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History & Tradition of Karthigai Deepam

The Festival of Diyas has already hit Tamil Nadu, and the people are drenched in fervour and ecstasy to celebrate it. It is among the most celebrated and awaited festival in the state and find its roots to the ancient Tamil Literature. Ancient Tamil literature dates back to as early as 2500 or 2000 B.C. and the mention of this festival and its attributes signifies the importance it held during such old days. It is home coming for Tamils settled all over the world, as this is the time of rejoice and festivity. Every bit of their body and soul is submerged in the preparation of the big day.

Cīvaka Cintāmaṇi (fabulous gem), an epic composed in 10th century A.D. by the well known Jain monk cum poet Thiruthakka Thevar has passages that describe the festivity during the days of Karthagai Deepam which is celebrated for a period of 10 days in the Karthagai month of the Tamil Solar Calendar. These 10 days fall in the month of November and December. Kalavazhi Narpadu, another piece of Tamilian Literature that finds its origin somewhere in 1st Century A.D. also has a reference to the festival in the text where it describes a battle that caused a lot of bloodshed. Similarly, Tolkappiyam, another Tamil composition that is considered to be written in 3rd Century B.C. also mentions the “lamp’s flame” which is according to analysts refers to the flame that glowed atop the Annamalai Hill.

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View of the Arunachaleshwara Temple premises from the Annamalai hill. [Image Credits: LovinDhana - Panoramio]

Thiruvannamalai Arunachaleshwara Swamy Temple is among the most potent signifiers of this festival. The festivities in the temple continue 10 day long. On the final i.e. the 10th day, the rituals start with the lighting of the Bharani Deepam early at 4 AM. The masses worship and encircle the deepam. This isn’t an ordinary lamp, but one that has all such features that even if accounted separately shall qualify as phenomenal. The lamp  is a large metallic vessel that brims with ghee (clarified butter). This huge 5.5 feet tall deepam has the capacity to hold approximately 2000 liters of ghee in its circumference that is nearly 15.7 feet. The work of lighting, arranging all the raw materials and decorating the premises of the temple is a cumbersome task but the devotees take immense pleasure in preparing for it right from Karthigai Pournami. They find happiness in their hard work and toil harder each year to make arrangements better than the previous year’s.The flame of the Bharani Deepam is used to light the Karthigai Mahadeepam at the hill top after sunset. The temple is decorated with over a lakh lamps and the sight is mesmerizing. The devotees are so excited about this affair that they do not miss any opportunity to witness it. This Mahadeepam is so bright that it can be easily seen from a distance of 35 km.

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Devotees during the festival procession at Thiruvannamalai. [Image Source:  D. Gopalakrishnan - The Hindu]

The homes are decorated with kolam and diyas, freshly painted and smell of kitchen delicacies. The gourmet includes Aadhirasam, Karthigai Adai,Vella Sedai, etc to name a few  It is in many a ways similar to the North Indian Deepawali as the children burst crackers and relatives and friends flock each others’ house.

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Children lighting lamps in front of their homes. [Image Source: A. Muralitharan - The Hindu]

Tourists also visit Tamil Nadu and especially Thiruvannamalai Temple to take part in this auspicious occasion where spirituality and beauty are entwined intricately.

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