Temple Festivals Galore in T.N.

Srinivasan Balakrishnan

Temple cars (rath / chariots) roll down the streets and the floats gently move around in temple tanks during this festive season.  The last and twelfth month of the solar-based Tamil calendar is called Panguni (March 15-April 13). And Panguni (Phalguna in Hindi) is a sacred month filled with religious activities. Both the Saivaite and Vaishnavaite temples organise these festivities and, therefore, that much interesting. Gigantic temple cars gently move to the pulling of thousands of devotees and go around the temple in parikrama (circumambulation). The temple tank comes alive with the float festival with the waters reflecting the illuminated float. The festivities usually last for ten days and culminate with the full moon day. During this period, the gods come out in procession on different mounts (vahans), like peacock, elephant, garuda, hanuman, lion, sun, moon, snake, Ravan, etc., of all, the most elaborate and huge being Bull (Adhikara Nandhi).   

The full moon day is called Panguni Uthiram when the festivities reach the zenith with celestial weddings performed. Uthiram nakshtra (star/constellation) is the 12th in the 27 series of stars. This day is close to the heart of Tamils because it is associated with the Tamil God, Lord Murugan (Karthik). It is observed with much devotion in all Murugan temples around the world, wherever His devotees have raised a temple for Him, like in Singapore, Malaysia, USA, Mauritius, Seychelles, etc. The most famous celebration of Panguni Uthiram is at the Palani temple in Tamil Nadu. This is one of the six most revered abodes of Lord Murugan. It is one of his leela kshetras where he stood as a Bala Sanyasi.

Devotees usually carry ‘kavadi’ on this occasion to Murugan temples. Kavadi is actually a wooden stick carried on the shoulders with material for the deity’s sacred bath, usually milk pots, at both the ends. The stick is decorated like a canopy with peacock feathers, etc. Devotees also pierce spears through their cheeks or tongue; the long spears could be even 12 ft. long! They also pull chariots hooked to their back skin and also do fire-walking as an offering, thanksgiving or vow. Somehow I am unable to bear the sight of such tortuous devotion.

These religious events are also social events when all people mingle together. Such events help in circulation of money and also give a boost to trade, in particular petty trade and handicrafts. I noticed earthenware and palm leaf products spread for sale. I even noticed my childhood dream vendor creating ‘watches’ out of native chewing gum for Rs. 20 each. I was surprised to see modern kids with digital watches vying for this toy watches. Or were their parents fulfilling their own dream, like me?  A recent addition is North Indians selling pani puri, chaat items, flute, drums, etc., so much so that they have invariably become a part of such festivities all around in Tamil Nadu! While the float is recreated every year, the chariot base is a permanent one upon which a canopy is decorated. It is usually Lord Brahma who steers the temple chariots.  One interesting aspect is an angel doll showering flowers on the gods proceeding in procession; this could be a recent attractive addition.

If one wants to witness the traditional religious festivals of Tamil Nadu, Panguni is the right time to soak in and savour it. As they say, one needs thousand eyes to witness the beauty of the chariot and float festivals. Plan ahead for next Panguni in 2020 by which time, I hope, India would be a super power as promised by our politicians. …

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