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Sarada Prithipal's Kitchen
-- Sarada Prithipal

Karthigai Deepam

19 Nov 02

Karthigai Deepam is the oldest festival of South India. Falling in the Tamil month of Karthigai, when the star Krithigai is in the ascendant, it usually occurs on a full moon day. The month, during which Lord Shiva with his divine light created Lord Muruga, is of special importance in Tamil Nadu.

On this day, special pujas are performed to Muruga. Also known as Kandha, Kartikeya, or Subramanyan, he is the younger brother of Ganesha (Vinayaka), husband to Valli (the daughter of a tribal ruler) and Deivayani (the daughter of Indra, the King of Devas). It is even said the name Muruga is synonymous with the world Tamil. Muruga is eulogised as the ultimate warrior and the epitome of knowledge. He taught the secret of 'Aum' to his father.

His manifestation occurred when the Devas (the celestial people) were being oppressed by an Asura (demon) by the name of Taraka. Muruga is the conjoint manifestation of Shiva and Sakti. Shiva's deep spiritual exuberance was disturbed by Cupid. Sakti too was observing penance to get the grace of Shiva. When Shiva opened his eyes, he burnt Cupid. At that time six flashes, like lightning, emerged -- five from the five senses and one from the mind of Siva. These became six babies and the cosmic mother, Sakti, rolled them into one baby with six heads and twelve arms.

Because of this evolutionary process, Subrahmanya is also known as Shanmukha or six-faced one. The six heads represent six rays or attributes, viz., wisdom, dispassion, strength, fame, wealth and divine power.

Muruga's spouses Valli and Deivayani represent will and action. He also holds a spear given to him by Sakti to remove the evil force of Taraka. This spear (Vel) represents (jnana) knowledge. These three together denote the three cosmic energies of governing will, action and knowledge. He rides on a peacock, indicative of conquering pride egoism and vanity.

There is an interesting story that explains the link between Karthigai and lamps. Legend has it that Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma began to quarrel as to which of them was more powerful. Lord Shiva then appeared before them in the form of a huge pillar of fire. Giving up their fight, Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma decided to find the top and the bottom of the pillar.

Brahma assumed the form of a swan and moved upwards. Vishnu transformed himself into a boar and started digging deep into the earth. But even after searching for several years, neither was able to find the ends of the pillar. Finally, they realised that the pillar was none other than Lord Shiva.

Soon afterwards, Lord Shiva appeared as a hill (Arunachala Hill) at Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu. The names `Tiruvannamalai' and `Arunachala' translate as `holy fire hill.' The Sivalinga in the temple here is the agni linga. The tiny lamps lit during the Karthigai festival are believed to be miniature replicas of the fire linga.

Every year thousands flock to Tiruvannamalai to see the spectacular Karthigai Deepam there, when a special torch is lit on top of the hill. The belief is that Lord Shiva's jyoti will be visible on this day. The festival is also known as Annamalai Deepam.

At Tiruvannamalai, the lighting of the beacon on the hill top is the culmination of ten days of activity in the temple town. The tribals who live in Thiruvannamalai hills, fast for 40 days and light the lamp as only they have the right to light it. Once the deepam is lit, on top of the hill, the sanctum sanctorum is closed.

The lighting of the 'Maha Deepam' takes place simultaneously with the 'deeparathana' to the five deities in the temple at the foot of the hill.

On Karthigai day, devotees walk round the hill and worship the Bharani Deepam which is lit early in the morning on the final day of the 10-day festival, in the sanctum sanatorium. The belief is that people who circumnavigate the hill are blessed by Lord Shiva.

The Deepam is lit in a gigantic, circular metal vessel that can hold about 2,000 litres of ghee. It is five-and-a-half feet in height and five feet in diameter. To make the wick, 30m of 'ghada' cloth is used and is burnt with 2 kilos of camphor on the night of 'Karthigai Pournami'. The Jyoti can be seen from nearly 35-km around.

The day after the 'deepam' all the deities in the temple are taken around the hill. This is known as Athma Pradhakshinam. On this day, the entire town observes a fast and no restaurant or outlet serves food.

Proof that Karthigai is the oldest festival is available in Tamil literature. Tolkappiyam, the oldest available work dating back to 2,000 or 2,500 B C, has concise verse form rules for Tamil grammar. In one of the formulae, Tolkapiyar uses the phrase "like the lamp's flame pointing upwards". This phrase, says a commentator, refers to the beacon lit on the Annamalai Hill, which burns brightly without flickering in the wind, and flares up towards the sky.

Another epic 'Jeevakachintamani' written by a Jain poet, Thiruthakka Thevar, describes how people celebrated the Karthigai Deepam festival. Again, in another ancient Tamil literature of the Sangam period, the Karthigai Deepam festival is described vividly. In 'Karnarpadu', the poet describes how in the Tamil month of Karthigai, the lamps are lit by people blossomed on earth, bringing rain in its wake. In the 'Kalavazhi Narpadu', which dates back to the third Sangam period (after 1,000 BC) the poet says, "In the battle the blood oozing out from the dead soldiers' bodies is like the red coloured flame of the lamps lit during Karthigai Deepam festival". Yet another Sangam work, 'Pazhamozhi', one stanza ends with this phrase, "like the beacon on the Hill".

The festival is also considered an extension of Deepavali. On this day, people clean their homes and have 'Kolams' (Rangoli) in front of the house with lamps placed on it. Lamps ('Agal') are lit in the puja room and after the 'Deeparathana' (puja), they are moved to different places in the house. Rows of houses with hundreds of lamps aglow are a wonderful sight indeed.

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