Glimpses along the way

Karthikai Deepam – ablaze with spirituality

Tearsheet of Times of India Deepam article
Tearsheet of Times of India Kartikai Deepam article

The Times of India,  Chennai, commissioned me to write and illustrate with my photographs the annual Kartikai Deepam festival, for their special full-page feature on Tiruvannamalai. Happily, it appeared on Kartikai Deepam day itself, Thursday 8th December, 2011, in their various upcountry editions throughout Tamil Nadu (the Chennai edition of the same day’s Times of India carried a special feature on the famous Madras Music festival instead).

My article appeared as written, except for some edits for space — more than half the page is devoted to local ads! Here’s the full piece, with the cuts restored. Please enjoy!

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On the peak of Mt Arunachala (2,668 ft), the ancient holy hill more popularly known as Annamalai, the excitement of anticipation becomes unbearable as the hands of the clock approach 6 p.m. To the west, the sun has set. At the other end of the panoramic vista, the full moon rises silently into the evening sky. More than 2,000 ft below, at the foot of the steep hill, the pilgrimage town of Tiruvannamalai lies silent, still and dark.

Unable to contain themselves any longer, the hundreds of devotees densely packed into the small area of the hilltop break out in a spontaneous chant: “Annamalai! Arohara! Annamalai! Arohara!” Upon the large boulder that marks the very highest point of the peak, an iron cauldron nearly two metres tall has been packed full with white kada cotton cloth, ghee and topped with fist-sized lumps of camphor.

At the exact moment of auspiciousness, the camphor is lit. Instantly, from every direction, cries of religious fervour erupt from hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and devotees who had unwaveringly focussed their eyes upon the top of Mt Arunachala for this very moment. Fireworks and crackers loudly burst into the sky. As if by a single switch, all the lights of Tiruvannamalai are turned on.

The magnificent 8th century big temple of Lord Arunachaleshwarar, in the centre of town, is ablaze with decorative lighting, the fortress-like perimeter wall enclosing 25 acres, it’s Raja Gopuram towering more than 200 ft high, making it the largest Shiva temple in the world. In the inner courtyard (prakaram), the five festival deities (utsava pancha murtis) are at the centre of the dense throngs, themselves the divine VIPs of the Kartikai Deepam Festival: Lord Arunachaleshwarar, his consort Goddess Apitakuchambika, their sons Vinayaka and Muruga, and Chandikeshwarar.

More quietly and on a smaller scale, families and groups of devotees in homes and ashrams across Tiruvannamalai light their own small deepams with ghee and cotton, to the accompaniment of prayers and pujas. In the world famous Sri Ramanasramam, an international gathering recite the original Tamil songs of Sri Ramana Maharshi in praise of Arunachala, including Arunachala Aksharamanamalai, 108 couplets that express the longing of the seeker for union with the divine.

This Kartikai Deepam festival is not only an ancient commemoration but also an apt reminder for our troubled times today. The Puranic tale informs us that the gods, Brahma and Vishnu, were quarrelling, each asserting that the one was greater than the other. This fight was causing profound disturbances throughout the cosmos. The celestial beings finally appealed to Lord Shiva to put an end to the dispute and restore peace and harmony in all the worlds. Shiva appeared before the contentious duo as an infinite column of light. Confronted by this transcendental phenomenon, Brahma and Vishnu agreed that he who found the end of this light would be the winner. Brahma took the form of a swan and flew upwards. Vishnu assumed the shape of a boar and burrowed downwards. Vishnu returned defeated. Brahma, seeing a lotus flower falling from above, took it in his beak as proof that he had found the top. Then Lord Shiva revealed his true form. One of Brahma’s heads, the one that told the lie, was cut off, and he is not worshipped separately to this day. And that fiery pillar of infinite light is Annamalai, Arunachala, cooled down into the shape of an ordinary hill, out of compassion for humanity, so that devotees may draw near and bow to the supreme lord.

Every day of the elaborate, 10-day Kartikai Deepam festival is filled with spectacle and excitement. In the night, the deities are taken in grand procession through the streets of Tiruvannamalai. The most notable is the 7th day Therotsavam, the Big Car Festival, when Lord Arunachaleshwarar is borne upon a gigantic wooden car, nearly five storeys tall, and drawn entirely by the hands of thousands of devotees, pulling on heavy iron chains. The largest cattle market in the district also happens during the Deepam festival, when hundreds of local farmers gather to buy and sell their farm animals. At any given time, pilgrims by the thousand perform giripradakshina, the ritual 13-km circumambulation of the holy hill. This is especially popular every full moon night, and the Kartikai pournami (full moon) walk around Annamalai is by far the most significant.

Kartikai Deepam is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and if the devotee has had darshan of Deepam once in this life, it is enough. And if even that proves impossible, divine providence has today provided us with the internet and live TV!

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Dev Gogoi is author of the award-winning Arunachala Mountain of Light, 2007, a photographic study of the sacred hill. He is a Tiruvannamalai-based book editor and photographer, and student of Sri Ramana Maharshi.

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And here are larger versions of the published pictures. Thank you Guhan for the suggestion:

Arunachala with Deepam seen from Arunachaleshwarar Temple

Arunachala with Deepam seen from Arunachaleshwarar Temple

Lord Arunachaleshwarar in procession, seated upon Rishabha Vahanam (Silver Bull)

Lord Arunachaleshwarar in procession, seated upon Rishabha Vahanam (Silver Bull)

Arunachala Deepam at Sri Ramanasramam

Arunachala Deepam at Sri Ramanasramam

Arunachaleshwarar Temple and Tiruvannamalai nightscape

Arunachaleshwarar Temple and Tiruvannamalai nightscape

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And here are links to more of my Karthikai Deepam 2011 work:

Holy flame lit atop Mt. Arunachala on Deepam Festival

Longest total lunar eclipse

Sacred flame lit on tenth and final day of Deepam Festival

Thousands of hands pull giant car in Deepam Festival

Deepam Festival deities taken on grand procession

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