Karthigai Deepam: The fire on the mountain

Festival of lights in southern India


November 19, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Karthigai Deepam: The fire on the mountain

Karthigai Deepam is lit at 6 pm sharp each year on the top of the Thiruvannamalai hill (Photo: Babu)

Karthigai Deepam is one of the most ancient festivals that has been celebrated since ages. It’s a symbolic festival of lights, mostly celebrated in Tamil Nadu and also celebrated in neighbouring states like Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. One of the best places to participate in Karthigai Deepam is the Maha Deepam at the famous Arunachaleswarar temple in Tamil Nadu.

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Karthigai Deepam is annually celebrated on the day of full moon in the Tamil month of Karthigai according to the Indian calendar that generally falls in November or December each year. Though it is celebrated across the vast swathes of southern India, but one of the best places to observe or participate in Karthigai Deepam is Arunachaleswarar temple situated at the bottom of Thiruvunnamalai hills of Tamil Nadu, where it is celebrated with much pomp and glory.

The temple is spread over 25 acres of land and was built by Chola Kings way back in the 9th century, says an an inscription in the structure. On every full moon day, tens of thousands of pilgrims worship Lord Arunanchaleswara by circumambulating the Arunachala hill barefoot. But for the Karthigai Deepam, the festival takes on another shape.

Karthigai Deepam is a nine-day long festival and it begins with a flag hoisting by a group of priests. During the nine days, special prayers or pujas are offered here twice a day, once early in the morning and then again in the evening.

From the sixth day onwards, the festival shifts gears and over the next three days, huge processions are organised around the temple, with idols of Lords Kartikeya, Shiva and Ganesh leading thousands of people.

“In the chariot they carry one big idol of Lord Ganesh, two of Lord Murugan, who is son of Lord Shiva and also of different incarnations idols of Lord Shiva. It is the real beginning of the festival. Before the festival begins, the entire house is cleaned and decorated with numerous lamps as we do during the Diwali,” Dinesh Kumar, resident of Thiruvunnamalai, tells Media India Group.

Last day of Karthigai Deepam

The last day of Karthigai Deepam marks the day when Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvathi’s second son Lord Karthikeya was born. It is also believed that lord Shiva converted himself into an endless flame to resolve the fight between Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu over who was superior.

On the last day of the festival, thousands of people, chanting mantras, participate in the procession where several cultural activities like dances also take place. The circumambulation covers a distance of 14 km and every devotee walks barefoot. The circumambulation is known as Girivalam locally.

Huge processions are organised around the temple, with idols of Lords Kartikeya, Shiva and Ganesh leading thousands of people (Photo: Babu)

“It is our belief that, if we walk along with the chariot, it will wash away our sins and also fulfill our desires. The whole temple and roads are very crowded during the nine days and on the last day, even more devotees come from across the world to worship Arunachalewara (Lord Shiva). It takes almost 4 hours to complete the procession,” says Kumar.

After the last procession of the festival, Karthigai Deepam is lit at 6 pm sharp each year. This occasion is also referred to as the Maha Deepam. On this occasion, at the top of over 800 m high Thiruvannamalai hill, a huge iron bucket, filled with ghee, is lit and which is visible for several kilometers around the hills.

“We go to a top of the hills, carrying almost 3,500 kg of ghee and with sacks of white cotton cloth that is vesti. We decorate the huge iron bucket that is nearly 2.5 m high, with flowers and then we fill it up with ghee and vesti. Then after doing a small puja and chanting the gods name, at sharp 6pm we light the flame together,” Babu, who works in the Arunachaleswarar during the festival and is a resident of Thiruvannamalai, tells Media India Group.

“Once the flame is lit on the top of the hill, everyone breaks their fast and after that they light the lamps in their homes and do the puja. It is a tradition that has been followed over many centuries. A group of us has to stay the night at the top of the hill to ensure that the flame does not go out and burns brightly until the morning of next day,” explains Babu.

As with any festival, decoration of the house is an important element and, on this day, beautiful, colourful designs of Kolam are made in each house.

“We fast for the whole day and Kolams are made with rice flour paste in front of houses to welcome the deities of worship. Everyone’s house is decorated with numerous lamps and different patterns of lamps. Special dishes are prepared to offer to the gods and are eaten after we break the fast,” Alka, a resident of Thiruvannamali, tells Media India Group.

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