Wednesday, 15 January 2003  
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First rice festival - Thai Pongal

by Derrick Schokman

Nine-tenths of all rice grown in the world comes from Asia. Although different countries in Asia may have different cultures, rice is a common denominator in that it is both a staple food and an inheritance in which deities figure prominently.

In Japan these deities are symbolised as bales of harvested stalks that are venerated after the reaping. Korean farmers keep a small jar of rice and worship it as a household god. In Burma (Myanmar), Java and Malaysia the first harvested ears are offered to the Sun God Suriya. In South India and Sri Lanka Tamil farmers honour the Sun God Suriyapakaran.

This happens when the sun enters the zodiac sign of Capricorn (Makara). Although the real solstice falls on 21 December, the Thai Pongal festival is celebrated in mid-January, or the Tamil month of Thai, to coincide with the rice harvest.

Pongal refers to boiling rice in a pot for consumption. The sun gives life to the rice. The instruments of this transmutation are the pot and the oxen who assist the farmers in preparing the rice fields and threshing the grains.

Two days

The festival is accordingly celebrated over two days. The first day is devoted to the boiling of milk in a pot to which rice, jaggery and the syrup extracted from crushed sugar cane is added. This sweet rice pudding is offered first to the Sun God, and is then eaten at the climax of a family festive meal.

The second day is dedicated to the oxen who assist the farmers in the rice fields. It is called Mattu (cattle) Pongal. The animals are washed and decorated with straw garlands hung around their necks and horns.

In some instances, quite often in Tamil Nadu, the foreheads and horns of the animals are brightly painted. And the cattle are provided with special foods and given special poojas (offerings) for their faithful assistance.


Originally celebrated almost exclusively by the Tamil farming community, Thai Pongal has now become an important festival even among non-farming Hindu communities in towns and urban areas, who would like to let some 'sunshine' into their lives. They like to make a fresh start in the new year. Thai Pongal is the first festival in the calendar year and gives them the opportunity to do so in a traditional manner.

Houses are cleaned and decorated. People buy new clothes. They get married - it is considered a good time astrologically to do so. There is generally an air of joy and festivity.

Why not - Happy Thai Pongal!


Thai Pongal. Thai, the first month of the Tamil Almanac, beginning on January 13/14. Pongol, a dish of sweet concoction of rice, Moong Dal, jaggery and milk.

Thai Pongal, the merriest and may be, the most popular Hindu festival of India and Sri Lanka, a harvest festival and a feast of thanksgiving to the Sun God, the God known to all the living, and the giver of plentiful harvest. In India where the majority are farmers, this rural festival is the celebration of the withdrawal of Southeast Monsoons and reaping of a joyful harvest.

Pongal has many legends. The most popular is that Lord Krishna lifted the Govardhan Mountain on his little finger to save his people from being washed away by the rains and floods. Another says that Lord Shiva asked his bull, Nandi, to go to earth and tell the people to have an oil bath daily and have food once a month. But, Nandi got it all mixed up and told the people to eat daily and bathe monthly.

Shiva was annoyed and said,"Now that people need to eat more, you stay on earth and help them plough the fields more!" Thai Pongal is family-oriented and the day begins with the boiling of a clay pot of Pongol rice at sunrise in the front of the house as the family delightfully cries out, "Pongal! Pongal! auchu!" which means, "It's boiling! It's boiling!"

Pongal is a three to four day festival. The first, "Bhogi Pongol" is a day for the family. Homes are washed, decorated, doorways painted with vermillion and sandalwood paste with colourful garlands of leaves and flowers decorating the home exteriors. This day, "Bhogi", the Rain God, is worshipped.

The place where the Pongal Puja is to be conducted, generally an open court yard, is cleaned and smeared with cow dung, a day before the festival.

The second, "Surya Pongal" is dedicated to the worship of Sun God. In the third, "Mattu Pongol", the descendants of Nandi, cattle which help to produce the life-sustaining rice are honoured by them being bathed and gaily caparisoned with beads, bells, flowers and coloured powder. The horns are capped with gleaming metals.

People from the entire village get together for a community feast to share their crops and thank those who lent a hand to bring in a successful harvest. The fourth day which is observed in some parts is generally a day of rest.

"Kolams" (Rangoli) marks the dawn of Thai Pongal in front yards of houses, drawn with rice flour paste. The idea is that ants and insects would feed on it and bless the house. At its centre is a lump of cow dung, holding a five-petal pumpkin flower, a symbol of fertility and an offering of love to the presiding deity.

In Madurai, Tanjore and Tiruchirrapalli, bundles of money are tied to the horns of fierce bulls and villagers have fun, pitting their strength to wrest the bundles away from them.

Though deprived of the open spaces of the village, the urban people also celebrate Thai pongal with the same gusto and spirit.

Thai dawns to pave the way for hope

Overjoyed and praises to God for the abundant Pongal boiling over Pictures by Renuka Alwis

by Therese Douglas

The new month, - the first day of Thai - January is significant for Tamil Hindus. Today is the 10th month in the Tamil calendar and a renewal of hopes and expectations arise within this community. The day is known as Thai Pongal for Tamil Hindus not only in Sri Lanka and India, but in whichever place they are settled in.

This year 2003 is sure to keep them radiant with peace and content surrounding their spheres.

Some Tamils just pointed out in various forms of dialect the same theme: They feel that the noise of war and the fretful fever of living with violence is eased.

"May life start anew with the celebration of Thai Pongal". They feel that their breathing space is free from terror. And it is a blessing.

They believe in the famous Tamil saying - "Thai Pirendhal Vilzhi Pirakum" - which means when the month of Thai January dawns - it paves the way of hopes. The word Pongal means boil to overflow. Thereby the main food preparation on this Thai day is called pongal.

There needn't be a religion or a community to celebrate a festival. Anyone can celebrate any event. The Tamils we met had also to point this out and say further that this year they can share the event with everyone more openly and gladly. They feel more motivated and drawn closer to the whole nation.

Decor for the festival and a meal for the ants - Kollam (Rangoli)

What causes the beginning and tradition of this event is the reaping of a bountiful harvest and celebrating the success is significant among Tamil Hindus who depended mainly on agriculture and farming. The abundant yield is associated as a result of the good weather and the Sun's energy.

Thus the first grains gathered are cooked in milk and honey, and offered to the Sun who is considered the God of light and energy as homage and in thanksgiving.

Even though the mid-April is the beginning of a new year January or Thai is accepted as the onset of the year's plentitude in rice harvest.

These acts of thanksgivings to mother nature continue with festivities for the next few days too. They do not stop with the honour to the Sun but go further. The Pongal is cooked on a new hearth, every item in a new earthen pot, with firewood and placed facing the direction where the sunlight would fall. The fresh milk boils and is made to overflow by the head of the household in the presence of all inmates of the house.

Then the newly cleaned rice and honey or jaggery is added. Salt is not used in this preparation.

Connected to the event is the tribute to the cattle, the cow for it supply of milk and the rest for their help in the field. Decor outside the main entrance to the homes are made with rice flour which is called Kollum.

It has a variety of shapes for beautification but the whole idea is to feed the ants who feed on the rice flour.

Just as Thai Pongal ushers in with newness from nature, let everyone rise to the newness of life.

With the goodwill of the state and the people leading the nation, let there be a unity as a family binding us all together.

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