Friday, January 7, 2011


Pongal (பொங்கல்)-the harvest festival-
When daytime for the gods begin, after a six-month long night, is the begining of the Pongal festivities and is spread over three days; it is the most important and most fervently celebrated harvest festival of south India. In fact this harvest festival is celebrated in mid January in most parts of India, albeit by different names - Shankranthi, Baisakhi, Pongal etc. In Tamil Nadu this festival is called Pongal, Bhogali Bihu in Assam, Baisakhi/ Lohri in Punjab, Bhogi in Andhra Pradesh and Makar Sankranti in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal. As the dates for this festival are calculated by the solar calander (ie western calendar), it is probably the only Hindu festival that falls on the same date year after year. pongal is celebrated from the 13th to the 15th of January. This marks the beginning of Uttarayana – the sun’s movement northwards for a period of six months. Makara Sankranthi refers to the event of the Sun entering the zodiac sign of Makara or Capricorn.
Pongal is the thanksgiving or harvest festival of south India.This festival marks the harvest of crops with special thanks giving to god, the sun, earth and the cattle. Majority of Indians live in the villages and this thanksgiving is related to every aspect of their daily life , a major part of which are activities for their livelihood that depends solely on agriculture. The spirit is alive and Pongal is a time to discard the old and welcome the new.Along with its rural touch this festival is also directly connected to the cycle of seasons. Besides the reaping of the harvest it signifies the withdrawal of the southeast monsoons in southern India. Like the cycle of seasons, pongal indicates the ringing out the old and ushering in the new and this festival therefore is associated with cleaning up and burning down the unnecessary/unwanted stuff and replacing them with the new. Even though Pongal was originally a festival for the farming community, today all celebrates it.
History of Pongal
It is not known when exactly this festival began but it can be traced back to the Sangam age ie 200BC to 300AD, as historians have identified pongal with Thai Un and Thai Niradal which were celebrated during the Sangam era. As part of the festivities, maidens of the Sangam era observed penance during the Tamil month of Margazhi (December-January). A major festival during the reign of the Pallavas (4th-8th century AD) was “pavai nonbu” observed by maidens during Thai Niradal, in the Tamil month of Margazhi. Young girls (kanyas) prayed for rain and prosperity and avoided milk and milk products the entire month. They would bathe early in the morning, not put oil on their head, and did not use harsh words in their speech. They worshipped goddess Katyayani whose idol was they made with wet sand. This penance would end on the first day of the Tamil month of Thai (mid January - mid February). This tradition is supposed to have given birth to the festival of Pongal.
Andal’s Thiruppavai and Manickavachakar's Tiruvembavai also describe the festival of Thai Niradal and the observance of pavai nonbu. Andal performed pavai nonbu to merge with Sri Ranganatha (Lord Vishnu). Nowadays, women and girls undertaking pavai nombu during Margazhi month take bath at dawn and visit temples and read a verse from Thiruppavai composed by Andal. There is also an inscription at the Veeraraghava Swamy temple at Tiruvallur about the Chola king Kiluttunga who had gifted land to this temple especially for the Pongal celebrations.
The first day of the Ponal festival, Bhogi Pongal, is a day for the family. Surya or Thai or Perum Pongal, the second day, is dedicated to the worship of Surya, the Sun god. The third day of Pongal, Mattu Pongal, is for worship of the cattle(mattu).
The last day of the Tamil month of Margazhi is when the Pongal festivities begin. The first day of the festival ie 13th January, is called Bhogi and is dedicated to lord Indira. In Hindu mythology, Indira is the king of the gods or devas and lord of heaven or svargaloka. He is also the god of war, storms, and rainfall. As he is the god of thunder and rain he is responsible for bountiful crop, and so the dedication to him. Scholars have often compared Bhogi (another name for Indira) to the Indra Vizha celebrated by the Chola kings at Kaveripattinam, also known as Poompuhar. On this day spring cleaning of the house takes place. As in reality this is more a harvest festival one can experience the true spirit of this festival only in small towns and more so in villages of south India where people still live in mud huts with thatched roofs. Most part of the huts are redone.
They redbuild the mud portions too. Water is used to soften the mud, and then dug out and then rebuilt. After rebuilding, it, a mixture of cow dung and water is spread evenly over the new mud walls, fresh cowdung has sanitizing properties. This paste is also spread on the floor of the hut, on which people sleep at night.The thatched roof is also replaced. On the Bhogi Pongal day people, decorate their homes with kolam (a decoration laid on the floor; a powder of plain white and coloured rice flour is used to draw the kolam).People buy new vessels /utensils and household stuff and replace them with what they discard after being used for a year. People used (and some still do) clay pots and pans which they replace every year. A major activity on the day is the burning of things that are of no use.People collect all the unwanted stuff and discard them. Whatever can be burnt will be put in the bonfire that people light in the evenings. In the villages very household has its own bonfire in front of their hut/home. As can be inferred the most important activity on Bhogi Pongal is to clean and this is carried out in towns and cities too- the house, office, surroundings, courtyard and other places get cleaned. All the broken and unwanted things are removed. The probable reason for this huge cleaning exercise is to bring new energy into life. A sort of cleansing ceremony. In big cities this has become more symbolic and huge bonfires are lit in open spaces where the entire community partake in singing and dancing around the fire. But nowadays there are a lot of restrictions from environment protection groups on this Bhogi bonfire as it causes pollution due to the burning of plastic and rubber. The Bhogi festival according to some is also a commemoration of the lifting of mount Govardhan by lord Krishna when he was still very young. According to the Vishnu-Purana the people of Gokul used to celebrate a festival in honour of lord Indra and worshiped him at the end of every monsoon. Even as a child, lord Krishna decided to teach a lesson to lord Indra who became arrogant after becoming the king of all deities. One particular year the young Krishna asked all the cowherds to stop worshiping Indira.This angered lord Indra and in a fit of anger sent a deluge to submerge Gokul. People were scared and realised that the downpour was due to their neglect of Indra. But Krishna assured them that no harm would take place. He lifted mount Govardhan with his little finger and sheltered men and beasts from the rain. This gave him the epithet Govardhandhari. Later, lord Indra realized his mistake and divine power of Krishna and accepted the supremacy of Krishna. There is no special puja or prayer performed on this day apart from the routine daily poojas and prayers. Farmers however do have some rituals like consecrating their tools and doing harvest of paddy and sugarcane.
Thai Pongal
The main festival of Pongal is celebrated on the day after Bhogi, and this falls on the first day of the Tamil month of “Thai” (14th January). It is also referred to as Surya Pongal because people worship Surya, the sun god and his consorts, Chaya and Samgnya. The reason behind worshipping Surya is because on the first day of Thai the sun enters the Makara rasi (Capricorn), signalling the end of winter and onset of spring in the northern hemisphere, with longer and warmer days for the next six moths. This phase is identified as Uttarayan Punyakalam and is regarded very auspicious as it is the period that the Devas are awake- after a six month long sleep they wake up on the first day of Thai . On this day one prays that the granaries are full, the sun shines brightly, trees are in full bloom, that everyday bird-songs resound in the air and hearts overflow with happiness.
Legends:There are several legends that are attached to this festival. One is about a sage named Hema (who was actually Brighu maharishi in a earlier birth). Sage Hema did penance to lord Vishnu on the banks of the Pottramarai tank in Kumbakonam. On Perum (main)/ big) Pongal day, the lord is believed to have taken the form of Sarangapani and blessed the sage. How this came about is interesting. A number of saints had assembled on the banks of the river Saraswathi to perform a sacrifice. They wanted to know the greatest of the three lords-Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh. It was decided that sage Bhrigu should meet the three lords individually and pronounce a judgment. He met them and declared that Vishnu was the supreme lord. This he said was because when he kicked lord Vishnu he did not lose his temper but showed the greatest of respect and even washed the feet of Brighu maharishi. Brighu repented, and wished to serve lord Vishnu in two births. During his first rebirth he was known as Guha and lived during the period of Ramayana. In his next birth he was known as sage Hema. As Hema, Brighu maharishi did the afore mentioned penance, got the darshan of lord Vishnu who granted him three boons. The first one was that goddess Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu should be born as his daughter; the second, Vishnu should become his son-in-law; and the third he should get sayujaya moksham ie liberation. Vishnu granted these boons. He directed him towards Lakshmi who was on a thousand petal lotus, where she had been waiting to get reunited with Vishnu. She had left in a huff when Brighu gave her spouse, the lord of the universe, a kick in her presence which she felt was insulting . Further without reprimanding him, lord Vishnu honoured Brighu. It is believed that to fulfill the boons of him being the son in law of the sage, lord Vishnu appeared as Sarangapani and got married to sage Hema’s daughter. This place hence is also known as Kalyanapuram.
There is yet another legend that is about lord Shiva performing a miracle where a stone image of an elephant ate a piece of sugarcane. This is also the reason why sugarcane is associated with pongal. Abidhega Pandian, the Pandian king was a great devotee of Shiva and one day lord Shiva decided to grace him. Shiva came as a miracle performer appearing simultaneously in a number of places in the Pandiya kingdom. He changed older people to look younger, he turned iron into gold and cured many of chronic illness. He came to be known as a miracle performer. The king wished to see him and sent his guard to fetch him to the palace. The miracle performer refused and said that whoever wished to see him had to visit him, and not the other way around. One day the king decided to pay a visit to this strange performer of miracles. He went to a temple where the miracle performer was staying. All his subjects stood up and bowed in respect on seeing the king, but the miracle performer did not stand up. The king felt that he was rude. He asked him for an explanation and the miracle performer told the king that he had travelled a lot and found his niche among the poor and that every poor person was related to him. His travels had made him the master of all arts and that there was nothing for him to learn from the king. Naturally the king was taken aback by his reply, and thought that he was arrogant and so wanted to teach him a lesson. The king saw a farmer with some sugarcane standing next to him. He then challenged the miracle performer that if the performer was that powerful as he claimed, he should then be able to feed the stone elephants with the sugar cane. The miracle performer took the sugar cane and looked at the stone elephants on the temple walls gracefully. To everybody’s astonishment the elephant trumpeted loudly and stretched out its trunk and took the sugarcane from the miracle performer’s hand. After eating the sugarcane the elephant turned back to stone. The king immediately fell at the feet of the miracle performer and declared that a person who had such powers could not be an ordinary man but the lord himself. The lord then blessed the king and disappeared.
The Celebration: Every year Thai pongal is celebrated on the 14th of January. There is much excitement and preparation. New clothes are made or bought. The homes including the back and front yards are cleaned days ahead. Tasty palakarams (sweet snacks) get prepared. The main dish of course is the offering to the sun god- "pongal" (rice pudding)of rice and milk.The women in the household partake in the drawing of the kolam and decorate the central courtyard of their homes with beautiful kolams, done with rice flour and bordered with red clay. Apart from the kolam at the entrance of the home and the central courtyard, a kolam is drawn at the sacred area where the pongal is prepared. Firewood is traditionally used to cook the rice. The pongal-paanai (pot, vessel) is set up in the direct view of the sun (east) at the auspicious time. Conventionally, the pongal is made in the front or side of the house, but in modern days as people live in flats and as cooking indoors with firewood is hazardous, the pongal is prepared in the kitchen and on the gas or electric stove and in a brass/bronze vessel instead of the clay pongal-paanai. The moment of climax is the spill over of the milk during cooking. The spillover of milk is a propitious symbol of abundance. Sometimes, firecrackers are lit to signify the moment, but usually a loud sound is made by thumping of the utensils with ladles and loudly shouting “pongal-o-pongal.”Once the pongal is ready an offering is first made to the Sun god with a prayer. Then sharing of the pongal with friends and relatives follows.
Pongal is the festival of the Tamils and this is a huge population group, with over 70 million people of Tamil origin in the world today. As the Tamil population is also widely spread throughout the world- besides southern India one can now find large populations of Tamils spread across the breadth of India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, South Africa, Singapore, and more recently many immigrants reside in the UK, New Zealand, Australia and North America. Pongal is therefore celebrated by these communities across the globe. However most south Indians who have settled abroad or in the north of the country usually celebrate only the second day or the Perum/Thai Pongal. Coinciding with Makara Sankranti and Lohri of the north, it is also called Pongal Sankranti.
Mattu Pongal (மாட்டுப் பொங்கல்)
The third day, Mattu Pongal, literally Pongal for cattel-in honour of the cattle. For people living in the city this festival may not have any meaning at all. But for the farming community it is very important and is meant to offer thanks to the cows and buffaloes, as the former provides them with milk and the latter is used to plough the lands. So on this day, the festival for the cattle, the farmers honour their animal friends by celebrating it as a day of thankgiving to them.On Mattu Pongal day lord Ganesh and goddess Parvati are worshipped and Pongal is offered to them in the "puja".
The Legend behind Mattu Pongal:The legend says that lord Shiva asked his bull, Basava, to go to the earth and ask the mortals to have an oil massage and bath every day and to eat food only once a month. By mistake Basava announced that everyone should eat daily and have an oil bath once a month. This unintentional folly enraged Shiva who then cursed Basava, banishing him to live on the earth forever. He would have to plough the fields and help people produce more food. Thus this day is associated with cattle.
Mattu Pongal celebration: The cows and bulls are scrubbed clean and their horns painted in myriad colours and the cattle adorned with colourful flowers around their necks and a paste of turmeric applied on their foreheads with a round spot of kumkum in the centre. The pointed horns of the bulls are covered with special ornamental brass covers with a colourful tassles at the end. Their necks are smeared with turmeric and sandal pastes and then decorated with multi-colored beads, tinkling bells, sheaf's of corn and flower garlands.The cattle are usually gathered at the riverside and a community 'pongal' is cooked at the banks of the river (in some cases it is done at their own backyard). Everyone joins in the community meal, for which the food is made of the freshly harvested grain. The cattle is fed this Pongal along with fresh green grass. Usually the men do this ritual. The bulls are then taken to the village centers. Boys and small girls also accompany them to watch the ceremony.The ringing of their bells, as the young men race each other's cattle ,draws the attention of the villagers. The entire atmosphere becomes festive with fun and revelry all around. In the first half of the Mattu Pongal day, bulls are pampered and fed but strangely in the latter part of the day they are used as objects of fun for the village youth and literally "torchered" in the guise of a popular sport. An important village sport, called the jallikattu or manji virattu ,is an integral part of the Pongal festival and is generally held in the evening of the Mattu Pongal day. It is observed with great enthusiasm. There is normally a big hullabaloo when the game “jallikattu"(taming the bull) and "manji virattu"( chasing the bull) starts in which groups of young men chase the running bulls. In manji virattu, bundles of money and bags of coins are tied to the sharpened horns of ferocious bulls that are let loose in an open ground. The young men of the village vie with each other to subdue the bull and grab the bags tied to the horns.The tradition of jallikattu dates back to the Sangam age. There is a mentioning of jallikattu in the Sangam classic Purananooru, which talks about how men had to subdue the bull in order to win the hand of a fair maiden. There is also a story of how even lord Krishna is believed to have defeated seven bulls before marrying Nappinnai. This festival is very popular especially in Madurai, Tiruchirapalli and Tanjavur. Unlike in the Spanish bullfights, in manji-virattu, the bull is never killed. But many young men and spectators get bruised and have broken their bones after the event. Deaths are also occasionally reported during jallikattu.Over the years this sport has become much more bloodier than the traditional jallikattu observed 500 years ago. The animal right activists have been fighting against jallikattu and the Supreme Court of India in January 2008 has banned jallikattu, but the age-old tradition still continues in many rural parts of Tamil Nadu. It is now held as a regular bull fight sports in demarcated rings in villages where the bull owners and the young men fighting the bulls vie for the prizes.
Kanu Pandigai: Mattu Pongal for many communities of Tamil Nadu is also a very special day, especially for the ladies and young girls who pray for the welfare of their brothers.It is also known as Kanu.This festival is reminiscent of Raksha Bandhan and Bhai Duja of north India. Early in the morning, the eldest lady in the house applies raw tumeric paste on the face of all the young girls in the house. After this oil is applied to their hair. Then all the girls and ladies offer rice balls (small lemon sized balls) topped with pieces of turmeric, coconut and jaggery to the crows. In an open place a kolam is drawn directed towards the east and turmeric leaves are placed over the kolam. . It is usually next to the Tulsi altar in the courtyard or in the open terrace. On this leaf are placed the leftovers of sweet pongal and the salty pongal called ven pongal (made on the Perum Pongal day), ordinary white rice as well as rice colored red(with kumkum) and yellow (with tumeric), betel leaves, betel nuts, pieces of sugarcane, and a couple of small bananas. On this also reposes an oil lamp (dia/vallaku). In Tamil Nadu women perform this ritual before bathing in the morning. The following phrase is repeated while placing the coloured rice on the leaves “Kakka podi vechen, Kanu podi vechen, kakkaikkum kurivikkum kalyanam,” which could be roughly translated as, “I offer, Kakka podi and Kanu podi, it is the marriage of the crow and the sparrow.” This literal translation sounds a little absurd, so it is quite possible that these words imply the welfare of the crow and sparrow, as "kalyanam" also means "welfare". After chanting this a coconut is broken. This ritual of kakkai chatham (rice for the crow) is not necessarily only a Pongal tradition. Many south Indians take the first bit of rice cooked in any given day and set it outside for the crows to take. Feeding the crows is akin to feeding departed souls, as crows represent ancestors. Feeding the crows once a year is believed to be sufficient as a year in our human world is akin to one day in the life of a departed person.
Arati is later performed for brothers with turmeric water, limestone and rice, and this water is sprinkled on the rangoli/kolam in front of the house. Sisters apply a tilak/kumkum on the foreheads of their brothers, and give them fruit, sweets, sesame seed and jaggery. The brothers thank their sisters for their good wishes and give them money and gifts.
1.In Hindu tradition, one human year is believed to be one day for gods. For gods, it is day during Uttarayana and it is night during Dakshinayana. Uttarayana starts on Makara Sankramana day usually January 14th or 15th. As it is daytime for the gods most auspicious ceremonies and rituals are performed only in this period and is also referred to as Devayana. Uttarayana is really the northern movement of the sun, the period starting from Capricorn zodiac (Makara raasi) up to Gemini zodiac (Mithuna raasi) is called as Uttarayana. When Sun leaves the Gemini zodiac it is known as Kataka Sankramana and this marks the end of the Uttarayana period and the start of the Dakshinayana or the southern movement. This happens annually on July 15th or 16th.
2.Goddess Katyayani is one form of goddess Durga and in many regions of India she is worshipped on the sixth day of Navratri, being one of the nine Durgas or Navadurgas. She was the daughter of sage Katya. Goddess Katyayani was popular during the period of lord Krishna, and in Gokula she was worshipped by gopis and gopas. A clay image of the goddess used to be made with mud from the Yamuna river and was worshipped for a month, at the end of which the idol was immersed in Yamuna. This was known as Katyayani vrata. A similar vrata is also a part of Tamil culture known as Margazhi nombu.
3. Pongal Recipe
1. Pongal paanai (clay-pot) is decorated around its neck with mango leaves, fresh tumeric, small pieces of sugarcane etc, held together by a yellow string.
2. Boil water & milk (without the rice) in the paanai.
3. When the milk spills over say "Pongal, Oh Pongal" and add rice to the paanai.
4. Once the rice is cooked, add chakkarai, jaggery(or sugar), honey, raisins & cashews.
5. Few pods of Cardamom enhance the flavor of pongal.
6. Once the mixture is ready for serving it is set up for offering to the Sun god on a banana leaf ..

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Story of Aandal

From December 15 to January 15 is the Tamil month of Dhanus or Margazhi and reciting Thiruppavai in the month of Margazhi is considered to be auspious. Aandal is the composer of these 30 verses. Aandal (Tamil: ஆண்டாள்) is an 8th century (or earlier) Tamil saint and one of the twelve Alwars (saints) and the only woman Alwar of Vaishnavism.Alwars are saints having lived between the fifth and ninth centuries, in the Tamil speaking regions of India and these saints revitalized the Indian religious milieu, sparking a renewal of devotional worship throughout the subcontinent.

Aadi Pooram, also known as Aandal Jayanthi, celebrates the birth of Aandal - dedicated to her as she is believed to be an avatar (incarnation) of goddess Lakshmi. Aandal is very popular in Tamil Nadu especially among the Vaishnavaites (those who worship lord Vishnu). Aadi Pooram derives its name from Aadi (Ashata) the month (mid July to mid August) and Pooram (Poorva, Phalguni) the star, the day on which Aandal was born - a Tuesday coinciding with shukla chaturthi (fourth day of the waxing moon period). According to the Sri Vaishnava belief Aandal was found in a flower garden in Srivilliputhur( we will be talking about her birth in detail a little later) during the Pandya dynasty.The exact date of her birth is not known but from studies it is found that she must have lived in 7th / 8th Century A.D. (Divya Suri Charita - hagiography of the Alwars -records that she appeared as a child in the 97 th year after the onset of Kali Yuga termed the Nala year, in the Tamil month of Adi in the Purva Phalguni asterism.) More identified with Aandal is the month Margazhi (Dhanur masa in Hindi) spanning from mid-December to mid-January, and during this month Thiruppavai a composition of 30 verses composed by Aandal is recited in homes and temples of Tamil Nadu. It is said that she sang this on each day of the month and on the 30th day due to her supreme devotion to the lord she got married to Sri Ranganatha at Srirangam.The life of Aandal is remarkable in its romantic simplicity.
Aandal was the adopted daughter of Vishnu Chittar who later came to be known as Peria Alwar. Periya Alwar, is believed to be an incarnation of Garuda (the vehicle of lord Vishnu). Before going into the story of Aandal, it would be logical if we knew about the life of her father, Vishnu Chittar.
Vishnu Chittar : Vishnu Chittar was born to Mukunda Bhattar (a scholar and devotee of Vishnu) and Padma Valli who lived in Sriviiliputtur. The small town of Srivilliputtur itself has a story of how it came into being. There were two hunter brothers Villi and Kandan who lived in a village adjoining Puttur in the Pandya kingdom. While on a hunting spree, Kandan was killed by a tiger but Villi escaped miraculously. He attributed this to the grace of god. Shortly after this Villi became very rich and built a temple for Lord Vishnu and the village that mushroomed around it was called Villiputtur. Mukunda Bhattar and his wife were one of the early settlers here.
Vishnu Chittar means one who always keeps Vishnu in his mind, and all that he does is for the lord. Growing up Vishnu Chittar did not wish to study the vedas(Sacred Texts of Hinduism) or sastras(the law codes of Hinduism, both secular and religious) for he thought that time could be fruitfully spent serving his Lord as he desired only to receive the lord's daya (compassion). Bearing in mind the story of lord Krishna who gave importance to a flower vendor made maalai- kainakaryam(physical functions intended to be used in the service of the lord) his way of attaining mukthi (liberation). The legend goes that when Krishna came to Mathura to kill king Kamsa while getting down from his chariot at Mathura he saw a malaikaran ( the garland maker) taking flower garlands for the king. On seeing this lord Krishna stopped the malaikaran and asked him for a flower garland .The malaikaran respectfully replied "so many rishis and mahapurushas(great souls/beings) perform penace to get your divine darsanam (sight/vision)and you who are so elusive to them came before an ordinary person like me and gave me your darsanam out of your own will and have asked me for a garland.What more grace can I expect" saying this the malaikaran picked out his best flower garland and offered it to the lord.The lord was very happy in receiving the garland and then left for Kamsa's palace. This story left a deep-seated impression on the mind of Vishnu Chittar and he realised that preparing and offering flower garlands to the lord was the best kainkaryam. According to the Srivaishnava sampradayam (the tradition or established doctrine of teaching from master to pupil through the ages), kainkaryam is very important, for by performing selfless kainkaryam to the lord, it is believed that one can easily obtain the lord’s blessing to follow a path of incessant bhakti (devotion)and finally mukthi. So he bought a small piece of land, converted it into a garden with a variety of flowers and tulasi ( a kind of basil plant, sacred to Hindus)plants and spent his time making flower garlands for lord Vishnu in the temple of his town- lord Vishnu here is in the form of Sri Vatapatrasayee (Lord Vishnu is in a reclining posture -the temple still exists and on the side is a tulasi garden, believed to be the one cared by Vishnu Chittar. There is also a shrine dedicated to Peria Alwar next to the tulasi garden).
From Vishnu Chittar to Peria Alwar :During this period, the Pandian king, Vallabha Deva, was ruling the kingdom from Madurai the capital city. He used to take inspection rounds at night in disguise. During one such night the king saw a Brahmin sitting alone in a mandapam (roughly translates into porch of a temple/ an open hall supported by pillars). While conversing with him he was very impressed and asked the Brahmin to share with him some worthy philosophy. This is what the Brahmin said : “"One has to gather everything necessary for the rainy season when the sun shines. One has to save for old age by working hard during the younger days. Similarly, one has to search for the ultimate reality in this birth to benefit in the next birth." This question set the king thinking and he shared it with his ministers. One minister, Selva Thambi, suggested that there should be a congregation of scholars to enable the king to understand what the ultimate reality was and to arrive at answers to various philosophical questions, especially as regards whom one should worship in order to attain everlasting peace ie moksha. Announcements were then made inviting learned scholars to participate in a debate. There would be a handsome reward of a bag of gold coins.A bag of gold coins was tied to a long vertical pole and an announcement was made about the contest in which the gold coins was to go to the scholar who could bring it down with his faith. A number of scholars tried in vain to do this with their scholarly works, eloquent speeches and heated debates.
Vishnu Chittar who had not studied the Vedas or any holy texts, had a dream, in which lord Vatapatra asked him to go to Madurai to take part in the debate announced by the king. Vishnu Chittar therefore went to Madurai to attend this great debate. As he started speaking, due to some divine flash the Vedic philosophy just kept pouring out of his mouth. He explained to the enthralled august gathering that Vishnu is the Narayana and the parabrahmam (that which is beyond Brahman...for a rough translation and for simple understanding God can be called as Parabrahman,and Brahman as the soul)and that he is the beginning and end of all creation and only through his krupa (mercy) can one achieve moksha. Then to every ones surprise the bag of gold that was hanging on the ceiling of the assembly hall fell on the lap of Vishnu Chittar as if to signify that he was the undoubted victor. No need to say the entire congregation stood up in respectful devotion and accepted him as a true master. The victory was celebrated by taking Vishnu Chittar on the royal elephant in a procession on the streets of Madurai. It is said that Lord Narayana himself witnessed this event by appearing in the skies with his consorts on Garuda, his vehicle. Visnu Chittar who was afraid that the people’s dhrushti (evil eye) might affect the lord appearing brilliantly in the skies does mangalasasanam immediately and bursts out singing “Pallandu Pallandu,” using the bells of the elephant as metre. This has come to be known as the famous Thirupallandu, a song blessing the god himself. It is from this time onwards that he came to be known as Peria Alwar.
The Birth of Aandal: The story of Andal really begins with Varahavatharam [Varaha (Sanskrit: वराह) is the third avatar of Vishnu, in the form of a boar,in order to defeat Hiranyaksha].Legend has it that the demon Hiranyaksha had pushed Mother Earth(Bhoomi Piratti/Bhooma Devi) down into oceans and lord Vishnu appeared as Varaha, the boar incarnation, to rescue her. As the story goes Hiranyaksha started troubling saints, humans and the devas.
Finally, he decided to drag and throw the earth into the ocean. When he did it Mother Earth gave a huge cry and Vishnu appeared in the form of Varaha and fought and killed Hiranyaksha and restored Mother Earth. Bhoomi Piratti asks her lord Srimannarayana what was the reason for his decision to take the avathar of a boar and that her friends were sure to make fun. of her. Lord Varahaswamy then makes a promise to his goddess that he would take the avathar of the lord in Srivilliputhur and marry her as Aandal on Panguni Uttiram day. It is this promise of lord Varaha that results in the avathar of Andal and her thirukalyanam (marriage) with the lord Sir Ranganatha Perumal at Srirangam.
Just as Sita the wife of lord Rama was found in the royal gardens of Mithila by Janaka Maharaj, Aandal too was born as the incarnation of Bhudevi/Bhooma Devi in the garden of Vishnu Chittar under a tulasi plant in his tulasi nandanam (garden). Vishnu Chittar, having found this beautiful girl child nestled among the tulasi plants and being childless, considered the child, a gift from Bhooma Devi. He and his wife Vrajai raised Andal with great love, affectionately calling her as “Godai” or “Kodai”.The word Godai or Kodai has several meanings: one who bestows the power of speech and expression, one who is bestowed by the Earth, one who has sweet curls, one who is like a flower garland and one who has control over the senses.
Vishnu Chittar, being an ardent devotee of lord Krishna imparted to Godai, his own love for lord Krishna, enchanting her with stories of Krishna.Vishnu Chittar sang songs to Godai on his treasured lord Krishna, told her all the stories and taught her the philosophy he knew, and she grew up sharing his love of Tamil poetry.Each day, as Vishnu Chittar went to his garden and collected flowers to adorn the lord, Godai would go along along with him hoping that she would meet the lord. Each day, as Vishnu Chittar sang in praise of lord Krishna, he told her stories of the Krishna and her fascination for the lord grew. A child prodigy and fostered lovingly she grew into a beautiful maiden and became an embodiment of love for lord Krishna. Steadily her love for the lord deepened in her. Even as a child, Godai made up her mind to marry none but the lord . Toying with this idea deeprooted in her, she fantasized what it would be like to be the lord’s bride. She often played the role of the lord’s beloved.
As a daily routine Vishnu chithar would weave a garland of tulasi leaves and flowers that he had collected from the garden and keep it sacredly rolled in a flower basket so that he may, after attending to his household duties, take the garland to the temple for offering to the lord. The child Andal in her profound innocence would take out the garland daily without her father's knowledge, adorn herself and look into the mirror to satisfy herself on whether the garland was suitable enough for the lord. Lord Krishna will wear this very same garland... she would think to herself.Also thinking herself to be the bride of the lord she thought it appropriate to deck herself daily with the garland of flowers that was prepared for the diety at the temple. She would then put the garland back, for her father to take to the temple and offer to the lord. On one occasion Vishnu Chittar noticed a strand of hair on the garland. Finding that it was Godai’s hair he discarded it after scolding her for her misdemeanour. He was shocked for it was a great defilement. He fasted that day as a penance and did not offer that garland to the lord, and took a fresh one. But the fresh garland fell off from the lord's neck and it continued so in spite of several attempts by Vishnu Chittar. That night Vishnu Chittar saw the lord in his dream and the lord told him that he would be more than pleased to be adorned in the garland once worn by Godai and said that he will in fact only wear the garland first worn by her. To his wonder Vishnu Chithar found that the tulasi mala worn on the previous day by Andal, which was hanging from a nail in the wall in his room had not faded, but was fresher than a freshly made garland. Thereafter, he always offered the garland to the deity after being first worn by Godai. He became conscious of her spiritual greatness and the strength of Godai’s love for the lord. This is how she got the name Aandal- the girl who “ruled” over the lord.Aandal is also respectfully remembered as Soodi Kodutha Nachiar...."the bright creeper-like woman who gave her garlands after wearing them".
Aandal's Marriage: When Aandal was of marriageable age Vishnu Chittar was trying to find a suitable match for her but she thwarted his efforts with the assertion that she was destined to be the bride of none other than lord Vishnu and that she had spent her youth in purposeful pursuit of her aim to realize oneness with the lord. She urged him to describe to her the attributes of Vishnu enshrined in several of the shrines that he knew of. Therefore, Vishnu chithar narrated all the kalyana gunas (auspicious qualities )of all the aracha-murthis (forms of the lord which can be easily appreciated by the common man) of the one hundred and eight Sri Vaishnava kshetras. When she heard of the soundarya (beauty) of lord Srirangam-Lord Ranganatha-tears of joy came over her and her heart prayed to HIM to come and accept her in wedlock.Periya Alwar wondered how Aandal could get married to the lord.But one day lord Ranganathar, appeared in Periya Alwaar's dream asking him to bring Aandal to the temple at Srirangam, where he would marry her.He also came in the dream of the temple priest and instructed him to go to Srivilliputhur with all the things needed to welcome a bride and accompany the bridal party. The lord also came in the dream of the Pandya king Vallabadevan and instructed him to arrange for a pearl palanquin to bring the bride to Srirangam. Following the divine ordinance, Periya Alwaar led Aandal in a bridal procession to the grand temple at Srirangam, where Aandal walked in with a sense of purpose. She was drawn to him like a magnet, she went near the lord, climbed on the serpent bed and became one with Him.She had embraced lord Ranganatha and disappeared in a blaze of glory, having joined her Lord.
She attained a state of bliss by the total surrender of body, mind and soul Atma samarpanam.She was only fifteen years old at the time.

Peria Alwar's house, which is adjacent to lord Vishnu's temple, has now been converted into a temple in honour of Aandal and it still has the well in which Godai admired her reflection while wearing the lord's garlands.
Aandal was a great poetess too.Her two most noted works are Thiruppavai and Naachiyaar Thirumozhi.
In Thiruppaavai, Andal and her companions, observe the ancient religious rite of "Pavai Nombu" which the cowherdesses observed in the bygone age to obtain lord Krishna's hand in marriage. It contains thirty verses and each and every one of the verse contains many hidden inner wisdom of high philosophical meanings.
Her Naachiyaar Thirumozhi has one hundred and forty three verses, wherein Aandal pours her love out for her lord Krishna. One can feel the deep emotions of the love-lorn state and the pining that her heart feels for the lord.

End Notes:

1.The Alwars are 12 outstanding devotees in the Sri Vishnavism tradition, appearing in south India over a period of several centuries. They are responsible for the basis of what would later on become the four Vaisnava sampradayas.
2.Vaishnavism (Sanskrit: वैष्णव धर्म]) is a school of Hinduism, wherein its worship of Vishnu or his associated avatars, principally as Rama and Krishna , are considerd as the original and supreme God. Between the 6th and 9th centuries, the twelve Alvars (poet-mystics) laid the foundations for the Shri Vaishnavas based in Shri Rangam, South India. However their founder-theologian is Ramanuja (1017–1137).
3.Vaishnava sampradayas (preceptoral successions)Their founder-theologian is Ramanuja (1017–1137). After him emerged three other sampradayas headed by Nimbarka (1125–1162), Vishnuswami (1200–1250) and Madhva (1238–1317.
4.Jayanthi is derived from Sanskrit jayavanta meaning "possessing victory"
5.Garuda is the king of birds,( maybe depicted as an eagle being much larger than a kite) popularly known as the vahana or vehicle of vishnu.His stature in Hindu religion can be gauged by the fact that an independent Upanishad, the Garudopanishad, and a Purana, the Garuda Purana, is devoted to him.An Hindu equivalent of the constellation Aquila. Aquila in Latin is eagle.
6. Parabrahman: Term used in Hindu religious philosophy to denote the supreme absolute transcendental reality-the non-personal divine even beyond manifestation as gods and goddesses....Supreme Cosmic Spirit.
7.Mangalasasanam means 'singing praise of the holy shrines'.
8. Pavai Nombu is performed by young girls for prosperity and to get good husbands. The history of Pavai Nonbu is more than 2000 years old and is mentioned in the early Tamil scriptures.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Festival of Karthikai Deepam

Karthigai is the name of a month in the Tamil calendar, Krithigai is a star (nakshataram in Tamil) and deepam means light and the main event of this festival is lighting earthen oil lamps in the evening after sunset. It is celebrated on Karthigai pournami (full moon) day in the month of Karthigai that coincides with the Krithigai nakshatram. This being a festival of lights is sometimes seen as an extension of Deepavalli and in many houses in south India they double the number of lamps every day from Deepavalli until Karthigai Deepam day when they end up with a lot of lamps. Traditionally earthen lamps called ahals are lit and earthen lamps are auspicious in Hindu rituals and festivals. Conventionally Karthigai Deepam is a festival celebrated by the Hindus of southern India and is virtually unknown in the northern parts of the country. It was started most likely in Tamil Nadu and it happens to be one of the oldest festival celebrated by the Tamils and was for a long time the most important festival of the Tamils called "peruvizha" or the big festival.

one of the oldest festival
One of the earliest reference to this festival dates back to the Sangam age . The Sangam age by Tamils is considered to be the golden era of Tamil literature, (the poems and other literary works are placed between the third century BC and third century AD and extended over the Cheras, Pandyas and the Choala dynasties). This festival finds a mention in the Ahananuru - a rich and one amongst the earliest Tamil classic poetic work comprising of 400 stanzas composed by various poets at diverse places and at different period of time. They were combined by Rudrasarman (son of Madurai Uppurikkudikkilan) who compiled them at the request of the Pandya king Ukkiraperuvazhuthi. The Ahananuru has a lot of references to historical events besides a lot of social information of that period namely customs, religion, clothes, marriages etc. The Ahananuru is perhaps the first source which mentions a festival of lights that is celebrated on a full moon day (pournami) in the month of Karthigai (November-December) and that which coincides with the ascension of the Krithigai star.There are various other refernces to this festival of lights. There is reference to this in the works of Avaiyar too, the great poetess of the Sangam age. There are inscriptions in many of the ancient temples about the festival of lights. The Arulalaperumal temple at Kancheepuram, a mid sixteenth century temple, has inscriptions which refers to a festival called "Thiru Karthigai Thirunal." In Kalavazhi Narpadu a work dating back to the third Sangam period there is a reference to this festival: "In the battle the blood oozing out from the dead soldiers bodies is like the red coloured flame of the lamps lit during the Karthigai Deepam festival." It is also mentioned in the Tholkappiyam which is a work on Tamil grammar and perhaps the earliest extant of Tamil literature-dated variously between the third century BCE and the tenth century CE. It is a concise verse form rules for Tamil grammar. In one of the formulae of the Tholkappiyam a phrase is used that is reminscent of this festival "like a lamp's flame pointing upwards". Jeevakachintamani, an epic written by a Jain poet Thiruthakka Thevar in the ninth century describes how the festival Karthigai Deepam is celebrated with a lot of fun and joy . Others mentioning this festival are Karnarpadu, where the poet in one of the verses describes the lamps blossoming on the earth in the month of Karthigai bringing in its wake the monsoon. Pazhamozhi Nanuru , 400 verses written by a Jain poet Munrurai Araiyanaar, who uses old Tamil proverbs to convey his message and belonging to the post Sangam period coressponding to 100-500 CE ends one of his poems with "like the beacon on the hill".
stories attached to karthigai deepam
Vihnu versus Brahma: Among the many interesting stories attached to the festival of Karthigai Deepam the most popular one is about the ego of Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma. This festival is celebrated to spread the message that the supreme GOD is beyond the Creator and the Preserver. According to a legend, Vishnu, the Preserver and Brahma the Creator began to quarrel on the subject of relative supremacy - on who was more poweful. Lord Shiva, who wished to quell the pride and ego of the both of them took the luminous form of a beam of light and appeared before them as a huge pillar of fire. Lord Shiva told them that whoever found either the crown or the foot of the pillar was superior and the matter could be settled. Determined to end the matter and come to a decision they went on to search the head and foot of the pillar of fire. Brahma thinking it below his dignity to go downwards took the form of an annam (swan) and went in serch of the head. Vishnu taking the form of varagar (boar) started digging the earth to find the foot. Neither of them succeeded. Vishnu soon realised that the supreme light or GOD is beyond everything. Brahma's story did not end that easily. Desperate to prove himself superior, although in vain, he flew higher and higher. By chance he happened to see a thazhambu (a flower, kewda or screwpine) which told him that it was from Shiva's head and it had been floating around for more than thirty thousand years. (There is another version which says that Brahma saw the thazhambu falling and caught it and made a request to bear false testimony that he had infact got it from Shiva's head as proof and the ignorant flower agreed). He took the flower to Shiva and claimed superiority by saying that he had reached the top and showed his proof. Lord Shiva knowing that he was not truthful was very angry and cursed him and said that for his lowly act he had proved himself unworthy of worship and that there would never be a Brahma temple and that he will never be worshipped. He also distanced himself from the flower and said that thazhambu will not be used in his worship.The Anala Stambha (pillar of fire) made Vishnu realise that the supreme lord was beginigless and endless and that he was endless in time and space. Vishnu shed his pride and bowed in all humility to Lord Shiva. Soon Shiva appeared as Arunachala hill at Tirruvannamalai, the name translates to "holy fire hill". Both Vishnu and Brahma asked Lord Shiva to take a form that would be recognised by the common people and the benevolent lord took the form of the lingam. He is theefore also called the lingodbhavar (the one who emerged from the lingam). He also assured them that once a year he would make an appearance as a jyothi (light) from top of the Arunachal hill, making his presence felt and also illuminating the divine path. The linga there at the temple is the agni linga and every year the people flock to see the magical Karthigai Deepam at this place. On the peak of this hill every year on this day a torch is lit and it is believed that Shiva's jyothi is visible at this time.It is called the Mahadeepam and thousands throng to see this spectacular sight.Now many TV channels give live telecast of this. Ast he light on top of the Tiruvannamalai unveils people loudly chant harohara the esoteric meaning of this being the one who sees the light of lights burning sees the eternal light burning in his heart and through constant meditaion can attain moksha.....merge with the eternal light.
Six Celestial Nymphs- Kritikas : There is another popular myth that surrounds this festival. Krithika in Sanskrit translates into a cluster of stars. This refers to a cluster of stars -the constellation krithika, called the star of fire - the presiding diety being Agni (fire). This constellation appears as a group of six stars in a firmament in the form of a pendant hanging from the ears. The six stars were the six celestial nymphs who reared six babies on the Sarvana tank. Later the six babies were joined together to form a single force Lord Muruga by goddess Parvathi, when she embraced the baby. Among the Tamils lord Murugan is also called Arumugan (six faces). Karthgai Deepam festival falls on lord Murugan's birthday. The story goes that lord Murugan was formed by six sparks of fire from Shiva's eyes, which were six babies . This happened as soon as he opened his eye after a deep meditation that he went into after the death of his wife Sati. These babies were looked after by the six Krithika stars. The Krithika's are supposed to be the wives of Saptha Rishis ( the seven rishis). According to some versions in Indian mythology Murugan was the son of Svaha (the daughter of Daksha) and Agni. She is supposed to have imporsonated the wives of the Saptha Rishis to get close to Agni. The Saptha Rishis doubting their wives' loyalty/chastity sent them away and they were born as the Krithikas. Svaha could not impersonate Arundhathi the wife of rishi Vashista as she was supposed to be very loyal to her husband.One can find a simlarity in astronomy with Pleiades (in Greek mythology sisters of Calypso) or seven sisters in the open cluster of stars in the constellation Taurus. It is believed that when Murugan used to join the Krithikas to play they used to appear as seven.This open star cluster has different meaning in different cultures and traditions.
OM : There is another verson according to the Kandha Puranam, which says that Murugan taught the meaning of Om to Shiva. Om is said to enscapulate the "supreme knowledge" and even as a little boy Murugan was aware of its meaning.There is an interesting story in which Lord Brahma's ego got the better of him and he refused to show respect to little Murugan. Murugan cornered Brahma and asked him the meaning of "Om" and not getting a satisfactory answer imprisoned him, the reason being that the Creator cannot be that incompetent. Murugan's father lord Shiva at once came to the rescue and questioned his son's authority to imprison a god. With jest, Murugan teased his father that if he too did not know the meaning of the holy syllable, he should learn it from him, his son. Lord Shiva agreed to get the meaning from his son and accepting him as the Master sat down respectfully in front of his son as one does before a Guru and Lord Murugan expounded the secret behind "Om" in the ears of lord Shiva...the very lord of the universe. Murugan thus got the name Swaminathan and in Tamil he is also called Thagapan Sami- a guru to his own father. So according to some schools lamps are lit symbolically to represent knowledge, victory and peace and in rememberance of sharing the ultimate knowledge of Om-that helps in emancipation and enlightenment.
Surrender of King Bali: The Vaishnavites for whom Lord Vishnu is supreme celebrate Vishnu deepam on this day. And for them there is a different story. The reason they celebrate this festival is based on Lord Vamana - an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Besides the houses and temples getting decorated with lighted earthen lamps a bonfire called Sokkapannai is also lit in Vishnu temples. For the Vishnavite sect this festival has to do with the surrender of King Bali to Vamana. It is believed that on this day Maha Bali was pressed down to the pathala logam (netherworld) by Vamana. It is said that the first two steps of Vamana are uttarayan and the vernal equinox and the third step that sends Bali to pathala logam is the autumn equinox.
Yannai Pandigai: This festival is also celebrated as Yannai pandigai (elephant festival), mainly by the Mandayam Iyengar community, and as the name suggests is dedicated to elephants. Small clay elephants are hand made and decorated as per the Vaishnava tradition (with a namam etc) and are arranged for puja on karthgai pournami day. This gives an opportunity to exhibit the collection of gold, silver, bronze , marble and wooden elephants. The ritual lasts for three days. Lamps of different shapes are lit around the elephants and the house. Women in the traditional madisar (nine yards) saree and young girls go around the elephants three times. spilling cocnut water and milk ending with the arathi. Women fast in the evenings. This festival is very important to the Mandayam Iyengars especially when there is a new bride in the house, it is performed with more zest on the first year of marriage with aarathi to the daughter in law of the house.

According to the legend associated with this festival, Gandhari, the mother of Kauravas in the Mahabharata, performed Yannai puja to the royal elephants and her collection of gold elephants to show her might and influence. She did not invite Kunti the mother of the Pandavas, who was saddened by this behaviour. Her son Arjuna, with the help of a ladder made of arrows brought down to earth Airavatha, the horse of Indira. Kunti was able to perform Yannai pandigai. People started following this tradition and performed Yannai puja to clay elephants. On the final day of the puja, the clay elephants are immersed in some waterbody ( water tank or river) with plain curd rice rubbed to the tummy of the clay elephant. Four varieties of rice that are prepared on this day re offered to elephants.

Just as Diwali is celebrated in the north, in south India Karthigai deepam is the festival of lights. The stories behind this festival vary but the gaitey and joy that goes in its celebration by the different south Indian communities are the same.