Chithirai festival enters final phase as Lord Kallazhagar prepares to head back

He came, he saw and he conquered the hearts of thousands of the faithful gathered on the banks of the Vaigai.

They had come from far and wide to witness Lord Kallazhagar “entering” the river, the concluding ritual of the 12-day Chithirai festival. Mounted on a golden horse, the presiding deity of Alagarkoil, provided the devotees with the opportunity of darshan for nearly an hour from 7.34 a.m. Adorned in green silk, which is believed to bring prosperity to the region, he was held aloft on a palanquin which circled a specially erected platform on the river bed surrounded by water released from the Vaigai dam.

In the aftermath of the Thirukalyanam or celestial wedding and the car festival at Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple, it was now Kallazhagar’s turn to enthral Madurai, having left his abode in Alagarkoil on April 23 to enact the concluding saga of the legend that defines the temple city.

The lead-up to this event was marked by colour and fervour. The chanting of ‘Hara Hara Sankara’ ended after the car festival of Meenakshi Temple on Wednesday afternoon. From the other side of the city came another chorus of ‘Govinda Govinda’ as Lord Kallazhagar entered Madurai on his palanquin.

Authoritative sources say this marks the harmonious coexistence of Saivites and Vaishnavites, true to the chant, ‘Hariyum Sivanum Onnu,’ meaning Lord Siva and Lord Vishnu are one. The driving spirit of the Chithirai festival is enactment of Lord Kallazhagar’s annual journey to Madurai to mingle with the devotees.

On Wednesday, Kallazhagar’s heavily bedecked palanquin made 400 stops en route to the Vaigai and beyond for the benefit of the devotees lining the streets. During the deity’s overnight stay at Sri Prasanna Venkatachalapathy Temple in Tallakulam on Wednesday, Kallazhagar was adorned with the ‘soodi kodutha maalai,’ the garland worn by Goddess Andal at Srivilliputtur.

Early on Thursday morning, Kallazhagar was placed on the golden mount in preparation for his fabled entry into the Vaigai. The chanting of ‘Govinda Govinda’ reached a crescendo.

The spraying of water (theerthavari) on the deity is an important part of the ritual, which is accompanied by the beating of drums. The Albert Victor Bridge at Goripalayam was the target destination of teeming number of pilgrims eager to get a vantage point for a better view.

Those who arrived late opted to wade through knee-deep water to get closer to the site. Fire and Rescue Service personnel were on standby at the river to meet any contingency.

As every inch of space was occupied, many people had to be content with standing at a distance on the Obulapadithirai and Yanaikkal causeways.

Lord Kallazhagar’s “entry” into the river is followed by a welcome by Sri Veeraraghava Perumal, an avatar of Lord Vishnu.

Lord Kallazhagar’s next port of call after the Vaigai was the Ramarayar Mandapam. A huge number of men and children had their heads tonsured and took a dip in the Vaigai.

There were some anxious moments at the venue. In the melee, several women and children were caught in a stampede with some swooning. Others were lost in the crowd and had to be traced through the public address system by the police.

It was during the period of King Thirumalai Nayak (1623-1659) that the Saivites and Vaishnavites united to hold a common festival, symbolised by Kallazhagar and his sojourn.

It is said that the episode of Lord Kallazhagar entering the Vaigai took place at Thenur near Sholavandan, but was later shifted to Madurai during the Nayak’s rule. Similarly, the events at Meenakshi Temple took place in the month of ‘Maasi’ (around February) and were later shifted to Chithirai (April-May).

V. Vedachalam, a retired archaeologist, observed that while festivals connected with rivers are quite common, what makes the Vaigai significant is that Lord Kallazhagar travels a long distance to come to Madurai to mingle with the devotees.

“Spraying of water is the highlight at Ramarayar Mandapam, though the event at Vaigai river is for a larger public view where Lord Veeraraghava Perumal receives Lord Kallazhagar as a guest to Madurai,” he explains.

Dr. Vedachalam points out that this festival is indigenous and it brings about spontaneous unity among the people. “Spraying of water (Theertha Vari) is to cool him down because it is a puranic belief that he was angry because his sister Goddess Meenakshi’s wedding was solemnised before he could reach the Tirukalyanam venue from Alagarkoil,” he says.

“Chithirai festivities do not require publicity. People wait eagerly to celebrate the festival,” he says. Lord Kallazhagar’s journey on Thursday has been speeded up in view of the lunar eclipse and he has to halt at Vandiyur for the night.

R. Venkataraman, retired professor of art history, Madurai Kamaraj University, is of the view that the underlying message of the Chithirai festival is the reconciliation of the Saivites and Vaishnavites, and the resolution of the conflict between them.