January is a special and auspicious month for Tamils all over the world as they celebrate ‘Thai pongal’, a festival where farmers take the center stage.
Though the celebrations spans several days in many countries, Sri Lankan Tamils celebrate the occasion only on January 14.
People conduct special poojas for the sun and for the cattle which help plough the land as a way of thanking them for the abundant harvest.
For generations this event has been commemorated in Tamil Nadu, India, Sri Lanka and many countries where Tamils live.
Though Sri Lanka only celebrates the event on January 14, Pongal is celebrated from January 14 to 16 in Tamil Nadu and several other countries. It is also known as ‘Thamizhar thirunaal’, which translates as festival of Tamils.
The first day of the celebrations, January 14, correspond to the last day of Margazhi (December) while the last day (January 16) corresponds to the first day of Thai (January) in the Tamil calendar.
The celebration is not complete without a pongal dish, which is basically sweetened milk rice. Every household would look forward to it. The making of the dish itself is a grand affair. The ingredients include jaggery, cardamom, raisins, cashew nuts, and sometimes green gram.
The word pongal is derived from the manner in which the dish is cooked. It is cooked in a clay pot. The porch of a house is decorated with coloured patterns called kolam. A clay pot is placed at the centre of the design and lit.
Pongal signifies the boiling over of the milk that is in the pot.
Maattu pongal though not celebrated in Sri Lanka, is very popular in Tamil Nadu. It is celebrated the day after Thai Pongal.
The day is commemorated to recognize the role played by the cattle during farming and harvesting. For Tamils, cattle are special. Cows are revered and worshipped. Traditionally, cattle are regarded by Tamils as sources of wealth. Hence, they get a special recognition during pongal by a day specially dedicated to them.
In addition, as far as farming is concerned, cattle also provide dairy products, fertilizer, and are also used as labour for ploughing and for transportation.
Even though they may have been replaced by tractors and chemical fertilizers, Tamils continue to revere them during pongal.
The celebration also includes many sports that have been conducted and staged for generations.
Recently there has been an uproar in Tamil Nadu for banning jallikkattu where men try to tame a bull which is on a rampage. The Indian Supreme Court banned the event citing several aspects including animal torture, and safety.
However, the ban had triggered negative reactions from the majority of Tamil Nadu who have said it was unfair to ban a traditional event.
While people continue to observe the traditional rituals when celebrating Thai pongal, it is also a day that is eagerly awaited by Tamil movie buffs worldwide.
Today, Pongal is also one of the festivities that are targeted by the Indian Tamil movie producers to release their films.
There are those who go to temple during the early hours of this day, and there are those who queue up outside theatres to get the tickets for the movie of their favourite stars.
Sadly, Sri Lanka too is slowly catching up on the movie craze. A drive along the theatres in wee hours of the morning would tell you how much the fans anticipate the release of a movie.
Like other festivities, this too has somewhat become a victim of the commercial rush.