Beginning of all things auspicious

Thai Pongal


There is a saying in Tamil 'Thai piranthal wali pirakkum' which means 'with the beginning of January a new pathway is also paved'. This is the essence of Thai Pongal, which marks the beginning of all things auspicious for the Hindus.

Cosmic phenomena have baffled mankind since time immemorial. 'Sun worshipping' or 'Heliolatry' was one of the most widespread forms of worship the world has ever known. Historical evidence suggest that bands of Sun worshipers existed in early African, Egyptian, Chinese, Indonesian and Indian civilizations.

Thai Pongal has much more than just religious implications. The sun is a celestial body of utmost significance for the tropics as it is a source of abundant power and the driving force behind agriculture. In the tropics any type of cultivation thrives on plenty of sunlight and rain. In short the tropics owes its plenitude to the sun.

Thai Pongal, celebrated today by Tamils the world over irrespective of their regions and religions, is the only form of Sun worship in existence today. Thai Pongal marks the Indic solstice when the sun enters the 10th house of the Indian zodiac Capricorn.


The 'Thai' in 'Thai Pongal' comes from the month of January (the 10th month of the Tamil Calendar) and marks the beginning of the harvesting season in accordance with the Tamil calendar. 'Pongal', rice from the first harvest, cooked in milk and sweetened with jaggery, is offered to the Sun God Surya, during Thai Pongal. In this sense, it is a form of thanksgiving.

Celebrations are more pronounced in the tropics, indicative of the bumper harvest. In Tamil Nadu, where 'Thai Pongal' originated, it is celebrated for four days. The first day, January 15 marks the beginning of multiple festivities.

Four days

Just as before the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, there is a great scurry of activity. Houses and gardens are cleaned and the trash from the year before is burnt. Interestingly, there is so much burning going on in Tamil Nadu, that it is said that pilots find it difficult to navigate due to smoke that originates from burning trash and tires! The burning of last year's trash symbolizes letting go of the psychological burdens of the year before and expressing gratitude. Thai Pongal in general signifies prosperity and abundance in the new year.

On the morning of the first of Thai Pongal (January 15) Hindu women, decorate the floor of the front of their houses with Kolam, intricate patterns made from coloured rice flour. More than a form of artistic expression or mere decoration, Kolam symbolizes happiness and prosperity.

The Pongal is prepared within the parameters of the Kolam. The milk is boiled in a clay pot using fire wood, until it boils over. Rice and jaggery are added afterwards. 'Pongal' also translates to 'boiling over' or 'overflow'. Thus, boiling over of milk signifies abundance. It is served on banana leaves, the Pongal is first offered to the senior members of the family, after the prayers.

Mattu Pongal

'Mattu Pongal', the third day, is allocated for paying respect to cattle. In Hindu culture, like the sun, cattle too are deeply respected. This is probably because the cow is an integral part of Hindu culture and economy. Before the advent of commerce, early Hindu economy was mainly based on milk trade. Moreover, cows work the fields all year round and help the farmer yield a plentiful harvest by pulling the plough.

During the festive season cattle are decorated with garlands, kumkum applied on their foreheads, horns painted and fed a mixture of jaggery, honey, banana and other fruits, referred to as venn pongal.

The third day is also spent on visiting relatives. During the Thai Pongal period Tamils observe a strictly vegetarian diet. But on the forth day, hill country Tamils of Sri Lanka start eating meat. Jallikkattu, the Tamil version of bull fights are a major attraction in India on the second, third and forth days. Quite unlike its Spanish counterpart, these take place out in the open and is a very dangerous and gruesome sport. But the players who take part are considered gallant. Other games and festivities such as bullock cart races, harvesting dances, music and religious rituals at temples add colour to Thai Pongal.

The month of 'Thai' is a financially beneficial month as this is when the Tamil community reap their first harvest. Tamils make plans to get married, buy new assets, start new jobs, during this month. Thai Pongal is a festival celebrated with great enthusiasm and eagerness by Tamils the world over.

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