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.


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  2. Thanks!Detailed and well written.