Kartigai Deepam: The Great Festival of Light
Arunachala is truly the holy place.
Of all holy places it is the most sacred!
Know that it is the heart of the world.
It is truly Siva himself!
It is his heart-abode,
a secret kshetra (sacred pilgrimage place).
In that place the Lord ever abides as the hill of light
Greetings from the holy abode of Lord Arunachala Siva, the all blissful immovable light, shining beyond, within and in all places, at all times!
It is believed that Siva the Supreme manifested here in Thiruvannamalai eons ago as a column of light which had no beginning and no end. The great gods Brahma and Vishnu tried to comprehend the height and depth of the mystical fire, to no avail. Acknowledging defeat, suffused with adoration and awe for the limitless power of Arunachala Siva, they worshiped him and requested that for all time to come Siva would leave a sign of his greatness on earth. Hence, the column of fire cooled down to become the mountain, Arunachala. And once a year during the Tamil month of Kartigai, when the star of Krittika rules the sky, a glorious fire is lit on the peak of the mountain, fueled with vast amounts of clarified butter, to celebrate the greatness and glory of Arunachala-Siva.
THE 10 DAY FESTIVAL
Ten days before the lighting of this massive fire, the flag in the temple is hoisted to signify the beginning of the festival. On each of these days, the temple deities are taken in procession on the streets around the temple, attracting enormous crowds - the numbers increase daily till they reach over a million on the day of Kartigai Deepam.
Usually, in non-festival times, devotees wait patiently to view God in his inner sanctum; but during these days, God comes out to meet us. As the image of Annamalai Swami (Lord of the Ancient Mountain) enters the crowd, the chariot bearers skilfully manoeuvre a dance that causes the image of Siva to show forth an expression of immense joy as he enters the crowd of devotees.
One literally feels waves of exuberant joy rushing through the crowds at that moment as we all shout:
Annamalaiku Arohara!!! - Praises to the Lord of the Ancient Mountain.
It feels like the dance of Siva has intoxicated us and we are lost in his lavish outpouring of grace.
“Thennadudaiya Sivane Potri, Ennatavarkum Iraiva Potri”
Praises to Siva who dwells here in the southern land and yet is the One every nation praises as Lord.
One of the chariot-bearers told me that while it may appear that they are moving the chariot along, it is actually Lord Siva who is controlling the whole movement. What a beautiful analogy for life! Even when I think I am directing the course of my life, it is the One seated in the cave of my heart who is the true controller.
PANCHAMURTHI - THE FIVE DEITIES
The five deities taken on daily procession are Lord Ganesha, Lord Muruga, Siva as Annamalai Swami, Mother Shakti, and Chandikeswara. Each day they are placed on a different chariot with the majesty and splendour of the chariot increasing daily. We must remember that in Hinduism we believe there is only one God, and that all the deities are but manifestations of different aspects of that one Divinity. Saint Manikavasagar sings, “Yekan annegan iraivan adi vaazga” (You are One and not One, the One who appears as many, at your feet I worship).
First to be taken in procession is Lord GANESHA - God in the form of a mighty elephant who removes the obstacles on our path back to God.
Ganesha is followed by Lord MURUGA - whose name may be translated as ‘the radiant one’. He symbolises the Divine Light guiding us on the path towards union with God.
Then SIVA as Annamalai Swami appears, gloriously arrayed. Annamalai is the Tamil name for Arunachala. So, after removing the obstacles on our path (as Ganesha) and leading us with his light (as Muruga), Siva the Supreme gives us darshan (vision) of himself. What Grace! Beauty personified! A regal smile that melts the heart! So having seen Siva in such beauty and glory, the soul now desires union with him above all else. But in our own strength we cannot advance towards such a goal!
Hence, the Divine Mother, SHAKTI, comes next in procession - she is the power of God (which in Christianity is called the Holy Spirit). Shakti permeates and pervades everything and draws all things back to to the Source of Being. So it is only by her power and grace that we are able to attain Siva-consciousness. She too looks spectacularly majestic and glorious on her chariots during these days. Salutations to the Divine Mother, the universal Queen, the power of Siva the Supreme.
Last in procession follows CHANDIKESWARA, one of Siva’s greatest devotees. While Chandikeswara was offering worship to Lord Siva, his father scorned his son’s worship as childish play and kicked the offerings placed before the Divine. Chandikeswara, without regarding whether it was his father or enemy or friend, immediately took a stick and struck the offender. Because of his steadfast devotion and impartiality in defending the worship and honour of God, Chandikeswara is always found in Siva Temples of the South and included in the grand processions as a member of the Siva-family. Chandikeswara symbolises the devotee who has transcended all attachments, and who desires nothing else but God. Such a one will always be found in the presence of the Divine, and sharing in the joy and grace of God.
During these days, when we walk in the procession with the Deities, we feeI as if we are living in a magical world - as if Sivaloka (the celestial abode of Lord Siva) has descended on earth and we are joining the celestials in the enactment of divine mysteries.
Photos of PanchaMurthi are from the 'Lotus Photography 'Facebook Page
THE GREAT FIRE
And then the great day of Kartigai Deepam arrives! It was on my first visit to Thiruvannamalai, on 8 December 2011, on the day of Kartigai Deepam, that Arunachala Siva revealed his light and love to me for the first time. And since that day there is no other place where my heart is so fully at Home then when I am at the sacred abode of Lord Arunachala.
On the day of Kartigai Deepam, the Holy Mountain is surrounded by a garland of human bodies as thousands upon thousands flocked here to do Giri-Pradakshina (circumambulation of the holy hill) and to witness the fire being lit. The fire burning on top of Arunachala on this day is nothing less than the very Presence of the Supreme Lord manifest as Fire. It is the original Light of God! It is the infinite pillar of Fire! It is Siva the Supreme who truly shines here as Arunachala! To him be glory for ever and ever...
The fire is kept burning on the mountain for ten successive days after its first lighting. Each night at about 6:00pm the flames are fueled into a gigantic flame which is visible for up to 30 kilometers away. What an awesome sign of the eternal fire of God’s unconditional love! When I see the Fire of Kartigai Deepam being lit I'm reminded of the chant that is recited at the Easter Vigil - the night when many churches light the sacred fire to remember the power of Christ’s resurrection.
...This is the night when the pillar of fire destroyed the darkness of sin…
Of this night scripture says: The night will be as clear as day: it will become my light, my joy.
The power of this holy night dispels all evil, washes guilt away, restores lost innocence, brings mourners joy;
it casts out hatred; brings us peace, and humbles earthly pride.
Night truly blessed when heaven is wedded to earth and humans are reconciled with God!... (The Easter Hymn: Exultet)
Glory to that Light that is beyond, within and everywhere at all times.
Arut Perum Jyoti, Thuni Perum Karunai.
Hail Grace Filled Light, Hail Supreme Compassion. (Swami Ramalinga)
With Love and Light from Arunachala,