Karthigai Deepam: A festival older than Deepavali

Kaarthigai Deepam is a festival of lights, celebrated in the Tamil month of Kaarthigai.

Rows of agal vilakkus in front of every house, this is the image that at once comes to mind when we think of Karthigai Deepam. It is also considered as the extension of the Deepavali festival.  It is celebrated on the full moon day of the Kaarthigai month which coincides with Kiruththigai Natchaththaram (Star).

This year it will be celebrated on 10 December 2019.

What rituals are observed at home?

On this Karthigai day, people clean the houses. In the evening, they draw kolams (rangoli) in the front of the house and also place some lamps on it.

The lamps(Agal) are placed in the pooja and lighted. Then the Deeparathana (Camphor Lamp) is turned for the Lamps and then moved to different places around the home.

The lamps glow all over the streets on is day. The lamps are arranged near the doors and windows and also in the balconies.

Not many of us are aware that it is one of the oldest festivals celebrated in the State, perhaps even before people began celebrating Deepavali and Navarathri. Also, unlike many other Hindu festivals, Karthigai is  a Tamil festival.

A sadhu is playing a conch to welcome the gods coming out of Arunachaleswarar Temple. Karthigai Deepam festival of Lights.
A sadhu is playing a conch to welcome the gods coming out of Arunachaleswarar Temple. Karthigai Deepam festival of Lights.

One of the earliest references to the festival is found in the Ahananuru, a book of poems, which dates back to the Sangam Age (200 B.C. to 300 A.D.). The Ahananuru clearly states that Karthigai is celebrated on the full moon day (pournami) of the Tamil month of Karthigai.

It was one of the most important festivals (peruvizha) of the ancient Tamils. Avaiyyar, the renowned poetess of those times, refers to the festival in her songs. Inscriptions in our temples also refer to the festival. A mid-sixteenth Century inscription at the Arulalaperumal temple in Kancheepuram, refers to the festival as Thiru Karthigai Thirunal. Karthigai is essentially a festival of lamps.

The lit lamp is considered an auspicious symbol. It is believed to ward off evil forces and usher in prosperity and joy. While the lighted lamp is important for all Hindu rituals and festivals, it is indispensable for Karthigai. There is an interesting story explaining the link between Karthigai and lamps.

The story of Karthigai Deepam

Legend has it that Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma began to quarrel as to who was the more powerful of the two. While they were fighting, Lord Shiva appeared before them in the form of a huge pillar of fire. Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma gave up quarrelling and decided to find the top and the bottom of the pillar.

Accordingly, 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 of the two was able to find the ends 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.

Indeed, the very names ‘Tiruvannamalai’ and ‘Arunachala’ translate as ‘holy fire hill’.  The Shivalinga in the temple here is the agni linga. The tiny lamps lit during the Karthigai festival (Karthigai Deepam) are believed to be the miniature replicas of the fire linga.

ALSO CHECK OUT: Need an idea for Kolam patterns for your celebrations? Click here

In India…

Every year thousands of devotees from Chennai and elsewhere flock to Tiruvannamalai to see the spectacular Karthigai Deepam there. The lamps lit on the occasion are of varied sizes, shapes and colours. Traditionally, lamps are lit in temples and agal vilakkus would adorn the thinnai’s of houses. Bigger lamps made of mud; stone and metal were lit inside homes. The ancient Tamils are said to have even imported lamps from as far as Greece and Rome, through the ports of Arikamedu (near Pondicherry), Mallai or Mamallapuram and Mylai or Mylapore (part of present-day Chennai). One such imported lamp was of the hanging variety, designed in the shape of a swan with a fish placed at the top.

In Arunachaleswarar Temple

During the nine first days, pujas (ceremonies) are held inside Arunachaleswarar Temple, and gods are carried out by devotees and put on chariots. Some are pulled by tractors, others, the older ones, are pulled by men and women. The biggest chariot is around 16 meters high and weight over 40 tons! Another chariot, smaller, is only pulled by women. This year, some people were severely wounded as the approached too close from the big chariot and their legs passed under the 3 meters high metal wheels. They were sent to the hospital and had to be amputated.

On the night of the 9th day, a big puja is held all night long in the crowded inner temple and by 5 am, the swamis (priests) come out with the fire and bless the gods. Thousands of people gathered outside the temple to be present and try to see the fire as the swamis go around the temple.

On the 10th day, which correspond to full moon, many people go up hill to offer ghee (clarified butter) for the big fire which is lit at dusk simultaneously with the temple fire. Great yells of joy and fervor are heard from the mountain and from all around the mountain fireworks are all thrown.

The 11th night, gods are taken to an little in-town lake, put on a metal barrel made boat and pulled around the lake then back to the temple. During these days, night and day people follow the processions of gods, pray and offer ghee lamps in front of the temple. Richer people also offer meals for the poorest.

Lamps related to the festival

Another variety of lamp, common in Tamil Nadu from early times was the Lakshmi vilakku or Pavai vilakku. It was shaped like a woman bearing in her folded palms, the tahali or shallow bowl containing oil for lighting the lamp.

At Arikamedu, archaeologists unearthed a flat circular clay lamp with four nozzles or petals or openings for four wicks. Another clay lamp discovered at this site has 12 nozzles. The ubiquitous fivenozzle kuthu vilakku has been in use from the days of the Cholas or perhaps even earlier.

When the British East India Company began to rule parts of South India, it featured the petals or nozzles of the kuthu vilakku on some of the coins that were minted. The five petals or nozzles are also said to denote the five main elements are supposed to represent the five elements of Nature — earth, water, fire, air and sky or space. The five nozzles are also said to denote the five main elements needed for a successful life — health, wealth, learning, courage and longevity.

Traditionally, after Karthigai, most of these lamps, except for those in daily use, were cleaned and stacked away, and taken out only the next year for the festival. In the old, tiled-roof houses, agal vilakkus were invariably stacked in the loft beneath the roof.

In recent times, changes in lifestyle and tastes have brought about changes in the lamps used for the festival. 

Until recently, the humble agal vilakku was brought to our doorstep by the lamp-maker himself who carried his fragile wares on his head or on the back of a donkey. People purchased these lamps in dozens. Now, they are packed in colourful boxes and sold in prestigious department stores and handicrafts emporia as also in the annual lamp exhibitions organised in the city by Poompuhar to coincide with Karthigai.

Designer clay lamps are becoming increasingly popular among the younger generation. These come in exotic shapes and are often decorated with painted designs, colourful stones, beads and zari work. Many modern families in Chennai no longer prefer the oil lamps that stain the floor and the walls. Instead, they use scented candles, including those shaped in the form of the agal vilakku. In flats that do not have balconies or open spaces, the single candle lit next to the front door is a testimony to a hoary tradition.

In this way, people of Tamil Nadu celebrate Kaarthigai Deepam for three days.

Karthigai is essentially a festival of lamps. The lighted lamp is considered an auspicious symbol. It is believed to ward off evil forces and usher in prosperity and joy. Just as fire destroys impurities Lord Siva destroys the darkness of ignorance and egoism and blesses us with the light of wisdom. While the lit lamp is important for all Hindu rituals and festivals, it is indispensable for Karthigai.

This festival is also celebrated to commemorate the bonding between brothers and sisters. Sisters pray for the prosperity and success of their brothers and light lamps to mark the occasion. It is also celebrated by lighting a huge bonfire named Sokkapani in Sivan Temples

Every Year on Poornima or the full moon day of the month of Karthik, Vishnu Deepam is observed in the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

Also known as Karthikai Deepam or Yanai Pandigai, it is an auspicious day for all Vaishnava sect of devotees.

Devotees clean their houses and Lord Vishnu’s Temple is decorated with many diya’s (lamps). In some places, it is celebrated by lighting a bonfire named Sokkappanai in the Vishnu shrines. Temples having elephants dress them in their royal garb and feed them with special foods.

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