehabilitated since the end of terrorism and every acre of arable land has been brought under cultivation, heralding bountiful harvests and prosperity to the local communities.

This time around, a large number of Hindu families of the North and the East will be celebrating the festival in its true spirit, i.e. making the Pongal out of their own paddy harvest and dedicating it to the Sun, the gods, the cattle and other natural elements. People of the plantations have always celebrated the festival zealously, in keeping with the tradition of their ancestors.

Thai Pongal is timed by an astronomical event - the winter solstice. Pongal is traditionally dedicated to the Sun God, 'Surya' and marks the beginning of the northward journey of the Sun from its southernmostlimit, a movement traditionally referred to as 'uttaranarayanam'.

Triple celebrations

It coincides with the festival Makara Sankranthi celebrated throughout India as the winter harvest and is usually held from January 1315 , from the last day of the Tamil month Maargazhi to the third day of the month Thai.

It also represents the Indian solstice when the sun purportedly enters the 10th house of the Indian zodiac Makaram or Capricorn. Thai Pongal is a day of triple celebrations, the beginning of 'uttaranarayanam', 'Mahara-Sangaranthi' and the 'Pongal'. It marks a period of plenty, peace and happiness. The saying "Thai Pirandhal Vazhi Pirakkum" meaning " the dawn of Thai heralds prosperity " is often quoted in relation to the festival.

Tamils thank the solar deity for the good harvest and consecrate the first grain to him on this 'Surya Mangalyam'. Tamils decorate their homes with banana trees and mango leaves and embellish the floor with decorative patterns drawn using rice flour.

They also use sugarcane for the celebrations.

Besides rice and lentils, the ingredients of the sweet Pongal dish include cardamom, jaggery and cashew nuts. Cooking is done in the sunlight, usually in a porch or courtyard, as the dish is dedicated to the Sun God. The cooking is done in a clay pot which is decorated with coloured patterns. There are two versions of Pongal, one sweet the other salted. The prepared dish is served on banana leaves. Apart from Pongal Day celebrations, cooking Pongal rice (community Pongal) is a traditional practice at Hindu temples.

The Pongal should ideally be boiling by the time the Sun rises in the sky; an offering to the Sun in recognition of its importance to farmers. A pot spilling over with its contents is considered a sign of abundance and prosperity. So, first the milk heating in the pot and then the rice dish made in it are allowed to boil over (Pongal virtually means boiling over). The moment the milk boils over and bubbles out of the vessel, the tradition is to shout "Pongalo Pongal!", introduce freshly harvested rice grains into the pot and blow the conch shell.


In the pre-dawn air, family members gather to make the pongal and pray together in thanksgiving and hope for yet another bountiful year. Cow's milk or coconut milk is poured into the pot and once it boils over, the head of the family, ceremonially and solemnly pours in the rice grains from his cupped palms. The rest of the family follows suit until the required amount of rice has been put in and then the dish is sweetened with sugarcane juice, jaggery, raisins and cashew nuts.

When it is ready it is heaped onto a freshly cut banana leaf (stemming from the time when the Tamils traditionally used banana leaves as plates) along with fruits and other savouries and offered to the Sun. It is then offered as Prasad or consecrated food to members of the family, friends and neighbours.

All Hindu Tamils celebrate the event irrespective of whether they are farmers or otherwise and, overall, it is a festival to encourage social cohesiveness and unites people by bringing them together in a common function. There are many songs in Tamil literature about Thai Pongal.

While the main festival of Thai Pongal is celebrated everywhere by Hindu Tamils, the second day of the festival is celebrated as 'Mattu Pongal' meaning 'Pongal for the Cattle'.

From the production of milk and manure, to the ploughing of fields and drawing carts to take the produce to the warehouse or market, cattle are of vital importance to the farmer and their services are recognised on this day. They are bathed, garlanded and ornamented with trinkets. They are even worshipped and generally extensively pampered and petted.

The Pongal made on this day is dedicated solely to them and they get the first offering as well as fruits and sugarcane.

Every year, Tamils usher in the Thai Pongal as the dawn of new beginnings.



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