Tamil New Year:
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.
Wheel of the zodiac. Picture courtesy: Google
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 five 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
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 honour 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 10th Century 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’ 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 VO 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.
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 Karunanidh’s proposed change in the date of the New
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 grandson, Dayanidhi Azhagiri,
started his new cable network company while veteran actor, Vijayakant,
inaugurated the DMDK party television network on the April New Year last
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
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
The text in fact owes much to Sanskrit, Prakrit and Pali works.
Saivite Tamil tradition observes Tiruvalluvar Guru Poosai in the month
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.