Happy Thai Pongal!
Cosmic phenomena have baffled mankind since the beginning of time. ‘Sun worshipping’ or ‘Heliolatry’ was one of the most widespread forms of worship in ancient times. Historical evidence suggests that sun-worship was practised not only by Indians but by Africans, Egyptians, Chinese and Indonesians. In fact, a remnant of sun-worship, one time-tested ritual survives to-date. Thai Pongal, celebrated today by Tamils the world over irrespective of region, caste or creed, is the only form of Sun worship in existence today.
Thai Pongal is the Hindu version of Thanksgiving, performed by offering the first portion of the harvest to the Sun God, Surya. The festival has more than just religious significance. Especially in the tropics, where the sun shines throughout the year, it is an abundant source of power. Consequently, for millennia the sun has been the driving force of agriculture. In fact, in the tropics any cultivation thrives on just sunlight and rain. In short the tropics owe its plenitude to the sun.
Thai Pongal marks the Indic solstice when the sun enters the 10th house of the Indian zodiac Capricorn. The ‘Thai’ in ‘Thai Pongal’ represents the month of January (the 10th month of the Tamil Calendar), which marks the beginning of the harvesting season for Hindus. ‘Pongal’, rice from the first harvest, cooked in milk and sweetened with jaggery, is an offering to the Sun God, Surya. Pongal also translates to ‘boiling over’ or ‘overflow’.
Thai Pongal is celebrated with great enthusiasm and eagerness by Tamils the world over. Indicative of the bumper harvest, celebrations are more pronounced in the tropics. Unlike in Sri Lanka, in Tamil Nadu, where Thai Pongal is said to have originated, it is celebrated for four days. The first day, January 14 this year, marks the beginning of multiple festivals, characterised by a scurry of activities, just as before Sinhala and Tamil New Year. Houses and yards are cleaned and trash from the previous year is burnt. In fact, so much burning takes place that Tamil Nadu pilots have complained of navigation difficulties due to smoke! The burning of trash is also figurative. It signifies unburdening of past year’s mental encumbrances and the expression of gratitude.
On the morning of the first day of celebrations Hindu women decorate the floor of their houses with Kolam, intricate patterns made from coloured rice flour. Rather than mere artistic expression or decoration, Kolam symbolises happiness and prosperity. Kolam is also used to demarcate the sacred area where the Pongal is prepared. Milk is heated until it boils over and rice and jaggery are added afterwards. The boiling over of milk symbolises abundance. Prepared within the parameters of the Kolam, in a clay pot using fire wood, Pongal is offered first to the senior most members of the family on banana leaves, after the prayers.
‘Mattu Pongal’, the third day of celebrations is dedicated to paying respect to cattle. Much like the Sun, cows are an integral part of tropical agriculture, not to mention Hindu culture. The cows work the fields year round, helping the farmer reap a plentiful harvest, by pulling the plough. In fact, before the advent of commerce, much of the early Hindu economy was based on milk trade. During the festive season cattle are garlanded, kumkum applied on their foreheads, horns painted and fed a mixture of jaggery, honey, banana and other fruits, referred to as venn pongal.
On the first three days most Hindus restrict themselves to a vegetarian diet. But on the fourth day, hill country Tamils of Sri Lanka start eating meat. The third day is spent visiting relatives. Bull fights, referred to as Jallikattu, are the main attraction in India on the second, third and fourth days. These take place out in the open and is considered an extremely dangerous and gruesome sport. Consequently, those who participate are considered gallant. The season consists of many other games and festivities such as bullock cart races, harvesting dances, music and festivities at temples.
Thai Pongal signifies prosperity and abundance in the new year. Hindus reap their first harvest in the month of ‘Thai’. As such, it is a financially beneficial and prosperous month. Hindus make wedding plans, plan to buy new property and assets and start new jobs during this month. The Tamil saying ‘Thai piranthal wali pirakkum’ means ‘with the beginning of January a new pathway is also paved’. This is the essence of Thai Pongal, which marks the beginning of all things auspicious for the Hindus.
Speculations about origin of placename, ‘Negombo’ (Meegamuwa)
By Chandre Dharmawardana,
A writer using the pseudonym GADS, replying to a previous article regarding Negombo, states (The Island 17 Sept. 2023), “It is also historically recorded that the name Negombo is the Portuguese corruption of its Tamil name Neerakolombu and the Sinhala name Meegamuwa which means and comes from old Tamil Naval terminology Meegamam Pattnam. Meegamam denotes a naval captain”.
Unfortunately, the author does not give the reference to this “historical record” or elaborate on the details available from any early sources, Portuguese and Dutch maps etc. Furthermore, he asserts that “Meegamam” denotes a naval captain. Here again, this is certainly not so in any of the Dravidian languages, or Indic languages. No such usage exists even in Arabic and other languages of the Hebrew family, as far as we can ascertain.
A “naval captain” in Arabic would be Kabtin Bahriun, while the Tamil usage would be Katarpatai Kaptain in modern usage. In old Tamil words like Nakutawere used . However, “gama, gamuwa, gammam, kamam, etc., are all refer “village”.
I have collected what is known about the place name Negombo in the website listed at the end of this note . I quote from it below:
The name Meegamuva is believed to refer to a village (gamuwa) which was reputed for its honey (mee). Thus, the Mahavamsa-based tradition has it that honey was procured from this region for Queen Vihara Maha Devi, (2 century BCE), initially from a honeycomb found in a boat turned upside down. It could also refer to a forest of Mee trees, Madhuca Longifolia (Koenig). It is well known that placenames have been based on vegetation and prominent land marks; in our view, this is the most likely source of the name.
Another interesting legend is that the name is related to “Nihumbala, the nephew of the Yakka king Raavana. The Tamil form, Neerkozimpu may mean water, and ‘kozimpu’ is sometimes claimed to mean ‘village’, but such a meaning is not recognised in standard Tamil Lexicons. Also, the Tamil name originally applied only to the lagoon-like area and not to the whole of Meegamuwa. Given the ancient histoofthe village, kozimpu may have comefrom the sinhala kalapuva adorned with the Tamil “nir”.
Maya Oya flows north of Negombo and falls into the ocean near Kochchikade. This was an early center of the cinnamon trade, set up by the Moors in medieval times. The Portuguese ousted them in the 16th century and built a fort, and established a strong Catholic religious centre here. The Dutch ousted the Portuguese in the 1644 CE. The ruins of the fort, with its fine archway marked ‘1672’ can still be seen. In 1796 the British took over Negombo, by which time the cinnamon trade had declined. The town has remained strongly Roman catholic to this day.
Frivolous folk-lore etymology attriutes the name ‘Negambo’ to nikam biruva. That is, a dog ‘just barked’ is said to be the response given by a non-comprehending bystander to a colonial who asked ‘what is the name of this town? While GADS recognizes such frivolities for what they are, the claim that Meegamuwa or Neer-kozimpu comes from the Tamil words for “sea captain” can be very intriguing if anyone takes it seriously; one cannot find a source for substantiating such a claim in any reputed Tamil lexicon or Tamil literary source.
Madras Tamil Lexicon.
 Mahawamsa, XXII, verse 48.
How to conserve electricity at home and workplace
Going through my old paper clippings, I came across the following news item which is more applicable today when the country is facing a severe energy crisis on how to conserve or restrict the use of electricity at Offices and other working places.
There are several ways of conserving electricity at home, offices and other workplaces. It is absolutely necessary to do so because electricity is harmful for our environment and the planet we live in.
Here is how
(a) Unplug all electrical appliances in the kitchen when not in use, except the refrigerator. This includes coffee pots, sandwich toasters, blenders and ovens. These appliances use small amounts of electricity when they are left in standby mode.
(b) When it comes to washing, soap them first and then open the tap halfway to wash them.
(c) Use the washing machine once a week. Try washing some of your lighter clothes by hand and save jeans and other heavy clothing for the washing machine
(d) When drying your clothes, do not use the dryer unless very necessary. Hang wet clothes on a line in the backyard which is an easy way of drying them and clothes dry so easily during the day in this intensely hot weather.
(e) Change the traditional light bulbs for energy saving bulbs. The garden lights can be replaced with solar powered lights. In the kitchen, the refrigerator is out of direct sunlight and not next to the oven. Avoid putting hot dishes in the refrigerator as it will have to work harder to cool the dish, therefore wait for a while for the dish to cool and then put it in the refrigerator.
(f) Unplug any phone or laptop chargers when they are not in use.
(g) Unplug the computer when it is not in use. This is very important because it can get very badly damaged if it is plugged in during a thunderstorm. You may not even be at home during the storm, so it is advisable to unplug the computer when it is not being used. Do not leave the computer switched on for long hours.
(h) Unplug the television set and gaming consoles too, as they can get damaged if they are on standby mode during a thunderstorm.
(i) Keep DVD players, TVs and other audio and stereo equipment plugged into a multi-port which can be turned off with one switch. This saves electricity.
(j) Turn off the lights, fans and air-conditioner when you leave the room. Remember that you do not need the lights switched on during the day.
(k) Do not use electric appliances such as vacuum cleaners and use the broom instead.
Some lesser known historical facts
The Greek women in ancient Greece realised to their utter dismay that their husbands were always fighting wars overseas. One brave Greek woman, Lysistrata, organised a women’s front with the sole purpose of denying their husbands the marital pleasures unless they remained at home to fulfill their marital duties
Socrates, known for his wisdom, was invited by the King of Sparta, which had waged war against Greece, to be an honorary citizen of Sparta. He gracefully turned down the offer as he valued the democratic way of life in Athens. As he was always arguing with fellow Athenians neglecting household work his wife used abusive language on him in the presence of his companions. Socrates continued with his arguments when his wife in utter exasperation treated him with a plate full of dish water. Socrates merely said to his companions that after thunder comes the rain.
In the Olympic games held during the peaceful times the athletes ran the races naked. Women were not permitted to attend them. The penalty was death if a woman was discovered breaking the law. On one occasion a middle-aged woman was caught breaking the law. As she happened to be the mother of a celebrated athlete she was forgiven.
Julius Caesar was caught dressed as a woman in a women only club in Rome. He was not punished since he had gone there only to meet his lover who saved him. On another occasion he had to offer a bribe to the ship’s captain, a pirate, who threatened to throw him overboard into the Mediterranean Sea.
Isaac Newton was accused by Robert Hooke for plagiarizing when the former introduced the gravitational constant in his book Principia Mathematica. Hooke was the Secretary of the Royal Society of which Newton was the President. Hooke was the person who encouraged Robert Knox to write the book “Historical Relations…” Newton was accused by the German philosopher Leibniz of plagiarism as the latter had published the calculations of infinitesimal calculus before Newton. There was a rule in the Universities that dons should take holy orders. The king exempted Newton from this obligation. Newton’s denial of the divinity of Jesus and the trinity did not earn any punishment from the ecclesiastical authorities. The complementary part of calculus, integral calculus, had been discovered by Archimedes in the second century BC. After the conquest of Greece by Rome the intellectual supremacy and the culture of Greece saw a gradual decline. It was known that the burial place of Archimedes was a much-venerated place visited by Greeks. The Romans did not show such veneration and the burial place got neglected. However, when Cicero, a Roman intellectual, lawyer and writer became the governor of Athens in the second half of the first century BC, he visited the burial site and had the monument restored to its former state. He noticed the epitaph wherein the symbol of a sphere within a cylinder had been inscribed.
A century later Rome conquered England, killing the English queen Boudica. There stands the figure of this queen on a horse (close to the underground tube station Westminster) with words emblazoned on the flanks in poetic language indicating that while England was colonised by Rome, England had conquered half of the world.
Guy Fawkes was the man who made an attempt to set fire to the Parliament building. This incident is known as the “Gunpowder plot”. He failed in his attempt and was executed. This incident may be compared to the attempt by a JVP member who threw a hand grenade when a Cabinet meeting was taking place in the Parliament building with the President JRJ presiding. The culprit got away.
When a German prince from Hanover became George the First of England, he found life in England very dull as he could not speak English. So, he invited his old German friend Handel, the musician, to be his companion. It was during this time that Handel composed his famous “Water music” and many operas.
Dr. Leo Fernando
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