• Lord Arunachala and Vallala Maharaja

    According to legend, the great king Vallala III who reigned in Tiruvannamalai during the 14th century, the last emperor of the Hoysala dynasty of Karnataka was childless for a long time and yearned to have a heir and son. He therefore came to Tiruvannamalai and prayed fervently to Lord Arunachaleswara for this boon. His sincere devotion and prayers bore fruit and in due course of time his Rani gave birth to a son. For some reason the king believed that Lord Shiva himself had come down and been born as his son. The Thai Poosam festival which falls in the month of Thai (Jan-Feb) during the constellation of Poosam is generally dedicated to God Muruga or Subramanya. However, in Tiruvannamalai, the Thai Poosam and Maasi Magam festivals are connected with the erstwhile king Vallala Maharaja for Thai Poosam is the date of the death announcement of the said king.

    In the big temple, the festival begins with a grand abhishekam to Lord Palani Andavar (another name for Muruga) in his shrine in the 4th courtyard and also in the Kambattu Ilayanar shrine in the 5th courtyard. This happens early in the morning. After this, Lord Shiva in the form of Chandrasekara and his consort Goddess Ambal along with the Astra deva or Trident deity come out in procession. After rounding the 4 streets bordering the temple, the procession of gods winds its way to the Isanya Tirtham which is situated in the crematorium at the North-Eastern corner of the town. There the Trident, weapon of Shiva, is bathed and then placed beside the deities of Shiva and Ambal who have meanwhile been installed in the Mourning Pavilion of the grounds.

    On the return journey to the Temple, near the statue of Harischandra, (a legendary king who was tested by Shiva and reduced to serving as crematorium worker) which is often placed at the entrances of crematoriums in Tamil Nadu, a character dressed completely in black robes, the Otran, spy or secret messenger, boldly halts the procession of the gods and hands over a message to the Oduvar or temple singer. The musicians accompanying the procession stop playing their music and in the silence that ensues, the Oduvar reads out loudly the announcement of the death of the king Vallala, murdered by treachery, while in combat with the king of Ottiyam land (Orissa). After hearing this the procession goes back accompanied by the chantings of the Oduvar and the din of the cymbals played by the temple drummers who now play a funeral march.

    On the same day as the death announcement of the king, a man from the Vallalar community, Pachai Appa Goundar receives a letter by post, informing him of the death of the king. It says “Pachai Appa Goundar, Alas! you have to weep for your honoured father, the great Vallala Maharaja is no more ! In the house of Pachai Appa goundar from now onwards the members go into mourning and they start to eat talial a meal prepared from curd rice and bananas, only eaten during mourning times.

    When the gods arrive back to the Temple in procession, they stop at the statue of the king Vallala (which is in a niche on the passage bordering the entrance gopuram of the 4th courtyard) and here the king’s statue is bathed, anointed and decorated by a representative from the Vallala community. As the gods approach the entrance pavilion, an Aarathi (waving of lamps and camphor flame) is offered to the gods as well as to the king Vallala’s statue.

    The final commemoration of this historic event happens at the festival of Maasi Magam later this month during which the last rites for the departed soul of the king are performed by Lord Shiva himself (since it is tradition in India for the son to perform the last rites of his father).

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  • The 7th day of the Chariot – Ratha Saptami

    Ratha Saptami falls on the seventh day of the lunar cycle after the new moon of the tamil month of Thai.  In this case, the Ratha or chariot refers to the chariot of the Sun God which he is believed to ride and cross over to the North. Whereas the first day of the month of Thai denotes the passage of the Sun from one direction to the other (South to North), the seventh day, Ratha Saptami is more a lunar reference, purely mythologic, to the mounting of Surya (Sun god) onto his chariot to undertake his northern journey.

    In Tiruvannamalai, on Ratha Saptami day, a Tirthavaari (sacred bath of the gods) is celebrated in Kalasapakkam (a village about 20 kms to the north of Tiruvannamalai) in the river Cheyaru. Early in the morning, after an abhishekam, the deities of Lord Annamalaiyar and his consort Apeethakuchambal are borne to the village and placed on their favorite mount, the Bull (Rishaba vahanam). After a ritual of worship the gods are carried to the banks of the river, Cheyaru. Here awaits a fine reception for them, for the ensemble of the village gods are there to welcome and honour their Lord and Lady. After this, the Astra deva or the Trident weapon of Shiva is taken ceremoniously to the river by the priest and bathed ritualistically in the waters. The same ritual is repeated all along the banks of the river accompanied by the crowd of villagers and hailed with loud cries of devotion. Then all the deities are made to dance in wild frenzy by the palanquin bearers who jerk and jiggle the deities borne on their shoulders. This scene,watched from a distance over the sea of heads of devotees is very impressive.

    The principal part of the festival ends with this ceremony. However, Lord Annamalaiyar seizes the occasion to make a tour of the village also part of his kingdom and grant his darshan to the village devotees who are so dear to his heart. And on this gracious note, he bids goodbye and mounts his chariot for the return procession back to Tiruvannamalai and the big temple…

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  • The Divine Quarrel – Tiruvoodal

    Tiruvoodal is the legendary quarrel that takes place between Lord  Shiva and Goddess Parvathi and it is celebrated particularly in Tiruvannamalai during the month of January, the 2nd day after Pongal. In fact there is a whole street close to the temple called ‘Tiruvoodal street’ where the main part of the festival, the divine quarrel itself, is enacted.

    The Divine quarrel revolves around the time when one day Parvathi playfully closes the eyes of her august husband, Lord Shiva, with her hands. Utter chaos ensues. The whole universe is plunged in darkness and what was just a moment of play to Parvathi causes countless years of darkness and misery on the universe. Lord Shiva, enraged by this act of folly, punishes Parvathi which sends Her to Kanchipuram to do Tapas where She receives the assurance that after she kills the buffalo-demon Mahishasura on the slopes of Arunachala, She would subsequently regain the favour of her Lord and be united with Him in the left half of His body (Ardhanaariswara) and this is what is realised on the day of Karthigai Deepam.

    It would seem that the Tiruvoodal festival is celebrated in Tiruvannamalai in order to commemorate the time when Shiva and Parvathi were in discordance. Nevertheless,  it finishes with the divine union and brings them both back together in harmony. On the first day, there are three processions of the deities starting from the big temple and going on the four streets around the temple. The Utsava Murthis are Sri Mula Nayakar (Shiva in the form of Somaskanda), Tani Ambal (the independent goddess) and Sundaramurthi Nayanar (one of the main tamil saivaite saints).

    The most interesting part of the festival takes place in the evening on Tiruvoodal street. During this part, the quarrel between Shiva and His consort, Parvathi, is enacted in public on the streets and witnessed by a large gathering of devotees who are assembled there eagerly to watch the divine drama. The God and the Goddess are brought on palanquins from opposite ends of the street and then borne down to face each other. The narrative of the quarrel is chanted by an Oduvar (temple singer) in tamil lyrics. After this ensues a dramatic dancing procession. Six times the God and the Goddess are borne down at a great speed and then meet in the centre and have their quarrel. This is played out by the palanquin bearrers jumping and shaking the palanquin up and down, which makes it appear as if the deity inside is jumping up and down in a fit of rage. The temple musicians play their drums in fitting accompaniment, adding to the frenzied rantings of the gods as they are shouting at each other. After each quarrel-dance, the deities change sides and each goes off in the opposite direction from which he or she came initially. The crowds of devotees are hysterical with excitement and after each dance-quarrel, the tension mounts and so do the loud cries of fervor and devotion which increase in volume and fury.

    The next day, Shiva is up at dawn and leaves on Giripradakshina during which he makes a halt at the Vedarpari mandapam where his jewels are supposedly stolen and later on he also grants salvation to his ardent devotee Kannappa. This is the reason for the Kannappa temple on that location. Shiva also grants darshan to another of his devotees the great rishi ‘Bhringi’ during this trip.  Shiva eventually completes his giri pradakshina and returns to the temple in the afternoon where he enters, dancing the dance of the Swan (Hamsa Natanam). The bearers of the palanquins have a special technique to execute this dance and it causes a type of swaying, continuous oscillation of the deity without losing balance, quite a fascinating sight!

    Now a ritual takes place in the southern area of the temple which covers directly the sanctum sanctorum. Sundaramurthi Nayanar first goes to warn the Goddess about the return of Shiva. Of course, She, being curious, leaves Her door open so that She can have a glimpse of the dancing arrival of Her Lord. On seeing this spectacle, however, She is so dazzled by her Lord’s beauty and splendour as He arrives majestically doing His swan-dance, that She submits to Him and wishes to be re-united. Thus the reconciliation and reunion of the gods take place and to synchronise this, both the deities are brought together and placed on the same pedestal and the priests perform an Arathi puja waving and encircling one flame around both of the deities to signify the restoration of harmony.

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  • Maattu Pongal in Ramanashram

    Maattu Pongal the third day of the Pongal or Harvest festival is the day consecrated to the cows. Everywhere, on this day, cows are bathed and decorated with flower garlands and then puja is performed to them with offerings of sweet pongal and fruits. In Ramanashram too, it has always been the tradition right from the time of Bhagavan to celebrate Cow Pongal in a graceful way. Devotees will remember that Sri Ramana was very fond of the cow Lakshmi and He used to feed sweet pongal to Lakshmi with his own hands on Cow Pongal day.

    The Maatu Pongal celebrations in the Ramanashram consist of 3 different ceremonies. First the Nandi (bull mount of Shiva)  in the Mother’s shrine is decorated in a spectacular way. He is adorned with garlands of vegetables, fruits, sugarcane, grass, flowers. Vadais and other tasty sweetmeats. Then an elaborate Aarathi puja is performed by the priests with devotees looking on with rapt admiration. The next event takes place at the Samadhi (tomb) of the cow Lakshmi which is located outside in the open courtyard beside the dining hall. A group of devotees  are assembled here and the statue of Lakshmi is bathed with milk abhishekam and then a puja is performed with the photo of Bhagavan fondling Lakshmi placed in front. The ashram ladies sing many beautiful hymns in praise of Lakshmi describing her devotion to Bhagavan and other touching episodes in her life like how she used to give birth to a calf every year right on Bhagavan’s birthday. This creates a wave of devotion among the group and many devotees are moved to tears to listen to the words about the cow Lakshmi’s unusual and rare bhakthi to her Master and how, even though she was in the body of an animal she behaved like a deeply spiritual human being .

    The third event takes place in the cow shed of the ashram, called ‘Goshalai’. Inside, it is nicely cleaned and beautifully decorated with flower garlands and sugar cane and turmeric plants. In the centre, a lovely white cow (believed to be the descendant of Lakshmi) and her calf are decorated and honoured. A puja is performed to them by the ashram priests with the same respect and energy as they would to a deity in the temple. The president  and his wife feed the white cow with sweet pongal from their own hands and the cow and calf eat it with quiet relish. It is an enchanting scene and one feels transported to times of yore when cows were considered as godly beings and people treated them with respect and devotion. Let us follow the example of Bhagavan Ramana and recognize and respect the Divine Being in every fellow creature on this earth.

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  • The Night of Tiruvaadirai

    There are two festivals dedicated to Lord Nataraja, the form of Shiva as the Cosmic Dancer. One is the Aani Tirumanjanam in June and the other which is more important takes place now, in the month of Margazhi which begins in mid December and goes upto mid January. According to the Hindu Almanac, the great cosmic dance or the RudraThaandavam happens on the full moon night of the Aarudhra or Orion constellation. Tiruvaadirai as it is called in Tamil and Malayalam, is called Aarudhra in Sanskrit. Lord Nataraja is believed to perform his cosmic dance on this night, thus upholding the five-fold activities of the universe. Aarudhra signifies the red flame and Shiva performs his dance in the circle of this red-flamed light.

    The cosmic dance of Lord Shiva represents five activities – Creation, Protection, Destruction, Embodiment and Release. In essence, it represents the continuous cycle of creation and destruction. This cosmic dance takes place in every particle and is the source of all energy. The Tiruvaadirai or the Aarudhra Darshan festival celebrates this ecstatic dance of Lord Shiva-Nataraja, the Cosmic Dancer.

    This year Aarudhra Darshan in Tiruvannamalai took place on the full moon night of 8th January. Lakhs of people walked with devotion around the holy hill of Arunachala. In the big temple of Lord Arunachaleeswara, Tiruvaadirai is celebrated as a Nataraja Utsavam. The deities of Lord Nataraja and his consort Goddess Shivakami inside the main shrine are worshipped with many special pujas and rituals involving sacrificial fires and grand abhishekams and then they are taken on procession around the courtyard of the temple.

    It is interesting to note that this night is also special for Ramana devotees because it marks the preceding night of Sri Ramana’s birth which happens the next day, on the Punarvasu constellation. For Aarudhra, the Nataraja deity in the Mother’s temple of Ramanashramam received a beautiful abhishekam at 4 o clock in the morning and many devotees braved the biting cold of this early hour to come and witness the holy ceremony.

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  • Maargazhi or Dhanur Maasam

    Yet another auspicious hindu month follows closely on the heels of the Karthigai month. Called Maargazhi in tamil and Dhanur in sanskrit, this month holds many interesting traditions and festivals. The Paavai nombu is a religious custom that takes place daily at dawn. Womenfolk wake up early in the morning, take a head bath and draw beautiful kolams in front of the house and place a pumpkin flower in the centre. After this, they go to Vishnu temples and chant the Tiruppavai ,a collection of devotional hymns to Lord Vishnu composed by the Alwars, the Vaishnavaite saints of ancient tamilnadu.

    In Ramanashramam, the Dhanur Maasam chanting practice is observed faithfully every day starting at 4 o clock in the morning. Brahmin priests and devotees chant the Vishnu Sahasra Naamam, the 1008 names in praise of Lord Vishnu and sing hymns from the Tiruppavai. At the end of it, hot pongal prasad is distributed to everyone.

    Then there is the Tiruvaadirai festival which takes place during the Orion constellation of this month. This celebrates the cosmic dance of Lord Shiva in the form of Nataraja, the Dancing god. The Pancha Sabhais of Nataraja are Chidambaram, Tiruvaalangadu, Madurai, Kutraalam and Tiruvannamalai. Millions of people come to do giripradakshina on this night which is known as Aarudhra Darshan and the big temple performs a grand abhishekam to the deity of Lord Nataraja inside the main sanctorum.

    Strangely enough, the Maargazhi month is consecrated strictly to religious and spiritual practices and it is not auspicious to conduct any worldly celebrations during this month. Therefore there are no marriages or householder functions taking place now and affianced young couples have to wait till the next month before they can get married !

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  • The Tour of the Great Chariot

    The eight day of the Karthigai festival is the day of the Maha Ratham or the Great Chariot. On this day, the great wooden chariot which is the largest temple chariot in Asia, is taken on procession around the four streets of the temple. The main great chariot carries the stately figures of Lord Arunachaleswara and his consort Goddess Unnamulai whereas the smaller chariots which follow in retinue carry the deities of Lord Muruga, Lord Ganesha and Goddes Durga respectively.

    Early in the morning, thousands of men and women flock the venue of departure in front of the Raja Gopuram, eager to pull the chains of the chariot and thus have the honour of drawing their Lord’s vehicle. The method in which the chariot is drawn goes back to ancient times. Two long chains made of iron links are connected to the chariot. Carpenters use wooden wedges as brakes to check the speed on the downward slopes as well as to stop the ratham. The signal is given to lift the chain and the devotees pick up the chain. The men hold one side of the chain and women the other. When the wedges are removed and the lever is applied at the back of the huge wheel to give the initial momentum, the second signal is given from the chariot. At once, men and women with great enthusiasm and cheering in unison “Hail to Annamalaiyar” draw the chariot with all their might. Slowly, inch by inch, the great chariot moves and as the pull 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 refreshed 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 is indeed a spectacular sight and one feels the presence of the Lord Himself witnessing the scene in quiet enjoyment !

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  • The Maha Karthigai Deepam

    The Maha Deepam of Karthigai was lit amidst an awesome wave of  devotion on Thursday, 8th December and thus the festival reached its culmination. Devotees will know that on this day 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 ceremony, Arathi is performed by the priests through the lighting a huge chunk of camphor on a golden plate and waving the flame 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 tremendously loud 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 paying obeisance to the Great Lord. And thus the glorious festival of Deepam is completed. However, 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.

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  • The birth of Ardhanareeswara

    The festival of Karthigai Deepam is the one of the oldest living festivals in India. It takes place in the Tamil month of Karthigai when the star Kirthiga is on the ascendant and usually occurs on or before a full moon day. In ancient tamil literature, the oldest available work Tolkappiyam which dates back to 2500 B.C. carries a marked reference to this festival. In another ancient Tamil classic, the Kalavazhi Naarpadu, dating back to the third Sangam period (around 1000 B.C.), the poet writes, “In the battle, the blood oozing out from the dead soldiers’ bodies is like the red coloured flame of the light lit on Karthigai Deepam”. Another song in Sambandar’s Thevaram says that the Lord is verily the Deepam (lit during the Karthigai festival).

    Everyone knows that Karthigam Deepam is the lighting of the flame on the summit of Arunachala on Karthigai day but not many people know about the exact reason this festival is celebrated. Readers may remember the legend of the Navaratri festival in earlier posts about how Goddess Parvathi having incurred the wrath of her husband, Lord Shiva, came to the holy hill of Arunachala to do Tapas and regain the favour of her Lord. And so, after a long period of arduous Tapas which the Goddess Parvathi performed with great devotion and strength, Lord Shiva’s wrath was appeased and He came down to Arunachala to take her back. When He arrived, Lord Shiva was so moved by the strength and force which emanated from the Goddess as a result of her Tapas that he decided that She was his equal in every way. Therefore he granted her half his body so that the Two would become totally united in One form. This was the birth of Ardhanareeswara. Physically It signifies the Divine Union of Shiva and Parvathi. Spiritually it signifies the absolute union of Advaita. Not two but One. Shiva and Parvathi are not two but One. Man and God are not two but One.

    This momentous event is believed to have happened in the month of Karthigai on the day of Kirthiga Nakshatra and that is why till today the flame is lit on the summit of Arunachala in memory and honour of this wonderful Union which unite Man and God. Moreover Shiva is believed to have manifested as an infinite column of fire at this time and this phenomenon is also linked to the lighting of the flame.

    When Sri Muruganar asked Bhagavan Ramana about the significance of the Karthigai Deepam festival, Bhagavan composed a stanza of four lines in which He says, “The true significance of the Karthigai Deepam festival is to turn the intellect inwards and have it fixed in the Heart, thereby merging it with the indweller of the Heart

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  • Skandha Sashti

    The sixth day of the lunar cycle in the tamil month of Karthigai is celebrated as Skanda Sashti, a festival dedicated to Lord Muruga, the younger son of Lord Shiva. This festival commemorates the great event Soorasumhaaram or the slaying of the demon Soorapadman by Muruga in the form of Skanda, slayer of demons and vanquisher of evil.

    In Tiruvannamalai, the big temple of Arunachaleswara celebrates this festival in a very popular and dramatic manner. The battle of  Soorasamharam (destruction of Sooran) takes place at nightfall on the day of Skanda Sashti. Now Skandha  in the form of Arumugam or Shanmukham with six heads and twelve arms goes out in an impressive procession from the big temple after having, earlier, received the sacred weapon (a bow and arrow) from his mother, the Goddess Unnamulaiyamman. First he makes a festive a tour of the four streets around the temple collecting a crowd of devotees everywhere. 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 the Durga temple and then stops in front of the Vada Subramanya temple a few metres before the town bus depot. At this place, 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 Skanda wields his bow and lets fly an arrow to strike him each time. After each hit, the head of the Asura changes significantly.

    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 but not without a grand display of fireworks to the delight and cheer of the audience.

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