Madurai is in the grip of the annual Chithirai festival. A document on the crowded and decked up city streets and what the event means to the people

Amidst the sea of humanity, fluorescent flash lights, scent of incense sticks and sandal paste, colourful flowers and the chorus chant of ‘Hara Hara Shankara Meenakshi Sundara’ is all that we can see, smell and hear. It’s the evening after the Thirukalyanam and we are in South Masi Street.

There is absolute chaos and yet some order too. We hear the distinct jingle of a bell that announces the arrival of the caparisoned temple elephant leading the procession. Three camels, karagattam dancers, priests, children dressed as deities and a posse of policemen follow.

Bhakti flows in abundance. Milling devotees who throng the place crane their necks to catch a glimpse of the decorated idol kept in the poopallakku. The aarti is lit and in a synchronised movement, thousands of people raise their hands calling out to the queen of Madurai. The golden idol gleams as women offer neideepam.

Every few yards the palanquin stops for the devotees to have darshan, give offerings and get prasadams. We relish the ghee-dripping sakkarai pongal and puliyodharai. It’s a service that Shanmugam has been doing for decades. “Offering prasadams to the people fetches me good karma,” he smiles. “Giving turmeric, kumkum and flowers on the Thirukalyanam day is a traditional practice.”

By 9 p.m. the procession winds up but the crowd of spectators cluster around the streets. We drive across the kalpaalam bridge and find hundreds of people leaning over the parapet to watch the running water below. As the southern bank of Vaigai revels in the joy of Meenakshi’s wedding, the northern side wakes up to Lord Kallazhagar’s entry into the city.

The night before ethirsevai, the arterial Alagar Koil Road wears a festive look flanked by mandapapadis which were commercial outlets and eateries until a day ago and now transformed into Lord Kallazhagar’s resting places. As dawn breaks, the Lord reaches the city fringes with his elaborate paraphernalia. A huge hundi, a green flag with the Thirunamam symbol and dancing men dressed as Hanuman and Garuda signal his advent.

The metallic tinkling of ‘Sekandi’ announces the Lord’s arrival. An old man dressed as a clown and playing the thathan thappu, a kind of drum, leads the procession pulling a decorated bull. The family of Karuppaiya Thathan has been doing this for generations. “We do it as a service to God, from the King’s time,” his pride shows. A week before the festival, the thathans visit villages and collect paddy to be cooked and served to devotees.

Says R. Arul Prakasam, a farmer, “Those of us who donate paddy are offered a fistful from the bundles of paddy collected. We use it in our next cultivation because it’s a belief that this practice will increase the yield.” Karuppaiya Thathan is also a temple priest in Sundararajanpatti and a soothsayer for the village. “The right to foretell was given to us by Aandar of Alagar Koil, who is also our guru,” he says.

Aandar is in-charge of all the festivals of the temple. T.R.S. Rangarajan Iyengar, who is the present Aandar, says, “We used to lead the festival procession earlier. We had a separate palanquin which was carried by the people. But now the practice is no longer followed.” “Irrespective of caste and clan, every devotee is given a part to play in the festival,” he adds.

As Kallazhagar reaches Surya Nagar amidst deafening crackers, flower showers and traditional music of Nadaswaram and thavil, the crowd gathers to have the first glimpse of the Lord. Womenfolk welcome the deity with Mulapari (sprouts) and Maavilakku (sweet) offerings. Men dressed in multicoloured pants with anklets, carrying whips and leather water bags follow the Lord while Maralaadis, a group of men dance with torches in front. By the time, the procession reaches Ambalakarar Mandapam at Tallakulam, the crowd swells on the road and spills onto the platforms. The chants of ‘Govinda Govinda’ rent the air as the city’s denizens rub shoulders with visitors from neighbouring districts.

“The folk legend of Alagar’s entry into the Vaigai is famous throughout the region. Along the river’s course, the episode is enacted in various places,” says Mariappan, a devotee from Sivagangai.

It is time for the ‘Seer patham thangigal’ (palanquin carriers) to take a break. Says Siva Guru Nathan, one among the 50 carriers: “We don’t do this for remuneration. It’s a service and we feel blessed to carry the lord on our shoulders.” Carrying the massive weight for years together has left them with a hump on both the shoulders. “More than the pain, the travails we go through when people pull down the palanquin trying to touch the lord’s feet are beyond explanation,” he says.

While Chithirai festival is about faith and devotion, for some it’s an experience and excitement. Beyond the myths and legends woven around the occasion, the days are the best for small-time traders.

Shacks encroach the roadsides selling all kinds of colourful wares, toys and balloons attracting women and kids alike. We watch them enjoying a range of mithais, women buying bangles, anklets and earrings, children crying for toys and smiles returning on their faces when the demand is met. Kitschy posters showing a bodybuilder flexing muscles, dot the pavements at Tallakulam. “Nellai thaathupushti halwa” says the poster in bright colours. Mohammed Farooq, a halwa-seller, says, “We have been in this business for generations. We actually do not know why our grandfathers gave this name. It is prepared with wheat and maida extracts, sugar and cashew and we ensure it remains a healthy food.”

Tamukkam, the hotspot on the Lord’s route, lures thousands through the day and night. For some it is a continuous picnic on the streets, some pitch their tents at the annual Chithirai exhibition. The ground turns into an open air bed for the devotees who come from far and near and finally get tired wandering on the streets. Youngsters flock cinema theatres running special mid-night shows. Says college student Ramesh, “It’s purely fun being among the festivities and crowd. Every year, we never miss to watch a film during the festival. As we come out of the show, it is time to witness Alagar entering Vaigai.”

The Chithirai events and all the hype around it come and go each year. What continues to rule the peoples’ mind is the legend and what remains in their memory are the sights and smells of the festivities and the desire to return the next year with undiminished enthusiasm.

The Chithirai thiruvizha is one mega event which gives Madurai its identity and pride and all those who can join in it in some way consider themselves to be blessed and lucky. Aren’t we?

(City 3Sixty is a monthly column that captures the different moods of the city. It appears on the last Thursday of every month)