For Tamilians around the world, there are many traditions associated with the first day of the Tamil calendar – Puthandu or Puthuvarusham. Many of them wake up to the auspicious sight of trays decked with flowers, fruits, betel leaves and coconut, and a house elaborately decorated. Chariots with icons of deities lead processions from temples. This is followed by feasts, games and hours of music and dance.

This year, Puthandu falls on April 14, the first day of the Tamil month of Chithirai, but it wasn’t always so. For a while, law and legislature had modified tradition, leaving Tamilians to celebrate the New Year in January.

In 2008, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government of Chief Minister M Karunanidhi passed the Tamil Nadu New Year (Declaration) Bill 2008 to change the date of the New Year from the first day of Chithirai (mid-April to mid-May) to the first day of the month of Thai, which falls around January 14. For the next three years, the coming of the New Year was reconfigured, and it did not prove a popular move.

Criticism came from a number of Tamil Hindus who were used to a centuries-old tradition – for them, the first day of Chithirai was the New Year’s start. “People were very accustomed to that practice and found it difficult to adapt to the new date,” said V Arasu, a retired professor of the University of Madras. “The upper castes, especially, opposed the move vehemently.”

The change did not last long. When J Jayalalithaa returned to power in 2011, she swiftly repealed the Act and restored the date to April, calling the DMK’s move useless to everyone but Karunanidhi.

So why did the DMK alter the Tamil calendar year? The reason can be traced back to a conference in early 20th century.

Was DMK’s claim justified?

As reported in a number of Tamil journals at the time, a group of Tamil scholars – including writers Maraimalai Adigal and Navalar Somasundara Bharathiyar and essayist Thiru V Kalyanasundaram – held a conference in 1921, where they announced that the New Year should be celebrated on the first day of the Tamil month of Thai. This was how things were done, they said, till the 2nd or 3rd century CE, after which Sanskrit began slowly influencing Tamil language and culture.

According to Arasu, the scholars saw details of the year beginning in Thai in classical Tamil literature, such as the anthologies of Sangam-era poems like Natrinai and Ainkurunuru and the grammar book Tholkappiam.

“After the Government of India Act of 1909 and 1919, regionalism began to take more shape with regional law being discussed and regional universities established,” he said. “Prior to the later half of the 19th century, Tamil literature and culture was not well-known. Only later did Tamil people find out about the richness of their own culture, and began to question the practices and traditions imposed on them.”

Shifting the New Year’s celebrations had another motive: January was the time of the secular Tamil harvest festival Pongal.

For the scholars and the followers of the Dravidian movement, the April celebration was part of the Sanskritic, Brahmin-dominated tradition, since it followed the Sanskrit calendar year. To revert to January day was to return to their secular Tamil roots, they believed.

“The new year in Pongal time is based on Tamil culture,” said S Arokianathan, retired professor of Tamil who taught at Pondicherry University. “The new year in April is based on Sanskrit astrology panchangam.”

A cultural programme celebrating the Tamil New Year. Photo credit: Jakarta International Expo/Facebook.
A cultural programme celebrating the Tamil New Year. Photo credit: Jakarta International Expo/Facebook.

The scholars’ thesis held deep appeal for the Dravidian DMK.

Fifty-one years after the 1921 conference, it passed a notification in a government gazette, establishing 31 BCE as the birth year of Tamil poet and philosopher Thiruvalluvar, since he was considered 31 years older than Jesus Christ. The revered saint’s year of birth was notified as the beginning of the Tamil calendar, thereby replacing the 60-year-cycle of the Sanskritic calendar with the Thiruvalluvar era.

“Even now, the Tamil Nadu government has the Thiruvalluvar year written on top of any government document and the English one at the bottom,” said Arasu. “We are officially following the Thiruvalluvar era. By the same logic, our year also should start around first of Thai month, around the date of birth of Thiruvalluvar.”

Decision reversed

The debate over when to celebrate Tamil New Year now survives only among a small group of Tamil nationalists, said Arasu. Still, the DMK hasn’t given up on it. As recently as in January 2017, its working president MK Stalin said that if his party were to come to power, New Year’s would once again be celebrated on Pongal.

If it does, it’s likely that the move won’t be any more popular than it was the last time. When Jayalalithaa restored the New Year’s to the month of Chithirai, she too had consulted scholars. A statement by SP Shanmuganathan, former Minister for Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments, said in 2011:

The general public, scholars in Archaeology, experts in Astronomy and scholars from various walks of life have expressed their views through different media that the said Tamil Nadu Act 2 of 2008 is against the customary practice of celebrating the first day of the Tamil month “Chithirai” as Tamil New Year. They have also requested to the Government to repeal the said Act and to restore the age old custom of celebrating the first day of the Tamil month “Chithirai” as the Tamil New year. Further, they said Act has caused practical difficulties, resistance and opposition amongst the general public in following the first day of the Tamil month of “Thai” as the Tamil New Year day. The Government have, therefore, decided to restore the time immemorial custom of celebrating the first day of the Tamil month “Chithirai” as the Tamil New Year day be repealing the said Act.    

— Tamil Nadu Government Gazette, 2011

Nevertheless, there is a possibility that in five years, Tamil Nadu could be officially celebrating its New Year with boiling pots of Pongal.