It was the night before Lord Kallazhagar’s entry into the Vaigai and the blinding lights made Madurai look like the moon on earth. Men dressed in the attire of guardian deities, danced around the streets carrying swords made of cardboard and the jingle of the salangai they wore, echoed through the town. Then, the notes of the nadaswaram and the sonorous beats of the drums took over as a multitude of people thronged the temple. Among the many onlookers was a 10-year-old boy, awed by the charged atmosphere, smitten by the sheer beauty of the iconic golden horse mount and the majestic idol on it. Many decades later, the boy has come to pen his experiences of watching many such vibrant festivals in Madurai.
Meet Chithiraveethikaran (Sundar), who has come out with a book titled Thiruvizhakkalin Thalainagaram Madurai , on the various festivals that the city hosts. “I have given a detailed account of about 22 festivals in the book, including temple, church and mosque festivals. There are about 285 such events taking place in a calender year in and around Madurai,” says Chithiraveethikaran, who started out as a blogger 10 years ago. In his WordPress blog Maduraivaasagan, he has put down his observations of colourful community events in the region. “It was plain curiosity as a kid that took me to festivals. Whenever there was a mass human gathering, I would stop by and watch. The myriad colours of temple festivals, the intriguing rituals and the paraphernalia attracted me and I started going in search of festivals.”
As he discovered more and more festivals, he also stumbled upon some lesser-known and unique ones. “There’s a peculiar custom followed at the Valayankulam festival, for instance. During the annual event that starts on Maha Shivarathri, Tamil plays are staged continuously for over 80 days every year. It’s a kind of vow that people fulfil upon their prayers being answered at the local temple there. Mythological and historical dramas are performed every night and people from over 40 surrounding villages gather to watch them,” he says. “Another such unique festival is the Puravi eduppu at Vallalapatti Ayyanar Temple, in which thousands of mud horses are taken in procession over two days. It’s a resplendent sight to see so many terracotta horses of varying sizes and colours being carried in unison. Likewise, the famous Appan Thirupathi thiruvizha is a night-time festival when Lord Azhagar returns to his hill abode from the city. Over the years, the festival disintegrated as rooster fight, which was a popular element of the event, was banned.”
“Watching festivals closely, I understood how these events also support the livelihood of people involved in folk arts. Shows of karagam, oyilattam apart from therukoothu is a staple at village temple festivals. In earlier days, these were the only forms of entertainment. But it’s heartening to see the practice being continued as a tradition,” he adds.
Madurai’s festivals are unique in many ways just like the city itself, says Chithiraveethikaran. “They are secular to start with. I have seen people taking active part in festivals beyond religious boundaries. Santhanakoodu festival at Goripalayam Dargah is a classic example, where Hindus too take part. Similarly, during Azhagar’s ethir sevai festival, Churches put up pandals and offer buttermilk to welcome the deity and devotees.”
Adding that Madurai has a rich and long tradition of celebrating festivals, he cites references from Sangam literature. “Terms like ‘Kalikezhu koodal’ and ‘vizhavumali moodhoor’ are used to convey how Madurai was a place for people to gather and celebrate. The word ‘koodal’ itself means a gathering,” says Chithiraveethikaran. “Poems in Paripadal and Madurai Kanchi talk of water festivals in the Vaigai and evening time temple processions.”
Among the many aspects of festivals, one thing that attracts Chithiraveethikaran the most, is food. “I have written a separate blog post just on the food sold during festivals. Especially in the rural pockets, one can find snacks characteristic of festivals like the bheem pushti halwa , seerani mittai and javv mittai, varieties of mixtures, murukku and other deep-fried snacks that can be found only during that period. For instance, panakam is generally served only during Chithirai festival,” he says.
“I was inspired by historian Tho Paramasivan’s work on the legend of Azhagarkoil temple and Multiple Facets of My Madurai by Manohar Devadoss,” says Chithiraveethikaran. “Also, my active involvement in the monthly walks to heritage sites as part of Green Walk, which has published my book, helped me shape my observations in the form of a book.”