Opinion Article

Tamil New Year

[TamilNet, Sunday, 13 April 2008, 02:30 GMT]
The Tamil New Year day falls on Sunday, 13th April, since 2008 is a leap year. On other years, it is 14th April. It is not only the Tamil New year, but also the New Year of Sinhalese and Malayalis. It is not appropriate to call it a Hindu New Year since vast majority of Hindus in India don't celebrate it a New Year. It is only an auspicious day called Mesha-samkraanti for them. But, the Sikhs celebrate it a New Year. It is equally inappropriate to call it a Buddhist New Year, as Buddhists don’t celebrate it universally. The calculation for the commencement of this New Year and the calendar based on it are entirely astronomical.

The Tamil New Year day falls on Sunday, 13th April, since 2008 is a leap year. On other years, it is 14th April.

It is not only the Tamil New year, but also the New Year of Sinhalese (Alut Avurudu) and Malayalis (Vishu), even though the Kollam Era of Malayalam begins from the month of Aava'ni (August-September).

It is not appropriate to call it a Hindu New Year since vast majority of Hindus in India don't celebrate it a New Year. Yet, it is an auspicious day called Mesha-samkraanti for them. In Orissa, it is observed as Paana-samkraanti. The Sikhs and some Assamese also celebrate it as New Year under different names.

It is equally inappropriate to call it a Buddhist New Year, as Buddhists don’t celebrate it universally.

In Sri Lanka, since both Sinhalese and Tamils share this occasion of New Year, it has been termed as Sinhala-Tamil New Year. In recent times, there is also a tendency to term it as Sinhala-Hindu New Year by certain sections.

Since the people who practice this New Year are predominantly Tamils in Canada, the Canadian Prime Minister chose to term it as Tamil New Year and established a practice of wishing Canadian Tamils well on the occasion, in recent years. We can be sure that the Canadian Prime Minister must have also wished the Canadian Sikhs on this occasion choosing the term Vaisakhi.

The calculation for the commencement of this New Year and the calendar based on it are entirely astronomical.

There are two ways of reckoning the Year in the astronomical texts of South Asia: one is Solar (Sauramaana in Sanskrit) and the other is Lunar (Caandramaana in Sanskrit). The calendar and terminologies are mostly a combination of both (luni-solar).

The commencement of New Year observed by Tamils, Malayalis and Sinhalese is a solar reckoning, but it also involves a stellar perspective. In this calculation, the entry of the Sun into the first degree of the Fixed Zodiac (Nirayana in Sanskrit), i.e., the first degree of the constellation of Achchuvini or the first degree of the zodiacal sign of Aries (Mesha in Sanskrit and Thakar in Tamil) is taken as the beginning of the year.

Most of the Hindus observe the Lunar New Year, based on the number of full moon and new moon days, which is commonly known as Yugaadhi (Caandramaana Yugaadhi). It falls in the solar month of Pangkuni (March-April), but its corresponding date with the Gregorian calendar, the Western calendar widely used in the world today, varies.

The co-existence of both the solar and lunar systems and even related controversies are known from the times of Mahabharata. When the Pandavas reappeared after their banishment of 13 years, Duryodhana countered them saying that the 13 years were only lunar years and they had not fulfilled the requirement according to solar years and therefore should get into banishment again. Bhishma had to intervene to say that 13 solar years were also over and Duryodhana's almanac was wrong.

Anyway, for some reasons the Solar New Year found much currency in the southern parts of South Asia. It is associated with the Salivaahana Era, the reckoning of which is found predominantly in the inscriptions of South India and Sri Lanka. The Era begins in 77-78 AD.

The Solar New Year in April is also associated with the 60 years cycle that has rendered names for the years. This cycle is based on the calculation of the relative positions of Jupiter and Saturn, the two major planets of the solar system, supposed to be exerting special impact on the climate and natural phenomena in a year, in addition to the usual impact of earth's revolution around the sun. In this cycle, the relative positions of Jupiter and Saturn will repeat after 60 years.

Once again, the 60 years cycle is peculiar to Tamil astronomical texts. The names of the years are widely used only by the Tamils. The system is essentially a southern innovation despite the names being in Sanskrit.

Even though the beginning of the year and the beginnings of the months are calculated on the basis of the sun's transit, it should be noted that the names of the months in Tamil indicate their origins from lunar calendar.

The names of the months originated from the names of the constellations in which the full moon will occur in that month.

full moon in Chiththirai constellation (Spica)
full moon in Visaakam constellation (α, β, γ, ι of Librae)
full moon in Moolam (Aa'ni) constellation (ε, ζ, η, θ, ι, κ, λ, υ, μ and ν Scorpii)
full moon in Uththaraadam (Uththara-Aadam) constellation (ζ and σ Sagittarii)
full moon in Aviddam constellation (α to δ Delphini)
full moon in Pooraddaathi constellation (α and β Pegasi)
full moon in Achchuvini / Asvini constellation (β and γ Arietis)
full moon in Kaarthikai constellation (Pleiades)
full moon in Mirukaseeridam constellation (λ, φ Orionis)
full moon in Poosam constellation (γ, δ and θ Cancri)
full moon in Makam constellation (Regulus)
full moon in Uththaram constellation (Denebola).

These full moon days are festival days in the classical and folk traditions of South Asia since time immemorial. Note how they mark the festival days in the Tamil tradition. For example the full moon day in Pangkuni was celebrated in the sandy stretches of the Kaveri delta, as Pangkuni Muyakkam, according to Changkam literature. Today, it is the most important annual festival day in the Siva temples of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka as Pangkuni-uththaram.

Therefore, the Tamil calender is actually Luni-Solar, despite its base of reckoning is in the sun's transit. This is because, accuracy is achieved better in calculations based on the sun's transit.

A unique reckoning, exclusively based on the sun's transit through the constellations is the traditional Maldivian Calendar.

Coming under a common pattern of extreme peninsular India and Sri Lanka, comprising Tamils, Malayalis and Sinhalese, the Dhivehi (Maldivian) calendar also begins in April, with the entry of the sun into the constellation Asvini / Assidha. But, they take it as occurring on the 8th of April (the precession position of roughly 9th century AD).

The concept of the Maldivian calendar is unique to suit its equatorial location, climatic fluctuations and to help them in ascertaining the arrival of the schools of fish, compared to the agrarian based calendars of the rest of South Asia.

There are 27 months in this calendar based on the sun's transit in the 27 constellations (Nadchaththiram), each month having 13 or 14 days.

The original ideas behind the designing of the solar calendars were to make them coincide with the equinoxes and solstices.

The vernal equinox was occurring on the 14th of April, at the time when Varaha Mihira, the astronomer of Ujjaini, perfected the solar calendar. Today the equinox takes place on the 20 / 21st of March. The date advanced due to the precession of the earth's axis. For the same reason, the Winter Solstice, i.e., the returning of the sun from the tropic of Capricorn towards north, which was taking place earlier on the 14th of January, now occurs on the 21 / 22nd of December.

Our astronomers were very well aware of this shift caused by precession, which in their term is Ayanamsa. However, they didn't want to change the dates of the New Year of April 14th and Thaip-pongkal / Makara-samkraanti of January 14th, which was originally the Winter Solstice.

Their argument is that the calendar is not merely solar but also stellar.

The beginning point of the zodiac in their opinion is a fixed star Asvini, and the sun's transit in it is important.

For the progressive year, for which the beginning date would change along with vernal equinox, they have another reckoning called, Saayana Year (of the Moving Zodiac, opposite to Nirayana or the Fixed Zodiac).

The justifications of the arguments need further scrutiny since the constellation Asvini itself was not the beginning of the zodiac in the remote past. It shifted from Mirukaseeridam, through Rohini and Kaarthikai as testified by literature and now is in Uththaraddaathi first quarter.

The recent development is a call from Karunanidhi, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu to the world Tamils to observe Thaip-pongkal as the Tamil New Year Day. A law has been passed recently in the Tamil Nadu State Assembly to this effect in February 2008. Mr. Karunanidhi is reported to have said that this change marks the rise and revolution of Tamils.

The arguments for the need of this new myth are not clear.

Disowning the beginning, cannot disown the concepts and science behind the system.

Whatever pros and cons can be said about April New Year can also be said about Thaip-pongkal, which is Makara-samkraanti to the rest of India.

The only difference it can make is that the Tamils would lose one of their secular festivals of astronomical significance that links them closely with the Dravidian legacies of the South.

The critics of the DMK government's move feel that such exercises of 'shallow myths' in the name of the noble venture of forging a prestigious global Tamil identity, remind of the Jayalalitha government's effort to ban certain folk practices and the subsequent quick retreat from it.

One has to see how fervently and colourfully the April New Year is celebrated by the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka, reminding us of the forgotten folk culture of the Dravidian South. It was the same before the war among the Tamils of Sri Lanka too.

Anyway, the doyen of Tamil writing, Puthumaippiththan, wrote long back in one of his short stories Kayittaravu, how the reckoning of time is an attribution we ourselves impose on us. (Naangka'laakap poaddukko'nda vakka'naika'l).

Authentic, academic details on the topic can be found in L.D. Swamikkannu Pillai's works, 'Panchanka and Calender', 'Indian Chronology', and D.C. Sircar's book on Indian Epigraphy.

13.04.08  Tamil New Year

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