Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Pongal in Rome

Observing the rituals and local practices on the occasion of Pongal, Mr H.H.Wilson, Professor of Sanskrit, University of Oxford, highlights striking points of coincidence between the observances of the East and the West.  This extract is from his book, “Essays and lectures on the religions ofIndia”, published in 1862. (page 172)

"There can be no doubt that the observance of the Uttarayana is a practice of high antiquity, and there can be equally little doubt that it was of like universality amongst, at least, the Indo-Teutonic races. The analogies are so obvious, that they must instantly occur to every one's mind; and the offerings and distribution of food and sweetmeats and presents, the sports and the rejoicing, and the interchange of mutual good wishes, which characterize the Uttarayana amongst the Hindus, are even yet, though to a less extent than heretofore, retained by Christian nations at the same season; beginning with the plum-puddings and mince-pies of Christmas, passing through the new year's gifts and happy new years, and terminating with Twelfth-night. Whatever modifications these types of rejoicing may have undergone, and however changed in their present purport, by their connexion with our religious faith, they are evidently of the same general character as the observances of the Hindus; and designate the commencement of a period, in which the northern hemisphere is again to be gladdened by the proximity of the fountain of light and heat.
In looking for the more striking points of coincidence between the observances of the East and West at this particular season, it is not necessary to be restricted to dates, beyond approximate limits. Our own calendar has been subjected to different reforms, which have, even within a recent term, advanced, by twelve days, the enumeration of the days of the month; and alterations of an astronomical nature have also been alluded to, which may perhaps explain further deviations in this respect. The main point of agreement is unaffected. It is not the recurrence of any precise day of the week or month that constitutes the occasion of the celebration; it is the recurrence of the commencement of the sun's northward course, the Uttarayana, or winter solstice, from which all the manifestations of gladness derive their origin: and whether this be fixed accurately or inaccurately — whether the period at which the phenomenon was first noticed has in the course of ages undergone a change —is immaterial. Little doubt can be entertained that the same event gave rise to the same feelings; and that they have been expressed by actions, varying in form, but not in spirit, by very distant nations, through a very long succession of the generations of mankind.
It has already been seen that the Romans connected the beginning of the year with the sun's entrance into Capricorn, and that they then celebrated the renovation of nature. Their mode of celebrating it seems to have had many things in common with the usages of the Hindus, particularly in the interchange of sweetmeats; only substituting for the rice, cakes, and molasses of the Hindus, figs, dates, and honey. These articles they sent, at this season, to their friends and relations: they were intended, according to Janus, to be ominous of an agreeable year to follow.
Whatever may be thought of this coincidence, there can scarcely be a doubt that we have some community of origin between the Pongal and the blessing of the cattle at Rome, on the day dedicated to St. Anthony. According to the legend, the Saint once tended a herd of swine, and hence possibly his connexion with other animals. A much more intelligible relation subsists between them and the Hindu Indra, or Jupiter pluvius, as provender is plentiful and nutritive in proportion as rain is abundant. It will be observed that the time of the year, the decorating of the cattle, the bringing them to a public place, the sprinkling of them with holy water, and the very purport of the blessing, that they may be exempt from evils, are so decidedly Indian, that could a Dravira Brahman be set down of a sudden in the Piazza, before St. Mary's church at Rome, and were he asked what ceremony he witnessed, there can be no doubt of his answer; he would at once declare they were celebrating the Pongal.
The long course of ages which has elapsed has necessarily impaired the evidence of a perfect concordance between the ceremonies with which the nations of antiquity commemorated the sun's northern journey; yet no reasonable doubt can be entertained that they did agree in celebrating that event with practices, if not precisely the same, yet of a very similar character; and that traces of such conformity are still to be discovered in the unaltered ritual of the Hindus, and the popular, though ill - understood and fast expiring practices of the Christian world,— affording a curious and interesting proof of the permanency of those institutions which have their foundation in the immutable laws of nature, and in the common feelings of mankind."