Temple city Madurai grandly celebrated the Chithirai festival after a two-year break due to Covid-19 induced lockdown. Devotees thronged the streets of the ancient city to welcome and get darshan of deities Meenakshi, Sokkanathar, and Kallazhagar.
Acquiring its name from the Tamil month Chithirai which marks the Tamil New Year, the festival is celebrated in a grand manner every year. A confluence of Shaiva and Vaishnava schools of thought, the festival is an unmissable affair for Hindus in Madurai and the other surrounding South TN districts. While the Meenakshi Amman temple conducts the celestial wedding of Meenakshi and Sundareswarar, the Kallazhagar temple conducts the custom where the deity liberates Manduka Maharishi on Chitra Pournami. The tale of how they came to be celebrated together is a fascinating historical tidbit.
How Kumara Kampanna won Madurai back from the barbaric Sultans is a well-known fact now. But how the Nayakkar rulers brought its glory back is not that popular. Indic art, culture, and temples thrived in the reign of one of the eminent Nayakkar rulers, Thirumalai Nayakkar. For a short period, the Nayakkars shifted their capital to Trichy, and it was again moved to Madurai in Thirumalai Nayakkar’s reign.
Legends say that he was cured of an ailment after praying to Madurai Meenakshi Amman, and he shifted the capital to Madurai to get her darshan every day. He rebuilt many parts of the temple, especially the chariots which were in terrible shape. He made two huge Thers (chariots) for Meenakshi and her consort Sundareswarar. The unique aspect of the Meenakshi temple and Madurai is that, while the Swami is the main deity in other Shiva temples, Devi is the main deity here.
The Celestial Wedding
Malaydhwaja, a Pandya ruler, was childless. He prayed for an heir and conducted the Putra kameshti yaga to beget a child. A 3-year-old Meenakshi, an avatar of Parvati Devi, rose from the ritual fire. She ruled the Pandya kingdom after the king. She won many battles and expanded the empire. When she reached Kailaya, the last spot of her victorious campaign, she realized that Paramashiva was her match. Later their divine union was celebrated in a grand manner in Madurai.
The wedding, the chariot festival, and the Masi festival were celebrated at different times in the past. However, Thirumala Nayaka, having built two huge chariots for the deities, couldn’t find enough people to maneuver them as it was harvest season. At the same time, another festival was happening in another part of the town.
It was the festival of Kallazhagar, gracing the streets of Madurai and liberating Manduka Maharshi from his curse. After consulting with learned acharyas and gurus, Nayakkar changed the timings of the festivals so that both could coincide. While Kallazhagar used to cross the river somewhere near Cholavandhan earlier, Nayakkar changed his route to make him cross the river near Meenakshi temple.
In the past, even people far from Madurai used to attend the festivals as it was on Chitra Pournami, an auspicious day. Nayakkar also started the tradition of bringing Murugan to attend his parents’ wedding and Pavala Kanivai Perumal(Vishnu) to do kanyadan as a brother, from Tiruparankundram. Lakhs of people converged at the center of Madurai, the city built in a planned manner with Meenakshi temple as its center, to celebrate the festivals.
Now, the chariots could be pulled through the streets around the temple, thanks to the increase in manpower. Thus, the 10-day festival of Meenakshi temple and the week-long festival of Kallazhagar temple converged at the banks of Vaigai to bring Shaiva and Vaishnava schools of thought together.
Kallazhagar, the utsava murti of Thirumaliruncholai temple sung by Azhwars and one of the 108 Divyadesams, blesses his devotees by gracing the streets of Madurai every year in Chithirai. He starts from the temple with his devotees(hereditary), carrying him on a palanquin to the Vaigai river. He starts from the temple on the first day, blesses devotees on the way next day and enters the river on the third day early in the morning.
The third day is the most important as lakhs of devotees throng at the banks of Vaigai to witness the spectacular event. For those whom Kallazhagar is the kula deva, they tonsure their heads on the occasion. On that night he gives vimokshana to Manduka Maharshi from his frog form. Kallazhagar proceeds to other parts of the town for more events and shower his grace on a few more lakhs of devotees.
Even though there is a historical background to how the two festivals came to be celebrated together, the general populace has a cute story to explain the phenomenon. They believe Kallazhagar, the big brother came galloping in his golden horse to attend his sister Meenakshi’s wedding and give her away to Sundareswarar.
But Vaigai was brimming with flood when he reached its bank. While he anxiously waited there for the flood to recede, Meenakshi was given away by Pavala Kanivai Perumal as the muhurat was nearing. Meanwhile Kallazhagar managed to cross the river, but the marriage was already over. Upset by this he turned around. It is only a story made up by the locals, but shows how important rituals, duties and respect are, for Hindus.
Throught out the festival the deities are carried on different vahanas and are taken in a procession on the streets of Madurai. As devotees from other places pour into Madurai, the residents distribute food, sweets, water, buttermilk, etc to satiate their hunger and quench their thirst to brave the summer sun. The enthralling spiritual experience combined with the hospitality of Madurai residents has earned it the name ‘Festival of Festivals’.