Festivals of India: Tamil New Year

Tomorrow is the first day of year on the Tamil calendar and is set in sync with the solar cycle of the lunisolar Hindu calendar, as the first day of the Tamil month Chithirai. It therefore falls on or about 14 April every year on the Gregorian calendar. The same day is observed by Hindus elsewhere as the traditional new year, but is known by other names such as Vishu in Kerala, and Vaisakhi or Baisakhi in central and northern India. The Tamil calendar follows a 60-year cycle which is also very ancient and is observed by most traditional calendars of India and China. According to popular belief it is related to 5 revolutions of Jupiter around the Sun, and also to 60-year orbit of Nakshatras or stars as mentioned in Surya Siddhanta. The 2020 Tamil New Year is called Saarvari.

The day is observed as a family time and before this day, households clean up the house, prepare a tray with fruits, flowers and auspicious items, light up the family Puja altar and visit their local temples. People wear new clothes and children go to elders to pay their respects and seek their blessings, then the family sits down to a vegetarian feast.

The Tamil New Year follows the spring equinox and generally falls on 14 April of the Gregorian year. The day celebrates the first day of the traditional Tamil calendar and is a public holiday in both Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. The same date is observed as the traditional new year by many Hindus in Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Manipur, Tripura, Bihar, Odisha, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan as well as by Hindus in Nepal and Bangladesh. Several Buddhist communities in Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka also celebrate the same day as their new year, likely an influence of the shared culture between South and Southeast Asia in the 1st millennium. The day is celebrated as Vishu in Kerala, Vaisakhi or Baisakhi in central and north India, Pohela Sankranti in Odisha, Pohela Boishakh in West Bengal, and Bangladesh, Rongali Bihu in Assam, Bikram Samwat or Vaishak Ek in Nepal, Aluth Avuruthu in Sri Lanka as the Sinhalese New Year, Songkran in Thailand, Pi Mai in Laos, Choul Chhnam Khmer in Cambodia and Thingyan in Myanmar

There are several references in early Tamil literature to the April new year. Nakkirar, the Sangam period author of the Neṭunalvāṭai, wrote that the sun travels from Mesha/Chitterai through 11 successive signs of the zodiac. Kūdalūr Kizhaar refers to Mesha Raasi/Chitterai as the commencement of the year in the Puṟanāṉūṟu. The Tolkaapiyam is the oldest surviving Tamil grammar that divides the year into six seasons where Chitterai marks the start of the Ilavenil season or summer. The Silappadikaaram mentions the 12 Raasis or zodiac signs starting with Mesha/Chitterai or roughly Aries as per the western zodiac. The Manimekalai alludes to the Hindu solar calendar as we know it today. Adiyarkunalaar, an early medieval commentator or Urai-asiriyar mentions the twelve months of the Tamil calendar with particular reference to Chitterai. There were subsequent inscriptional references in Pagan, Burma dated to the 11th century and in Sukhothai, Thailand dated to the 14th century to South Indian, often Vaishnavite, courtiers who were tasked with defining the traditional calendar that began in mid-April

On the eve of the New Year or Puthandu, a tray arranged with three fruits (mango, banana and jack fruit), betel leaves and arecanut, gold/silver jewellery, coins/money, flowers and a mirror. This is similar to the Vishu new year festival ceremonial tray in Kerala. According to the Tamil tradition, this festive tray is auspicious as the first sight upon waking on the new year day. Home entrances are decorated elaborately with colored rice powder designs called kolams.

In the temple city of Madurai, the Chitterai Thiruvizha is celebrated in the Meenakshi Temple. A huge exhibition is held, called Chitterai Porutkaatchi. On the day of the Tamil New Year, a big Car Festival is held at Tiruvidaimarudur near Kumbakonam. Festivals are also held at Tiruchirapalli, Kanchipuram and other places.

In Sri Lanka, the Tamils observe the traditional new year in April with the first financial transaction known as the Kai-vishesham. In this transaction children go to elders to pay their respect, and elders give their blessings and gift pocket money to the children in return. The event is also observed with the ‘arpudu’ or the first ploughing of the ground to prepare for the new agricultural cycle. The game of ‘por-thenkai’ or coconut wars between youth is played in villages through the Tamil north and east of the island while cart races are also held. The festive Puthandu season in April is a time for family visits and the renewal of filial bonds. It also coincides with the Sinhalese new year season and so is a time of joy and celebration throughout the island.

During the festive lunch that day, families eat dishes which are a combination of all flavours – sweet, sour, bitter and pungent. This is usually in the form of a mango pachadi or salad since mangoes would have started to come into season by this time. These traditional recipes combining different flavours are a symbolic reminder that one must expect all flavors of experiences in the coming new year, that no event or episode is wholly sweet or bitter, experiences are transitory and ephemeral, and to make the most from them.

In our temple in Matunga, we also have the head priests of the temple reach the annual Panchangam or calendar or alamanc for the coming year. The priest will also interpret any interesting configurations of the stars and planets and let know know which nakshatras or stars and rashis or zodiac signs would likely to be affected or blessed in the coming year. This is only a very general and cursory reading, but is something my parents look forward to each year. This year, with the country under lockdown, they will not be partaking in this activity.

To everyone celebrating their new year these days, here’s wishing you a very Happy New Year and may the coming year put to rest all the calamities of the old year and bring you and your families happiness and prosperity!