Surya Ponggal on the first day of the month of Thai
Significance of the first day of ‘Thai’
When the sun enters the zodiacal sign of Capricorn (Mahara raasi), the tenth month of the Tamil Calendar, Thai, begins; hence the first day of the month of Thai is called Mahara Sangraandhi. It means ‘the movement (entry) of sun into the zodiacal sign of Capricorn’; ‘Maharam’ is the Tamil equivalent of Capricorn. It is on this day, that the sun, which has been on its southward journey toward Tropic of Capricorn (Mahara Raehai), begins its northward journey towards Tropic of Cancer (Katkadaha Raehai). It can be seen that the first day of the month of Thai has its significance, from both geographical and religious points of views. For Hindus the northern and eastern directions are auspicious.
Apart from these credits, the first day of Thai is also very significant from the social point of view. In India, especially in the South, most of the harvest is completed before the birth of Thai. Farmers, who have been toiling the whole year, see the fruits of their hard work. The farmer never fails in his gratitude, even in the midst of his delight.
He celebrates the auspicious first day of Thai as a thanksgiving day to all aspects of nature which contributed toward his successful harvest. He thanks the rain, the sun and, the cows and bulls for their aid in his farming profession. How does he thank them? He uses the things from the fresh harvest to cook sweet rice in a new pot and first offers it to the sun and the cow, before he starts using the harvest products for him and his family.
Significance of the term ‘Ponggal’ and a brief procedure of making the Ponggal
The milk becomes bubbly when it is being cooked; ‘ponggal’ means effervescence. According to dictionary, the word ‘effervescent’ means ‘giving off bubbles’ (for liquids), and ‘lively and enthusiastic’ (for a person). Therefore, the sweet rice which is made with milk and brown sugar is called ‘sarkkarai ponggal’; ‘sarkkarai’ means brown sugar. When the milk bubbles up to the brim of the pot, and is on the verge of spilling over, it is customary to shout ‘ponggalo ponggal’. Hence, the thanksgiving festival has been named ‘Ponggal’; as it is celebrated on the first day of ‘Thai’, it is specified as ‘Thai Ponggal’.
The ponggal is cooked in open air, usually in the compound outside one’s house, as it is an offering of thanks to the sun. In villages all residents do their individual ponggal, concurrently in an open space; this nurtures the feeling of togetherness and goodwill among them.
The word ‘ponggal’ is also indicative of ‘abundance’, ‘fertility’ and ‘excellence’. Therefore, as he thanks the sun for its help in the previous cultivation, the farmer also prays for the blessings of god and the agents of nature, for a continuous and stable livelihood on earth. In the early morning hours, people purify themselves with a bath, wear new clothes and in their courtyards, set out the items for the ponggal. A large square generally drawn with double straight lines with openings on all sides to allow movement in and out of it; it is drawn with rice flour; bananas, other sweets and savoury already prepared, milk, objects needed for prayer and various other auspicious items are set up.
Prior to this, ‘niRaikudam’ will be set up and a kolam will be drawn at the entrance of the house. Another ‘niRaikudam’ will be set up within the square; usually, within the square, one ‘kutthuvilakku’ will be used along with the kumbam, due to constraint of place. Within the square, which can be called a ‘mandalam’(=zone), a coconut is broken, before placing the clay pot filled with the right amount of water on the hearth; ‘thoobam’ and ‘theebam’ are waved in front of it.The hearth is made with three new bricks. Even in these days of gas cookers and rice cookers, people as much as possible try to adhere to the tradition of a brick hearth lighted with firewood. Five, seven or nine mango leaves, hung on a string (ideally a metallic wire) are tied around the neck of the pot. Ginger leaves are also used along with the mango leaves. Sugar cane plants are also used to enhance the environment. Sugar cane juice is generally used along with brown sugar to sweeten the rice. As sunrise begins, the cow’s milk is poured in and set to boil. There is jubilation when it boils over in its symbolic prosperity. People shout ‘Ponggalo ponggal’ as this happens, to mark their elation.
Next, the rice, that has been set aside for the Sun from the very first grains harvested, is poured in prayerfully, first by the head of the family and then by the rest of the family. The rice should be rinsed earlier; fried split green peas are also mixed with the rice. This is not a simple cooking expedition, the spirit of thanksgiving is paramount and so the rice is not just dumped or scooped in. It is reverentially poured in, i.e., we scoop the rice with both our palms and take it around the mouth of the pot in a clockwise direction and gently pour the rice into the pot, praying to God; we move our palms around the pot’s mouth three times. This milk-rice preparation is further garnished and sweetened with jaggery (which gives it, its brown colour), raisins and cashew nuts. Raisins and cashew nuts are fried in ghee before adding them to the ‘ponggal’.
When it is ready, it is scooped onto banana leaves (which were traditionally used as plates and still is) and, with the other fruits and sweets added, offered to the Sun God, who would by now be near his zenith. We perform the normal prayers at this junction. ‘Thoobam’ and ‘theebam’ are waved in front of the pot and the offering; we pray to the sun. Usually, if it is celebrated as a family, this is followed by a prayer at the home altar, after which everybody eats the sweet rice and socializes around. If a few families gather together in one’s house and do the ponggal, prayer at the ponggal area will be sufficient.
The antiquity of Ponggal
Ponggal is celebrated by the Indian state of Tamil Nadu as well as Tamils worldwide, including those in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Mauritius, South Africa, USA, Canada and Singapore. The festival is at least 1000 years old although some believe that the festival is more than 2000 years old. As per epigraphic evidence, it used to be celebrated as Puthiyeedu during Medieval Chola empire days. It is thought that Puthiyeedu meant the first harvest of the year. Tamils refer to Ponggal as “Tamil(z)har Thirunaal” (meaning “the festival of Tamils”). This festival originated in Tamil Nadu. The saying “Thai Pirandhaal Val(z)hi Pirakkum” (தைபிறந்தால்வழிபிறக்கும்) meaning “the birth of the month of Thai will pave the way for new opportunities” is often quoted regarding the Ponggal festival. (cf.http://religion.wikia.com/wiki/Thai_Pongal).
When does the month of Thai occur?
It is a known fact to all of us that the month of Thai occurs during the period, mid-January to mid-February. The month of Thai starts on the 12th, 13th, 14th or 15th day of January. It is ideal to have the cooking of the ponggal in the morning, as it is a thanks offering to the sun.
Ponggal celebrations stretch for four days!
So far we have seen some pertinent facts about the most important day of the ponggal celebrations. Nowadays, we, who live in urban areas, are contended with a one-day celebration. Nevertheless, Ponggal festival spans for four days. The celebration starts on the eve of Thai Ponggal; in other words, the festival starts on the last day of the Tamil month, Maarhal(z)i and ends on the third day of the month of Thai. Let us have a brief look at the celebrations that take place on the other three days.
The eve of Thai Ponggal (Surya ponggal), is called Bhogi Pandihai. Bhogi indicates Indra, who had been considered as the rain god during the Vedic period. The Tamil epic, Silappadhihaaram speaks about the festival of Indra being celebrated elaborately for almost a month. Currently, Bhogi, is celebrated by throwing away and destroying old clothes and materials, by setting fire to them. As the next day, the first day of Thai, is Thai Ponggal, on the day of Bhogi Ponggal, people get ready for a new beginning by sprucing up their houses and yards and making a bonfire of the refuse collected. They symbolically offer all their existing resentments, unhappiness and angers into the fire as well. The next day is to be a joyous one where the first grains of their staple crop of rice, successfully harvested, will be offered as thanksgiving to Sun.
The day after the Surya Ponggal, is known as Maattu Pongal. On this day,the cattle who worked alongside the farmers, helping them in various ways, are honoured. The cattle are bathed, garlanded and worshiped. The cattle are decorated with paint, flowers and bells. Some people decorate the horns with gold or other metallic covers. The cattle are given the first offerings of the ponggal and fruits, prepared for that day. The cattle are allowed to roam free on the day of Maattu Ponggal. In some places, Jallikattu, or the contest of ‘taming the wild bull’ is the main event of this day and this is mostly seen in the villages.
Kaanum Ponggal (or Kanni Ponggal)
The fourth day (the third day of Thai) is known as Kaanum Ponggal. During the final day, Kaanum Pongal (the word, kaanum, means “to view”/ “ to see”) people visit their relatives and friends to enjoy the festive season, but in the cities this day is synonymous with people flocking to beaches and theme parks to have a day out with their families.
The author of the book, “Thamil(z)ar Pandihaihalum Panpaadum”, Najan, gives some interesting accounts about the celebrations of the last day. He notes that, the Ponggal festival is an occasion where the landlords and the farmers pray together the Sun-god, and the landlords give gifts to the farmers on the third day of the month of Thai.The farmers go and ‘see’ their landlords on this day to get their gifts; hence the name ‘kanum ponggal’.
The author has one other interesting information about the last day. He says that the last day is also called, ‘kanni ponggal’; ‘kanni’ denotes ‘a girl’. On the fourth day, young girls go to the riverside in groups, dancing all their way. At the riverside, they play and do the dance known as ‘kummi’; later they cook a kind of ponggal and offer it to the river; then they eat and return to their homes in the evening. Women place rice mixed with lime (chunnaambu) and turmeric (manjal) on a turmeric leaf along with some white rice and offer it to the crow, wishing for the welfare of their male siblings. It reminds us of the holy festival of North India.
Najan notes that the rivers assist the farmers, when the rains fail them. The rivers are referred to as ‘young sakthis’ by Hindu people. Therefore, ‘kanni ponggal’ seems to acknowledge the significance of rivers.
The words of Bahirathy Jeeweshwara Rasanen, senior lecturer and Head of the Department of Sociology, Jaffna University may be apt to conclude this article: “The festival of Thai Ponggal epitomizes the universal value of thanksgiving, to those who produce food as well as those who assist in it. As a festival of the Tamils, it upholds the cultural identity of a community, which is in a constant state of flux in this age of globalization. It also serves a purpose in rejuvenating as well as maintaining their cultural identity through several generations. And though primarily a celebration of farmers’ harvests, the fact that all other members of the community celebrate it too, irrespective of class or caste, serve to promote intra-cultural cohesion. As a celebration it brings together family and friends in a spirit of thanksgiving and happiness, thus uniting the community psychologically.”
Though Thai Ponggal celebrations are closely tied with the farming community, people of all kinds of professions ought to observe the Ponggal festival because, all should thank the natural agents and God for helping the farmer to have a good harvest; if the farmers do not get abundant produce from his farm, we too may have to starve!
Although the four days are generally celebrated by the Tamils of South India, only Thai ponggal is celebrated by most of the Tamil people to a significant extent. People who own cattle celebrate the ‘mattu ponggal’ too; but ‘bhogi ponggal’ and ‘kaanum ponggal’ are generally not celebrated by the majority. ‘Thai ponggal’ however, is universally celebrated by Tamils everywhere, whichever part of the globalised village they might now find themselves in.
Prepared by: Dr.K.Thilagawathi
Image by: Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai