Today is an official Hindu public holiday in Sri Lanka. Thai Pongal is a Tamil Harvest festival celebrated in the first four days of the month called Thai, which is the tenth month in the Tamil-Hindu calendar. Farmers perform pujas with crops at the traditional end of the farming season. This traditional Tamil festival was already known in the Chola Empire 1000 years ago. Among Sri Lankans, this festival is also known as the First rice festival and Ulavar Thirunaal.
Pongal is Tamil and means “boiling over”. Pongal is the welcomed by chantings “Pongalo, Pongal” in the exact moment when a pot of milk and rice abd sweetening sugar cane boils over. Watching the milk boil over is a good omen meaning good luck and prosperity. This ritual, which is an offering to Mother Earth, is done in the open.
The festival is also celebrated in southern India, where it is a four days festival. Because it is part of the Tamil calendar, Pongal is the only festival of Hindus following a solar calendar, it is on the 14th or the 15th January each year. Pongal has astronomical significance, it marks the six months period of the Sun’s northward movement, which is one long day for celestial beings.
In Sri Lanka, the festival is celebrated mostly be the Tamil communities in the North and East and in the central highlands’ tea plantation areas. Before sunrise, the women draw intricate mandalas with rice flour, silk and coloured powders outside their doors. These drawings are called Kolam in Tamil. The perimeters of these Kolams, decorated with flowers, are the place where firewood will be used to cook the rice in new pots. This ceremony is called Surya Pongal, Surya being the Sun God. In Sri Lanka, this and the following day’s Mattu Pongal for the cattle are celebrated. The second day is dedicated to the oxen assisting farmers in the rice fields.
Many legends related to Hindu deities are associated with Pongal celebrations. Once, Lord Shiva asked his bull Nandi to descend to earth and tell humans to have an oil bath daily and eat food once a month. But, Nandi confused it and told the people to eat daily and bathe monthly. Shiva was annoyed and decided, that now that people need to eat more, Nandi had to stay on earth to help them to plough their fields. Also the lifting of Mount Govardhana by Krishna in order to protect his followers against the wrath of Indra, is commemorated on this day. This Vishnuite myth is connected to cattle, too.
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