Just as it is said that the darkest hour is before the dawn, so also the light of consciousness shines brightest on the ‘Great Night of Shiva’ or Mahashivaratri, the moonless night at the end of the dark fortnight in the month of Phalgun, which this year falls on February 20th. What is apparently paradoxical is, in fact, a straightforward truth that is outwardly visible in the intensity and scale of human devotions on this most auspicious of occasions, one of India’s most significant and widely celebrated religious festivals.
Lord Shiva is symbolized as linga, and worshipped as this phallic form in any or each of the five natural elements: earth, water, fire, air and space. The preeminent tejolinga, or linga of fire, is none other than Annamalai or Arunachala, the sacred hill that gives the pilgrim town of Tiruvannamalai its name. Tens of thousands of devout worshippers converge upon Mt Arunachala on this moonless night of Mahashivaratri to fast, to pray, to circumambulate the holy hill, to listen to discourses or sacred music, to chant mantras, or simply meditate. It is a night-long affair during which each devotee freely follows his or her own preferred path while gaining support from the shared presence of other pilgrims and the lineage of local saints and sages.
It has been recorded that Sri Ramana Maharshi (1879 – 1950), when perusing the Shiva Purana on June 30th, 1936, made this observation: “Shiva has the transcendental and immanent aspects as represented by his invisible, transcendental being and the linga aspect respectively. The linga manifested as Arunachala originally stands even to this day. This manifestation was when the moon was in the constellation of Orion (Ardra) in December. However, it was first worshipped on Shivaratri day which is held sacred even now.” (Talks With Sri Ramana Maharshi, Sri Ramanasramam, Talk No. 218).
In the centre of Tiruvannamalai, as the darkness begins to gather at dusk, the spacious flag-stoned courtyards of the Arunachaleshwarar Temple are awash with countless clay oil lamps, all laid out in vast sweeping designs, outlining various motifs characteristic of Lord Shiva: lingams, Nandi the bull, the sacred syllable ‘Om’ or Mt Arunachala. Hordes of devotees, young and old, continuously replenish the lamps with more oil, or light fresh ones.
Elsewhere, gigantic, brightly-coloured sand murals larger than a badminton court depict scenes of divinity and devotion: Shiva as Nataraja, lord of dance, or a devotee worshipping a linga at the foot of Mt Arunachala. In the inner sanctum of the 25-acre temple, a dense stream of pilgrims continuously circumambulates the garba griha, or sanctum sanctorum, throughout the night. For the less energetic, or frail of limb, classical music and dance performances within the temple premises help to keep one’s attention alive and focussed.
And, of course, there’s the perennially fulfilling 13-km circumambulation of Mt Arunachala. As recently as twenty years ago, it was so silent that a visiting filmmaker could record the soft susurrations of unshod footfalls upon the ground. Today, those delicate sounds have given way to an explosion of public piety, enthusiastic chants of “Om Namah Shivaya” and groups of devotional singers. With the imminent dawn of a new day, the supreme lord must surely be listening.
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!
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!
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.
And here are larger versions of the published pictures. Thank you Guhan for the suggestion:
And here are links to more of my Karthikai Deepam 2011 work:
The stars may be immutable in their vast trajectories across the heavens but at the quotidian level long-held practices may need a little adjustment. Case in point: the widely popular Navratri Festival, literally ‘nine nights,’ was actually held over eight nights this year. Unlike the leap year phenomenon, which I never really understood, but blindly accept, one night didn’t actually ‘disappear.’ Rather, two astrological conjunctions, which normally occur over two consecutive days, this year happened within a single twenty-four-hour period. Ergo, we had eight instead of nine nights. Nobody minded and not a living soul (eight hundred million strong) thought to call this year’s festival “Ashtaratri.” Why split hairs?
The tenth day is called Vijayadasami (literally ‘victory on the tenth’), this joyous celebration of good over evil, when the goddess slays the demon. “Vijayanavami,” actually, this year, but then, who am I?
Everyone will have their own tale of happinesses, large or small, of this period when auspiciousness suffuses the very air we breathe. Mine can be shown in a single snapshot.
Wandered into Sri Ramanasramam on Vijayadasami. The elaborate rituals are all over. A long stream of devotees file slowly by the magnificently decorated idol of the goddess. As a life-long backbencher, I remain true to form and bring up the rear. God, it’s beautiful. Decide to take a picture. Begin shooting.
Along comes Sundaram, mellow head of this venerable institution, to quietly offer his pranams to the deity. I’ve been displaced from my customary end-of-the-line position, but that observation came later. What happened in the moment was something else. “Why don’t you go there?” he asks gently, pointing to the other side of the altar. Now, I’m always open to suggestions, but the reason I was on this side of the altar was precisely to stay out of everybody’s way, not to mention abjuring any positions of privilege which generally felt more uncomfortable than desirable. “You can go that side,” he offers again. Like an environmentally unfriendly fluorescent light, it takes a second or two for my brain to process the message. I switch sides.
Now I’m on this side looking at Sundaram, and he’s on that side looking at me. Of course, this is the position from which to photograph this gorgeous scene. I knew that. It’s a case of shooting oneself in the foot instead of shooting for the stars. Luckily for me, he knew better, and acted on it.
And then Sundaram’s face lights up with a dazzling smile.