“Pongalo- Pongal!” they cry with joy as the pongal boils over the earthen pot. It is high time to thank Sun God (Suryan) for his abundance! “Pongal”’ literally suggesting “boiling over” is considered a harvest festival celebrated during the most auspicious month of Thai- January, marking the beginning of the northward journey of the sun [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Beginning a prosperous season

Not just a festival for farmers, Thai Pongal is a time to celebrate all kinds of blessings

“Pongalo- Pongal!” they cry with joy as the pongal boils over the earthen pot. It is high time to thank Sun God (Suryan) for his abundance! “Pongal”’ literally suggesting “boiling over” is considered a harvest festival celebrated during the most auspicious month of Thai- January, marking the beginning of the northward journey of the sun from its southernmost limit. Traditionally referred to as “Uthuranayana”, Hindus in Sri Lanka and in the Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry celebrate Thai Pongal in thanksgiving for the harvest marking the beginning of a prosperous season.

Thai Pongal as everyone knows starts off with the boiling of milk that should bubble over the brim of the pot just as the sun’s first rays grace the horizon.

“Unfortunately in the present very few people actually boil the milk outdoors,” observes a Trustee of the Sri Ponnambala Vaneswara temple in Kotahena, given that they live in flats or simply because it isn’t very practical to cook over a wood fire in small spaces.
Drawing its roots from being a harvest festival, which it still remains today many aspects of agriculture are paid homage to on Thai Pongal. “The most important part of it are the cow and the bull,” says the Trustee. “That is why even the milk we boil is cow’s milk,” he explained.

Hindu priest and religious advisor currently at the same temple S. Kuhanantha Sarma explained that the festival is not only for farmers. This harvest festival celebrates all kinds of blessings including talents, he says. “This is why singers and dancers offer their talents to the Sun God on this auspicious day by performing. Even in our temple the youngsters organise this and they start singing from sunrise,” he smiles.

According to astrologer Jothi of the Sri Vishnu Temple, Dehiwala, one year of the Hindu calendar is determined in terms of the movement of the sun. According to their beliefs the sun travels in two directions during the year. “Uthuranayana” is when the sun moves northward. “This is usually from January 14 to about June 14,” he explains. The period of “uthuranayana” is considered an auspicious time for the people. The period from June 14 to January 14 on the other hand known as “dakshinayana” is deemed as inauspicious and unfavourable for the carrying out of activities.

Thai Pongal celebrations last year

Generally women are seen as personifying the goddess Laxmi in a Hindu household – “meaning they are supposed to reflect prosperity” says the Trustee of the Sri Ponambala Vanesvara Temple. This is why according to him it is the women who wake up early and after ceremoniously adorning themselves with fresh flowers in their hair and holy ash on their foreheads, go about the preparations to greet the sunrise on Thai Pongal.

Kuhanantha Sarma explains that once the pongal is cooked the celebratory rice is first spilled on the floor by the lady of the house. “This is because even though we worship the sun we live on the earth and must not forget it.” The lady of the house by spilling some pongal on the ground venerates the ‘poomadevi’ or Mother Earth. It is only after this that the head of the household scoops out the pongal rice three times on a banana leaf that points north- yet again acknowledging the changing course of the sun and along with other fruits offers it to the Sun God. It is only after this that the family consumes it.

Only after all these rituals have been done at home, do the people go to the temple.

Given that the female species is the personification of prosperity in Hindu belief, even the temple leads the cow first and then the bull towards the ‘palli arai’ or resting room of the gods. “The statues of Lord Shiva and his wife Goddess Parvati are moved into the resting room for the night usually and on Thai Pongal they are awoken in the presence of the cow and the bull,” he shared. This was because of purification that is associated with cows.

The holy status attached to the bull stems from the belief that Lord Shiva’s mode of transport is in fact a bull and according to the trustee “Even in the temple usually the statue of a bull is placed opposite the statue of Shiva, and the worshippers have to first ask the bull’s permission to worship Siva.”

Further celebrating the cow a special ceremony called the Komaja Pooja is performed in veneration of the cow. Kuhanantha Sarma says, “There is a special pooja done using five elements of the cow for purity because we believe everything relating to the cow is in fact pure.” The special ceremony is called “panchagavya” and uses cow dung, milk, curd and ghee to name a few. This is usually done after all the ceremonies performed in temples to purify the premises.

Kuhanantha Sarma also shared many of the practices followed as customs today were mainly for the purpose of cleanliness be it cooking the pongal rice in a new clay hearth or using new aluminium pans. The day before pongal is when old utensils are thrown out and a sort of “spring cleaning” of homes and holy premises take place. The sprinkling of saffron water all over the house and tying of mango leaves at the entrance are also rituals of purification followed on this auspicious day.

While Thai Pongal is a celebration and thanksgiving to the Sun God, the following day ushers in yet another festival of thanksgiving; this time to the sacred cow. The morning of Mattu Pongal sees the cows and bulls bathed, garlanded and fed well. In India the annual jallikattu festival takes place in Tamil Nadu with sports such as bull taming. Jallikattu festival is where garlands of money are put around the cow. According to Kuhanantha Sarma before the war “Jaffna too had bull races for Pongal and people from all parts of the country went to watch them.”

Hindus all over the country will celebrate Thai Pongal
on Tuesday.

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