It is beauty in serenity, as the lamps gently glow.

The sound and fury of Deepavali have given way to the elegant and bright Karthigai Deepam. The festival that celebrates light is just round the corner (November 27 and 28). Light, symbol of knowledge and enlightenment, gains special significance with the advent of the Tamil month of Karthigai. Placed on balconies, sit-outs and door-steps, small earthen lamps sparkle like little jewels in the fast-gathering dusk, braving a nippy breeze, a light drizzle often keeping company.

Tamils across the country celebrate Karthigai Deepam with new clothes and special delicacies. Fireworks light up the sky, completing the picture. The festival is perhaps the oldest in the history of Tamil Nadu and references about it can be found in Sangam literature. The lighting of the humble agal has a spiritual significance too. The oil stands for our gunas on which ego, the wick, thrives. The flame is knowledge. The tiny lamps stand for harmony, peace and prosperity.

Temples lead the celebration and Deepam attracts thousands to Tiruvannamalai, where the flag went up on Sunday last. Maha Deepam falls on November 27. The mountain itself is considered the deity here. Hailed as Agni kshetram, Siva is worshipped as a column of Fire that has no beginning or end (Lingodbhava). ‘Sokkapanai’ – lamps placed in cone-shaped palm leaves inside pots – adds colour to the festival.

The festival underscores how all the five elements - earth, water, air, space and fire - bond together in making a light that symbolises life. The day begins with the lighting of five earthen lamps representing the five elements, within the sanctum sanctorum of Sri Arunachaleswara temple. Priests, then, make one lamp out of the five, symbolising the union of the elements.

This ritual of lighting ‘Barani Deepam’ takes place at about 4 a.m. The lamp is taken by a priest around the precincts and to the shrine of Sri Abhitakuchambal. Thousands of devotees have darshan of Barani Deepam, continuously chanting ‘Annamalaiyanukku Arogara.’ This sets the stage for the lighting of the Maha Deepam atop the hill in the evening.

The cauldron or the big brass vessel, in the shape of a lamp, is taken to the top of the Annamalai hill through a seven k.m. route. A full moon bathes the surroundings in serene light even as the star Kritika shines bright. The vessel, ten feet in height and five feet in diameter, is carried on poles by designated Arunachaleswara temple staff. Atop the hill, it is filled with tins of ghee and pots of butter. The special cloth wick or strands of fibre twisted is designed to burn for 10 days, visible around a radius of 40 k.m. Made by Deepa Nattars, the wick measures about 300 metres. This is one occasion, where the entire population take its cue from the temple. Not a single lamp, electric or oil, is lit until the Maha Deepam appears on the hill top, precisely at 6 p.m. The residents follow suit and the entire town bursts into a flood of light.

Inside the temple, Akhanda Deepam is lit to the accompaniment of percussion instruments, the rendition of Thevaram verses by Oduvars and the chant of ‘Annamalaiyanukku Arohara’ by emotionally charged devotees.

Legend goes that lamps are lit as homage to Subramanya, who revealed the Pranava Mantra to his father. Some attribute the Deepam to the emergence of the six-faced deity, born out of the sparks from Siva’s third eye.

The occasion gets the name Vishnu Deepam commemorating the Mahabali-Vamana episode. Brothers carry gifts to sisters on Karthigai Deepam.

The background is the reunion of Parvati and Parameswara after the former departs to do penance in Pavazhakunru in Tiruvannamalai. Helped by brother Mahavishnu, she joins her spouse after annihilating Mahishasura.

- GEETHA VENKATRAMANAN (With inputs from Sridhar-Chaama and A.D. Balasubramaniyan)

Songs in praise

Like many a great ‘sthala’ or holy place, Tiruvannamalai too is Padal Petra Sthalam (sacred shrine whose praise has been sung by saints). While Tirugnanasambanadar and Tirunavukkarasar sang a couple of songs each about this place of pilgrimage, the most captivating verses were sung by Manikkavachagar in his Tiruvembavai.

The Tiruvembavai verses are unique in many ways. First, they were sung in the temple itself in the month of Margazhi by the saint. Secondly, he assumes the role of a woman or Nayika. Sung in praise of Lord Annamalai, the songs entreat girls to wake up early in the month of Margazhi and conduct ‘pavai nonbu.’ They include the famous ‘Adhiyum Andhamum Illadha...’ (Siva, the cosmic pillar of light, towering flame with no beginning and no end) is known to all.

A thousand years after Manikkavachagar stood in the Arunachala shrine and rendered these magical songs, they are still sung, not only in this temple but in every Siva temple everywhere in Tamil Nadu during the auspicious month of Margazhi.

An interesting fact is that Tiruvembavi verses are sung in Thailand during the coronation of their kings! Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s majestic ‘Arunachalanatham smarami’ is a later echo of that love for Siva, the beam of eternal light, and Thiruvannamalai, one of the ‘Pancha bhootha’ sthalams. In this song, set in the melodious Saranga, Dikshitar explores the mysticism of the place and pays obeisance to the goddess Abhithakuchamba with her consort Arunachala.