Real History of Thai Pongal – The Harvest Festival

Tamil festival of Thai Pongal is a thanks giving ceremony in which the farmers celebrate the event to thank the spirits of nature spirit, the Sun and the farm animals for their assistance in providing a successful harvest. The rest of the people celebrate the festival to pay their thanks to the farmers for the production of food.

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This festival is celebrated by one and all as it is non-relevance to any particular religious faith. The whole Tamil population of the world celebrate it without any differences. Therefore it is widely known as “Tamil Thai Pongal” or the “Festival of the Tamils”. With the saying ‘Thai Piranthal Vazhi Pirakkum’ in mind, we celebrate this festival hoping the birth of Thai month will pave way for new opportunities.

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Thai Pongal is an occasion for family re-unions and get-together. Old enmities, personal animosities and rivalries are forgotten. Estrangements are healed and reconciliation effected. Indeed, Thai Pongal is a festival of freedom, peace, unity and compassion. Pongal is known to be celebrated even more grandly than Deepavali in Tamil Nadu.

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The New Year begins with the beginning of the month of Thai. It coincides with the harvest festival Pongal in Tamil Nadu. Everything is new for Tamils on this new year day. They wear new clothes, homes are decorated with sugar cane, banana and mango leaves, and the floor of the house embellished with decorative kolam depicting a festive mood. Hence, the ancient Tamils fittingly celebrated it as the Tamil New Year.

General Meanings
Pongal means “overflowing”, signifying abundance and prosperity. Newly harvested rice mixed with milk and sugar is boiled in a decorated new mud pot in a fireplace made for the purpose in open air. The first day of the festival is celebrated to give thanks to the Sun god for providing energy for the growth of the crops.

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They call the second day “Maattu Pongal”, a celebration for the bullocks as it plays an important role by helping the farmers to plough their fields. The bullocks are bathed in the river or pond, honored by being adorned with garlands of flowers, and their horns are painted in attractive colours. A popular sport called ‘Jallikattu’ usually done on this day.

The third day of Pongal is known as “Kanni & Kaanum Pongal”. Kaanum Pongal and Kanni Pongal fall on the same day, but the method of celebration is quite different. Kaanum referred to ‘viewing and seeing’ which means, family members and friends gather together during Kaanum Pongal celebration to spend time together and have a good time. After thanking nature, it’s time to finally appreciate our family and friends. Meanwhile, Kanni referred to ‘virgin girls’, whereby Kanni Pongal is celebrated for fertility.

In some rural parts and villages, farmers pray to Saptha Kannimaar (7 virgin goddesses) with the belief that they will bless their lands to be fertile. Thus, unmarried virgin girls are honoured as Saptha Kannimaar’s on this day and will be presented with clothes and jewelleries. They will be treated like princesses on this day and this also creates opportunities for families to search for potential brides. The young maidens also pray on this day to get a good husband.

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For the average Tamil Nadu village, which depends largely on agriculture, especially in the delta of the Cauvery and Kollidam rivers, where the main crop is rice, harvest season, which begins in the month of Thai, is important.

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The start of Thai heralds the inflow of income from the sale of pad, which fetches good revenue. Therefore, weddings are usually arranged in this month, and hence the proverb, “Thai piranthaal vazhi pirakkum”, meaning, “with the birth of Thai a way is born”. People believe that their difficulties are over with the dawn of the new year.

Background of Jallikattu
Jallikattu, in the simplest of terms, is a sport conducted as part of Mattu Pongal, the second day of the three-day-long harvest festival Pongal. The Tamil word ‘mattu’ means bull, and the third day of Pongal is dedicated to cattle, a key partner in the process of farming. Bulls get more importance over cows for bulls help farmers to plough their field, pull their cart loaded with goods, and inseminate cows, in turn resulting in production of milk, offspring and preserving indigenous species.

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Jallikattu is believed to be a tradition practiced since at least last 2,500 years. Cave paintings, as old as 2,500 years, that depicts a man trying to tame a bull, have been found by archeologists. Jallikattu in the present form is believed to have played first between 400 to 100 BC.

Temple bulls, usually considered the head of all cattle in a village, are readied for the sport. Temple bulls from different villages are brought to a common arena where the Jallikattu happens. The bulls are then freed into a ground, one by one. Participants are to embrace the bull’s hump, and try to tame it by bringing the raging bull to a stop, possibly by riding for as long as possible holding its hump. The bulls that could be tamed are considered weaker, and are used for domestic purposes by the farmers and the untameable ones — considered the strongest and most virile — are used for breeding the cows in many villages.

A seal, dated between 2,500 – 1,800 BC, discovered at Mohenjodaro that shows bull-taming, is another reference to Jallikattu. There are references of people enjoying witnessing and participating in Jallikattu in Silappatikaaram, one of the five great epics of Tamil literature, and two other ancient literary works like Kalithogai and Malaipadukadaam.

Four lines from a poem in anthology Kalithogai capture the essence and key ingredients of Jallikattu. These are dust in the air, able physique of tamers, ferocious bulls stooping to conquer and agitated mood of spectators.

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Jallikattu is not a leisure sport for Tamilis, but a tradition that establishes the identity of hard-working, self-sufficient, powerful Tamil. Jallikattu also symbolises a cordial man-animal relationship, reads the op-ed. For the owner, the bull was a member of the family. Native breeds used in bullfights ensured biodiversity and acted as geographical indicators.

Customs & Celebrations
Thai Pongal generally includes customs & celebrations that are the expression of jubilation over life’s renewal. On Thai Pongal, the family begins the day early. Every member of the family gets up early in the morning, bathes, puts on new clothes and gathers in the front of the garden (muttram) to cook the traditional Pongal (rice pudding). The front garden is pre-prepared for this ceremonious cooking. A flat square pitch is made and decorated with kolam drawings, and it is exposed to the direct sun light. A fire wood hearth will be set up using three bricks. The cooking begins by putting a clay pot with water on the hearth.

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A senior member of the family conduct the cooking and the rest of the family dutifully assists him or her or watches the event. When the water has boiled the rice is put into the pot – after a member the family ceremoniously puts three handful of rice in first. The other ingredients of this special dish are chakkarai (brown cane sugar) or katkandu (sugar candy), milk (cow’s milk or coconut milk), roasted green gram (payaru), raisins, cashew nuts and few pods of cardamom.

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History Background of Tamil New Year
That the Tamils celebrated Thai 1st as the Tamil New Year is well documented in the Sangam literature, including Natrinai, Kurunthokai, Puranaanooru, Ainkurunooru and Kaliththokai. The Sangam period of Tamil literature spans between 3 BCE and 3 CE. Epigraphic evidence suggests the celebration of the Puthiyeedu during the medieval Chola Empire era 1,000 years ago is believed to be the first harvest of the year. Dr M. Varatharasan, a Tamil scholar and professor, has said that in the early period, the Tamils celebrated Thai as their New Year and not Chitirai, and that is the reason why Pongal is celebrated not only in the villages, but also in towns and cities. Furthermore, Tamils have divided the year into six seasons, beginning with “Ilavenil Season” (from Thai to Maasi), which is early summer when the weather is pleasant.

There was a confusion regarding the Tamil New Year, as Chittirai was introduced as the Hindu New Year. This prevailed for a long period until the beginning of the 20th century. In 1921, more than 500 Tamil scholars gathered in Pachaiyappaan College under the leadership of Maraimalai Adigal to deliberate on the controversy. After deliberating on the historical, cultural and literary evidence from Sangam literature, it was decided to start the Tamil year from the period of Tiruvalluvar from 31 BCE. In 1939, an All-India Tamil Conference was held in Trichy, organised by Somasundara Bharathiyaar. A consensus was that Thai 1st should be observed and celebrated as the Tamil New Year, Pongal and the Tamil Festival.

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Hence, as Thai has no religious background attached to it, all Tamils — Tamil Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and atheists — should celebrate Pongal day as the Tamil New Year to show their solidarity and cooperation as one Tamil race.

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