Plunge and parade

The festival was treated sacred by many but it invoked different reactions from those who witnessed it.

February 18, 2016 05:19 pm | Updated 09:12 pm IST

A view of the Mahamagham festival which took place in 1921. Photo: Sriram V

A view of the Mahamagham festival which took place in 1921. Photo: Sriram V

Last week we looked at some ancient and medieval history on the Mahamakham. By then, the event had become big enough for foreigners to take note. John de Britto, the Jesuit who preached as Arulanandar, made a mention of the event in the 17th century. Abbe JA Dubois, a missionary who stayed in India between 1793

and 1823 wrote rather scathingly of the festival in his Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies: ‘On the appointed day they all stand around the tank, awaiting the propitious moment to plunge into it. Directly the purohita gives the signal, all present, men and women, rush into the water, shouting and screaming, and making an indescribable uproar. They soon find themselves heaped one on top of the other, so that they can hardly move. It almost always happens that in the midst of this frightful confusion, several are drowned or suffocated, and many come out with broken or dislocated limbs. Happy are those accounted who lose their lives on such an occasion! Their fate is more to be envied than lamented, for these victims of religious ardour go straight to the realms of bliss.’ Stampedes continue to be a sad feature at the Mahamakham, the most recent one

being in 1992.

The presence of a large number of Hindus meant that missionaries congregated to distribute Evangelist literature. The Rev Nimmo took up this task in 1836. Noting that ‘Combaconum, though confessedly a large town now, appeared insufficient to hold the unusually large concourse of people’ he describes the festival in all its colour. Every house had been repaired and given a coat of lime wash. The streets were crowded with ‘bandies and palanquins’ and people from Madras, Jaffna, Coimbatore and Cuddapah and other countries mingled together. Small huts that were taken on rent for ‘a single fanam for a whole month, now rented at a rupee or more for only two or three days. Mendicants of all descriptions occupied the sides of the streets.’

The last Rajah of Thanjavur, Sivaji II was in attendance, for the last time. In the midst of all this chaos, Nimmo and his men managed to hold three prayer meetings and distribute 300 propaganda leaflets. By then, the current practice of having the various deities in the town grace the festival had come into vogue and Nimmo lists the gods – ‘Coombeasooveren, Someasooveren, Nakeasooveren, Kaseevesoovanadhen, Banahpooreesooveren, Ramaswamy, Chakarapanee, Sarangapanee, Veerahswamy, Anoomanthen,

Kalatheesooveren, Kambatta Veesoovanadhen, Abimooktheesoveren, Varadharajah Peroomal, Gobala Swamy and New Varadharajah Peroomal’.

Nimmo estimated that a total of 58,000 people were employed in carrying these idols to and fro on all days of the Mahamakham! A careful perusal of the list (if you can get past the spellings) given by him will identify several of the well-known deities of the town.

From the 1887 Mahamakham it has been the practice to reduce the water level to 2.5 feet – it would anyway rise when hordes of people entered it. Over five lakh people participated that year. The South Indian Railway’s Illustrated Guide of 1926 noted another problem – ‘the water is transformed into a black viscous fluid of the consistency of thick pea-soup, and judging from the hesitation displayed by the more educated bathers in submerging their heads, the act is one which nothing but intense devotion would induce them to perform. After bathing in the tank the worshippers proceed to the Cauvery, and in its waters are relieved alike of their loads of sin and black oily sludge.’ Where do they go these days?

The Mahamakham of 1909 had six lakh people attending (in 2016 the numbers are estimated at five million). A novelty that year was an exhibition and amusement park kept open during the ten days of the event. Inaugurated by Diwan Bahadur Raghunatha Rao CIE, its chief attraction was a display of wax dolls sponsored by Simpson & Co. Over 97 children were reported lost and of these all but two were reunited with their parents. To cater to four lakh visitors, the railways ran 45 services per day to and from Kumbakonam.

In 1933, the Congress party decided that this was a good place to propagate the cause of freedom and organised a full-fledged exhibition and sale of khadi. A music festival was planned on behalf of the party by film director K. Subrahmanyam and singing for the first time in public outside

her town of Madurai was a young M.S. Subbulakshmi. According to scholar Amanda Weidman, Mahamakham of 1933 was when loudspeakers were used for the first time in India. Clearly, if we enjoyed M.S.’ music, we were to also suffer deafening public broadcasts from then on.

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