The annual Chithirai thiruvizha is on, and the city is decked up like a bride.

Every Maduraiite has experienced first hand the fun and frolic of Chithirai Thiruvizha. As early as March, traders and residents prepare to host the mega event, and by April the town is decked up to welcome Lord Azhagar. Swarms of men and women in glittering gold and shimmering silks, devotees, tourists and passers-by throng the streets to be a part of the pomp and show.

The hub of the excitement is the town area, particularly the legendary Pudumandapam, which buzzes with shoppers, hawkers and craftsmen. The centuries-old structure shimmers with bright colours and vibrant patterns. The Azhagar dresses and accessories especially announce the arrival of this festive season. Every year, among the sea of humanity, many men carrying water-filled sacks on their backs wear a crafted, crown-like headgear, kitschy capris and sonorous bells on their ankles. Disguised as Hanumans, clowns, baboons and Garudas, they are a ubiquitous ingredient in the Chithirai fun.

These Azhagar dresses or ‘salladam' are traditionally made by tailors at Pudumandapam. They consist of patchwork pants in red, mango yellow, parrot green, pink or magenta and cobalt blue. The work involves plenty of cutting, stitching, fitting and elaborate ornamentation on top of all that. Strings of beads called ‘pinnal pasi' adorn the fringes, and the costume is studded with chamkis, stones, zardozi, kundans and gotas. The mythological ‘yaazhi', swans, elephants and floral motifs form the traditional patterns on them.

Recalls third-generation tailor S. Rathnaguru, “Pieces with complicated designs may take two days to be made. We start the work six months before, though the peak season is only for two months. Till recently, we even used silver twines and sheets on the fabric. But now we use synthetic threads given the cost of silver.”

A set of salladam may cost Rs. 500 to Rs. 850 depending on the intricacy of work. Though the dress looks weighty, when worn it is not really heavy. It is made of glazed cotton or velvet, with an inner muslin lining to brave the summer. Pudumandapam has 20 such tailors each making 200-odd pieces of Azhagar dresses every year. They come in all sizes, even children's sizes, and have an adjustable waist.

Apart from the elaborate main costume, people wear colourful headgear, wrist bands and armlets to complete the look. Each crown or ‘mukut' takes about two hours to make and costs Rs 50. “A six-yard sari is wrapped into so many layers over a small cane basket, upon which shiny ribbons are stitched,” explains Gurumurthy. Duck or peacock feathers, bought from nomads of the Nari Kurava tribe, are stitched on top of this to form the mukut. “Thousands of people get these done on the eve of Azhagar's entry into the Vaigai,” Gurumurthy says.

The Azhagar costumes are just a small part of the colour in the aisles of Pudumandapam. Huge heaps of turmeric and kumkum greet visitors with a strong fragrance. Sacred yellow threads, strands of jasmine, glittery festoons and beads hang in front of every shack. “It is a complete new world I am experiencing here,” says Bess, a hospitality trainee from Denmark. “This is my first stay in Madurai and I am looking forward to the festival.”

Karthikeyan, an expert in making costumes of mythological characters, gods and goddesses, says, “Foreigners form a major chunk of my customers. They buy these as art pieces and for fun.”

Giant coloured umbrellas (thombai or kudai) and the peacock-feathered hand-fans with the ‘namam' and silk borders are also made in Pudumadapam. Sheik Dawood and Syed Ibrahim have been making these umbrellas for the past 45 years.

Dawood says, “The largest we have made is with a radius of 38 inches. Depending on the size it costs between Rs. 1,500 and Rs. 3,000.” The ubiquitous velvet cloth used for all these crafts is sourced from Katrapalayam, another wholesale textile hub of the city.

The Chithirai festival is simultaneously celebrated in Manamadurai, Paramakudi in Sivaganga and Thadikombu in Dindigul. The crafts associated with the festival have also diffused to the peripheries of the city.

“Various temple festivals take place this season across the region and we get orders from drama troupes to stitch costumes,” says Sadasivam, a tailor in Iyer Bungalow. Some exclusive pieces include ‘Kuravan dress', ‘Vedan dress' and clown outfit. “Apart from the Raja Rani costume including silk pleated panchakachams and turbans (costing Rs. 450), other drama costumes are no more being made,” says Sadasivam, who gets orders from nearby villages.

Many say that the traditions of wearing costumes during Lord Azhagar's arrival started during the Nayak rule in Madurai. The festival as a whole is not just an event, but a part of the cultural identity of this ancient town.