A Tamil cultural debate

published on January 4, 2011
Dharman Dharmaratnam

The Kanthamurukesanar Tamil cultural center and certain patrons of the Murugan Temple at Birchmont Road in Scarborough Toronto recently backed efforts of the Karunanidhi administration in Tamil Nadu in 2008 to shift the date of the Tamil new year from April, as observed for centuries, to January to coincide with the Indic harvest festival called Thai Pongal in Tamil or Makara Sankranti. The political sub-text behind the move is unnoticed in Sri Lanka where Tamils continue with the traditional reckoning of time that begins with the month of Chitterai in April. It is unlikely that many in the Sri Lankan Tamil community in Toronto are even aware of the debate. This article is intended to provide the Tamil literary evidence and recount the politics in Tamil Nadu behind the move.

Tamil literary and historical evidence

The Tamil calendar is based on the signs of the zodiac. The early Tamil literary work, the Nedunalvaadai is dated to between the years 100 and 300 of the common-era (CE). This was the Sangam era that represented the earliest outpourings of Tamil literature that survived the centuries. The poet Nakkirar authored the Nedunalvaadai. Lines 160 to 162 of the poem describe the movement of the sun through the 12 signs of the zodiac starting with Medam or Mesha. This is no other than the Tamil month of Chitterai in April. Koodaloor Kilar, a contemporary of Nakkirar, in the 229th Poem of the Puranaanooru also refers to the 12 signs of the zodiac that begin with Medam in April.  

The dating of early Tamil literature is a source of much debate. The Tolkaapiyam is the oldest surviving Tamil grammar. This is dated by several to 400 CE. The Tolkaapiyam divides the year into six seasons where Chitterai in April marks the start of the Ila-venil season or summer. Thai in January conversely does not commence any season.

The Silappadikaram is a Tamil epic that is dated by some to 500 CE. Canto 26 of the text once again refers to the 12 signs of the zodiac with the sun commencing its journey through the heavens in the sign of Medam in April. Canto 5 of the Silappadikaram describes the foremost festival in the Chola country that was celebrated in Chitterai. The Manimekalai, another classical epic in the Tamil language refers to the Tamil solar calendar as we know it today. The early medieval Urai-aasiriyar or commentator, Adiyaar-ku-nalaar mentions the 12 months of the Tamil calendar with particular reference to Chitterai. I can provide other similar references in Tamil literature. The weight of Tamil literary evidence indicates the start of the calendar in Chitterai or Medam in April. The only reference to the month of Thai in early Tamil literature was to the fast of Thai Neer-aadal when young unmarried women bathed and fasted in honor of the God Vishnu to secure a worthy husband.

Tamil Hindu tradition influenced Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma and Laos between 400 CE and 1200 CE. This coincided with the adoption of the Pallava grantha script, the centralization of royal authority and the adoption of the Tamil new year in these countries. This explains the celebration of the new year in mid-April in Burma, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. There are inscriptional references in Pagan, Burma to Vaishnavite courtiers from the Chola country, known in Burmese as the Sankran Bumnah, who were tasked with calculating the start of the new year in mid-April. These inscriptions can be dated to circa 1000 CE. Similar inscriptions in Sukhothai, Thailand refer to South Indian keepers of the calendar in the 14th century CE.

The observance of the traditional Tamil new year in April continued in the days of the 10thcentury Chola empire as witnessed in Saivite Tamil texts and inscriptions and in the days of the Jaffna Kingdom. It was hallowed by tradition. Kandyan royalty intermarried with aristocratic families from Thanjavur which led to the Nayakar dynasty ruling the Kandyan kingdom from 1739 to 1815 CE. Robert Knox documents the celebration of the April new year in the Kandyan kingdom during the Dutch era. He had used the Julian calendar then prevalent in England and therefore described the event in late March, April in today’s reckoning.

The 1920s: A Time of Ferment

Events in the 1920s provide the backdrop to Karunanidhi’s efforts in 2008 to shift the date of the Tamil new year. The Indian National Congress (INC) was becoming a mass-based freedom movement in the 1920s. It was making deep inroads into the Madras Presidency as witnessed in the efforts of anti-colonial freedom fighters such as V.O Chidambaram Pillai, affectionately remembered as Kapal-otiya Tamizhan, Subrahmanya Bharati and Subramanian Sivam. The leadership of the INC in Madras however was Tamil Brahmin dominated. The Vellalar or farmer caste and the Telugu Brahmin were under-represented. The colonial authorities leveraged the Vellalar-Chettiar-led Justice Party to counter the influence of the INC. The Justice Party backed the continuation of British rule.

Maraimalai Adigal, a Saivite Vellalar, provided the religious underpinnings of this movement. Amongst other things, he called for a change in the date of the Tamil new year from Chitterai in April to Thai Pongal in January in the 1920s. He dismissed the April new year as a Brahmin event while Pongal was then a pre-eminently Vellalar festival. His suggestion was not accepted by the population at large.  It bears mention, however, that seven other Saivite Vellalar activists including Navalar Somasundara Bharatiyar, K. Subramaniapillai, Kalyanasundera Mudaliyar and Sachidanandapillai supported his efforts. Maraimalai Adigal claimed that Pongal was uniquely Tamil, an assertion that was incorrect as demonstrated below. Critics charge that the real motive was to align the Tamil calendar with the English year that began in January. Regardless, the proposal was forgotten for the next 80 years.

The Karunanidhi Era

Much later, in 2008 the Tamil Maiyam led by Father Jagath Gasper Raj revived the call for a change in the date of the Tamil new year, a suggestion accepted by Karunanidhi, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. While all political parties in Tamil Nadu initially supported the move, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, led by Jayalalithaa, and the pro-LTTE Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, led by Vaiko, quickly opposed Karunanidhi’s proposed change in the date of the new year. The Union Territory of Pondicherry did not accept the change either. Popular sentiment ignored efforts of Karunanidhi to move the Tamil New Year to January. A case was filed by a group purportedly including Dalit, Thevar, Nadar, Vanniyar and Chettiar caste members, in the Madurai bench of the Tamil Nadu high court challenging Karunanidhi on this count. The High Court, after much delay, is likely to hear the case in April 2011.

Karunanidhi, in an effort to accommodate public opinion in Tamil Nadu, conceded the celebration of the April new year with a new term called Chithirai Tiru-naal, the holy day of Chithirai. The day remained a public holiday in Tamil Nadu, albeit purportedly to commemorate the birthday of the veteran Dalit leader Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. All television channels in Tamil Nadu telecast festive Chithirai Tiru-naal programs while temple attendance continues to be at a record high on the April new year. Business and record companies in Tamil Nadu continue to release new products on that date. Karunanidhi’s own grand son, Dayanidhi Azhagiri, started his new cable network company while veteran actor, Vijayakant, inaugurated the DMDK party television network on the April new year last year.

Tamil Nadu goes to the polls in a few months. Karunanidhi may return as Chief Minister should the DMK-Congress alliance remain intact. He will be defeated should the alliance unravel over the US$ 40 billion 2G telecom spectrum scam. Karunanidhi’s initiative to change the new year will be automatically reversed should he lose the polls.

The pan-Indic winter harvest

Thai Pongal is not uniquely Tamil. It is none other than the Hindu festival of Makara Sankranti observed in mid-January to celebrate the purported northward movement of the sun and the winter harvest. Sanskrit texts such as the Mahabharata, the Surya Siddhanta and the Brihat Samhita refer to Makara Sankranti or Uttarayanam. This festival with Brahmanic antecedents is dedicated to the Sun God and cattle. It is the Indic winter solstice and harvest observed in Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bengal, Bihar, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Nepal, Orissa, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere in India under local names.  This pan-Indic holiday is known as Lohri in the Punjab, Magh Bihu in Assam and Pongal in Tamil Nadu. It was never the traditional Tamil new year and is not the birth anniversary of Tiruvalluvar as claimed by Karunanidhi.

No one knows when Tiruvalluvar was born, much less in which era he lived or what his real name was. He is known for his literary classic, the Tirukural which was a post-Sangam work given the increased use of Sanskrit words. The text in fact owes much to Sanskrit, Prakrit and Pali works. Saivite Tamil tradition observes Tiruvalluvar Guru Poosai in the month of Maasi. The Tamils in Sri Lanka, as do the vast majority in Tamil Nadu, will continue to observe the traditional new year date in mid-April regardless of efforts on the part of isolated activists in the diaspora.

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