One fateful spring morning, thousands of years ago, Kama, the God of Love,decided to wield his Cupid´s bow and fire a flowery arrow into the heart of Lord Shiva himself who sat in deep meditation. Shiva, thus aroused, becomes furious and burns poor Kama to ashes with the flames of wrath leaping out of his third eye. Much later, Rathi the celestial consort of Kama appeals to Shiva in tearful agony and Shiva moved by her distress resurrects Kama out of the ashes.
This event is celebrated as a 10 day festival alternately in the popular quarters of the town of Tiruvannamalai and inside the big temple of Arunachaleswara under the auspices of the Vasantha Utsavam. In the town it is celebrated in five minor shrines dedicated to Devi or Subramanya. However, in the temple celebration, Kama is resurrected, three or five days after his death. And with this idea, the ashes are collected in a little mound and in the midst of chanting Rathi pours milk on them as is the custom in funerals. In some cases Shiva also gives a stick to Rathi with which to beat on the ashes thus showing that the Lord has accepted the appeal of the wife and that it is He who thus accords to Kama the right to live again. Moreover in the temple, the festival is celebrated just after the vernal equinox which corresponds to midday of the gods day. It is notable that the 10th and final day of the festival coincides with the full moon of Chithirai in conjunction with the Chaithra constellation.
The deity of this festival is Lord Somaskanda, a form of Shiva and Parvathi, usually found in a shrine on the south-western corner of the main temple of Lord Arunachala. From the first day of the festival upto the ninth, every night around 10 o clock, the gods are brought outside to the third courtyard of the temple, installed in a special palanquin and there ensues an elaborate procession-celebration of the Gods in the form of ten splendid, event-filled tours around the Makila trees lasting till well over midnight. The significance of the “Makila tree” (mimusops elangi) : the tamil verb makil means to enjoy, to desire and the noun makilchi means joy, exultation or ecstasy. Makiltaran is one of the names of the god Kama. The word makila is often pronounced makuta meaning crown and refers to the coronation of Lord Shiva as the sovereign of the universe.
After coming out of his shrine, Somaskanda is installed on the first pandal just in front of the golden flag pole facing the main shrine. Here the Gods are placed under a lovely canopy of fragrant cooling roots called vilamichaiver vimanam (vilamichai root canopy) hand-made by artisans specially for this occasion, and worshipped with offerings of flowers, diparadhana (waving of lights) and karpuraratti (burning of camphor) with the accompaniment of the temple musicians on their mridangam and nathaswaram.
Next the Lord is brought to the second pandal, the panneer mandapam, where he is greeted at first with the lovely fragrance of panneer (rose-water) which is sprinkled copiously from the top. An offering of diparadhana is made and the priest sthanikar climbs on the pedestal and sits at the feet of the Gods. Along with the kalasams Soma and Kama, the Gods are decorated with garlands. And then to the delight of the already excited spectators, the Gods perform a frenzied ritual-dance in front of the mirror placed on the adjacent gallery, with the musicians playing accompaniment with great fervour. Now the Gods settle down under the panneer mandapam to witness a series of elaborate rituals whose significance should not be lost. The showering of flowers on the Gods by the Gandharva Kanni (the virgin-nymph) is enacted by a puppet activated by strings attached from the adjacent gallery terrace. In a very beautiful show which is enthusiastically cheered by all the spectators both old and young, the lovely gandharva kanni puppet comes many times, seemingly out of thin air, and showers buckets of rose and jasmine flowers on the Gods. It is indeed a marvellous spectacle! Then a priest pours a pot of water with five vilva leaves in front of the deities and makes an offering of lights. During all this time, the stately temple elephant stands in attendance, donned in its festive robes. In the past it would gently fan the Gods with a venchamaram (sacred white fan made of peacock feathers and silk).
After these rituals, the ten processional rounds take place and the gods are borne on their palanquin ten times around the makila trees enclave led by the elephant and accompanied by the musicians and singers and followed by devotees. At the completion of each round, the gods dance in front of the mirror and then remain seated under the panneer mandapam where they receive two floral showers by the Gandharva kanni and diparadhana (light) offering.
The significance of the Gandharva Kanni (celestial virgin nymph) : The Gandharvas are celestial beings and also musicians. They are the guardians of Soma, the divine nectar of immortality and divine teacher of the Moon who is also called Soma. They are the parents of the first human beings, the brother-sister couple Yama and Yami. The Gandharvas are attributed with a mystical power over women and the right to possess them. They are invoked in traditional hindu marriage ceremonies and in the brahmin tradition, the bride who is to be married is supposed to belong first to Soma, to Gandharva and to Agni before becoming the wife of a human being. A gandharva marriage is a marriage of love (not arranged). The chief of the Gandharvas is Chitraratha. The wives of the gandharva men are usually celestial damsels, apsaras. In the present festival, the appearance of the Gandharva kanni would mean to manifest, in a nubile form, the expression of desire and the virtue of union as well as the other elements which are associated here-in (flowers, fragrance, music).
The death and resurrection of Kama represent the spiritual truth of how after the ego is destroyed, one is reborn as pure eternal Being. The fact that the flames from the third eye of Shiva burn Kama signifies that the third eye of Jnana (knowledge) in one’s heart must be opened in order for the ego (ignorance) to be destroyed for no darkness can prevail when the light of knowledge shines !