The sacred day of Thai Pongal, the first day of the Tamil month Thai, in the middle of January, is the most important festival of the Tamils. It is a festival that bestows a national identity to the Tamils. It also transcends religious barriers.
Importantly, this festival is not governed by the taboos regarding defilement associated with birth and death. In Tirunelveli district, for instance, the Thai Pongal rituals are performed in a house even if a death occurs on the day of the festival. The body is removed and the house is quickly cleaned. On the day of Pongal, vegetables and tubers are prominent among the foods offered to the favourite gods after lighting the ceremonial lamps. These include the tubers (yam, taro and edible palmyra root) proscribed since time immemorial by brahmins and in major temples. Clearly, Thai Pongal is a festival that is a part apart from brahminical culture.
Close to Thai Pongal is another festival of nature — the Siruveettu Pongal, or Small-Home Pongal. At dawn, every day during the winter month of Margazhi, households in the southern districts ritually sprinkle water on the floor of the front yard, draw a kolam there and place flower-bedecked cow dung balls on the ground. This floral ritual is not practised by every household, but only in houses in which young girls live. Peerkku (ribbed gourd), poosani (pumpkin), sembaruthi (hibiscus), and ekkalam (datura) are the flowers usually offered. These flowers, plucked fresh in the morning, are kept in front of the house on small balls of cow dung, and they are allowed to dry in the sunlight. They are then mixed with cow dung balls to make manure which is also sun-dried.
A special dish of pongal — a rice–jaggery–dal kichdi — is prepared in the houses where flowers are placed in the front yard. This must be done before Thaipoosam, which follows Siruveettu Pongal in eight to 15 days. As the floral deposit is meant specially for girls, a small clay house of maximum 5×5 feet is built for them within the house or in the mutram (courtyard). This Small-Home Pongal ritual is observed in front of the clay house built especially for this rather than in front of the actual house. Once the pongal is made and the offering before the ceremonial lamps is completed, the pongal and the plates of flower-decked manure are carried by the girls to nearby waterbodies and let into the water. It is also customary to burn camphor on betel leaves placed on the manure plates.
We know of the Margazhi neeradal that Andal’s Thiruppavai describes. This involves paying homage to the lord every morning in the month of Margazhi after taking a holy dip in the local pond or river. Sangam literature, however, refers only to Thai neeradal. (Thai is the month that follows the cold month of Margazhi.) A song in the Paripadal says: ‘O, River Vaigai, haven’t you rejoiced at the sight of young maidens with their mothers bathing in the month of Thai?’
The scholar Mu Raghavaiyangar (1878–1960) has written a long essay on Thai neeradal, but he does not say anything about the practice of the floral and pongal rituals performed before the front doorstep during the month of Margazhi. Andal’s Thiruppavainonbu (ceremonial fasting) starts not on the first day of Margazhi, but on the day of the full moon of that month and concludes on the full moon day of Thai or Thaipoosam day. It is the occasion for partaking of a pongal made of milk and ghee. Like Margazhi neeradal, Thai neeradal is also regarded as belonging solely to girls and women. The conclusion we may draw is that Tamil Vaishnavism appropriated the custom of girls observing the old ritual of building little houses, fasting, and offering pongal to the deity starting on the full moon day of Margazhi and concluding on the full moon day of Thai, and converted it into what’s now called the Margazhi neeraattu ritual.
Andal’s Thirumozhi mentions another ritual performed for Kama, the god of love, in the early days of the month of Maasi. It is quite different from the Margazhi festival, with no evidence of it in Sangam literature.
Such festivals as Thirukartikai (a festival celebrated in the month of Kartikai when the moon is in conjunction with the star Kartikai), Panguni Uttiram (a festival day when the moon is in conjunction with the star Uttiram in the month of Panguni) and Maasikkalari (on the full moon day of Maasi month, mid-February to March) predate the bhakti movement. The major Saiva and Vaishnava religious sects have appropriated them just as they have the festival of Thaipoosam.
Tamil Saivism, just like Tamil Vaishnavism, celebrates Thaipoosam. In his Mayilaippathigam, Gnanasambandar mentions the practice of young women celebrating Thaipoosam by offering pongal to the lord. Evidence of the prestige associated with this festival is provided by its enthusiastic celebration near waterbodies and the Thaipoosam mandapams (roofed, pillared stone structures open on all sides) built on riverbanks.
The Sweet Salt of Tamil: Things We Do Not Know about Tamil Country; Tho Paramasivan, translated by V. Ramnarayan, Navayana, ₹399.
Excerpted with permission from Navayana.