Tamil Thai Pongal Day is a Tamil and Hindu harvest festival designed to give thanks to the sun god for the abundant harvest that he is believed to enable.
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In India, the holiday stretches across four full days, but in Sri Lanka, most only celebrate it for one or two days. Thai Pongal falls on the first day of the month of Thai on the Tamil traditional calendar, which normally lands in somewhere between January 13th and 16th on the Western calendar. The festival, which involves feasting, visiting relatives, and giving out gifts, is one of the most cherished of all Tamil holidays and has been celebrated for at least 1,000 years.
Tamil Thai Pongal marks the beginning of the six-month period during which the sun moves northward relative to the Equator. It also is the day on which the sun is thought to enter the “tenth house” on its path along the Hindu zodiac.
Many Sri Lankans keep Thai Pongal as a two-day celebration. On the first day, a sweet rice meal is made, dedicated to the sun god, and then consumed by families in festive meals. The rice is boiled in milk, along with spices, raisins, cashews, and various other ingredients. The cooking must be done outside in the sunlight, and is normally done on a porch or in a courtyard. The cooking pot is made of clay and is decorated with colourful patterns. The final product is served up on banana leaves and can be either very sweet or very savoury.
Also note that, when the rice first begins to boil, a horn called a “sanggu” is blown while other participants shout out “Pongalo Pongal!” to indicate the pot is “overflowing.” They also will chant the words “Thai pirandhal vazhi pirakkum,” meaning “The beginning of the month of Thai makes way for new opportunities.”
On the second day of festivities, the oxen who help farmers work their rice fields are honoured. Cattle are also a major source of wealth to many in Sri Lanka since they provide milk, fertiliser, and transportation besides just labour. On this “day of cattle,” the animals are given a thorough bath, and beautiful garlands are hung about their necks and on their horns. The oxen are also marked on their foreheads and horns with decorative dyes.
Should you choose to travel in Sri Lanka around Tamil Thai Pongal Day, there will be much to do. Below are three activities that many will want to take part in:
- Attend “official festivities” in various parts of Sri Lanka, which will include things like fireworks displays and traditional song and dance, besides the religious eating of “sticky rice.” These celebrations often continue long into the night.
- Tour the streets to see the beautifully decorated homes of celebrants. Banana and mango tree leaves will adorn the premises, while floors will be decked out with colourful patterns made with colorued rice flour and other items. Doorsteps also may have such patterns displayed on them. If you can befriend a local Tamil, see if he will let you come inside his house to see the decorations that can’t be viewed from the outside.
- Dine on some genuine Sri Lankan cuisine. Besides the “festive pongal rice,” you may wish to try curries of chicken, beef, goat, or other meats; pickled fruits and vegetables; “kokis,” a crispy biscuit made from rice flour and coconut milk; “watalappam,” a steamed pudding containing coconut milk; “thala guli,” a dessert made of ground sesame seeds, coconut meat, and jaggery; and “kiri toffee,” another dessert made of condensed milk, cumin, and cashew nuts.
Sri Lankan culture is similar to that of parts of India, but the island has also developed many unique traditions. You will find that the way its people keep Tamil Thai Pongal Day is different than in other countries that celebrate it and will find there are many interesting festivities and delicious foods to enjoy.