During this time of the year, Madurai is attired like a bride to celebrate its annual flagship event — the Chithirai Thiruvizha . Spread over a fortnight in April and May, the festival marks the coronation and celestial wedding of the city’s presiding deity, goddess Meenakshi with Lord Sundareswarar and the visit of her brother, Lord Azhagar, to the city.
The first phase witnesses rituals and ceremonies conducted inside the Meenakshi Temple and colourful parades and processions around the Masi Streets followed by the wedding feast. Each day, thousands of devotees flock to the multiple ceremonies. The second part of the festival witnesses the pomp and gaiety of Lord Azhagar’s journey from Alagar Koil to attend the celestial wedding. His devotees take over the spruced-up streets singing and dancing as Lord Azhagar, mounted on his majestic golden stallion, strides in. Lakhs of people gather to witness his entry into the Vaigai river and stay in the city.
But this year, the city stares at empty roads at a time when the streets would have been overflowing with the locals and visitors from surrounding villages, neighbouring districts and States and even overseas to take part in the cultural extravaganza. For the first time ever, the festival has been cancelled. This is in keeping with the lockdown imposed due to COVID-19.
“I never imagined I would witness a pandemic in my lifetime and talk about the thiruvizha in the past tense,” says S Rajamani, a retired school principal residing in Kakathoppu Street. In the last 70 years, he has neither missed temple-related events nor does he recall the temple being closed for public darshan during festivities. “It is a strange feeling that we are cut off from the city’s presiding deities and the ceremonies associated with them during these months.”
“This is an unusual year. Ravaged by the coronavirus, everything has come to a standstill. Cancellation of the chithrai festival does affect the sentiments of devotees. We can only hope and collectively pray for an early way out from this grim situation,” says industrialist Karumuttu T Kannan, the thakkar of the Meenakshi Temple. “All places of worship are closed for darshan to contain the pandemic the world over. It is the time when we all keep God in our hearts,” he adds.
The Meenakshi Temple was closed on March 19. Only two priests at a time, have been allowed to carry out six daily pujas behind closed doors.
Saturday marked the beginning of this year’s Chithirai festival with a simple flag hoisting ceremony by the assigned priests. The worshipper’s engagement over the decades had turned the thiruvizha into an icon of the city,” says temple priest Ashok Bhattar. “Their absence now evokes a sad feeling,” he says
The wedding rituals will be performed in a minimalist manner by four priests on May 4 at the Cheti Mandapam in the first corridor of the sanctum sanctorum, according to the temple administration. The proceedings will be streamed live from 9.05 am to 9.29 am on www.maduraimeenakshi.org.
“The festival that gave the city its economic and cultural identity is now suffering from the pandemic’s impact. It is an unprecendented situation for all,” says the DMK MLA from Madurai Central, PTR Palanivel Thiagarajan, whose family played a key role in the temple’s renovation in 1963.
He plans to distribute 5,000 thazhampoo packets containing kumkum , turmeric and the sacred yellow thread. On the thiru kalyanam day, it is a mass ritual for married women to change the thread of their mangal sutra . “It is my mother’s wish to fulfill their prayers,” he adds.
“When floods or epidemics such as the Spanish flu or the plague hit us, the rituals were perhaps scaled down and the temple shut for one or two days. But it did not affect peoples’ participation as they believed and prayed to God to save them from the calamities,” says retired Tamil professor M Arunagiri, who has watched the celestial wedding for last 30 years and has also given a running commentary for the event on behalf of the temple from 2009 to 2013.
“It is difficult to describe the feeling of the masses in such unforeseen circumstances. The innumerable small businesses that thrive during the season are in dire straits. Soaked in a myriad of hues and emotions, the Chithrai festival was always about euphoria about euphoria and colourful celebration,” says Dr G Vasudevan, founder of Travel Club. “How soon will the bonhomie return?” he wonders.
As they say, it is hope that keeps everybody going.