Is Tamil New Year really ‘Tamil’? Politics of Thai vs Chitirai, Karunanidhi’s speech

Ramanathan S.
Why did Karunanidhi declare that Pongal will be celebrated as the Tamil New Year, and not April 14?

It is the official ‘Tamil New Year’ as declared by the state government of Tamil Nadu and several households in the state and elsewhere, especially Brahmin ones, are celebrating the day with divine rituals and delicious food. But as is almost everything else in Tamil Nadu, the Tamil New Year day, traditionally celebrated on the first day of the Tamil month of Chitirai, is knee-deep in political controversy. Hence, with the change of political dispensation at the state government, the date of the Tamil New Year also changes.

For the uninitiated, the Tamil New Year, simply called ‘Puthandu’, ‘Puthuvarsham’ or ‘Varsha Pirappu’ (Brahmins use the third term more), begins with the vernal equinox, which is also the day sun is said to enter the constellation of Aries. This follows the spring equinox. It usually happens to be on April 14, of the Gregorian calendar, which is also the birthday of Dr. BR Ambedkar.

In 2008, Dravidian stalwart and then Chief Minister M Karunanidhi kicked up a controversy when he declared that April 14 will not be celebrated as the Tamil New Year, instead, the beginning of the month of Thai, which coincides with the harvest festival of Pongal. It would be hard to miss the Brahmin-Dravidian fault lines here.

So, what was the reasoning behind changing the date from April 14 to Pongal?

According to the DMK, in 1921, over 500 scholars, under the leadership of scholar and founder of ‘Thani Tamil Iyakkam’, Thiru Maraimalai Adigalar, met at Pachaiyappa’s College in Chennai and decided that Tamils needed a separate calendar. It was proposed that a new calendar in the name of Saint Thiruvalluvar be created, and that be declared as the ‘Tamil Year’.

At the conference, they also reportedly determined that the birth year of Thiruvalluvar was 31 BC. There was also a consensus among the Tamil Scholars that the first day of the month of Thai should be the first day of the Tamil year.

Later in 1939, All India Tamilar Conference was held in Tiruchi presided by Somasundara Bharathiar in which Thanthai Periyar, Karandhai Tamil Sangam President Umamaheswaranar, Prof. K. Subramaniam, TP Meenakshisundaram, Thiru Vi.Ka., Maraimalai Adigalar, PT Rajan, Arcot Ramaswami Mudaliar, Bharathidasan, Pattukottai Alagiri and many others participated. That meet also decided that first day of Thai is Tamil New Year Day, according to the DMK.

Their reasoning was two-fold: One, that the traditional system is based on the Sanskritik (read Brahimincal) system, and two, that Tamil literature points out to Thai being the beginning of the new year for Tamil.

Listen to an old speech by Karunanidhi here on this issue.             

While it had been a long-standing demand by many, including the DMK, to change the official date, it was only in 2008 when Karunanidhi was able to effect it.

There was, however, a strong backlash to it. While Karunanidhi refused to roll back his decision, he announced that April 14 will continue to be celebrated as ‘Chitirai thirunal’.

But as soon as Jayalalithaa came to power in 2011, she rolled back the decision, accusing DMK of being hurtful and disrespecting the sentiments of the people. So, the Tamil New Year, officially, continues to be April 14 now.

DMK cadres however refuse to wish people a happy new year on April 14, and instead pass on videos and quotes of Tamil scholars, defying the traditional system.