Tamil Catholics around the country have celebrated Thai Pongal at churches and homes, with some acknowledging the role of the Second Vatican Council in re-establishing the celebration´s cultural importance.
The harvest festival, which has ancient roots predating the birth of Christ, heralds a new year for Tamil farmers. The Tamil month Thai begins in mid-January, and the word pongal means "overflowing."
According to Oblate Father Newman Muthuthamby, parish priest of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Colombo, "Tamil Catholics abandoned the harvest festival in Church activities after the (16th century) introduction of Christianity, but now Thai Pongal has taken its rightful place after Vatican Council II."
The celebration fits well with the biblical tradition of Old Testament figures making offerings to God, Father Muthuthamby said during his Mass homily on Jan. 15, the main day of the festival.
Early that morning, Father Muthuthamby stood with more than 400 laity, nuns, priests and altar servers in traditional dress around the portico of Our Lady of Sorrows.
A pot was set up over a fire built on a decorated flat square. Some parish elders put water into the pot, and when it boiled they put handfuls of rice and other ingredients including sugar, milk, raisins, cashew nuts and a few pods of cardamom.
The fire burned and the mixture rose and overflowed. When it was ready, the priest blessed the pongal, also the name of this festive meal, and led those gathered in a few minutes of prayer, thanking God for the gift of Creation. They then shared the pongal, eating it off banana leaves, and fruit.
Tamil parishioners around the country took part in similar ceremonies.
Traditionally during Thai Pongal, farmers offer the first of their harvested crops to God. Thanks are given for productive land, timely rain and sun, health and cooperation among farmers, all important factors in a successful harvest.
The festival is also a time to discard animosity and rivalries, and renew relationships with relatives and neighbors.
Although the great majority of Tamils are Hindus, Thai Pongal is not attached to any particular religion, so people of various faiths can celebrate it. Celebrations do differ, however, from region to region.
On the Jaffna peninsula, the northern tip of Sri Lanka, Catholics and Hindus decorate their homes with banana trees and sugar cane. They get up early in the morning, bathe, put on new clothes and gather in front of the house. The headman of the family, typically the father, leads the worship and begins the ceremonial cooking. Pongal is then served to neighbors, friends and relatives. All Hindu temples celebrate Poosai, a Hindu ritual.
Nonetheless, Thai Pongal unites Tamils scattered around the world in a common tradition.
"Today, we happily celebrate a religion of our own," enthused Poopathi Mariathasan, 65, a Colombo harbor-front parishioner.
Father Muthuthamby told UCA News the Second Vatican Council spurred ecclesiastical and theological development in Sri Lanka, and Thai Pongal "gave great impetus" to efforts for inculturation. Laypeople and priests reinstated the farming festival, which had largely been ignored or even repressed under a stricter Church leadership in the past.
After the council, people began to celebrate Christian festivals with Lankan flavor and traditions that suit the country´s tropical climate, the priest said. Local language and music were reinstated in religious celebrations.
"These are ways to inculturate the message of God in an effective way among people," parishioner Mariathasan agreed.
Vatican Council II opened under Blessed Pope John XXIII in 1962 and closed under Pope Paul VI in 1965.
(Accompanying photos available at here)