For a major part of the year, the sedentary town of Thiruvannamalai goes on about its own business in a typically unassuming fashion. Then, for a duration of 10 days, during the month of November and December, the town takes centre-stage with a large human congregation of 2 million people flocking for the fabled Karthigai Deepam festival.
Legend has it that Brahma and Vishnu, the creator and protector of the universe, had gotten into yet another fight to decide who was the superior deity. As usual, they were unable to arrive at an amicable decision and went to Shiva who was more than happy to act the arbitrator.
Shiva took the form of an endless column of burning inferno that extended from the heaven above to hell beneath. The winner was the one who could find the source of the fire. While Brahma morphed into a swan and flew upwards, Vishnu took the avatar of a boar and began digging into the earth. Both of them went about their task endlessly but to no avail. Days turned into months and months to years. Vishnu eventually conceded defeat, while Brahma lied in an unsportsmanlike manner, which led to him having no temples on earth.
The fire, which is seen as a manifestation of Shiva and his ultimate supremacy, is lit up on top of a 2669 feet high hill and worshipped every year, in what came to be known as the Karthigai Deepam. The festival is celebrated when the moon positions in a synchronous line with a six-star constellation in the celestial sphere. Pilgrims and devotees from all over the country circumnavigate the hills in a 14-kilometre path called the Girivalam in an attempt to purge themselves of their sins. Popular belief is that the mere remembrance of Lord Arunachaleshwara at this place gives salvation- Ninaithale Mukthi Tharum Thiruthalam.
We embarked on our journey to the land of Arunachaleshwara to learn the intricacies of crowd management in a religious festival. The role of the district administration is extremely vital in such events, where there is a northward pressure on provision of civic amenities and maintenance of law and order. Showered with generous hospitality, we quickly acclimatized into the district and set about learning the various modalities involved in this gargantuan process.
The Annamalaiyar Temple, nestled at the foothills, was built by the Chola dynasty during the 9th century and gradually expanded over the years by the later kingdoms of Vijayanagara. The complex, encompasses an area of 25 hectares and is flanked by four tall gopurams in archetypal Dravidian style. The tallest gopuram, aptly named the Rajagopuram, 217 feet in height and comprising of 11 stories rises majestically into the sky. Inscriptions on the temple date the Karthigai Deepam festival to the Chola history though it was only in the 20th century that the ten-day event came into practice.
The entire district administration had been working synchronously as a mammoth organic entity comprising of functionaries from various departments. Temporary bus stands were set up at various junctions to house the buses coming from the 9 arterial roads to the town. 9 special trains and 3000 buses were operated especially for the Karthigai Deepam. Inside the town, free shuttle buses and fixed rate autos plied the devotees to and from the temple.
Technology made its presence felt with 147 CCTV cameras covering the city and a new app introduced to store a database of faces visiting the town to aid in finding missing persons. Plastic exchange counters were set up so that people could exchange their environmentally unfriendly bags for the friendlier ones. ‘May I help you’ booths with smiling faces were busy helping the people deal with their manifold queries.
All the preparatory measures and festivities culminated into the Maha Deepam on the final day, the marquee event of the festival. A gigantic bucket shaped drum, teeming with 3.5 tonnes of pure ghee and hundreds of metres of winding cloth, is taken atop the hill by a traditional fisherman clan, called the Parvatharajakulam to be burnt into a scorching flame, invoking Lord Shiva to bless the lesser mortals with his grace.
The town had been experiencing torrential rainfall over the last few days but on the final day, even the clouds had made way for a clear azure blue sky. The air was abuzz with devotional fervour with black dhoti clad devotees milling their way across the town. The temple complex had been jampacked with 12,000 devotees like rigid and compact molecules. Drenched in devotion and intoxicated by bakthi, they thronged in anticipation to catch a glimpse of their beloved lords who would be taken out of their sanctum sanctorum and paraded through the streets to bless the beholden devotees.
The procession starts with the lord’s wards Ganesha and Murugan followed by the lord himself and his consort Unnamalai Amman flanked at the end by the Chandikeshwarar. Bedecked with floral garlands and ornate jewels, they are carried on a palanquin and shaken vigorously to depict their wanton joy as they mingle with their devotees.
The last one to make the entry is Ardhanareeshwarar, half man-half woman god, who is said to come out of his abode only once a year. By then, the whole crowd has been whipped up into a frenzy that is beyond the realm of explanation.
As the Ardhanareeshwar rams his way through the crowd, the people raise their hands in a different style of prayer that has increasingly become popular. Contrary to the conventional namaste style of salutation, they raise both their hands bringing it in front of their faces, holding a latest smart phone ready to capture the lord in high-definition pixels.
As the proceedings nears its climax, the prayers and chants reach a high crescendo even as the incense smoke permeates the entire place creating an ethereal experience. Burning orbs of flames are carried by the head priests that float through the pitch-black darkness like a radiant halo, lighting up the altar in the temple. With clockwise precision, the fire is lit atop the hill and the temple at once is alight with decorative lights while the left-over crackers from Diwali dazzle the night sky illuminating the entire town resulting in a divine experience.