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Amalgamation of myths and beliefs

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A. Shrikumar tells how festivities take over Madurai during these days

It’s that time of the year when the city rejoices the wedding of Goddess Meenakshi and the entry of Lord Kallazhagar into river Vaigai. With the annual Chithirai festival just a week away, there is already an element of colour and cheer that has taken over the town.

With heaps of majal podis, kumkum and sandal paste, shops wear a vibrant look. Women armed with kattapais go on a shopping hunt. Amidst the prayer chants from the temple, loud bargaining of shoppers, yells of a mother admonishing her kids, peals of laughter, hisses of gossips and the jingling of anklets, the streets around the temple resemble a village.

“Chithirai festival has an essentially folk side to it. More devotees come from nearby villages to witness the festival than the city’s own people,” reveals Malaichamy, a villager from Kallandhiri.

“The way Meenakshi is revered in Madurai, Lord Kallazhagar is the most important deity to all the people in the surrounding villages of Alagar Kovil. He is our guardian deity.”

For villagers, the festival is a thanksgiving occasion. “As the Tamil New Year starts, we thank the Lord for the year that ended and pray to him for a prosperous year ahead,” says Malaichamy. “And that’s why Kallazhagar’s costume is significant. We believe that the colour the Lord chooses to wear predicts the year ahead. Green and white symbolise prosperity.”

Maruthan, belonging to Thenur village near Alanganallur is proud that his village has a strong historical connection with the festival and the folk legend of Lord Kallazhagar. “The original event of Alagar’s entry into river Vaigai happened in Thenur , according to mythology,” says Maruthan. “Till date, the mandapam in which the episode is enacted is named after our village. On that day, we make pongal and puliyodharai and offer it to the Lord. People also sacrifice goats on the river bed.” Akin to the Chithirai festival, the Kallazhagar Temple holds festivals in the Tamil months of Masi and Aippasi during which Lord Kallazhagar enters the river in the same fashion.

If the villages are upbeat already, Pudumandapam, the city’s heart is throbbing with activity. There is a palpable festive mood in the air. The tailors are busy stitching the Alagar dress, giving the final touches with the salangai and jarigai. “Chithirai festival is the time we do thriving business. People pour in orders for Alagar dresses and we start the work two months ahead,” says Raja, a third-generation tailor inside Pudumandapam. “But making these is a difficult task. It takes more than 2 days to complete the dress. The ones made for kids take lesser time.”

The significance of the dress supposedly has a legend behind. “It symbolises the avatar of Lord Vishnu as a warrior into the Kshatriya clan. It’s the lord’s costume. The devotees dress like Kallazhagar and invite him into the city,” says Kothai, getting a dress stitched for her son. “People wear these during the main festival day when Lord Azhagar enters the river. They splash water on the lord and on the devotees. It’s said as Azhagar gets angry over Meenakshi’s wedding, the water cools him down. Also, it’s done to give devotees respite from the heat.”

Nagarajan, who has been doing the water splashing ritual (thanni peechal) for the past 30 years, says, “It’s more of a nethikadan (a vow) that you fulfil in return for the Lord’s grace. For families whose kula deivam is Alagar, it’s a life-long ritual that men do every year.” Apart from the Alagar vesham, devotees also sport komali vesham, hanuman and garuda vesham during the festival. “The komalis are great entertainers. In olden days, streets tricks like puliyattam, manattam and komali koothu used to be very famous during Chithirai Thiruvizha,” recalls Manickam, a septuagenarian. “These days we see less of them. However, the Hanuman and garuda veshadaris are seen with respect.” Of all the paraphernalia that surrounds the mythological character of Alagar, it’s the kondai he sports that forms the lord’s unique identity. “Alagar wears the ‘Kallar kondai’. It’s made with a whole silk sari wrapped around a cane basket called ‘Kottan,” says Rengarajan, who has been making the kondais for nearly two decades. “The headgear signifies his stature as a fearless warrior. It’s probably the only folk form of Vishnu shown with a bow and arrow apart from Lord Rama, another avatar of Vishnu.”

Another striking element in Kallazhagar’s form is his golden horse mount that overpowers the onlooker’s eyes. Prabhu, an ardent devotee of Lord Azhagar says, “Usually horse mount is shown for Lord Karuppasami. But Alagar and his horse are inseparable. There are many folk tales told on the horse’s magical powers. It’s said that the horse leapt across the Vaigai in a single jump.” With such interesting myths and bits of history surrounding Chithirai festival, it continues to be a crowd-puller.