Categorized | Festivals

Thai Pongal Festival: Internationally Celebrated and Sometimes Unfamiliar

Posted on 20 January 2012 by admin

Now that the New Year has begun, people have time to focus on other festivals and holidays coming up in the near future. The remarkable Thai Pongal festival is soon approaching, on January 14th and people are preparing for the celebrations. Every year, people from Sri Lanka rejoice in the Thai Pongal festival to welcome the first day of the month of Thai in the Tamil calendar. While Thai is the first month of the Tamil calendar, pongal is a traditional sweet dish eaten on this day.

The Thai Pongal festival is unique in that it is independent of any one religious faith and is celebrated yearly by the Tamil population around the world wishing to take part in it. Thai Pongal is a festival that promotes unity and togetherness of the community. People pay their thanks to food producers and the farmers give their gratitude to the Sun and farm animals, and other factors that provide them a successful harvest.

After speaking with a number of Tamil individuals about the traditions and celebrations accompanying Thai Pongal, I have gained some valuable insight on the intricacies of the festival.

In comparing the festival of lights, Diwali, to the Thai Pongal festival, there seem to be some striking similarities. While Diwali is a time to celebrate the triumph of good over evil, Thai Pongal is a time to celebrate and give thanks to the cattle and other farm animals that provide us with food and vegetation.

Like Diwali and many other cultural festivals, Thai Pongal brings families together and focuses on the unity of people. Love and peace are central themes of holidays.

However, there is a difference in the traditions revolving around Diwali and Thai Pongal. During Diwali, there are sweets, decorating of homes, card playing and fireworks to commemorate the inner light within people. While Thai Pongal does include the traditional sweets and decoration of the homes, there are no fireworks going off on this day.

Nineteen year old Lawsan Thanapalan explained a lot about the Pongal tradition. “Thai Pongal is just the first part of the festival. It is followed by Maatu Pongal and Kaanum Pongal. On each day, we usually get up, shower, wear new clothes and go to the temple to offer prayers. We’re traditionally supposed to go to our backyards and boil a special kind of rice called ‘pongal’. We’re supposed to watch the water rise and pray to the sun and give thanks for a good harvesting season. We celebrate the sun’s movement. We share the food amongst each other and offer some to the sun to show our gratitude.” Thanapalan explained that the purpose of the festival is to celebrate new opportunities and a fresh start. “The prayers are led by the seniors, so in my case, by my grandma.”

Like Thanapalan, twenty year old Lisana Nithiananthan explained the significance of Thai Pongal by defining the role that family plays in its tradition. “After we make and offer the pongal dish to the Gods and do the prayers, we all go to the temple together. Then comes time for a family get-together.” After pressing the question of what Thai Pongal means to her, Nithiananthan explained that “it is like a Tamil Thanksgiving. You pray for a good year of harvest and thank the Gods and animals who make it fruitful.”

Given the information provided by Thanapalan and Nithiananthan, the unifying aspects of the celebration are clear. Families and communities join each other for a day of prayer, cooking, cleaning and eating.  Since Thai Pongal is not a religious holiday, it is open to all who wish to observe it and it is not discriminatory based on different beliefs that one may hold.

While Thanapalan and Nithiananthan have extensive knowledge of the traditions and celebrations revolving around the Thai Pongal festival, others do not have the same familiarity with their culture. Twenty year old, Shane Balasingam explains that he does not know much about Thai Pongal or any of its traditions. “My family doesn’t really celebrate it”, explained Balasingam. Upon asking for more information about the Sri Lankan holiday, Shane replied with “I don’t actually know anything about it, either. My family neither celebrated nor talked about it.”

Like Balasingam, twenty year old Sabeena Santhirakumaran revealed that she does not know too much about the Thai Pongal festival. Upon asking her about family traditions she may have been exposed to or any general information she has about the day, Santhirakumaran had nothing to say. Instead, she said “I don’t know much about it. Ask someone else.”

The question arises; do people know more about traditions associated with their nationalities if they are from families that take part in those traditions? It has definitely been something to think about when speaking with these four Sri Lankan individuals. Both Thanapalan and Nithiananthan had a great understanding of the meaning of the Thai Pongal festival and the traditions revolving around it. These two individuals explained that their families took part in the customs of the Sri Lankan festival. While Thanapalan and Nithiananthan had knowledge about the festival, both Balasingam and Santhirakumaran had little to no insight on the traditions that take place on Thai Pongal, or what the festival is about.

Speaking with these four individuals has made me think, are there aspects of my culture that my family has not celebrated that have led me to obliviousness about certain holidays? Ask yourself the question, how involved is your family in events associated with your nationality? Does your family’s lack of involvement in these occasions affect your overall understanding of your culture? If your family or you yourself do not have knowledge about a particular part of your culture, you do not have to continue to be unaware. Do the research, learn about different traditions and festivals; what you learn may actually surprise and interest you!

By Gagan Batra


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