Karthigay Dheepam: The legend

From: "goundan.m" <t.saivam.ssk@intnet.mu>

Dr Loga has provided an excellent interpretation of the Karttikai Dipam.

Festivals of Tamil Nadu, a book authored by  Thiru M. Arunachalam gives additional information on purana and historical background of this important Tamil Saivite festival. I wish to share it will you and humbly request Dr Loga to favour us with the deep philosophical imports.


                                  KARTTIKAI DEEPAM

  The karttikai dipam festival in the month of Kartigai (November- December) is one which is observed throughout Tamilnadu, in every home and in every temple.  This occurs on the day when the moon is in conjunction with the constellation Karttikai (Pleiades) and purnima. This constellation appears as a group of six stars in the firmament in
the shape of a pendant from the ear.  As usual, many legends and lyrical poetry have grown round this star.  the six stars are considered in indian mythology as the six celestial nymphs who reared the six babies in the saravana tank which later were joined together to form the six faced Muruga.  He is consequently called Karttikeya the one brought up
by the Karttika nymphs.

The Arunachala Legend:

    The karttikai festival has its origin in the Lingotbhava legend ofTiruvannamalai.  In ages gone by, Brahma the Creator and Vishnu the Preserver disputed between themselves as to who was greater and who was the supreme.  This dispute was a prolonged one and so Lord Siva decided to teach them the Truth.  He appeared before them in the form of a huge
column of fire, an Effulgent Light.  When the two saw it, they referred their quarrel to Him.  He told them that he who could discover the crown of the light or its foot first might be considered as the superior. Accordingly Brahma took the form of a swan and flew up in an attempt to find the crown of the Light, while Vishnu took the form of a boar (Varaha) and began to dig down to find the foot of the Light.  Neither succeeded.  The knowledge dawned upon them that the Light was superior to both of them.  This is the Significance of Arunachala.  The Karttikai festival is celebrated to bring out this great truth that the supreme God is far beyond the ken of the Creator and the Preserver.  Brahma and Vishnu thereupon prayed to the column of Light, Siva, to be ever presen  in that place in the form of a Linga.  Siva agreed.  The whole hill of
TiruAnnamalai (Arunachala) is that linga, the sthavara anga.

   The Tiru Annamalai temple is located at the foot of a hill, over 2500 feet in height.  This hill itself is considered by geologists to be of igneous rock which means that it is related to fire: probably the rock was lustrous in the very remote past and hence the appropriateness of the Jothir Linga concept to this place.  The temple is a very large one, occupying an area of 25 acres.  It has tall towers on all the four outer walls but the one over the main eastern gateway is the tallest, reaching a height of 217 feet in eleven tiers.

   This legend of  Siva appearing before Brahma and Vishnu as a column of light is to-day celebrated not only in the place but in all the Siva temples in Tamil Nadu on the karttikai day.  The appearance of the Light is believed to have taken place on this day.  It is celebrated everywhere as the dipam festival (dipam - lamp).  A column of fire is created in front of each temple and the utsava murti of the local shrine is taken out in procession and He gives a darsan to His devotees after
the fire is lit.  Generally this takes place immediately after dusk. People fast for the whole day and take their food only after this Jothi darsana.

                                                The Arunachala Legend .....

   In memory of this Light, the whole temple is illuminated with thousands of lamps, large and small, and every home also is illuminated in the evening with hundreds of lamps.  It is indeed a grand sight to see the temple tower lamps shedding their twinkling light throughout the darnkess of the whole night.  A special offering is made to Siva on this day, consisting of fried or puffed rice mixed with treacle.

   In the city of Tiru Annamalai, the same procedure is adopted for  the festival even today.  Hundreds of thousands of bhaktas and pilgrims gather in the outer courtyards of the temple from early afternoon waiting for the appropriate time in the evening when the symbolic fire is lit.  Sri Arunachalesvara, the Lord Siva of the temple, is taken in a procession around the courtyard.  At the appointed time (usually about 5 - 6 p.m) the fire on the hill in the background is lit.  This fire is made of vast quantities of camphor supported by more than a hundred litres of ghee. The fire continues to burn for the whole of the night and is visible even at a distance of eight miles.  It continues to burn for several days and nights following.  The moment the fire is lit on the hill, a dipa-aradhana (waving of camphor lamp) is made to Sri Arunachalesvara.  The assembled bhaktas have a simultaneous darsana of the Lord in the temple as also of the column of Light on the hill.  there is a great surge of devotional fervour when the sea of humanity sounds with one voice "Annamalaik-karohara" (hail, Hara, Lord of Annamalai) and the sound lingers for a long time echoing from one wall to the other and back and even going as far back as the hill and resounding.  Caste, class, creed, age and sex are all forgotten and every one seems to have a feeling that he is evvelopped in the grace of Lord Arunachalesvara.  the ordeal of fasting and pilgrimage to the temple by several lakhs of people has now reached its culmination and every one now departs for him home after receiving His prasadam in the form of the usual sacred ash.

The festival of Lights

The image of Lingotbhava, installed at the goshta (niche) just behind the Mulalinga on the outer side of the garbha graha in the western wall in all the Siva temple is symbolic of the manifestation of the Jothi in Tiru Annamalai.

Tiru Annamalai is one of the most sacred shrines of tamilNadu.  It is considered superior to all the other eminent shrines.  While Tiru Arur confers salvation or mukti on one who is born there, Hasi confers salvation to one who dies there, and Chidambaram to one who worship there, Tiru Annamalai confers salvation on one who merely thinks of it.  No wonder this shrine is most important, as it points out the easiest way yo salvation.

The same ritual is gone through in every temple.  In the place of the huge light on the hill of Tiru Annamalai each temple creates a sokkappanai in front of the shrine, some distance away from it.  This is mostly made of combustible materials such as palmyrah leaves.  Lighting of this sokkappanai and karpura  aradhana to the deity in procession are done simultaneously and this marks the culmination of the karttikai  festival.

The lighting of a large number of lamps, both in the temples and in the devotees' homes on the karttikai day has been a very ancient observance.  Saint Jnanasambandhar refers to this in one of his songs.  In the moving song sung by him at Mayilappur in order to bring back to life the young maid Pumpavai from her ashes, he addresses her and asks: "will you go away from this world without witnessing this festival?"  The first verse refers to the general feeding of Sivaganas as a festival ritual.  The second refers to an Onam festival in the month of Aippasi. The third verse speaks of the karttikai festival.  he asks: "will thou go away, Pumpavai, without witnessing the festival of lamps lighted by young damsels on the ancient karttikai day, sacred to the Lord of Kapalisvaram (the Mayilappur temple)?"

The festival of lights which was celebrated on the dipavali day in the ancient past is now celebrated on this day, the Karttikai day.  The lighting of lamps also gives scope for fireworks among children.  Children in the rural parts make elaborate preparations some days ahead.  They collect the spathes of flowers from male palmyrah trees, burn them and reduce them to a course powder.  This they tie up into a bag in a piece of cloth and insert it in the stiff fork of any handy stick from the common physic nut plant.  After night fall on the karttikai day, they tie up the two ends of the fork into a long loop of string, open the bag slightly at the top of the fork and insert a piece of burning charcoal cinder into the powdered and charred spathes and rotate it over the head by holding the ends of the string.  the ignited powder falls all around evenly as bright aparks.  the whole street and the whole village will present for a few hours the spectacle of innumerable stars revolving round and round.  this is a fine pastime of the children bringing forth a lot of ingenuity and mirth.  When the whole thing is burnt down, the children enter the home to have a sumptous repast of puffed rice and pulses with treacle.


Karttigai dipam is celebrated in elaborate chapters in two puranas on Tiru Annamalia by Maraijnana Sambandhar and Saiva Ellappa Navalar, both of the sixteen century.  Yet there are many mentions of the festival from the sangham period in Tamil literature.  mention by Saint Tiru Jnanasambandhar in the Poompavaipadikam has been mentioned.  He calls it the ancient Karttikai festival of lights (tol-karttikai nal...vilakkidu).  Perum Kadumko, the poet who had specialised in singing on the palai (poetry relating to the seperation og the lady love from her lover, which is the characteristic of palai, the desert region) says that the full moon of this month is 'thegood moon' that is given forth by the six stars, meaning the Karttikai six  star group.  He says that the profuse blooming of the murukku (red cotton tree) in their crimson brillance on the mountain tops and the flowering of the kongu in the forsets are loke the string of the flames in the lamps lit during this period (Ahananuru 183 and Narrinai 202) .  Avvaiyar, the lady poet of the sangham age, also mentions the flowering of the murukku and says the blooming appears like the long string od beautiful flames lit by women folk in hilarious rejoicing on this day (Ahananuru 11).  Poet Nakkirar, the prince of the poets of the period, says that 'people of the locality decorate their homes with flowers wreaths on the occasion of the festival of karttikai which occurs on the night of the full moon day'.

     Karttikai festival lamps are mentioned by the poems Kalavali narpadu and Karnarpadu and also by the epic poem Jivaka Cintamani.  There is a tradition in India that the twenty seven stars were counted, not beginning from Asvini as is being done now, but beginning from Kartikai.  The poem Karnarpadu would mention Karttikai as the first star, Talainal (26) Paripadal one of the Sangham poems would declare that the capital city of the Pandiyan, Madurai was as lustrous as the pendant-like Karttikai star.

The proverbial saying "like the light placed on the top of a hill" Palamoli nanuru (verse 204) and the mention of Perum-kadumko of the brillance of the crimson flowers on the top of a hill, like the stream of Karttikai lamps, and the reference to the light on the hill top in Karttikai Jivaka Cintamani (256) may be direct references to the lighting of the Karttikai dipam on the Tiru  Annamalai hill itself.


courtesy:  Festival of Tamil Nadu, by Thiru M. Arunachalam (Peeps into tamil Culture series)