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Glow of prosperity

Every year the festival season in Tamil Nadu ends with Karthigai Deepam, when homes are brightly lit with lamps that are said to usher in prosperity. S.SURESH explains the significance of this festival.

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 — the festival of lights that is celebrated throughout Tamil Nadu during the month of Karthigai (November-December). 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 basically a Tamil festival and is virtually unknown in most other parts of the country.

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 lighted 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. 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. 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 thinnais 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.

Terracotta lamp from Arikamedu.

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 have 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 five-nozzle 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. Till 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 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.

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