Thai Poosam and the Tamil Frontier Spirit

published on January 30, 2010

By Dharman Dharmaratnam

Thai Poosam is a significant day for ethnic Tamils living in Malaysia, Mauritius, Reunion and Singapore. This year, it falls on Saturday, January 30. The holiday denotes the full moon of the month of Thai and is dedicated to the God Murukan or Skanda, also known as Seyon in the Sangam-era of Tamil literature.

‘Tai Poosam Cavadee’ is a public holiday in Mauritius and Reunion . It is a holiday in certain states of Malaysia. There were moves to lobby the Singapore Government to make it an official holiday in Singapore in lieu of Wesak which had been declared an ‘Indian holiday’ though largely confined to Sino-Singaporeans influenced by Sri Lankan Buddhist missionary activity. [The Chinese, Malays and Indians in Singapore are entitled to two public holidays each. Two days had already been allocated for the Chinese lunar new year. Deepavali had been designated as one ‘Indian holiday’].

Thai Pongal is not a noteworthy event for the ethnic Tamils of those lands. It is not observed with the same Jaffna fervour amongst the estate workers of central Sri Lanka either. Is there a reason for this?

I would like to surmise why. Thai Pongal is a harvest festival dedicated to the Sun God. It coincides with the purported shift north in the movement of the sun. This is known as Uttaraayanam and has a special resonance for rural farming communities that have tilled their lands for generations. This is witnessed to this day in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. Each day in the entire month of Maarkali, Tamil farming communities draw decorative kolams using rice flour on their front porch and place a symbolic Pillaiyar [Ganesha as the patron deity of the farmer] at the center of the Kolam. The month long observance concludes with Thai Pongal.

However, the colonial interlude in the history of Tamil Nadu in the 1800s led to a breakdown of the vibrant rural paddy economy, of local authority and local irrigation networks. This resulted in repeated famines. The hunger and destitution forced many landless laborers to move across the seas to Malaya, Mauritius, Reunion and the tea plantations in Sri Lanka in the 1800s. The rural farmer lifestyle with its Vellalar/Mudaliyar-dominated caste feudalism had ended.

Like the God Murukan who moved out of his ‘parental home’ and sought his own ‘individual destiny’ as it were, the descendents of the indentured Tamil migrants who had been detached from their rural roots emphasized Thai Poosam as part of their new and at times more prosperous lives in far off lands. This was an expression of their independent tenacity in the new frontier of Tamil geographic space.

Many of the indentured laborers who moved overseas hailed from the fiercely independent Maravar/Thevar/Kallar/Thondaman caste noted for their devotion to the God Murukan. The Thevar Polygars/Palaiyakarar in Tirunelveli in the deep south of Tamil Nadu and the affiliated Thondamans in Pudukottai in central Tamil Nadu fiercely resisted the brief intrusion of the Delhi Sultanate in the 1300s, the raids of Tippu Sultan in the late 1700s and the onset of British rule in the 1800s. This militarized community formed regiments in the Vijayanagara and Madurai Mahratta Nayak armies. They were deeply religious and patronized Hindu religious institutions.
Thai Poosam therefore is a statement of displacement, independence and a tenacity of spirit, not agrarian conformity. While Ganesha went round his parents, Murukan went round the universe in search of the much sought after ‘Mango’. This holiday is a salute to self-reliance, perhaps even defiance. While this is conjecture, it offers possible insights into the psyche of the 19th century Tamil diaspora.

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