When the lamps come alive

THE THIRU Karthikai festival is surely one of the most beautiful of South Indian festivals. A festival special to the Tamils, it is celebrated in the Tamil month of Karthikai, when the constellation Karthikai appears. It corresponds to the Malayalam month of Vrischikam.

This year, in the traditionally designed, historic Thekkemadom Street `agraharam' in Mattancherry, where many Tamil Brahmins live, the festival was celebrated with great fanfare. With the fall of dusk, clusters of lighted oil lamps, set in front of every home on both sides of the narrow street, was a sight enough to evoke a deep sense of awe at the significance and beauty that underlies many Indian festivals.

There were brass lamps of all shapes and sizes, tall and small, artistically wrought and merely functional, each with its own tale to tell, all set up to be lighted by the ladies of the house who appeared to be adroit at placing them in the most aesthetic combinations possible. A majority of the houses displayed at least an average of 30 to 50 brass lamps placed on large `kolams' drawn before every home, with hardly a single `kolam' design being repeated. Ladies, dressed in rich traditional silk and brocade nine yard sarees and girls in half sarees with silk skirts and blouses, began to set about the business of lighting the lamps. The more experienced among them were able to gauge the quantity of oil that should be utilised for each type of lamp and how the wick should be just right. Anyone who has tried to light an oil lamp in the open with a mild breeze blowing would know just how much expertise goes into this seemingly innocuous task. The mood was further enhanced by the sounds of the Tamil commentary on televisions describing a festival at some shrine, which many of the men folk seemed to be watching.

Residents of the colony provided a background to the festival, pointing out that it is celebrated with great fervour at Thiruvannamalai, the abode of Lord Karthikeyan and his father, Lord Shiva. Lord Karthikeyan or Lord Muruga, they remarked, is one of the favourite deities of the Tamil Brahmins. And the womenfolk offer special prayers to him during this festival. One is also informed that when a girl gets married, her parents give her gifts of many lamps, while her mother-in-law also gifts her a lamp, set on an elephant. These lamps are all lit together at Tamil homes during the festival of Thiru Karthikai, for two days, one after the other, on the full moon of Karthikai, while throughout the month a couple of oil lamps adorn the outside of every home.

Special dishes made of rice and various pulses mixed with jaggery are offered as `Neyvedhyam,' a noteworthy feature being that the dishes generally make use of jaggery, while during festivals like Deepavali, they are sweetened with sugar. The `Neyvedhyam' is placed in front of the elephant lamp, which then joins the cluster of lights, which are lit, in front of the house.

When the lamps come alive

Another legend regarding the festival connects it with the propitiation of the elements, particularly fire with which Lord Shiva is associated in a story, which says that he appeared in a column of fire to Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma. Rice is also offered to Lord Shiva on this occasion.

At a popular level, the residents say, the festival also celebrates the filial bond and brothers present gifts to their sisters who wish for their well being.

Finally one leaves the street with an unforgettable and remarkable image of hundreds of oil lamps burning at various heights and angles at homes set in a row close to each other on both sides of the street with children closely supervised by their parents lighting small flower pots that flame into stars.