Uttarayana is for enlightenment, which begins with the Winter Solstice is a period of harvest. The Sun’s run in relation to planet Earth will shift from the southern run to the northern run – from Dakshinayana to Uttarayana. By the third week in December, the sun is over the Tropic of Capricorn. From that day the sun will slowly, shift to the north. Particularly, the first half of Uttarayana until the equinox in March is a period where the maximum amount of grace is available and history clearly indicates that the maximum number of people have attained in this phase of the sun in the Northern Hemisphere. Gautama Buddha attained on the third full moon day after Uttarayana. This is the period of receptivity, of grace and enlightenment, of attainment of the ultimate. This is the time to harvest, and it is also the reason agricultural harvests begin during this period. Thai Pongal is a harvest festival celebrated by the whole Tamil population in the world without any differences. This festival is celebrated by one and all as it is non-relevance to any particular religious faith. It is the first day of Thai, which is the first month of the Tamil Almanac and normally falls in the middle of January in the Gregorian calendar. The festival of Thai Pongal is a thanks giving ceremony in which the farmers celebrate the event to thank the spirits of nature, 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. Overall, it is a festival to encourage social cohesiveness and unite people by bringing them together in a common function. As Thai Pongal is the harvest festival, in addition to harvesting food grains, it is also the time to harvest human potential.
Village Customs & Celebrations
Traditionally on Thai Pongal Day, I remember as a youth at home in Moolai a small village in Jaffna, 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 center court yard (muttram) to cook the traditional Pongal (rice pudding), a sweet dish made up of rice, chakkarai (brown cane sugar) or katkandu (sugar candy), milk (cow’s milk or coconut milk), roasted payaru (green gram), raisins, cashew nuts and few pods of cardamom.
A flat square area exposed to the direct sun light is selected in the center court yard and pre-prepared by my younger sisters for the ceremonious cooking by cleaning and decorating with kolam drawings. Then younger brother sets up a fire wood hearth using sand base and three bricks. The cooking begins early in the morning by father putting a clay pot half filled with cup of milk and water on the hearth. Father conducts the cooking with mother dutifully assisting him, while others watch the event. When the milky water boils over father ceremoniously put three handful of the rice and roasted payaru into the pot and then mother puts the rest into the pot and takes over the cooking. Sisters get the other ingredients ready; these are crushed chakkarai, raisins, chopped cashew nuts and few pods of cardamom.
When the meal is ready, first offering is made with a scoop of pongal spread out on a banana leaf with home grown fruits like pealed banana, cut mango, split wood apple, jack fruit slices, bars of sugar cane and fresh cut coconut juice all laid in a tray on the flat square pitch. Then the father light the oil lamp and the family together pray to the Sun for few minutes to thank the nature spirit and farmers.
Then the ‘Pongal’ is served among the family members and helpers. Later it will be shared with neighbors, calling over friends and relatives. Although every household makes the food, sharing each other’s ‘Pongal’ is the one of the important features of the event. The evenings are spent attending cultural events at the local hall or visiting relatives and friends. The same pattern was followed when I moved in with my family latter in life, in addition children participated in the cultural events of the day.
In Sri Lankan Urban Areas and Overseas
When we moved to Colombo like the rest of us living in urban areas, Thai Pongal has long become a festival holiday to celebrate with family and friends in January, just after the holiday season of December. In urban cities it is not celebrated in the same way as our ancestors did in rural villages, particularly with all the outdoor events. Thai Pongal in urban areas differs from that of villages due restricted space and by the absence of farmers and cattle. As it is a Public Holiday the whole family would be at home and Pongal is prepared with the same ingredients, but in the kitchen. When the meal is ready an offering is first served with banana and fresh curd on a plate, taken to the prayer room, oil lamp lit and the family prays for few minutes to thank the nature sprit and farmers. Then the ‘Pongal’ is served among the family and shared with neighbors. The evenings are spent watching cultural events on TV channels or visiting relatives and friends. When we lived overseas, there was no holiday for Pongal Festival, it was just another day, where we cook the Pongal consume it with the family at breakfast and then get on with normal chores like any other day.
The day after the Thai Pongal is called Mattu Pongal and in the villages devoted to thanksgiving to cattle. The farmers pay great attention to the animals which have ploughed the fields and drawn the carts throughout the year. We had a herd of cattles at home in Moolai and when I was young with my brothers to show our gratitude for the invaluable service the animals are bathed, their foreheads are smeared with turmeric and kumkum with their necks adorned with colorful garlands. Mother cooks the Pongal and offers it to them. In the afternoon people from cluster of villages gather at an open area in Ponnalai to watch cattle races, and in some instances cart races. Mattu Pongal is non-event in urban areas or overseas.