The gold pots and Rangoli signifying the Thai Pongal Celebrations, the Fantastic Tamil Festival of the Harvest!
Thai Pongal Celebrations, the Fantastic Tamil Festival of the Harvest!

Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians are among the multiple ethnic groups that make up Sri Lanka. Indeed, it is with their variegated shades that the Sri Lankan culture gets moulded. Buddhists make up 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s 20 million population while Tamils make up around 13 percent. However, as a country of diverse ethnic groups, the country is bound to celebrate several festivals. Moreover, among the varying festivals that Sri Lankans celebrate, Thaipongal holds a significant place. Tamils celebrate Thai Pongal as the very first festival of the year. Moreover, the Tamils in India, Sri Lanka, and other parts of the world where Tamil citizens reside celebrate this festival impressively. In addition, South India’s multi-day harvest festival takes place in the second week of January.

Thai Pongal Celebrations in Sri Lanka

The celebration of Thai Pongal is visible in the North, East, Central Hill Country and other areas where Hindus live in Sri Lanka. Thai Pongal unites Tamils all across Sri Lanka in a devoted prayer of thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest. The Tamils pay tribute to the Sun God (Surya) during this festival. Moreover, farmers worship the sun on this special day and they enjoy the harvest, the entire year. Even though the Thai Pongal Festival is celebrated grandly including Bhogi Pongal, Surya Pongal, Mattu Pongal and Kanum Pongal in India, which last for four days, in Sri Lanka Thai Pongal Festival is limited to a two-day celebration.

Significance of Thai Pongal

Seemingly, farmers who rely on Mother Earth, the sun, rain, other natural elements, cows and buffaloes for a bountiful harvest of their staple food; rice, celebrate this festival. It is a time when the poor, the wealthy, the peasants, and the city dwellers all give thanks to the gods and worship the sun, the earth, the cattle, and their abundance with gratitude. Those who do not live in agricultural communities can attend the festival to express their gratitude to the farmers for providing food for their survival.

In addition, Tamils celebrate Thai Pongal on the tenth month of the Tamil calendar, known as the ‘Thai’ month. The only Hindu festival that follows a solar calendar is Thai Pongal, which takes place in mid-January each year. Pongal is a Sanskrit term that means “boiling over.” During the Thai Pongal festival, Tamils offer sweet Pongal rice to the Sun God.

Astrological Significance

Of course, Thai Pongal is significant astrologically too. The reason is, according to Uththarayana, this period marks the beginning of the Sun’s northward journey from its southernmost point. However, according to Tamils, this period is auspicious. Moreover, the Sun’s path from its northernmost point to its southernmost point, referred to as Dakshinayana, is inauspicious. Hindus boil a new clay pot of milk to mark the beginning of the celebrations. Moreover, they consider it as a sign of good fortune when the milk boils over, bringing in the reference to ‘Pongal’.

The History of Thai Pongal

Particularly, an inscription in the ‘Veeraraghava’ temple dedicated to Vishnu in ‘Thiruvallur’, Chennai, describes the Pongal festival. The inscription, credited to Chola King Kulottunga I (1070 – 1122 CE), describes a granting of land to the temple for the annual Pongal festivals. ‘Manikkavachakar’ also mentions the festival in the ninth-century Shiva bhakti text ‘Tiruvembavai’. Moreover, the tracking of the past of the Pongal dish in a festive and religious sense can go back to at least the Chola period, according to Andrea Gutierrez, a scholar of Sanskrit and Tamil traditions.

Several texts and inscriptions, talks about it with various spellings, as ponakam, tiruponakam, ponkal, and other related words in early documents. The added variants of the words ponakam and ponkal referres to the festive pongal dish as prasadam or the pongal dish as part of the whole thali (now alankaranaivedya). These were part of the charitable donations, served by free community kitchens in Hindu temples in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, either as festival food or offered to pilgrims daily.

The Four Main Pongal Celebrations

Tamil communities around the globe exclusively celebrate Pongal and particularly in India, as Tamil Nadu considers it a ‘State Festival’. Unlike in Sri Lanka, in Tamil Nadu, Pongal festivities continue in the first four days of the month Thai, including a few celebrations. Below are brief descriptions of the celebrations.

1. Bhogi Pongal

It is the first day of the celebration before the Thai Pongal festival, which is a day of feasting and merriment. It is time for the old materials to give way to the new material. Traditionally, Tamils light large bonfires, and all of the unwanted things in the house are put into the flames. Ritually, Tamils break all old clay utensils and ask potters to supply new stock. With the introduction of plastics and steel, this ritual has taken on particular importance. Furthermore, Tamils get their homes ready with arrangements for the pooja on the next day. They decorate their houses with banana and mango leaves, garlands of flowers and kolam or rangoli.

2. Surya Pongal

Surya Pongal is the day dedicated to the Hindu god Surya, and also known as Suryan Pongal or Perum Pongal. However, Surya Pongal is the second and the most important festival day. It is the first day of the Tamil calendar month Thai, which falls on the same day as Makara Sankranthi, India’s winter harvest festival. As the festival day approaches, every home’s interior is sprayed with turmeric water (which has disinfectant properties). Moreover, the family gathers in front of the main entrance, where a square area on the floor is arranged for them to create a Kolam decoration. This colourful pattern made of coloured rice flour portrays festival-related themes.

Tamils arrange all of the items of the Pongal offering to the Sun, around it ready to offer as the Sunrises, which is why they place it in direct sunlight. Surya Pongal honours the Sun Surya and his two consorts Chaya and Samgnya.

Delectable Pongal Clay Pot

Furthermore, a clay pot is painted and prepared for the vital role it will play in the festivities. Tamils place it on a temporary hearth made of three bricks and place it in the offering area. Also, when the milk in the pot boils over, they add rice, jaggery, raisins, cashew nuts, and mung dhal to make the delectable Pongal and they share it among family and guests.

Preparing Traditional Pongal

The traditional Pongal spread also includes a variety of savoury and sweetmeats such as vadai, murukku, and payasam. Tamils prepare them according to recipes passed down through generations.

Other Devotional Activities

On this day, Tamils sing Pajans along with morning activities (devotional songs), and the rest of the day is spent in unity with family, colleagues, and friends after visiting the Kovil (Temple) where more prayers of thanksgiving take place.

3. Mattu Pongal

This is the second day of Thai Pongal, also known as Patti Pongal. Tamils dedicate this celebration to cattles. Cattles play an important role in agriculture and farming by providing dairy products and fertilizer, as well as lending their power to ploughing and transporting goods by drawing carts. The day acts as an appreciation for their hard work, as well as a request that they continue to do so, throughout the upcoming growing season. Tamils honour these magnificent creatures by adorning their necks with garlands and adding Kungumam (kumkum) to their foreheads. Moreover, Tamils feed them a special festive mixture of venn pongal, sugar, jaggery, banana, and other fruits.

Encounter with Cows and Bulls

Tamils enhance the cow’s beauty in specific ways, by bathing them and painting their horns in bright colours. During the day, friendly contests between the village cows and young men take place. They tie money to the horns of bulls. Later, the young men chase, catch and tame these fierce bulls and take the money. Tamils believe in bringing man and beast together in a spirit of peace and honour.

Spiritual Performance

Additionally, the day is set aside for a ritual visit to local temples and prayers. Temples and societies conduct processions in which idols parade in wooden chariots from the temple’s sanctum. Moreover, drama-dance performances that promote social gatherings and the renewal of social bonds takes place on this day.

4. Kanum Pongal

The fourth and the last day of the festival is Kanum Pongal. Kanum Pongal marks the conclusion of the Pongal festivities for the year. In this sense, the word kanum (kaanum) means, “to visit.” Specifically, on this day, many families get together for reunions. To reinforce shared relations, societies plan social activities. During social gatherings, villagers cut and eat farm-fresh sugarcanes. Moreover, families, acquaintances, and neighbours come to welcome, while children go out to pay respects and seek blessings from seniors among their relatives and neighbours. Some elders give visiting children pocket money as a gift.

Traditions of Thai Pongal

On Thai Pongal, Tamils use kolam or rangoli to beautify homes and places of worship, and families participate in Pongal events. Moreover, their rituals and traditions further enhance the delight of this celebration. Below sections further describe the traditions of ThaiPongal and their significance.  

The Preparation of Pongal

Pongal is the traditional dish of the festival, takes place outside, in a decorated clay pot. Rice, milk, green gram (mung), jaggery, spices, cashew nuts, raisins, and other ingredients are among the requirements of the Pongal dish. Tamils blow a horn called sanggu as the rice begins to cook, and the participants shout pongalo, which means the pot is overflowing. Moreover, they chant the words in Tamil as, ‘Thai pirandhal vazhi pirakkum’. It means the beginning of the month of Thai makes way for new opportunities.

The Sun God; also known as ‘Surya’ receives the first offering. Tamils serve Pongal rice with fruits such as mangoes and bananas. The family would then eat their Pongal on banana leaves using them as plates and share them among relatives, friends, and neighbours. They offer the first dish to the gods and goddesses (Goddess Pongal). Later, they offer it to the cows. Moreover, the entire family gathers to join in the festivities.

Tamils adorn Cows and their horns, perform ceremonial bathing, and conduct processions as part of the festivities. However, this is a time for family members to decorate rice-powder-based kolams, offer prayers at home and in temples and to exchange gifts among family, friends and neighbours.

Unique Pongal Traditions in Sri Lanka

Even though, Sri Lankan Tamil’s origin from India, their tradition and rituals have flavours of their own. To be specific, in Sri Lanka, the way Tamil citizens celebrate Thai Pongal Day is different from how other countries celebrate it. Many Sri Lankan Tamils, keep Thai Pongal as a two-day celebration, and the island has even formed several distinct traditions. Moreover, there are many interesting festivities and scrumptious food to enjoy. The following sections will further prove the unique shades of the Sri Lankan Thai Pongal celebrations in detail!

Food and Beverages

Sri Lankans prepare a sweet rice meal on the first day, dedicated to the sun god, and then consumed by families during festive meals. Tamils boil rice, spices, raisins, cashews, and other ingredients together in milk. Cooking must take place outside in the sunlight, usually on a porch or in a courtyard. They use cooking pots made of clay which has colourful and attractive designs on them. Tamils serve the final dish which can be either sweet or savoury, on banana leaves.

Aside from the festive special Pongal rice, a few more dishes made by the Tamils add flavour to the festival. Out of which are, Kokis; a crispy biscuit made from rice flour and coconut milk, Watalappam; a steamed pudding containing coconut milk, Thala Guli; a dessert made of ground sesame seeds, coconut and jaggery, and milk toffee, another dessert made of condensed milk, cumin, and cashew nuts.

Treating the Cattles

The ritual of honouring the cattle who assist farmers by working in their rice fields, takes place on the second day of the festivities. Besides, cattle who provide labour, are a major source of wealth for many people in Sri Lanka. They provide milk, fertiliser, and transportation. They give the animals a thorough bath. Going beyond, they hang beautiful garlands around their necks and on their horns on this “day of cattle.”

Events and Decorations

Other events include firework shows, traditional songs, and dance. Generally, these get-togethers last well into the night. During Thai Pongal, Sri Lankans can witness particular streets with beautifully decorated homes. Tamil premises decked out with colourful patterns made with coloured rice flour and other products, while decorations on floors are visible with banana and mango tree leaves.

The Bottom Line

Indeed, all the above facts clearly describe that Thai Pongal is a day that Tamils and Hindus celebrate in a beautiful, flavourful and cheerful manner. Moreover, the rich values it brings out surely enhances the splendours of this elegant festival in grand scale. So, by chance, if you are ever planning to arrive on this splendid island, we suggest to you that the month of January, is one of the best times to visit Sri Lanka. Witnessing the delightful festivity of the Thaipongal festival in Sri Lanka, enjoying a plate of sweets and observing the grandeur of the mind-blowing decorations of Tamils will certainly offer you memories of a lifetime. So, what are you waiting for? Take a step ahead, and plan your next vacation in Sri Lanka. Happy and Safe Travelling!