• The Tamil month of Karthigai

    The auspicious and celebrated Karthigai Maasam begins this year on November 17th and ends on December 16th. It is the eight month in the tamil year and derives its name from the Nakshatram or constellation of Krithika or Pleiades. Lord Shiva is the presiding deity of this month and Shiva temples all over India are crowded with devotees practicing vows and oblations to honour and propitiate Him. In Tamil Nadu, there is an ancient religious custom which is still followed, that of waking up before dawn and serenading the Lord with melodious chants from the Tiruvempavai, a collection of devotional hymns praising Lord Shiva and bidding him to awaken and glorify the universe with his Light. Moreover, Ayyappa devotees start the 41-day Ayyappa Deeksha Vrittam and make the annual pilgrimage to Sabarimala during this month.

    In Tiruvannamalai, giri pradakshina is performed by many devotees early in the morning during this whole month. Mondays are specially dedicated to Shiva and the Karthigai Somavara Vritham is observed by many traditional devotees where-in they fast and do giri pradakshina and then offer special pujas to the Lord. Karthikai Maasam is also known for the deepams or lamps that are lit in every household and even in shops and business concerns at sunset every day. It is a lovely sight to walk down the streets after dark and see the numerous fire lamps glowing bravely at the entrance of every abode. Another special event of this month is the Mahabharani which is observed in all Shiva temples by lighting bonfires. It just precedes the Karthigai Deepam.

    The Karthigai month is also highly auspicious for Lord Muruga as the month is named after the six Krithika stars. Son of Lord Shiva, Muruga was born as 6 different babies and was looked after by the Six Krithika stars. Later Goddess Parvati joined the six babies to give birth to one form with six heads and thus Shanmukha or the 6 headed god was born. He is also called Karthikeya, Subramanya or Muruga. The famous Skanda Sashti festival dedicated to Lord Muruga in commemoration of his victorious battle against the demon Sooran also takes place this month.

    The most important festival of the month is the Karthikai Maha Deepam and readers probably know that this festival is of utmost significance in Tiruvannamalai and it is even called the Annamalai Deepam. It is believed that Lord Shiva gave darshan to the universe in the form of an infinite pillar of fire on this day. We will be seeing detailed descriptions about this festival in the coming posts. This year the Karthigai Amavasai or New Moon day is on November 25th and the Karthigai Pournami or full moon day falls on December 10th.

    continue reading
  • Deepavali

    Bhagavan Sri Ramana says this about the real meaning of Deepavali: “He is Narakasura (demon) who feels attached in the thought that he is the body. That attachment to the body itself is a Naraka (Hell). The life of a person who has that attachment, even if he be a Maharaja, is hellish. Destroying the attachment to the body, and the Self shining by itself as Self is Deepavali”.

    Deepavali is a festival of truimph of good over evil and the word literally means “row of lights”. Though it started as a north-indian vaishnavaite festival it is now celebrated all over India. The legend of Deepavali goes back to times of yore. There was an evil demon called Narakasura who was terrorising the world. People prayed to Lord Krishna to save them and so Krishna came down and slew the demon after a terrible battle. In his last breath, the demon repented his evil deeds and begged Krishna that his death day be celebrated as a festival and that people should wear new clothes, eat sweets and burst fire crackers on that day. Krishna granted the demon his dying wish.

    The battle between Krishna and Narakasura took place at night in the forest. After Krishna killed Narakasura, he smeared his forehead with the demon’s blood as a sign of victory and returned to the city at dawn. The women folk received him with joy and gave him a bath to wash the blood off after anointing his head with scented oils. In remembrance of this, on Deepavali, it is still a tradition among the people to wake up at dawn and take an oil bath, that is after applying oil on the head. But the main celebration consists of wearing new clothes and gorging on delicious sweets and setting off a fantastic array of fireworks. This is practiced with great enthusiasm by one and all, especially the youngsters.

    continue reading
  • Golu in Yogi Ram Ashram

    During the Navaratri festival, the Yogi Ram ashram in Tiruvannamalai put up a spectacular and fantastic Golu in their main hall. Extending for over a hundred metres, this Golu was a real spectacle to watch. Every God of the hindu pantheon was present. Not only that, all the saints from all religions were also there. Many of the major holy places and temples in India were represented in detail.

    It must have taken days for them to arrange this elaborate Golu. Hilly places were made from real mounds of earth with grass growing on them. Even the rare Amarnath Ice lingam shrine was arranged with the use of silver foil to make it look like ice. Famous Lord Muruga shrines like Palani, Lord Vishnu shrines like Tirupathi and Lord Shiva shrines like Chidambaram were displayed with the appropriate structures.

    The saints were also represented in their forms including a special shrine for Shri Yogi Ram Surath Kumar, the Guru of this ashram whose remains are interred in this place. The Devi goddess was displayed in every one of her numerous manifestations. Beautiful kolams were drawn in front of each array of gods and brass lamps were burning with prasad offerings placed in front. Apart from this, there were lovely golden serial lights strung everywhere to give a  festive aura to the whole show.

    The various Leelas of Sri Krishna were depicted in intricate ways and with different sorts of toys and little figures crafted in wood and stone to add ampleur to the story. Sri Krishna, the favorite deity of Yogi Ram was revered in a special shrine in the popular form of the cow herd playing the flute to the Gopika maidens. Many other events from hindu mythology were also depicted with great detail and taste. It was indeed a rare treat to see this wonderful Golu in Tiruvannamalai and devotees were loud in their praises for this  splendid and holy exhibition.

    continue reading
  • Navarathri Begins

    The grand festival of Navarathri has just begun. It is a time of worshipping the Goddess Parvathi in all her different forms notably Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswathi. Navarathri is celebrated elaborately in the big temple of Arunachaleswara, in Ramanashram and Yogi Ram ashram as well as in a few Goddess Shakthi shrines on the girivalam. In some brahmin households, they hold a Golu which is an exhibition of statues of all the gods and goddesses of the hindu pantheon displayed according to mythological order on a range of wooden steps called the Golu padi which often number 5, 7 or 9. Children are usually on holidays at this time and take a lot of interest in this arrangement. They go about dressed as Radha or Krishna to participate in different Golus and sing bhajans in favour of the Goddess. The traditional prasad distributed is Sundal, a dish made of  many sorts of grams and pulses cooked and seasoned tastily.

    In Ramanashram, on the evening of Mahalya Amavasai, the goddess Yogambika was taken out of the Mother’s shrine and borne in procession around the shrine and the samadhi hall of Sri Ramana. Then She was borne outside to take darshan of Arunachala after which she was brought inside the Mothers shrine through the main entrance and installed in a splendidly decorated shrine right in front. Here she will stay for the next nine days and nights and be decorated differently each evening according to the legendary form that she chooses to manifest on that day. Hundreds of devotees throng the ashram already in eager anticipation of the next nine days.

    Navaratri is a festival of nine nights dedicated to the Goddess Shakthi (Parvathi or Amba) in her different manifestations. The legend of Navarathri starts with the penance of the Goddess on the slopes of Arunachala. Separated from her Lord (due to having playfully closed his eyes with her hands), the Goddess yearns to be reunited with Him. The great sage Guatama advises her to perform penance on the slopes of the holy Hill Arunachala and accordingly she comes here and sits in Tapas (penance). She follows the various scriptural injunctions and exhibits her devotion to the Lord in various ways. During the nine days of penance she manifests  herself each day in one of her different forms. On the tenth day she assumes a terrifying form of Mahishasura Mardhini, slayer of demons and vanquishes the evil demon Mahisha on the slopes of Arunachala. Thus this festival is of particular significance in Tiruvannamalai since it was here, millions of years ago that the first Navarathri actually happened.

    continue reading
  • Mahalya Amavasya

    The cycle of the waning moon in the month of Puratasi or Aswayuja (September-October) is known as the Mahalaya Paksha or the fortnight specially sacred for offering oblations to the departed ancestors. The last day of this period, the new moon day, Mahalya Amavasya is considered as the most important day in the year for performing obsequies and rites to departed souls.

    According to hindu mythology, the renowned hero of the Mahabharata, Karna, after his death ascended to the higher worlds. Here the great charity and punyas he had done here bore fruit and were returned to him hundredfold. But the reward was all in gold and silver and precious stones; there was no food, as he had not done any food-offerings ! Therefore He prayed to the god of death and received the boon of going back to the earth for fourteen days, to make up for this deficiency.

    For fourteen days, he fed Brahmins and the poor, and offered oblations of water. On his return to the higher regions, he had food in plenty. It is these fourteen days that are commemorated in the Mahalaya Paksha. Due to the grace of Yama, the god of death, it was thus ordained that offerings made during this period benefit all the departed souls, whether they are connected to you or not.

    In Tiruvannamalai, plenty of food distribution and sadhu feeding take place during this time mostly on the girivalam road. Also there takes place a lot of brahmin feeding and rites to departed souls on the banks of the Isanya theertham which is near the cremation grounds at the end of town. Moreover, on the fifteenth day which is the night of Mahalya Amavasya ,the festival of Navarathri commences and the Goddess Parvathi is brought outside in procession and installed in a special pavilion where she is worshipped for the next nine days.

    continue reading
  • Vinayaka Chathurthi

    Vinayaka Chathurthi is the birth anniversary of Lord Ganesha and is celebrated in a grand manner all over India and in Tiruvannamalai also. All over the town, there were idols of Ganesh installed in special shrines and worshipped with pujas and loud chanting in praise of the favorite elephant god. This year, Ganesha Chathurthi fell on the 31st of August. Hindus believe that Lord Ganesha is the God who has the power of removing all obstacles and making one’s path clear whether it be worldly or spiritual. Any new undertaking, either at one’s place of work or at home, always starts by reciting a mantra invoking his blessings. He is also known as the God of good luck and prosperity.

    The most popular legend associated with Lord Ganesha can be found in the Shiva Puranam. Here it says that Lord Ganapati was created out of the dough that Goddess Parvati used for her bath. The Goddess wanted a gate-keeper, to keep visitors away while she took her bath. So She created a male doll from the dough and breathed life into it. The day she did this came to be known as the birthday of Lord Ganesha, which we celebrate today as Ganesh Chathurthi. One day while Goddess Parvati was taking her bath, Lord Shiva came to visit her. Ganesha did not know him, so he did not allow the Lord to enter the house. This made Lord Shiva angry and he cut off poor Ganesha’s head. Later, when he came to know the truth, he replaced Ganesha’s head with the head of an elephant. After this, the appearance of Lord Ganesha changed and he became the elephant-headed god.

    There is yet another popular legend associated with Ganesha Chaturthi, from Skanda Puranam. According to this one, Ganesha was once invited for a feast in Chandraloka (the Moon’s abode). Our Ganesha being quite fond of sweets, ate Laddoos till his stomach bloated,  so much so that as he got up to walk after the meal, he could not balance himself because of his huge stomach and he slipped and fell. His stomach burst and all the laddoos came rolling out. Seeing this, the Moon was highly amused and burst out laughing. Ganesha got angry and cursed the Moon that it would vanish from the universe. Because of the Moon’s disappearance, the whole world began to wane. The gods asked Lord Shiva to get Ganesha to revoke his curse. The Moon also apologized for his misbehavior. Finally, Ganesha modified his curse saying that the Moon would be invisible only on one day of the month and would be partially seen on Ganesha Chaturthi. He also added that anyone who looked at the moon on Ganesha Chaturthi would face a false charge. This is the reason why, even today, it is considered inauspicious to look at the moon on Ganesha Chathurthi.

    continue reading
  • Krishna Jayanthi

    The birth anniversary of Lord Krishna is celebrated as Krishna Jayanthi. Krishna was born on the Rohini star on Ashtami day. The celebrations in the households consist mainly of ritual fasting during the day, spending the whole night in the worship of Krishna, chanting hymns in praise of Krishna and reciting prayers from the Bhagavatham. After the puja ceremony in which the idol of Krishna is venerated with flowers and lamps, sweets and butter are offered up as Prasad and then eaten by the whole family.

    In the village of Adi Annamalai, Krishna Jayanthi is celebrated by the village people under the name of “Uri Yadi Vizha” literally meaning ‘Beating the pot festival’. A high pole is erected in the centre of the village square. On the high end of the pole hangs the booty, many earthenware pots with money and sweets stashed inside. The sides of the pole are rubbed down with butter making it difficult to climb. The celebration takes the form of a contest. All the able bodied young men of the village, especially those of the Yadava community, vie with each other to climb up the slippery pole and hit the pots with a stick and break them, thus winning the prize of money and sweets that is contained inside.

    It is quite an entertaining spectacle. While each man tries with great hardship to climb up the butter smeared pole and hit the pots, his task is made even harder by the crowd who throw buckets of water at him during his arduous ascent. Many of them get deterred and slip down the pole without being able to hit the pots with the stick. Then another tries and yet another and it goes on. Finally towards nightfall, a tough, undaunted lad reaches the top in spite of the slippery slide and the water drenching him and manages to hit one of the pots with a resounding thwack. The pot breaks and sweets come cascading down on the crowd. Children laugh and rush gleefully to grab the sweets.  Loud cries of Govinda! Govinda! rent the air. The drummers play with frenzied energy. Then more men feel encouraged by this hit and are able to climb up and break other pots. In the end all the pots are broken. Three of four men have been declared winners and the prize money is equally distributed between them. The crowd disperses slowly. Later on, an abhishekam is done to a small idol of Krishna in the same place and the prasad is shared by all.

    continue reading
  • Aadi Padhinettam Perukku

    Aadiperukku is a festival celebrated on the 18th day of the Tamil month of Aadi (Mid july -August). This year it happened on the third of August. This festival is also called as “Padinettam perukku” – Padinettu -means 18 and Perukku signifies a great rising. The Aadi month falls during the south-west monsoon period and during this month all the south Indian rivers would normally get flooded by the rains. Aadi Perukku is celebrated in Tamilnadu and it is a time of rejoicing for the farming community who live on the banks of the main rivers and their tributaries. People perform special pujas to the river on this day. Hundreds of devotees, especially newly married couples celebrate this festival and worship the Mother Goddess on the banks of the river.

    In Tiruvannamalai, due to the absence of a river in the town, Aadi Perukku is celebrated within the precincts of the big Temple. The Mulaipari ritual in which 9 types of grain are sown in  earthenware pots and then brought as offering to the Goddess, takes place outside the Pidari Amman shrine. This ritual is performed as a prayer to the Goddess to provide a plentiful monsoon and for fertility of the land and to have a bountiful yield from the crops. Women also float clay lamps on the Brahma Theertham of the temple and this is quite a lovely sight at night.

    Subsequently, there is also the Aadi Puram festival which is celebrated in the big temple. During the celebrations, 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 (brahmin vedic scholars) all the while. And thus the festive month of Aadi draws to a close and with these final two festivals it is believed the Mother Goddess to whom this month is consecrated, would have been ideally propitiated  and Her blessings would be abundantly showered.

    continue reading
  • Aadi Velli in Pachaiyamman kovil

    The Tamil month of Aadi (mid July to mid August) has begun and with it a plethora of religious events related to the Mother Goddess to whom this month is consecrated, have also begun. The Fridays of this month are most auspicious for married women and they perform various rituals and religious customs like fasts and vows for the well-being of their spouses on these Fridays known in Tamil as Aadi Velli.

    The Pachaiyamman Kovil, home to the Green Goddess, nestles in the heart of the Arunachala foothills and beckons benevolently to women devotees to come and take her abundant blessings. Goddess Pachaiyamman is a form of Shakthi or Parvathi. Legend has it that Parvathi came to Arunachala to perform tapas during puranic times and settled down in this area. In the beautiful energy created by her devoted tapas, everything around turned green including her body and thus She was given the name of Pachaiyamman, the Green Mother. In later days, a shrine was built here to venerate the Green Goddess at this spot. It is here that Bhagavan Ramana resided during the plague epidemic and tigers and leopards used to visit him here and pay their respects to the Divine Incarnate.

    Every Aadi Velli day, women throng to this temple to light lamps to the Goddess and to offer turmeric and vermillon as a homage to her eternal Sumangali-hood. The women also burn lamps and offer rice puddings and fruits to the huge guardian deity idols who stand in array and form quite a majestic arena in the outer courtyard of the temple. After nightfall, the deity of the Goddess is installed in a mantapam and decorated beautifully in silk and gold. Then She is worshipped with camphor Aarthi and borne outside and mounted on a chariot which takes a different form each day (elephant, lion, 5 headed serpent, peacock etc). Finally, She goes on procession right upto the outer girivalam path near the town bus stand and Here She stands for a while granting darshan to all passers by.

    continue reading
  • The Southern Journey of the Sun – Dakshinayanam

    In Sanskrit, the term Dakshinayanam literally means southern journey. In this case, 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… As Arunachala is also revered as the Sun mountain, events involving the Sun are celebrated here as a festival.

    The Dakshinayanam festival begins in the big temple of Arunachaleswara exactly 10 days before the summer solistice which, in India, falls on the 17th of July. It follows the traditional course of an Utsavam (temple festival). Each day in the morning at sunrise and in the evening at 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 during the first nine days. On the tenth day, at the culmination of the festival, the kalasams are brought outside on procession with the gods and taken inside the main shrine. The waters from the kalasams are then utilised to perform a grand abhishekam for the principal deities,  Lord Arunachaleswara and His consort, Goddess Apeethakuchambal.

    Even though the meaning of the festival is not very explicit, one can eventually glean the cosmic dimension it represents, for at this time of year this festival apparently tries  to define the auspicious period around which the idea of death leading to ascension is highlighted in a most subtle way.

    continue reading