Thai Pongal

Thai Pongal is a multi-day festival celebrated by Tamils in Jaffna on the first day of the Tamil month of Thai. This falls around the 14th of January on the Gregorian Calendar. The festival is dedicated to Sooriyan, the Hindu Sun god, as it is essentially a harvesting festival. The festival marks the end of the winter solstice and the start of the sun’s six-month-long journey northwards when the sun enters the zodiac Makara (Capricorn). Pongal is one of the most celebrated festivals in Jaffna as harvest land makes up most of it. The three days of the Pongal festival are called Bhogi Pongal, Soorya Pongal, and Maattu Pongal. Pongal means ‘to boil and overflow’ and refers to a traditional sweet dish made with rice, milk, and jaggery. 

What is special about Pongal?

Thai Pongal, as mentioned above, marks the start of the harvesting season. Therefore, it is also a thanksgiving ceremony as farmers utilise this auspicious day to thank mother nature, the soil, the sun and the farm animals for their assistance in providing a successful harvest. The rest celebrate as a way to thank the farmers for the production of crops. Thai Pongal truly brings all in unison, encouraging social cohesiveness. There is a famous saying in Tamil, “Thai Piranthaal Vazhi Pirakkum,” meaning “the commencement of Thai (the Tamil month) paves the way for new opportunities”, which encourages all to look forward to the coming months. 

Customs and Traditions

All Hindus worldwide celebrate this festival of Harvest under different names – Lohri, Makar Sankranti, and Pongal. A lot of customs and celebrations are a part of this traditional festival. During the days leading up to Pongal, families clean up their gardens, make Palakaram (sweet snacks) to enjoy on the auspicious day. The houses are also decorated with banana and mango leaves and embellish the entrance space before homes, corridors or doors with decorative kolams (design made on the ground using coloured flour).

On Pongal day, family members shower early in the morning and wear new clothes. Using three bricks, a firewood heath is set up in the garden outside, exposed to direct sunlight facing the east. A clay pot is then placed on top of the lit fire to make the Pongal. A kolam is put around the firewood heath as decoration. Milk is boiled in the clay and allowed to overflow. As the milk boils, three handfuls of rice, jaggery and other ingredients such as cashew, cardamom, green gram, and raisins are added. As the milk begins to boil and overflow out of the clay pot, a conch is blown, and everyone shouts “Pongalo Pongal” with joy. Sometimes, firecrackers are lit to signify the moment. It is believed that the overflowing of the milk and Pongal symbolises the greater fortunes of the year ahead. Once the Pongal is ready, it is placed on the banana leaf (Padayal) and served to the Sun God, followed by Ganesha and then served to the cows. Simultaneously a prayer is carried out, and then the Pongal is shared among the family starting with the elders first. 

Mattu Pongal

Mattu Pongal celebrated the day after Soorya Pongal mainly by the local farmers, is dedicated to the cattle for ploughing the fields and drawing the carts throughout the year. To show gratitude for this invaluable service the animals provide, they are bathed in manjal thanni (turmeric water), decorated with flower garlands and their horns are painted in red, blue, yellow and green. They are also offered a special meal consisting of Venn Pongal (savoury Pongal) and fruits. Kumkumam (Vermillion) is placed on their foreheads and is worshipped by all. Thai Pongal is an occasion for family reunions and get-togethers. Old enmities, personal animosities and rivalries are forgotten

  • Read more about Thai Pongal here.
  • Read more about festivals and other special holidays in Jaffna on our blog.

St. Mary’s Cathedral, Jaffna

A mere 15 min walk from the Kacheriyady bus station will take you to the majestic, beige and white domes of the St. Mary’s Cathedral, known as Periya Kovil in Tamil, which rise into the sky. It is one of the oldest and largest Roman Catholic Cathedrals in the Country and is located in Gurunagar, a coastal village in Jaffna. St. Mary’s Cathedral is adorned with sincere faith, copious history and massive walls with dome-shaped windows, which give a peaceful facade to the church, which carries a history of sacrifice on its walls.

Local folklore says that Sankili I, also known as Segarasasekaram, the King of Jaffna, killed his son for converting into Catholicism in the very place the St. Mary’s Cathedral now stands. The story goes like this. The reigning King, Sankili I, was known for resisting Portuguese colonisation. However, his son befriended a Portuguese named Andre De Souza, who influenced him to adopt Catholicism. To get baptised, the young prince was planning a trip to Goa to officialise his conversion. This news enraged the King to a great extend resulting in him ordering the execution of his son in November 1544.

Late, stricken by his guilt, the King conducted a grand funeral for his son and buried the ashes. A tiny chapel was then built over this by Antonio Fernandez and was called ‘Emilda de Cruz’. This used to be served as a worshipping place for Jaffna’s Catholics. Some used to say a luminous cross used to appear in this chapel. This chapel was then slowly constructed into the St. Mary’s Cathedral, centuries later, in 1975.

The architecture of this church is simple, which resonates with Goanese design. The solid marble altar has been carved from one block with a large wooden crucifix and has domes that rise 115ft. The Cathedral has a total of 14 novenas. The first parish priest was Rev. Fr. Leonard Rebeiro, who came to Sri Lanka from Goa. For almost 225 years, the St. Mary’s Cathedral which can accommodate 3,000 worshippers has guided thousands of Catholics and has acted as a ray of hope for those in the Northern province. Today, the church is often visited by local & foreign tourists wanting to attend a mass or to witness the beautiful architecture of this Catholic Shrine. It is another must-visit attraction in Jaffna.

  • You can visit St. Mary’s Cathedral on our curated “City Tour” excursion. Read more about it here.
  • Find out more about all excursions offered by us here.

Aadi Amaavasai

July is a great month to visit Jaffna. Why not swing by to observe Aadi Amaavasai and pay homage to a deceased loved one or vanquish one’s bad karma? In 2020, Aadi Amaavasai is on the 20th of July.

Did You Know?

Aadi is the 4th month in the Tamil solar calendar. The month of Aadi is special for the people of Jaffna because of its religious, cultural, and economic significance. Religious festivals, Temples’ annual festivals, religious fasts all happen during this month, Aadi brings the monsoon rains and thus determines the economic climate of this agriculture-based society for the upcoming year. Aadi Amaavasai is culturally significant as the day that one pays respect to deceased parents. According to the Tamils of this region on Aadi Amaavasai, the Sun, signifying father, and the Moon, signifying mother, traverse to the same Zodiac sign. So this day is annually observed by all who have deceased parent/parents. This homage would often extend to all ancestors.

On The Day

Hindus will head to Lord Shiva’s temples to pray for their deceased relatives. Most will go for a spiritual bath and offering at the Keerimalai tank after prayers at the Naguleswaram Temple. Residents of Jaffna also provide food to the needy or worshippers at a temple of their choice. It is believed that anyone who engages in a spiritual bath in a sea or a holy river is able to rid one’s bad karma. On Aadi Amavaasai, the Hindus of Jaffna will compulsorily eat a vegetable called Katrottikkai. This vegetable is only available in the month of Aadi, and will not be consumed on any other day of the year. The name Katrottikkai is derived from the words, Katru (wind/gas), Otti (remove), and Kai (Vegetable). This essentially means, the Vegetable that eliminates gas. The consumption of this vegetable is said to remove or balance the accumulated gas in the human body. Arthritis is said to worsen during August and September (monsoon season). The general belief is that arthritis begins to deteriorate in July and worsens in August and September. Thus, the consumption of Katrottikkai in July helps in controlling arthritis. In addition, it is believed that Katrottikkai can prevent sinusitis.

Get Involved

Visit the Naguleswaram Temple and enjoy a spiritual bath at the Keerimalai temple. Join with the others who would be floating offerings to their deceased parents and ancestors in the sea off the Naguleswaram Temple. Alternatively, enjoy a delicious vegetarian meal and have a relaxing dip in the sea.

Women’s Day

Did You Know

The Jaffna Tamil culture is patrilineal but matrilocal. This is a unique combination of cultural specificity.
The Tamil women born in this region to a father who himself is considered a Jaffna man, enjoys considerable economic privileges through her mother. These complex family and inheritance ties have led to special Property Laws for these people; distinct from other part of Sri Lanka. The matriarch of the family would transfer her own dowry for her daughter’s marriage as dowry. This results in the daughter or daughters living with the matriarch or in close proximity.Another distinct feature of the women of this region is their names –specifically their surnames. An unmarried daughter will carry her father’s first-name at the beginning of her name, as opposed to having her name end with the surname/family name. This assures the partilineage of the woman.Similarly, a married woman carries her spouse’s name in front of her given name. This signifies the patriarchal system that governs these women and region.

The Rich, the Blessed and the Versatile

In general, a Jaffna woman is wealthier than her spouse- at least at the time a young couple marries. The marriage dowry includes a matrilineal inheritance of land, gold, cash and other valuables. So from birth, a female child is ear-marked to be wealthier than its male sibling. A female child is not shunned or considered a burden in this society. Thus, parents encourage education and employment. The women of this region are blessed with having a near 100% literacy rate. Of the 64 Tamil art forms, each girl child is taught 1 or more art forms – dancing, singing, playing a musical instrument, painting etc. So these rather content-looking women actually possess versatile talents.

On The Day

Visit the Ammachchi Unavagam Restaurant, in Thirunelveli run by solely by women. Enjoy the fresh, nutritious, organic breakfast. Next set off in the ferry to the Nainai Nagapooshani Amman temple in Nainathivu Island, to pay homage to the great serpent goddess. Make time to visit the ancient Buddhist Naga Vihare Temple also located in this Island. Alternatively if you do not wish to stretch your sea legs, visit the Veeramakali Amman Temple, in Nallur. This temple is entirely dedicated to a female deity. Join in the religious observation with a simple offering of fresh flowers. Indulge in retail therapy at the Jaffna Palmyrah Handicrafts Centre or the Jaffna Market shop for vibrant clothes, accessories and jewellery.

Maha Shivarathri

Did You Know

Majority of Jaffna residents are Shaivites. Their religion is a sect of Hinduism called Shaivism or Saivam. Their main god is Lord Shiva or Sivaperummal . Maha Sivarathri translates as ‘the Great Night of Lord Shiva’. Thus, Maha Shivarathri is the major annual Hindu festival of this Region. On this day, the devotees will only consume vegetarian meals and avoid alcohol, meat, seafood and partying. A compulsory visit to a temple is observed. As Lord Shiva is the destroyer and embodiment of love and creation, devotees tend to have a particular form of love or affection towards him, called Bhakti. So this festival is quintessentially a day to express their bhakthi. All Hindu temples will conduct special poojas on this day. Devotees will stay up throughout the night in religious observance either at home or at a temple. Lord Shiva is idolized in many physical forms. However, on this day he is seen in the Shivalingam or Lingam form. The Lingam is made up of the male and female sex organs. This signifies creation and procreation.

On The Day

In the morning, visit the Karainagar Sivan Temple. It is referred to as the Sri Lankan Cithamparam. Chithamparam temple in India is the most venerated temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. So this certainly is a special temple on the tiny island of Karainagar. The Island is home to a small colonial Dutch fort, Hammanhiel. This is an ideal construct to observe Dutch military architecture. Next, spend some time at Casuarina Beach relaxing and unwinding. The casuarina trees that grow here lend their name to this beach. The beach is highly regarded for its soft, white sand and shallow shore that extend for miles. In the evening, return to the mainland and stop by the Thiruvasaga Aranmanai, in Navatkuli. This Aranmanai or Castle is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The Castle contains a large number of lingams and the largest stone chariot of Sri Lanka. Special poojas will be held in lieu of Maha Sivarathri.

Get Involved

Visit the religious locations with a simple offering of clean, fresh flowers. Partake in the colourful processions and observe the unique events. Try out scrumptious vegetarian meals throughout the day. At the Thiruvasaga Aranmanai, ring the bells in offering to Lord Shiva. Chant the Sivapuranam or Hymn of Shiva, in your language of choice. The Hymn is displayed in local and international languages for the benefit of the visitor.

Valentine’s Day

Did You Know

The ancient people of Jaffna District were the Naga clan – the Cobra clan. They were one of the 2 major groups that inhibited this Island. It is believed, that they either assimilated or morphed into the current population in the past 1,500 years. Still remaining is an area of religious significance to the Nagas called Maviddapuram – The Place Where Horse Face Changed. Naguleswaram, situated in Keerimalai, is an ancient 5,000+ years old temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. Just 2 km from this temple we find the equally ancient Maviddapuram Kandaswamy Temple. This temple is dedicated to Lord Kandan or Katharagama Deviyo. Lord Kandan is the embodiment of love and valiancy. The romance of this temple would quicken the heart of even the most cynical.

The Lovers and Their Temple for The God of Love

The time is 8 th Centuary. Young, valiant and handsome Ukkirasinghan Senan, was the much loved king of the Nagas. On Full Moon days, the King visited Naguleswaram for prayer and a spiritual bath in the mystic waters of Keerimalai Springs. Around this time, the cursed young Indian princess suffering from dyspepsia and facial deformity that mirrors a horse’s head, arrives from the mighty Chola Kingdom to Sri Lanka. To lift the curse put on her by a sage, she had to bathe in the Keerimalai Springs. As prophesized, miraculously she is cured. As a show of her gratitude and devotion, she begins refurbishment of a 5,000 year old humble shrine into a grand temple. Along comes King Ukkirasinghan for his monthly prayers to the Naguleswarm temple. There he sees the now cured, stunning young beauty and falls instantly in love. His request to speak with the Princess was rejected. That night the valiant King infiltrates her camp and abducts the sleeping princess by himself. The Princess informs the King of her vow of celibacy till completion of construction. The King then joins his resources to accelerate the construction of the Temple. This is the Maviddapuram Kandaswamy temple we see today. Construction was completed in 789 CE.

Get Involved

Head to Maviddapuram, trace the steps of the Princess from the place she set up camp, Kumarathi Pallam, to the Temple she met the King, Naguleswaram. Make a short stroll to the Keerimalai Springs. Visit the grand symbol of love, valiancy, devotion and gratitude-Maviddapuram Kandaswamy Temple. Here, search for the sculptures of the Lovers. View the amazing Floating Rock. The rock is said to be part of the floating bridge constructed by Indian Prince Rama. Prince Rama used the bridge to rescue his bride from the Sri Lankan king, Ravanan. The Temple offers a meal at 1pm. At the pristine Kankesanturai Beach, watch the sunset with your love.

Thai Poosam

Did You Know

Majority of Jaffna residents are Shaivites. Their religion is a sect of Hinduism called Shaivism or Saivam. Thai Poosam is a Shaiva festival. This day is significant to 2 major gods of Hinduism – Lord Shiva and Lord Kandan. Lord Kandan is often referred to as Katharagama Deviyo in other parts of the Country. On orders of his father, Lord Shiva, Lord Kandan is said to have vanquished evil demons on this day. And as such, Thai Poosam is observed as an auspicious day for new beginnings. A girl-baby’s earlobes are pierced in preparation to adorn ear-studs. This signifies the baby’s initiation into its gender identity female. Also toddlers are taught the Tamil alphabets by writing on newly harvested rice. This is their initiation to life-long learning. Kavadi dance is a form of religious dance that is specific to Lord Kandan’s devotees. The devotees carry a Kavadi , which is an artifact that is adorned by peacock feathers, on their shoulders as they dance to music. Kavadi dance can include body mortification and bodily suspension from hooks pierced through the devotee’s flesh.

On The Day

In the morning, visit the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple to watch the age-old reenactment of paddy harvest called Puthir Day. The Temple officials will ceremoniously set-off in a vintage Austin Cambridge car to the Temple’s rice fields in the village of Meesalai. A token of harvest is brought back in the same car. Enjoy some sweet pongal rice, which will be offered to all who visit the Temple on that day. At night, visit the historical Innuvil Kandaswamy temple to partake in the Mancham Festival. This ancient temple is said to have the World’s first Hindu Golden Chariot or Mancham. This 108-years old Chariot is often referred to as the Ullaga maha mancham or the World’s largest Golden Chariot. At this site, you’d also be able to see Kavadi dance of the devotees.

Get Involved

Visit these locations with a simple offering of clean, fresh flowers. Partake in the colourful processions and observe the unique events. Help move the heavy Golden Chariot of Innuvil, by pulling its thick coirropes. Why not try your hand on a bit of Kavadi dance? Body mortification is not for everyone, but a unique scene to view.

Thai Pongal

Did You Know

Agriculture permeates all aspects of life in Jaffna. So it’s no wonder that the people of Jaffna have their own special series of festivals relating to cultivation and harvest. The first of which is Thai Pongal. Thai is the 10th month in the Tamil solar calendar. Pongal means ‘boiling over’. Thai Pongal signifies the abundance of harvest and prosperity. However, in essence it is a thanksgiving celebration.

The Sun and The Bullocks

The Sun determines the weather patterns and the bullocks provide considerable amount of assistance for a successful harvest. In July-August period, with the timely arrival of the rains, the seeds of rice are sown and grown. The wet fields are then ploughed by the bullocks. During September, the seedlings are ready for transplanting. Weather conditions act favourably for the rice to grow and be harvested in December. The bullocks help in threshing to separate grains from plant. So Thai Pongal is a thanksgiving harvest festival paying homage to the Sun. In case you are wondering about the bullocks, the day after Thai Pongal is Maattu Pongal. On this day, the bullocks and cows will be honoured for their contribution towards agriculture.

On The Day

On the day, every home will be cleaned and decorated with mango leaves, coconut leaves, flowers and flower garlands. Early in the morning, sweet pongal rice is cooked on a makeshift open-fire outside the house and symbolically offered to the Sun. All begins with the drawing of rice flour kolams or floor decorations. The kolam will include a drawing of the Sun. A makeshift stove is constructed in the middle of the kolam and cow’s milk is brought to boil until it spills over. As the milk spills over the rim of the pot, all who are present, will rejoice by shouting – Pongal-lo pongal! Then the new rice from December’s harvest, is used to prepare sweet pongal rice in the same pot the milk was boiled in. Brace yourself for you’re sure to hear loud firecrackers in all directions.

Get Involved

There are various fun activities for a visitor to the City. Join in by lighting fire crackers, flying kites and joining kite flying competitions. Bicycle races and other fun community activities including traditional sports and cultural shows will be scheduled at various locations. Some might be surprised to see the men undertaking most of the work including the sweet pongal rice preparation. Since Jaffna men have traditionally been involved in agriculture, they tend to play a major role in the festivities. So there is something for all, join in and get involved! If you are around on the 8th of February, why not visit the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple to partake in the Puthir Day rituals? Enjoy some sweet pongal rice that will be offered to all who visit the Temple on that day.

Pongal-lo pongal!