That the Mahamakham festival at Kumbakonam is an ancient one is undoubted. But it cannot be denied that there are large gaps in the event’s history. For instance while the Puranas record that Rama bathed in the waters of the tank, there is nothing much after that till the 15th century CE.
The annual Masi Makham was an important celebration for the Cholas. Tirugnanasambandar mentions it in Poompavai Pathigam composed at Mylapore. But he is silent about Mahamakham in his verses on Kudanthai – the Tamil name for Kumbakonam. It is generally agreed that what Sambandar refers to as Tirukudanthaikaronam is the Kasi Viswanatha Swami temple at Kumbakonam. This is the shrine that stands on the banks of the famed Mahamakham tank. And yet his verses on the deity beginning with the lines ‘Vaaraar Kongai Maadorbaga’ do not mention the event. When did the legend of the waters of the Ganga entering the tank once in 12 years become popular? We have no idea.
It appears that the Mahamakham was an event of local significance till the time Kumbakonam came under the Vijayanagar Empire. An inscription at Nagalapuram has it that Krishnadevar Raya made donations to the temple there en route to attending the Mahamakham at Kumbakonam in 1,445 Saka era that corresponds to 1,523 CE. It is therefore clear that by then it was important enough for the emperor himself to bathe in the waters and make a powerful statement.
It is however only under the Thanjavur Nayaks that the Mahamakham really came into its own. It owed its ascendancy to the status of a mega event to Govinda Dikshita, minister to three of the Nayaks between the 16th and 17th centuries, and a great scholar in his own right.
For that matter, much of the architecture that we marvel at in Kumbakonam today was owing to the Nayak-Dikshita combined patronage. The minister had more or less royal status and shared the throne on occasions with his King. Govinda Dikshita had the Mahamakham tank renovated. He also built 16 temples for Siva around the tank. The statues of the nine river goddesses that are today held up as evidences of the Mahamakham’s antiquity are all from the Nayak period though it also likely that they were put up in replacement of older statues that stood there and had been destroyed by invaders.
Govinda Dikshita also introduced the tradition of the Tulapurushadana on the occasion of the Mahamakham – he was weighed against gold and the pieces were distributed among Brahmins. This must have made the festival a great attraction. The Thanjavur Marathas who followed the Nayaks from 1676, continued their patronage and it was customary for the Rajah to participate in the festival.
By the time the first foreigners began observing South Indian traditions, the Mahamakham was important enough to merit inclusion. And they have left behind a plethora of records, not all complimentary to the way it was conducted.
(More on that next week...)
Corrections & Clarifications:
This article has been edited for a factual error.