A news report in the Tamil daily Dinamalar on the unique way of celebration of “Pongal” festival by the fishermen of a village in Cuddalore made interesting reading. It said that the fishermen of a village called “More Pannai” -மோர்பண்ணை (literally means ‘buttermilk farm’) used to select “Sapta kanni” or seven virgins a few days before “Pongal” festival and assign them the duty of making Pongal, the rice-dish. On the day of Pongal each of these young girls would cook Pongal in a separate pot. This would be offered to the Goddess Rana Bhadra Kali. Then a portion of Pongal from each pot would be collected along with other Puja items in a small sail boat made of coconut ingot. The boat would be ceremoniously taken to the sea shore accompanied by the 7 girls who would be carrying sacred milk-pots in their heads. At the shores, the girls would offer the milk from the pots to the sea and the boat would then be let into the waters. The belief is that the boat would carry the Puja items along with Pongal offerings to Goddess Ganga who is residing at the depth of the sea. Due to the involvement of the 7 virgins in the preparation of Pongal, this festival of the fisher folks is called as “Sapta Kanni Pongal”
(The picture above shows 2 men carrying the sail boat made from coconut ingot followed by 7 girls carrying milk pots)
Reading this information, I could see some connections from the past and the confirmation of historicity of certain beliefs of the past.
Foremost among them is the belief of these fishermen of Cuddalore village in Ramanathapuram district that River Ganges resides in the depth of the seas. The historic connection of this place is with none other than Rama of Ramayana. This district got its name as Ramanathapuram from Rama who crossed the seas from here. The sea here was originally known as Saagar as it was dug by Sagaras, the sons of King Sagara, the ancestor of Rama. In Valmiki Ramayana, though various names are used to indicate this sea (such as Varunaalaya, samudra, Mahaarnava etc), the name “Sagara” exclusively refers to the king of this sea (Bay of Bengal). Infact the name Bengal in Bay of Bengal was derived from Ganga which flows in the state of Bengal. The Ganga ends up in Ganga Sagar which became Bengal Sagar in course of time.
The speciality of this particular sea is that the river Ganga merges into this sea. When Rama provoked this sea when it didn’t give way for him to cross it to reach Lanka, Sagara, the king of this sea appeared before Rama. How could a sea appear in some form is upto debate by agnostics. But the description given by Valmiki fits with that of an ocean. That description says that Sagara was led or escorted by Ganga and other water bodies!
“Ganga sindhu pradhanaabhir aapagaabhi” (Valmiki Ramayana, 6-22-22). Thoughtless translators could say that this verse refers to river Ganga and river Sindhu (Indus). But Sindhu joins Arabian Sea and not Bengal Saagar. The term Sindhu in this verse (Ganga sindhu) refers to the waters of Ganga. The waters of Ganga along with waters of other rivers that join the Bay of Bengal reach as far as Rameswaram. Rama built a bund (Setu) to stop these waters. This makes Setu a place where all the sacred rivers starting from Ganga and other rivers in the east coast that join the Bay of Bengal, get collected thereby making it a sacred spot for bathing.
Valmiki gives prominence to river Ganga in this verse as he says that the Ganga waters were the chief or primary (Pradhana) waters of this Saagar.
If only this idea had stayed on for all these ages since Ramayana period, or rather from Bhagiratha (who brought Ganga from the Himalayas) period, this habit of offering puja to the Ganga in the depth of the seas could have come up. It is also possible that someone in the later period had introduced this idea of making an offering to Ganga in the sea here. But what stands out is the fact that Ganga waters are flowing in this part of the sea - an idea that was also held at Ramayana times.
This belief found among the fishermen community makes it something special as these people are sea-faring ones and could have paid reverences to the sacred river Ganga as they moved across the Saagar. It is amazing that this belief on Ganga’s presence in the depth of this sea is retained in this community while the whole world had failed to recognise it.
The second information is about the importance to given Sapta Kanni – the seven virgins. The local legend about the inclusion of Sapta Kanni in making Pongal dish is not known. But the worship of RaNa Bhadra Kali brings in another dimension of ancient connection. Kali is one of the seven mother goddesses. According to the census records of the British period, the fishermen community of those times had worshiped a goddess called Kaala Kumari.
Kaala Kumari was worshiped as the Naiad of the rivers by the fishermen communities of Bengal namely Kaibartta, Malo and Tiyars. Particularly among Tiyars there was a tradition to invoke Goddess Kaala Kumari during bad fishing seasons by offering her the first fruits.
The term Tiyar is wrongly understood as Theeyar (தீயர், தீயவர்) meaning bad people. The British saw them as bad people indulging in thefts. But the etymology of this term and the origin of these people show them to be “Islanders” (theevar or தீவர் – people of தீவு / island). British census records show them as Tivars or Teers or Tiyars. All these refer to the same class of sea faring people engaged in fishing. Until the British period they were found in many places along the coast lines of India in Bengal, South India, Malabar and Gujarat. They were even found inland in places like Mysore and Oudh (Ayodhya). Caldwell thought them to be immigrants from Ceylon. But they were generally regarded as fishing people whose chief God was Kaala Kumari, the Naiad of rivers.
The stretch of Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea was frequented by the fishermen from the islands of Indian Ocean which were there in some numbers until 3500 years ago when the last deluge wiped out those islands. That was the last time the ancient Pandian kingdom was relocated and was moved inland, to present day Madurai. The sea faring subjects of that kingdom were disturbed and were forced to find new lands. That is how they went up as far as Bengal. The name Teevar sounding like a Tamil word (for islander) and the worship of Kaala Kumari bring them closer to ancient submerged Tamil lands.
Kumari or Kaumari was one among the Sapta Matas (seven mothers) and she was the mother of Kumara or Skanda, the patron deity of ancient Tamils. (According to Tamil sangam texts, Kumara was the son of Meenakshi and he ruled the Pandian lands. The first Sangam age texts focused on his escapades).
Kumari as a virgin girl was engaged in penance to marry Shiva. The remaining vestige of that worship is still found in the temple of Kumari in Kanya Kumari. Kumari was worshiped for release from the sin of adultery. The Tamil epic Manimegalai contains a reference to a woman from Varanasi who went to this temple of Kumari and worshiped her as a propitiation for the adultery committed by her. This Kanya Kumari also protects the sea faring people in the dead of night and in turbulent storms. Thus the connection between the seafaring people and fishermen of the Indian Ocean goes back in time to the period of the legendary Pandian lands and Virgin Kumari who was also worshiped as one among the Sapta Mathas (seven mothers).
The same idea is found in the deity called Nyai Roro Kidul of Indonesia. The term Kidul in this deity’s name sounds like Tamil “Kadavul” which means God / deity.
She is said to reside in the sea (Indian Ocean) and is said to protect the people crossing the seas. The presence of ancient Tamils in Indonesia or influence of ancient Tamils to Indonesia cannot be ruled out as there is textual evidence of people from Java (Jaavaka in Tamil) having visited Madurai during Chithrai festival. This is reported in the Sangam text called “Madurai-k-Kanchi” whose hero was the Pandyan King Nedum Chezhiyan. The Mangulam Brahmi scripts reveal that he belonged to the 3rd century BCE!
The Java connection to Pandyan lands can also be ascertained by the fact that there is a place called Madura off Java, separated by the strait of Madura. In all likelihood, Java was the “Thenga Nadu” of the 2nd Sangam age (between 7000 years BP and 3500 years BP) as a people called "Tengger" exists in Java today. Thengar means coconut ( a place of coconut trees), it also means ‘South’. Pandyans were known as Southerners. The presence of a female deity of the sea (Nyai Roro Kidul) much in the lines of Kanya Kumari in protecting the seafaring and sea bound people cannot be an exclusive or independent development.
Coming to Kaala Kumari, the original idea of Kanya Kumari that existed before the last deluge among the Tamils that peopled the Indian Ocean was retained by the Teevars or Tiyars even after they lost their earlier habitat. This is ascertained from the kind of deities worshiped by the Teeyars and other fishermen communities of Bengal until 2 centuries ago. Their patron deity was Bura – Buri – who were none other than Shiva and Parvathi the patron deities of ancient Pandyans and therefore their subjects, the fishermen.
The worshiped Manasa Devi, a goddess with a child in her hand. She protected the children from diseases.
The same deity with a child in hand is Isakki Amman who is worshiped in numerous places in Tamilnadu by numerous people.
(Isakki Amman in a temple in Tamilnadu)
The other deity is Kaala Kumari who was worshiped during troubled periods in fishing and in storms. The deity Kanya Kumari fits in with this description.
The worship of Rana Bhadra Kali with the help of seven virgins (sapta kanni) by the fishermen of Ramanatha puram district shows a connection to all these. The Indus tablet of a seven women also bears resemblance to worship with seven virgins (sapta kanni).
(Mohenjo-Daro seal no 430)
The seven figures in this seal look like seven young girls. They are wearing a head gear. A religious ritual is seen in the background. Going by the Sapta Kanni concept in Pongal festival among the fishermen community in TN, this seal looks no different from a Sapta Kanni festival.
The seven Goddesses or Sapta Matha concept was the oldest traditon in worship that existed in the Southern seas given the fact the Kaumari (or Kumari), one of the seven Goddesses, with a cock and spear in her hand and a peacock as her mount was related to Skanda or Kumara or Muruga of Tamil lands. The people who worshiped her largely constituted the fishermen community as they were dependent on the seas for livelihood. They were dislocated from the southern seas to regions like the Ganga Saagar (Bay of Bengal) which brought them closer to the worship of Ganges. And they had also gone or rather the idea of Sapta Kanni had gone as far as the Indus – Saraswathi basin from where the above seal was recovered.
The Sapta Kanni Pongal of the fishermen of Ramanatha puram brings all these together with a historical touch.
Perhaps it needs a la Joe de Cruz to appear from this community (which celebrated Sapta Kanni Pongal) to search into their roots to tell us about this unique tradition of combining Sapta Kanni and Ganges. I believe my version would add credence to that story.
'சப்தகன்னி பொங்கல்' வைத்து கொண்டாடிய மீனவர்கள்
ராமநாதபுரம்: ராமநாதபுரம் மாவட்டம் கடலுார் அருகே மோர்பண்ணை கிராமத்தில் 'சப்தகன்னி பொங்கல்' வைத்து மீனவர்கள் கொண்டாடினர்.பொங்கல் வைக்க சில தினங்களுக்கு முன் ஊர் கூட்டம் நடத்தி 7 கன்னி பெண்களை தேர்வு செய்தனர். அந்த குழந்தைகள் நேற்று மோர்பண்ணை ரணபத்ர காளியம்மன் கோயில் முன் 7 பானைகளில் பொங்கல் வைத்தனர். பொங்கலை காளியம்மனுக்கு படைத்து கிராமமக்கள் ஒன்று கூடி வழிபட்டனர்.
பின் தென்னை பாளையில் உருவாக்கிய பாய்மர படகில் 7 பானைகளில் எடுக்கப்பட்ட பொங்கல், பூஜைக்குரிய 2 தேங்காய் மூடிகள், பழம், ஊதுபத்தி போன்ற அபிஷேக பொருட்களை வைத்தனர். அந்த படகை மேளதாளத்துடன் கிராமத்தலைவர் மக்குவாட்டர்துரை கடலுக்கு எடுத்து சென்றார்.அவருடன் 7 கன்னி பெண்களும் தலையில் கரகம் சுமந்து சென்றனர். பின் கரக செம்பில் இருந்த மஞ்சள் கலந்த பாலை கடலில் கொட்டி வழிபட்டனர். கிராமத்தலைவர் பாய்மர படகை கடலில் விட்டார்.படகு ஆழ்கடல் நோக்கி சென்றது. அந்த படகில் உள்ள பூஜை பொருட்கள் ஆழ்கடலில் இருக்கும் கங்காதேவியிடம் சேருவதாக கிராமமக்கள் தெரிவித்தனர்.
அவர்கள் கூறுகையில், “எங்களுக்கு வாழ்வு தரும் கடலை கங்காதேவியாக வழிபடுகிறோம். அந்த தேவிக்கு பொங்கல் வைத்து வழிபட்டால் மீன்பிடி தொழில் சிறப்பாக இருக்கும்,” என்றனர்.