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Many Facets of Thai Pongal: Pongal the Traditional Tamil Thanksgiving Festival

By K. Thirukumaran

Tamils have celebrated Thai Pongal in one form or the other over millennia. Celebrating Thai Pongal nowadays in its traditional, purposeful piety and outdoor gala continues to evolve as vast numbers of diaspora Tamil communities exist in far corners away from their homelands. They also live far from ancestral agrarian and village habitats that used to indulge in the age-old Thai Pongal festivities within the homelands as well. In this setting, let the Thai Pongal festivities continue to take centre stage and be celebrated as the key festival of Tamils in emboldening Tamil identity and in fostering kinship now and over our future generations:

(1) Bountiful prosperity ushers in the time of Tamil Thanksgiving

Tamil month of ‘Thai’, falling on January 14th or 15th is Pongal day; it is the Tamil Thanksgiving Day celebrating sun, rain, farm cattle and ushering in pureness and prosperity. Thai harvest celebration and thanksgiving are marked by the spillover of the traditional sweet rice cookout and everything good in abundance to follow in the year it joyously indicates.

Celebrated Philosopher-Poet Thiruvalluvar says in the first Kural ~ couplet, under Part I ~ Virtue (1.1.1 The Praise of God),

“As the letter A is the first of all letters, so the eternal God is first in the world”. (Translated by Rev. G.U. Pope)

அகர முதல எழுத்தெல்லாம்
ஆதி பகவன் முதற்றே உலகு. ( குறள் எண் : 1 ).

“Agara Muthala elluththellam
Athi pakavan muthatre ulagu”

On Thai Pongal Day, the Sun is the celebrated “Athi pakavan”, the eternally divine.

So be that nature lover, putting sun, mother Earth and the environment in the sphere of Thanksgiving!

(2) Thai Pongal is marked with cultural festivities to uphold heritage

Among other things, Thai Pongal has long become a festival marking or taking gauge of prosperous sentiments in the lands of our roots, as one aspiring to be a farmer declined over a generation or two ago, the time of the year Thai Pongal falls and the traditions associated with its celebration make it an ideal time to take stock of sentiments.

One key aspect of it is that how important “Pongal Santhai” (Pongal market) became when markets in the Jaffna peninsula used to convene on alternate days etc., until a generation or two ago. When the market convened for the final time before Jan 14th, the crowds and spending habits would be the gauges on how well other sectors and the general spirit of the people would be too. The farmers’ markets around towns and villages bustle with activity during days preceding Thai Pongal. The bountiful harvests parade the markets, and the final day the market convenes prior to Pongal known as Pongal Santhai (Pongal market) especially lavishes with prosperous sentiments.

They all depended on a bountiful harvest. However tiny, this aspect of our root still exists and it will be a reason to still celebrate Thai Pongal!

(3) Celebrating own heritage amid many cultures

Festivals such as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa gained added significance in their respective diaspora communities to fulfill the calendar of holiday time with one’s own heritage. Celebrating the charming Tamil Thanksgiving Festival in January, just after the holiday season of December adds more glitter to Pongal fanfare.

(4) Celebrating Thai Pongal, the charming festival of Thanksgiving

Thai Pongal season has been generationally well documented as an extremely popular time with children in our homelands.

The legendary Kullanthai Kavignar Azha. Valliappa, (1922-1989) a pioneer known for dedicated work of children’s literature in Tamil, wrote the following poem about Pongal in his collection of poetry for children, Malarum Ullam (Blossoming mind):

The poem brings out the charm in preparing for and celebrating Pongal festivities, and roughly translates as follows:

“Walls newly painted
Floors neatly polished

Day break we shower
Lamp within us flicker

Garner decorated crock
Dazzle around turmeric

Crock atop stove
Milk therein pour

Foaming milk spillovers
Greetings galore
‘Pongal ‘o Pongal

Offer almighty rice
Coconut sugarcane feast

Together we eat
Singing dancing joyously”

Greeting on Pongal day saying ‘Pongal ‘o Pongal’ signifies the abundance of milk froth spillover, from the clay pot and other vessels that are used to make the sweet-rice – Pongal, as sign of prosperity and happiness. It is said that “Pongal” is perhaps the only festival in the world known in the name of a food dish.

(5) Thai Pongal in Home away from Home and in light of leading non-agrarian life styles

“Thai paves the way for good things to follow”, is a Tamil proverb.

Thai Pongal marks the first day of the Tamil month January; it is also the celebrated Tamil month for weddings, lasting intro to eternal friendships and love.

In terms of Thai Pongal’s “irrelevance”, – that may also become a new reason to “celebrate” it. This one festival of Tamils can be said that is causing it to be not celebrated in the same way as our ancestors did, particularly its outdoor events and then also it falls in the colder months to where the most Tamil “exodus” have taken place. Observance of Thai Pongal becomes a commemoration of this historic aspect as well.

In that sense it can become Tamils’ own “Passover”!