A. Shrikumar writes about memories that still linger
Though some essential elements of the Chithirai festival continue to live on till date, there are certain aspects of the festival that have changed over the years. What it was a century back cannot be gauged but here’s how some elder denizens of the city describe the festival some seven decades ago.
For Indrani, a resident of Pudur for nearly 60 years, the mention of Chithirai Thiruvizha brings to mind the maatuvandis and their jingling sound. “We could hear them the whole night preceding Alagar’s entry into the city. It used to evoke a different feel to the entire area,” says Indrani. “Villagers used to come in bullock-carts laden with clothes, vessels and other essentials needed for their 3-day stay in the town. And all the carts used to be decorated with colourful thoranams.”
An old photograph of Chithirai festival in 1913, on Facebook, shows how the Vaigai river bank is full of bullock carts. Madhuraakaran Karthikeyan, a FB user, has some rare photos of Madurai in his online collection. The particular photograph says, “Some 250,000 people come to Madura to attend the festival of the fish-eyed Goddess.” While it is Meenakshi’s wedding on the southern bank of Vaigai, the northern side welcomes Lord Kallazhagar.
Pudur and Tallakulam are the hotspots of Alagar’s festival. The entire stretch from Alagar Koil to Tallakulam has ‘Mandapa Padis’ on both sides. “Those days, every house on the thoroughfare was a madapapadi. The lord would stop by every 10 yards to bless devotees,” recalls Sumathi. “And people used to offer maavilakku and neideepam on the ‘Ethir Sevai’ day to welcome Alagar into Madurai.”
The chithirai festival is also known for the ubiquitous ‘thaneer pandals’ that dot the city. Refreshing drinks like buttermilk and paanakam (a sweet-sour drink made of jaggery and tamarind extract) are served in these pandals apart from water. Ramanan, who has been putting up a thaneer pandal in Pudur for over a decade, says, “This is done as a service to the devotees. People set up pandals as a thanksgiving gesture.” These days, lemon juice is also included though paanakam is the traditional drink to beat the summer heat. He adds, “The number of thaneer pandals have come down over the years. It has become difficult to serve the drinks for free with the price-hikes and water scarcity.”
Another interesting factor of the festival is food that includes sweet pongal, puliyodharai and variety rice. In all the mandapa padis, prasadams are offered in ‘thonnai’ (palm-leaf). In addition, a range of mithais and snacks are sold in road-side stalls during the festival days. Mayandi, a 60-year-old businessman remembers how small kiosks used to come up on the platforms the day before Alagar’s entry into Vaigai. “They used to be open all night. Local varieties of mithais like kamarkat, then-mittal, chow-mittai and pal-alwa used to be sold,” says Mayandi. “As kids, we used to go on rounds to all the mandapa padis for the prasadams. The road-side shops have also decreased these days. And some kinds of mittais are nowhere to be seen now.”
And most importantly, what every old-timer finds missing of the yesteryear’s Chithirai festival is the brimming water in Vaigai. Muthamma, an elderly woman, says, “Lord Kallazhagar’s entry is now enacted only inside an artificially dug pond within the dry river. But in those days, the river used to be full with running water.”