The glorious festival of Karthigai Deepam came to its culmination on Sunday 21st November. On this day the flame or the holy beacon is lit on the summit of Arunachala hill. The prelude to the Lighting of the Great Flame started inside the big temple at 2 o clock in the morning. At this time, a Yagna or sacred fire Homa is kindled in the Mahamantapam while the Abhishekam to Lord Arunachaleswara is performed in the inner sanctum.
After the puja, Arathi is done by the priests by lighting a huge chunk of camphor on a golden plate and waving it around the Lord. The temple bells start clanging and the musicians beat on their drums. Amidst all these sounds, the temple walls resound with loud cries of devotion. The Arathi is brought outside and shown to the five lamps lit on earthen plates for which the Yagna has been going on. This is Bharani Deepam, the prelude to Karthigai Deepam. Its significance is that the universal Lord manifests as the five elements during the day and in the evening He again becomes the One Absolute Being and shines as Tejolinga when the Deepam is lit on the Hill. (Bharani is one of the 27 stellar constellations through which the moon is believed to pass through successively each day and according to the hindu almanac, Bharani precedes Krithika which is the constellation of Karthigai Deepam).
The earthenware lamps of Bharani Deepam are taken in procession around the temple. A fire torch is lit from these lamps and taken to the Hill top. Here on the summit there is a huge copper cauldron filled with ghee (poured in by devotees) and a wick made from many metres of cotton cloth rubbed with camphor after being steeped in the ghee. Millions of people have already arrived since morning and start walking giripradakshina around the Hill. The roads are packed with an ocean of people still increasing as the day goes by.
Around sunset, at 6 p.m. to be exact, the deity of Lord Ardhanaareeswara is brought out ceremoniously and installed in the DeepaMantapam in the big temple, facing the Hill. After Arathi is shown to the Lord, a thundering blast of fire crackers gives the signal to the men on the summit of the Hill to light the Flame. It is a Full Moon night and as the sun sets in the western sky and the beautiful full moon rises in the east, the flames of the Maha Karthigai Deepam spring forth into the sky on top of Arunachala, creating a wave of ecstatic devotion among all the people. A tremendous roar of “Annaamalaiyurukku Haro Haraa” is heard from all directions. The Deepam burns brightly and fills our hearts with the powerful and vibrant presence of the Lord. Everyone stands awe-stricken in front of this splendid sight and thousands fall down on their hands and knees doing Pranaam to the Great Lord. And thus the great festival of Deepam is completed. True Completion happens when it is not only outside with the Lighting of the Flame but also inside when the Flame of Jnana is lit correspondingly in the heart of each being.
Thursday 18th November is the day of the Maha Ratham or the Great Chariot in the Karthigai Deepam Brahmotsavam. Today, the great wooden chariot which is supposed to be the largest temple chariot in Asia was taken on procession around the four streets of the temple. The main great chariot carried the stately figures of Lord Arunachaleswara and his consort Goddess Unnamulai whereas the smaller chariots carried the deities of Lord Muruga, Lord Ganesha and Goddes Durga respectively.
Early in the morning, thousands of men and women flocked the venue of departure in front of the Raja Gopuram, eager to pull the chains of the chariot thus having the honour of drawing their Lord’s vehicle.When the signal was given, men and women with great enthusiasm and crying loudly “Hail to Annamalaiyar” started to draw the great chariot with all their might. Slowly, inch by inch, the huge chariot moves and as the pull force increases it gains momentum and moves faster.
It is indeed impressive to see the gigantesque enormous wooden chariot move forth slowly and majestically, drawn entirely by man power. The chariot is made of rose wood and has beautiful carvings of divinities on its sides. The top is decorated attractively with silk canopies, banana and coconut fronds and flower garlands. The Temple Sivacharyas in royal attire are seated on either side like footmen to the Gods and they wave lovely peacock feathered fans to keep the Gods cool and airy during their procession.
And thus the great chariot winds its way down the temple streets. By the time it has reached the western street, it is evening and the sun has started to set. The golden rays of the sinking sun shine through the peaks of the Hill. With the Hill view, the golden sunset, the soaring temple towers and the Lord majestically riding on his great chariot in the centre, it makes a spectacular sight and one feels that the gods themselves are down there admiring the show!
In India, all temple festivals are ‘Utsavams’ and the most important one is called ‘Brahmotsavam’. From the etymological point of view, the Sanskrit word ‘Utsava’ denotes an act of creation or re-creation. If we study the features of the Brahmotsavam, we will find that more than any other temple festival, the Brahmotsavam would essentially be a festival of re-creation.
The Karthigai Deepam Brahmotsavam holds a unique place in the world of temple festivals. Due to its ancient origins and deeply esoteric significance, it has withstood the ravages of time and modernization. Despite the decadence of the present age and all its evils, the beauty and wonder of the Deepam festival remain unchanged and unsullied. The true significance of all religious festivals is that the Supreme Being makes His presence felt strongly during that time. During Karthigai Deepam, Arunachala opens up the heart of His beloved ones and reveals Himself as the Supreme Being. Shining as ‘I’, ‘I’ the sole occupant seated in the centre of the Heart’s cave of His devotees, He is believed to guide and inspire the proceedings of the entire festival.
On the first three days of the sixteen day festival, the various deities are propitiated, while the last three days form a sort of epilogue to the lighting of the Deepam on the Hill. Thus the main festival is only for ten days. The first day begins with the hoisting of the Flag which ceremoniously ushers in the ten days of the Brahmotsavam. Called Dwajaarohanam, it marks the beginning of any temple festival. The Dwajaarohanam of Karthigai this year took place at dawn on Friday 12th November and was attended by a fairly large crowd of devotees. The idol of the Lord was adorned beautifully with jewels and flowers and brought by the priests and placed in front of the dazzling golden flagpole in the first courtyard of the temple. At the appointed auspicious time, the flag was hoisted to the divine chanting sound of the Vedas accompanied by Nathaswaram music, drums and cymbals. The priests then invited all the sacred rivers, all the gods and goddesses and all the rishis and seers to come and witness and bless this occasion. After the ceremony was over, the Lord was taken around on procession and then installed in the vast hall (called the Kalyana Mandapam) on the southern side. Here he will stay for the next ten days, beaming graciously upon the multitude of devotees thronging at His feet for Darshan.
The special days before the actual Deepam day are the fifth and the seventh days. On the night of the fifth day, the Lord along with his consort is taken on His sacred Mount, the Rishaba (Bull) which is made of wrought silver in this case. The seventh day is the day of the Maha Ratham or the Great Chariot which is of spectacular proportions and the largest sacred chariot in India. This year it will take place on the 18th of November and millions of devotees braving the sun and rain will struggle to pull the chains of the chariot for it moves entirely by human force. The tenth Day is the most important one when the Maha Deepam will be lit on top of the Hill at sunset and falls on the 21st of November this year. The Deepam burns for seven, nine, eleven or thirteen days and at about six every evening, the flame flares up and burns throughout the night. It is visible for miles around and thrills the heart of every being who has the good fortune to look upon it. Giri Pradakshina at this time is a very special experience and devotees come from far, distant lands to partake of this Grace. May the Karthigai Deepam this year light the flame of jnana in each of our Hearts!
As the name indicates, this is a festival celebrating the prowess of Lord Muruga, the son of Lord Shiva, who is also called Skanda. It falls on Sashti, which is the sixth day of the lunar cycle after the New Moon day of Deepavali. Whereas Deepavali is when Lord Krishna the hero-god of the North slays the demon Narakaasura, Skanda Sashti is when Lord Muruga the Hero-God of the South slays the demon Soorapadman.
Here in Tiruvannamalai, the big temple of Arunachaleswara celebrates this festival in a very popular and dramatic manner. The Soorasamharam (destruction of Sooran) takes place at nightfall on the day of Skanda Sashti (this year it fell on Thursday 11th November). This time, Lord Muruga in the form of Arumugam or Shanmukham with six heads and twelve arms goes out in procession from the big temple after having, earlier, received the weapon (a bow and arrow) from his mother, the Goddess Unnamulaiyamman. After making a tour of the four streets around the temple, He then wields his way in the northern direction preceded by the temple elephant and accompanied by his retinue of priests, musicians and devotees.
The procession passes in front of the Durga temple and then stops in front of the Vada Subramanya temple a few metres before the bus depot. Here Lord Muruga is assailed by the demon coming from the North (like all asuras). This is enacted in the form of a giant wooden doll placed on a cart with wheels which comes whizzing down the slope pushed by men from behind. The asura Sooran thus attacks Lord Muruga three times and the priest wields his bow and lets fly an arrow to strike him each time. After each hit, the head of the Asura changes successively.
The last head is the Maamarasura with the head of a mango tree. At the end, the Asura undergoes a change of heart, repents his misdeeds and to signify this, his head is altered into a peacock and a rooster head, being the two mounts of Lord Muruga. The Asura Sooran then pays obeisance to the Lord and thus the festival ends after a grand display of fireworks.
The tamil month of Aadi (sanskrit = Aashaada) has drawn to an end and the Goddess Shakthi to whom the whole month is dedicated is probably taking a much-needed rest after the frenzied rituals and celebrations with which she has been bombarded during all this month.
The culminating festival in her honour is the feast of Aadi Puram which falls on the Puram constellation. This year it was celebrated on August 12th and in the big temple of Arunachaleswara, there took place a grand religious and devotional extravaganza on this day.
In the evening, the Goddess Parashakthi is brought to the valaiyal kappu mandapam in the 5th courtyard. Here first the Goddess is worshipped with a grand abhishekam. Then She is beautifully adorned in a silk sari and decked with golden ornaments and flowers. After this a long queue of women devotees offer bracelets and bangles (valaiyal) to the Goddess. The priest places the bracelets on Her arms and then returns them to the women as prasad. Rudram is chanted by the Vaidikas all the while.
This Valaiyal kappu (protection with bracelets) ceremony is traditionally performed for preganant women in their 8th or 9th month. On Aadi Puram, this ceremony is performed to the Goddess as it is a general belief that She is at this time expecting the birth of Muruga or Subramanya, the second son of Shiva and Parvathi.
However the logic which underlies the sequence of the rituals of Aadi Puram is quite enigmatic. Whereas the the ritual of valaiyal kappu is especially to protect the woman who is in an advanced stage of pregnancy, in the next ceremony after this, the Goddess is treated as a young virgin woman about to get married and receives the offering of a Thali, the traditional ornament of marriage. There seems to be in the celebration of Aadi Puram, an effect of condensation of all that the Goddess represents. This is amplified by the local cults of the Aadi month and the connection to Durga and is completed in the ensuing months with the Navaratri festival in autumn and the Karthikai festival in winter.
The term Dakshinayanam literally means southern journey. Here it refers to the Indian Summer solistice, for in hindu puranic yore the Sun is believed to move towards the South at this time. It seems to accentuate the idea that we are entering the darker part of the year – less sun, more rain, longer nights…
The Dakshinayanam festival begins in the big temple exactly 10 days before the summer solistice which, in India, falls around the 17th of July. It takes place on the usual course of an Utsavam (temple festival). Even though the meaning of the festival is not very explicit, one can eventually glean the cosmic dimension in it, for, at this time of year such a festival seeks to define the auspicious period in which the idea of death leading to ascension is highlighted in a most subtle way.
Each day in the morning around sunrise and in the evening around sunset the different gods of the hindu pantheon are taken out on procession. The yagasala is opened since the first day and two kalasams representing the Sun (Surya) and his wife, Chaya (the Shadow) are venerated according to vedic rituals for the first 9 days. On the 10th day, at the culmination of the festival, the kalasams are brought outside on procession with the gods and taken inside the main shrine for bathing the deities.
The main difference between the Dakshinayanam and the Uttarayanam (Northern Journey – winter solisice festival) is the place accorded to the Tiruvoodal (divine quarrel). Whereas it stays as a private affair now and is only performed within the walls of the temple shrine, at Uttarayanam, the Tiruvoodal is a public affair and taken right to the streets and enacted in the view of the public. One wonders why and the answer is “even the Gods like to keep their affairs in the dark at this time!”
Nataraja, the Lord of Dancers is the cosmic form of Lord Shiva (In Sanskrit, Nata means dance and raja means Lord). The ring of fire and light, which circumscribes the entire figure, identifies the field of the Lord’s cosmic dance encompassing the whole universe. The lotus pedestal on which the Lord rests, locates the universe in the heart or consciousness of each person.The Nataraja figure is also eloquent of the paradox of Eternity and Time. It explains that the tranquil ocean and the rushing stream are not finally different. Shiva is Kala, meaning time, but he is also Maha Kala, meaning “Great Time” or eternity. Shiva is thus two opposite figures: the archetypal ascetic and the archetypal dancer. On the one hand he is complete tranquillity-inward calm absorbed in Self, absorbed in the void of the Absolute, where all distinctions merge and dissolve, and all tensions are at rest. But on the other hand he is total activity- life’s energy, frantic, aimless and playful.
One of the festivals to Lord Nataraja is the Thirumanjanam festival celebrated during the tamil month of Aani (sanskrit=Jayeshta). In the main temple of Lord Arunachaleswara, the deities of Lord Nataraja and his consort Goddess Shivakami are brought out in procession with great fanfare and taken to the 1000 pillared hall where they are installed in a special shrine.
Interestingly the 3 tamil saivaite saints whose shrine faces the Nataraja shrine are also revered at the same time. Before the Nataraja and Shivakami deities leave on procession, deeparadhana is performed for both the shrines facing each other and the crowd of devotees crane their necks this side and that side to take dharhsan of both the arathi rites which the priests perform simultaneously one to the other. This is known as the Arakattu Utsavam and only happens at this time.
After Lord Nataraja and Goddess Shivakami are installed in the new shrine inside the 1000 pillared hall, the next day, early morning at dawn, a wonderful abhishekam, the actual “thirumanjanam” rite (literally meaning sacred bath) is performed and the deities are worshipped with alamkaram, karpuraratti and deeparadhana.
The new moon in the month of Vaikasi is Vaikasi Amavasai. This happens to be an important occasion in the big temple of Arunachaleswara and one of the grandest abhishekams of the year is celebrated to the Utsava Murthy, Lord Shiva-Somaskanda (whose shrine is in the left corridor of the inner mandapam of the main sanctum). The ceremonies start early in the morning with Rudra japa and Mahanyasam during which the kalasams and all the abhishekam elements are consecrated.
After this, the Maha Abhishekam is begun. It is indeed an impressive array. There are about 5000 litres of milk in cans. Hundreds of pots of sandalwood paste, ghee, curd, honey, turmeric and rose water are kept in front of the deities. Flower garlands and flowers dear to Lord Shiva are heaped in the side aisles for the alamkaram to the Gods. Fruits of the trinity, mangoes, bananas, jackfruits and also pomegrenates, dates and coconuts are brought in baskets. The Brahmin Archaka priests work with tireless energy carrying the hundreds of pots to the pedestal where they are received with devotion by the Gurukkal brahmin priests who then bathe the gods elaborately with the different elements. The devotees who are assembled to watch the Abhishekams are overcome by spiritual fervour every time the milk or curd or honey or ghee is poured on the deities, and as it gently flows down, the air is charged with sacred enthusiasm and devotional energy. The temple musicians play unstintingly throughout the celebration which takes place for upto over 8 hours.
The Arunachaleswara temple of Tiruvannamalai stands as a towering pillar in the beautiful and elaborate manner with which they perform all the ceremonies due to the Gods and thus celebrate and preserve ancient sacred traditions. Be it rain or sun, the Gods here are always honoured properly at all the appropriate occasions.
This is a very important form of worship of Lord Shiva, the source of cosmic energy for the entire creation. Lord Shiva is worshipped traditionally in the form of Lingam and Abhisheka is the ritual dearest to His heart. Rudram is the highest vedic chanting in praise of Lord Shiva and is considered to be extremely powerful.
In Tiruvannamalai, the Athi Rudra Maha Yagnam has just been performed in a grand way in the big temple of Arunachaleswara from the 23rd to the 28th of May with the purpose of mitigating the doshas (bad effects) of the Agni Nakshatram (fire star constellation during which the summer heat reaches its peak).
The Yagnam took place inside the vast kalyana mandapam of the temple. Eleven homa kundas were erected for the purpose of the yagnam. The Rudra Homas were conducted by very renowned Brahmin priests well versed in Vedic rituals. A very beautiful Lingam covered with gold was installed specially for the purpose of performing Rudrabhishekam everyday. The Rudrabhishekams were done on an elaborate scale by the Shivacharyas. Along with the Rudra Parayanas and Rudra Homas, other related rituals were also performed. Hundreds of learned Brahmin priests took part in the ceremonies and the air was vibrant with the resounding chanting of the four Vedas and the tremendous sacred energy produced by the chanting of the Rudrams and the tending of the 11 sacred fires. 1008 Kalasams were consecrated within the Yagnam and they were taken in the end for abhishekam to the Arunachaleswara lingam inside the sanctum sanctorum.
Sage Satapatha in his treatise “Maharnava Karma Vipaka” listed four types of Abhisheka procedures compatible with Vedic and scriptural lore. They are Rudram, Ekadasa Rudram, Maha Rudram and Athi Rudram – each being more potent than the preceding one. Of these, the most potent form of Athi Rudram. It involves 14641 Rudrams (Rudram is a combination of Namakam and Chamakam given in Rudradhyayam in the 5th Prapathakam of the 4th Kanda of Krishna Yajur Veda Samhita). Namaka recited once along with recital of Chamaka once constitutes one Rudram. Recital of 11 Namakas along with one Anuvaka of Chamaka at the end of each Namaka, thus completing one Chamaka constitutes Ekadasa Rudram. Recital of 11 Ekadasa Rudrams is Laghu Rudram or Rudraikadasini. Recital of 11 Laghu Rudrams is one Maha Rudram. Recital of 11 Maha Rudrams is one Athi Rudram. Therefore, in Athi Rudram 14641 Rudrams include 14641 Namakams and 1331 Chamakams.
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 verbe 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 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).
Special days of the festival: The special days are the 3rd, 5th, 8th and 10th days. On the 3rd day, the birth of Kama is supposed to happen, (this was enacted by a temple danseuse disguised as Kama in the olden days).
The 5th and 8th days: On the 5th day, during the 3rd round, Somaskanda makes a halt in front of the main Dakshinamurthi statue under the Makila trees and two priests perform simultaneously one puja to each of the deities with food and light offerings, the synchronisation of the pujas highlighting the unification of the two divine forms. After the 10th round, Somaskanda is taken inside the Kalyana mandapam where he is divested of silks and jewellery and re-adorned in a new alamkaram made entirely of flowers and green leaves (spring costume).
When the Gods come back outside, the entire lights of the temple are switched off and the Gods make a special tour of the 3rd courtyard with only the light of flaming torches made of rings of plaited straw thereby representing the olivu-vattam, circle of light which designates the moon (Soma).
On the 8th day, Somaskanda is taken inside
the Vasantha mandapam which is at present the temple
administration office and after changing to spring costume, brought outside and again all the lights are switched off and the same olivu vattam tour takes place but this time in the opposite or anti clock-wise direction (apradakshina). Thus the Gods arrive from the left side whereas his musicians
and singers come from the right and they meet in front of the main pandal. In the olden days, the devadasis danced the pinnal-kollattam and one of them, disguised as Kama, was bound in cords.
The 10th and final day: Around 10 o clock in the morning, after the uchikala ritual, Somaskanda and the Goddess go outside the temple on procession in palanquins. They are accompanied by the Astra Deva and the Palikkai. The procession winds its way up to the Ayyankulam, a sacred reservoir of water inside the temple of Arunagirinathar. Here the Teerthavari ritual takes place according to tradtion and the palikkai is thrown inside the water after the Astra deva,s holy dip in the water. The Gods return in procession to the big temple late in the evening. It is the full moon of Chitra. Somaskanda first performs a salutation dance in front of Sambanda Vinayaka while the Goddess is taken inside the shrine. Somaskanda is then borne to the Vasantha mandapam and installed on the front porch where he
is worshipped with diparadhana and karpurarathi. And there he sits beaming benevolently at the crowds of devotees who are thronging at his feet. One would never imagine the terrible events that would follow. Lo and behold! Kama appears and starts to wield his bow and aim his flowery arrow at Shiva. Depicting this, a giant effigy of Kama made of straw holding a huge bow and arrow festooned in flowers is brought in on a wheeled contraption and placed facing Somaskanda. A string is tied connecting the two deities. Then with the help of the priests a fire cracker is lit at the hand ofSomaskanda where it instantly takes off and whizzes down the string and reaches Kama and BOOM! Kama explodes into flames and is immediately wheeled back to the Makila trees enclave where he gets burnt up entirely. A magnificent display of fireworks then takes place in the temple courtyard, enthralling the crowds. After this Somaskanda is borne back into the temple and installed in his shrine.Thus Kama is destroyed by the wrath of Shiva in the festival. However, according to legend, Kama is later on resurrected out of the ashes after his consort Rathi appeals to Shiva and begs him to restore her husband. 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.