Tamil Puthandu (Tamil: தமிழ்புத்தாண்டு), also known as Puthuvarusham or Tamil New Year, is the first day of year on the Tamil calendar. The festival date is set with the solar cycle of the lunisolar Hindu calendar, as the first day of the Tamil month Chithirai. It therefore almost always falls on or about 14 April every year on the Gregorian calendar. The same day is observed by Hindus elsewhere as the traditional new year, but is known by other names such as Vishu in Kerala, and Vaisakhi in central and north India.
On this day, Tamil people greet each other by saying "Puttāṇṭu vāḻttukkaḷ!" (புத்தாண்டு வாழ்த்துக்கள்) or "Iṉiya puttāṇṭu nalvāḻttukkaḷ!" (இனிய புத்தாண்டு நல்வாழ்த்துக்கள்), which is equivalent to "Happy new year". The day is observed as a family time. Households clean up the house, prepare a tray with fruits, flowers and auspicious items, light up the family Puja altar and visit their local temples. People wear new clothes and youngster go to elders to pay respects and seek their blessings, then the family sits down to a vegetarian feast.
The Tamil New Year follows the spring equinox and generally falls on 14 April of the Gregorian year. The day celebrates the first day of the traditional Tamil calendar and is a public holiday in both Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. The same date is observed as the traditional new year in Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Manipur, Tripura, Bihar, Odisha, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan as well as in Nepal and Bangladesh. Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka also celebrate the same day as their new year, likely an influence of the shared culture between South and Southeast Asia in the 1st millennium CE.
There are several references in early Tamil literature to the April new year. Nakkirar, Sangam period author of the Neṭunalvāṭai, wrote in the third century CE that the sun travels from Mesha/Chitterai through 11 successive signs of the zodiac. Kūdalūr Kizhaar in the third century CE refers to Mesha Raasi/Chitterai as the commencement of the year in the Puṟanāṉūṟu. The Tolkaapiyam is the oldest surviving Tamil grammar that divides the year into six seasons where Chitterai marks the start of the Ilavenil season or summer. The 8th century Silappadikaaram mentions the 12 Raasis or zodiac signs starting with Mesha/Chitterai. The Manimekalai alludes to the Hindu solar calendar as we know it today. Adiyarkunalaar, an early medieval commentator or Urai-asiriyar mentions the twelve months of the Tamil calendar with particular reference to Chitterai. There were subsequent inscriptional references in Pagan, Burma dated to the 11th century CE and in Sukhothai, Thailand dated to the 14th century CE to South Indian, often Vaishnavite, courtiers who were tasked with defining the traditional calendar that began in mid-April.
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Tamil people celebrate Puthandu, also called Puthuvarusham, as the traditional New Year. This is the month of Chittirai, the first month of the Tamil solar calendar, and Puthandu typically falls on 14 April. In some parts of Southern Tamil Nadu, the festival is called Chittirai Vishu. On the eve of Puthandu, a tray arranged with three fruits (mango, banana and jack fruit), betel leaves and arecanut, gold/silver jewellery, coins/money, flowers and a mirror. This is similar to Vishu new year festival ceremonial tray in Kerala. According to the Tamil tradition, this festive tray is auspicious as the first sight upon waking on the new year day. The home entrances are decorated elaborately with colored rice powder and these designs are called kolams.
In the temple city of Madurai, the Chitterai Thiruvizha is celebrated in the Meenakshi Temple. A huge exhibition is held, called Chitterai Porutkaatchi. On the day of Tamil New Year, a big Car Festival is held at Tiruvidaimarudur near Kumbakonam. Festivals are also held at Tiruchirapalli, Kanchipuram and many other places.
Sri Lankan Tamils observe the traditional new year in April with the first financial transaction known as the 'Kai-vishesham' where youngsters go to elders paying their respect, and elders giving their blessings and gifting pocket money to them. The event is also observed with the 'arpudu' or the first ploughing of the ground to prepare for the new agricultural cycle. The game of 'por-thenkai' or coconut wars between youth is played in villages through the Tamil north and east of the island while cart races are also held. The festive Puthandu season in April is a time for family visits and the renewal of filial bonds. It coincides with the Sinhalese new year season.
Later in the day, families enjoy a feast. A special dish called Mangai-pachadi is prepared from a variety of flavors, similar to pacchadi of new year foods of Ugadi and Vishu. It is made from sweet jaggery, astringent mustard, sour raw mango, bitter neem, and red chilies. These complex dish is ritually tasted by Tamils, as similar multi-flavors are by Hindus elsewhere on the new year. Such traditional festive recipes, that combine different flavors, are a symbolic reminder that one must expect all flavors of experiences in the coming new year, that no event or episode is wholly sweet or bitter, experiences are transitory and ephemeral, and to make the most from them.
In Malaysia and Singapore, Tamils join Sikhs, Malayalees and Bengalis to celebrate the traditional new year in mid-April with leaders across the political spectrum wishing the ethnic Indian community for the new year. Special religious events are held in Hindu temples, in Tamil community centers and Gurdwaras. Cultural programs and media events also take place. Its a day of celebration for the Indian community.
The previous Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-led Government of Tamil Nadu had declared in 2008 that the Tamil new year should be celebrated on the first day of Tamil month of Thai (14 January) coinciding with the harvest festival of Pongal. The Tamil Nadu New Year (Declaration Bill 2008) was enacted as the state law by the DMK assembly members and its Tamil Nadu Government on 29 January 2008. This law of the DMK majority-led government was subsequently rescinded by a separate act of legislation in the Tamil Nadu Assembly with an AIADMK majority-led government on 23 August 2011. Many in Tamil Nadu ignored the government legislation that rescheduled the festival date, and continued the celebration of their traditional Puthandu new year festival in mid-April. The Governor and Chief Minister of the Indian Union Territory of Puducherry, which has an ethnic Tamil majority, felicitated the public for the Tamil new year in April 2010.
The legislative reach to change the traditional religious new year by the DMK government was questioned by Hindu priests. The law was met with resistance by Tamils in the state and elsewhere. It was also challenged in court. The then opposition All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) in Tamil Nadu subsequently condemned the decision of the DMK Government in that state and urged their supporters to continue celebrating the traditional date in mid-April. Tamils in Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia and Canada continued to observe the new year in mid-April.
The previous state government in Tamil Nadu in an effort to placate popular sentiment announced that the same day will be celebrated as a new festival renamed as “Chithirai Tirunal” (the festival of Chithirai). The day remained a public holiday in Tamil Nadu under the DMK government, but not as Tamil new year, but purportedly to commemorate Dr. B.R Ambedkar, who was the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of Indian Constitution. All television channels in Tamil Nadu continued to telecast festive “Chithirai Tirunal Special Programs” on 14 April 2010. The leader of the AIADMK, Jayalalitha refused to recognize the repackaged festival, and felicitated the Tamil people for the traditional Tamil New Year. The MDMK leader Vaiko, followed suit. The controversy between the two dates subsided and the official celebrations during the traditional new year in April revived.
The Puthandu new year day is celebrated elsewhere but called by other names. For example, it is called Vaisakhi by Hindus and Sikhs in north and central India, which too marks the solar new year. Some examples include:
However, this is not the universal new year for all Hindus. For some, such as those in and near Gujarat, the new year festivities coincide with the five day Diwali festival. For others, the new year falls on Ugadi and Gudi Padwa, which falls a few weeks before Puthandu.
The same day every year is also the new year in parts of Southeast Asia such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Cambodia, likely an influence of their shared culture in the 1st millennium CE.
According to a 1957 publication by Gunasegaram, the new year celebrated in Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Champa (Vietnam) is the Tamil New Year with roots in the practices of Mohenjo-daro (Indus Valley Civilization). According to Nanacuriyan, this may be from the medieval era Tamil influence in Southeast Asia.
According to Jean Michaud and other scholars, the new year celebration traditions in Southeast Asian Massif have two roots. One is China, and this influence is found for example in Vietnam and southeastern China. These Sino-influenced communities celebrate the new year in the first or second lunar month after the winter solstice in December. The second group of people in the Massif celebrate the new year in mid April, much like most of India. This group consists of northeastern Indians, northeastern Myanmar, Tai speakers of Thailand, Laos, northern Vietnam and southern Yunnan. The festival is celebrated in the Massif in some ways unlike Puthandu. It is marked by an occasion to visit family and friends, splashing others with water (like Holi), drinking alcohol, as well as later wearing jewelry, new clothes and socializing. The new year festival is called regionally by different names: