Karthigai – The other festival of lights

While Diwali is celebrated all over India, a similar festival that lays emphasis on lamps — the Karthigai Deepam is unique to South India, notably Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The festival falls on the full moon day after Diwali, in the Tamil month of Karthigai (Nov-Dec). As a continuation of Diwali, a couple of lamps are lit every evening and placed at the doorstep till the festival of Karthigai.

You can call it the Diwali of the Tamilians, and is supposed to be a very ancient one. Mention of it can be found in the oldest work of Tamil literature, the Tolkappiam, which dates back to 2500 BC. Other ancient works of literature also refer to this festival, which is celebrated over three days, in Tamil Nadu and Kerala and parts of Karnataka. According to one legend, the festival celebrates the birth of Kartikeya, the younger brother of Ganesha. And since he is considered to be the Tamil God (Murugan), it is a special festival for Tamilians.

However, despite the similarities, this festival is more of a religious one compared to the social aspect of Diwali, where the emphasis is more on celebration and joy, at least in Tamil homes. Karthigai is therefore marked by fasting and prayers and the offering of laddoos made of puffed rice, groundnuts and jaggery, along with other sweets including kheer, in the evening.

Laddoos made of puffed rice

While in Tamil Nadu, all houses would be lit up with rows of earthen oil lamps, only Tamilians celebrate the festival in other parts of the country. Growing up in Nagpur, it held a special flavour for me. Being the only Tamilians in the street, our house was the sole one that was lit up with rows of earthen diyas and reverberated with the sound and light of crackers. Since the cracker shops would be closed after Diwali, we would secrete away some to burst on Karthigai. Mother would make humongous quantities of the goodies which would be shared with the neighbours.  The rangolis made by me and my elder sister of course would be elaborate and decorated with lamps. I would be fairly bursting with the importance of the festival.

On the first day, called the Bharani Deepam, we go to the Shiva temple and light a lamp – a large one with 365 wicks made into a bundle and dunked in oil. I love staring at its huge flame dancing in the wind. Making those wicks was a family affair while we were children. We used to spin the cotton into a thick yarn and make wicks out of that, counting and putting them in bundles of ten to be finally collected into a huge wick. The second day is known as the Sarvalaya Deepam, when all temples and homes come alive with hundreds of lamps, with special poojas. It is also called Shiva Karthigai and the last day is Vishnu Karthigai on which day too we light lots of lamps, including in the backyard.

In Tamil Nadu, the temples wear a celestical look, lit with hundreds of lamps. There is also the custom of lighting a bonfire called the chokkapanai  on the eve of this festival with dried palm leaves in the temples and homes, symbolising the destroying of evil. One of the legends pertaining to the festival says that this was the day when Kartikeya, the younger brother of Ganesh was born out of the sparks from Lord Shiva’s eyes. And he being the Tamil God, it is a big festival in the state.

In the temple town of Tiruvannamalai, this festival is a ten day affair. A huge lamp is lit on top of the Annamalai hill (the pic on homepage) on the second day of the festival, the glow of which can be seen for many kilometers around. The lamp itself is gigantic – five and half feet high and five feet in diameter with a wick made of nearly 30 m of cotton cloth and hundreds of litres of ghee.

There are other legends associated with the festival, which is equally important to both Shaivites and Vaishnavites. According to one legend, the glow of the lamp on the hill signifies the appearance of Lord Shiva as a huge column of fire at that place during a debate between the Trinity. Vaishnavaites celebrate the festival to mark the dispatching of king Bali to the nether world by Lord Vishnu in his Vaman avatar.

No matter what the legend, the fact remains that it is another festival of lights and lights are close to my heart as they hold deep spiritual significance at one level and dispel darkness in the practical sense. And who doesn’t like rows of oil-wick lamps adorning the house, glowing like so many stars? The festival starts tomorrow.

Other festivals on Kartik Poornima: It is celebrated as Dev.Diwali in north India and it is considered auspicious to take a dip in the holy Ganga on this day. the ghats at Varanasi are lit up with thousands of lamps to welcome the Gods. For the Jains, this is an important day as the first Tirthankar Lord Adinath delivered his first sermon on the Shatrunjay Hills in Gujarat. The Sikhs celebrate Guru Nanak Jayanti today.

Wish you all a very Happy Karthigai Deepam!

(This is an updated repost of an old article published in Nov. 2010)

Pic on this page: Courtesy Anu Shankar

Pic on homepage: Courtesy:http://www.flickr.com/photos/23112939@N06/5210716491/

70 comments

  1. I love the birthing of Kartikeya out of sparks from Shiva’s eyes! And I love your description of the oil lamp in Shiva’s temple and how you would all make the wicks. We have the Karthigai lamp lighting tradition at home on all three days as well, and I never fail. You’re right about the oil lamps being a must rather than candles. My family tradition was to light two elephant lamps for brothers, apart from the rows of diyas. And of course the pori laddoos and yummy banana appams. It was interesting that there were lots of rice and jaggery based offerings including a mix of cheera (aval) and jaggery that was poured into cone shaped moulds to set(mom used steel glasses) and which we would delight in breaking off and eating when the puja was done!
    Kartik Purnima is celebrated in Orissa too and you can read more about it here http://festivalsofindia.in/KartikaPurnima/

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    1. That was a lovely description of celebrations of the festival, Mayalakshmi. the cone shaped aval jaggery mixture was not part of this festival in our house. The wick making was a major activity for all of us and it was a time consuming thing because mother insisted that they all were of the same length and thickness 🙂 Thanks for the link on the festival. Will read it. 🙂

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  2. I am so happy that i am not late in wishing you a very happy Karthigai Deepam,may God bless you all.I had never heard of this festival but i do know that Kattak Purnima is special–in fact the whole month of Kattak is supposed to be very auspicious.From North to South,the same days for reverence & celebration;but observed in different ways.Whereas in the North electric lights have taken over earthen lamps i do hope this is not so in South.The earthen lamps belong to a different class altogether.The whole Tamil Nadu must be aglitter today !!!!!!!!

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    1. Oh you were not late Indu, but I am sorry the comment had to be retrieved from the spam folder. Sometimes WP goes crazy. I am hearing of Kattak Purnima for the first time. Where do they have that name for Kartik? As for earthen diyas, while candles and other lighting are ok for Diwali, oil lamps are preferred for this festival because it has more religious than social significance. At least in my house, I do it this way. Lamps also burn inside the house in all the rooms.

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  3. Beautiful post! Could picture every word written, especially the bright flame glowing from the huge lamp at Annamalai hill is pure magic!

    We celebrate Dev Diwali on the full moon day and it is said that on this day, all the 33 crore demi gods descend on earth with their blessings. Hence, that day becomes a very auspicious one. Cities like Varanasi witness huge celebrations on this day, just imagine the glow of thousands and thousands of lamps twinkling in the Ganga river, magical… isn’t it? Strangely though, I never heard of Karthigai before reading this article. Many thanks for sharing your beautiful way of celebrations and the significance associated with them. Happy Karthigai 🙂

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    1. As I pointed out to another commenter, we have so many festivals that are celebrated differently in different regions. I would love to see Dev Diwali in Varanasi. The sight must be absolutely wonderful. Karthigai is more of a religious festival and Tamil specific, which is why you wouldn’t have heard of it. The pic I have used is from Anu’s blog post of the festival last year.

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  4. Happy Karthigai to you aunty! I am so glad you wrote this post and dispelled all the stupid myths in my mind. I always thought it was strange that Tamilians celebrated Diwali after everyone was long done with theirs! But I guess, you guys are lucky to celebrate two Diwali like festivals back to back! It was great to learn about the customs and celebrations and actually know what this festival signifies to Tamilians. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Ancient Tamils didn’t celebrate Diwali as it is done today. for them, this was a more important festival and equally colourful and bright. I am glad to be of help in enlightening you about the significance of this festival 🙂

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  5. It is so good to learn about different traditions and customs celebrated in India….This was surely an informative post …Happy Karthigai to your family and you 🙂

    The light of the candle…when you picture them all lit around the house…gives a sense of warmth and joy to one’s heart…the hope of good winning over evil and that there is still hope for light at the end of a dark tunnel…

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    1. Welcome here, Dimplebarnes. I am glad you liked the post. We are really fortunate to have so much cultural diversity in our country and it is often amazing to find the festival being celebrated in different forms with different legends behind them 🙂

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      1. Thanks for your reply….I have been an avid follower or reader of your post since May when I read about the Jingles post… 🙂

        Your posts are simplistic and I njoy reading each one of them….Keep writing!!!

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        1. Isn’t that wonderful? I mean it always makes me feel good when I find someone has been reading my posts and liking them too 🙂 Do you also have a blog? I’d love to visit you!

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          1. Im the person who loves to speak and pen down my thoughts and words for greetings on various occasions….but tell me to write a blog and i go blank!!! heheeh

            Any classes on blog writing??? 🙂

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          2. Oh Dimplebarnes, I am hardly qualified to give any classes in blog writing 🙂 But all you have to do to begin writing is to expand on the words you write on greetings, with some thoughts thrown in and hey presto! you have a small feature and before you know it, you have begun writing!

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  6. Thank you so much for this lovely and detailed post about Karthikai deepam. You have written it so wonderfully and intricately and it brought back so many childhood memories as we celebrated this festival with so much fervor. A very very happy Karthigai deepam to you!

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    1. It is a wonderful festival, isn’t it? Glad you enjoyed this post, Raj. I remember I became your follower after one such nostalgic post about your mom’s Diwali capers when she was a kid 🙂

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  7. Karthigai Deepam seems like a wonderful festival. You just have so many interesting festivals across India, don’t you!

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    1. Oh yes, we do have so many colourful and interesting festivals, Otto. And the best thing is that they are celebrated differently in different places and the legends vary too, which is why I invite my readers to share anything they know about them 🙂

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  8. lovely post, as usual, Zephyr! we really missed the celebrations this year, esp since i love drawing the kolam and lighting every lamp we have in the house! as for pori urundai, i am not very fond of them, but samhith is… and he is happy because everyone in our building have given him some, because we cant make it this year 😀 btw, apparently, karthikai is even celebrated in Kolhapur… at the panchaganga ghat, the whole place is apparently lit up with lamps! have to go there to see that someday!

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    1. I am so sorry to hear that, Anu. Such years are really dark, but wonderful neighbours always rise to the occasion when kids are there. I have a guzzler of the urundais at home too, only the age is different 😀 I would love to hear about the celebrations at Kolhapur. Do remember to share anything you find out about it.

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  9. Happy karthigai zephyr to u and L&M. Nice informative post.Yesterday helped bharati in arranging the lamps it really looks beautiful when u put kottuvilakku ( hope I am correct!) in the center of the hall. Dad used to love PORI. Again happy karthigai !!!!:)

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    1. Hey, I see that you finally managed to get the comment published 🙂 Great to know Bharathi has a good helper in her celebrations. And yes kuthuvilakku does add magnificence to the whole scene. Like your mom used to in a gathering 🙂 The L&M finishes all the pori in no time and when questioned says, ‘yaana pasikku pori poruma?’ 😀

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  10. Wonderful to learn more about Karthigai.
    Happy Karthigai!

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    1. Happy Karthigai to you too Rama. It is always nice to know the legends and the reasons behind festivals, isn’t it?

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  11. This was my first Karthigai and it was wonderful to light the lamps yesterday! I made kheer today all by myself and this was my first ever attempt at kheer! Yet to taste it but it looks normal 😀 Thank you 🙂

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    1. Congrats! Great to know that your kheer attempt ‘looks’ good. Hope it tastes just as well too 🙂

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  12. Ah am late here. Had a great Karthigai yesterday with lamps and sokkapanai:))) Hope you had a great one too…

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    1. For me Karthigai begins with the lamps and ends with the poojai and of course the offerings — whichever I can comfortably make 🙂 Happy Karthigai. You are not late since we have it today too.

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  13. We Bengalis also celebrate Karthik purnima and, I believe, we also make the puffed rice and jaggery balls…we call them mowa!

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    1. It is nice to know the various forms of the festival in different parts of the country. So did you make mowa? 🙂

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      1. ha ha! I think the inheritance of the culinary skills have, sadly, been stopped after my mother’s generation!

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  14. Happy Karthigai deepam to you. Nice to see you passion for festivals. I am not personally too excited about them as such, especially the ones that do no get me a day off from work. But my mother just loved them. And my wife in spite of her hectic schedule and lack of knowledge of Tamil traditions, still tries her best to revive all the traditions by looking up stuff on the internet.

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    1. Thanks Karthik. Enthusiasm for me is only as much as my health can take, but whatever little I do, I do with gusto 🙂 Girls these days are doing a commendable job trying to keep the traditions alive by doing things in their own way, which is what festivals are all about, aren’t they? Like R’s Mom making the urundais earlier to save time. As I had said in my post on Rituals being a pain, if we modify the festivals, we can enjoy them and still keep traditions alive for future generations.

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  15. Happy Karthigai deepam to you and yours, too! 🙂

    Thank you so much for this post. I had heard about this festival, but didn’t know much about the way it is celebrated or the history behind it. Back home in Ahmedabad, we used to celebrate Dev Diwali or Chhoti Diwali, which is something similar to Karthigai.

    Have heard a lot about the Karthigai deepam at Thiruvannamalai. Have heard that it is the first temple to light the deepam every year, and other temples and homes follow suit. Not sure how far that is true, though.

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    1. Thank you, GND! I had done this post a couple of years ago, but it had been very sketchy. So I added a lot of info and reposted it again this year 🙂 you are right about the lamp being lit first in Tiruvannamalai, but since I had only heard about it and didn’t find mention in the official site, I didn’t mention it. It is a more sedate festival compared to Diwali but one I love a lot.

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  16. Lovely description of a festival so dear to Tamizh people. I remember the lights in homes in Tamih nadu, and in the temples. Lovely sights.

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    1. Temples are really a sight to behold and cherish. they looks so heavenly. I only want to be in Tiruvannamalai for the festival one day. It would make it the most wonderful thing for me 🙂

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  17. Since I came to live in Bangalore, I’ve noticed this festival. Yesterday, I saw rows of oil lamps outside Tamilian houses. I asked one uncle what the celebration was, and he explained a bit about it. It is fascinating to imbibe the joy of celebration. I am a sucker for oil lamps. I can watch their flickering flames for hours. Wish you belated Happy Karthigai.

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    1. Thanks Rachna, the wishes are not belated since it is there even today. These festivals are a treat to watch since the lamps are the main thing, along with the pooja of course. Often our house has been the only one in the colony to have lamps burning and that makes me feel special, even today 😀

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  18. can I proudly say, I made the pori urandais yesterday night at nine and for the first time they turned out absolutely perfect…*gives proud look*

    I made them early because wont get time on week days..

    Dont we light the Karthikgayi deepams for the brother..thats what Amma had told me earlier..and bro gives me money 😉

    I loved to read about this 🙂

    @Grond: You are right, Dev Devali usually comes along with Karthikgayi though may not exactly fall on the same day..Dev Devali is usually celebrated by the Jains in Gujarat…We used to have fun bursting crackers along with the Gujjus 🙂 and we didnt feel out of place because everyone in Baroda celebrated it eh?

    Thanks to you I did some research on Dev Devali..and this is the link 🙂

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deva_Devali

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    1. Karthigai Deepam has too many legends associated with it. Maybe one of them has some association with brothers and sisters. If you know more about it, do share it here, will you?

      And you are so efficient, making things in advance to avoid rush and tension, but more importantly to observe the traditions 🙂 *pats on the back*

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  19. Never heard of this festival before. This was a very enriching post for me.
    Happy karthigai to you and your family. 🙂

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    1. Glad you liked it Amit and discovered a new festival celebrated in other parts of the country 🙂 Thanks for the wishes and wish you the same too.

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  20. i too love this day .. mom used to go for the girivalam, we kids used to arrange all the lamps on the balcony parapet. we used make sure that it keep putting oil in it once in a while. we did have tough time cleaning the spilled oil and the leak from the earthen lamps.. :). missing all that in vizag now.. ppl have started using these smalls bulbs instead of lamps. and floor conscious me, started using cup candles in the earthen diya’s :).

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    1. Girivalam! It is on my bucket list and I hope I will be able to do it one day and get to see the Annamalai deepam too! Do you know? the best way to prevent spillage in lamps is to use the central wick. It burns more steadily too and oil doesn’t drip. Only the wick has to be a little long so that the flame is visible above the rim.

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  21. I also absolutely love Karthigai. Brings back childhood memories of Shilpa and me running around the house trying to keep the diyas alive 🙂 Nowadays, I put tea candles inside the diyas; keeps them going longer and a slow breeze doesn’t put them out…

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    1. Tea candles do sound a great idea and there is less mess too. And you are right, unlike Diwali, it is windy during karthigai and the lamps keep going off! And do you make the pori urundai?

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  22. Oh yes, for the Karthigai Deepam we light diyas alll over our house. It’s really nice to know more about this festival 🙂

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  23. Is it exactly a fortnight after Diwali? That’s when we have what in Gujjus is called Dev-Diwali and I’ve heard some people from North India call it Chhoti Diwali.

    In some Gujju families, this festival has more importance than Diwali itself – I’ve not been able yet to find out why. It’s considered an auspicious day in the western parts of India (Actually, which Purnima is not?) and hence you find that a lot of weddings take place on this day.

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    1. I see many people mention Dev Diwali. It is nice to be able to learn about other festivals, isn’t it? From what you mention about this festival being more important than Diwali, it looks like the latter festival somehow has assumed importance as a national festival while the regional festivals continue to remain in vogue.

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      1. Actually, Diwali does not have that much importance in a Gujju’s pantheon – the next day, the Hindu New Year, is more important. Laxmi Pujan et al. are ceremonies carried out. Chopda Pujan is worshipping the books that will then hold the accounts in the coming financial year.

        Oh – and if I’m correct – today is Karthigai no? Best Wishes!

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        1. Yesterday, today and tomorrow! Thanks for the wishes 🙂

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  24. Great post, Zephyr.. 🙂
    Didn’t know about this before..
    And really nice meeting you at the indiblogger meet.. 🙂
    Arushi 🙂

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    1. Thanks Arushi. It was nice meeting you too. Now I remember your blog 🙂 I have visited it before but not commented I think. Now that I can put a face to the blogger, I will visit more often 🙂

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  25. Belated Karthigai wishes to you.

    It is wonderful to learn of so many customs across India, which we otherwise might have never known!

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    1. Thank you for the Karthigai wishes.

      Blogging indeed is a wonderful way to discover different customs and cultures. I love blog-hopping and leaving my nagging comments on posts I like 🙂

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  26. been lighting diyas all over since sunday… and like a good ponnu wore saree n all… 😀

    this is one ritual i follow every wr.. 😀

    Psst: how r u amma… missing ya

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    1. That sounds great. How ’bout sending me some pics of you lighting the lamps in a sari? that would be a double treat for me, wouldn’t it? What about pori urundais?

      Look at the ulta chor kotwal ko date… you did the vanishing trick and asking me where I was? hmmph..

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  27. we also celebrate another Diwali as Chhoti Diwali on ekadashi…
    but thank you so for great information…

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    1. Welcome here Pooja. In some way or the other the various cultures of this wonderful country is united in its celebrations and vrats, isn’t it?

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  28. Karthik Poornima is also known as Deva Deepawali.
    In Karnataka too the whole month lamps are kept around the temples. At homes too a big lamp will be kept on most evenings and especially on Poornima. And on that day there will be a sumptuous feast in the temple.
    Miss all that here

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    1. Nice to see you here, Bhagyareema. I heard about Deva Deepavali only this year. I must google to find out more about it. After the month of Karthigai, when lamps are lit in the evenings, the next month of Dhanur maas, we light lamps in the mornings. It must be difficult to observe some customs when you are in another country, but I am sure you would have found ways to do it 🙂

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  29. The info about the lamp was interesting…Happy Karthigai puja to you and family!

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    1. It is one of my cherished desires to see that at least once in my lifetime. Wonder when…

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  30. Keep discovering new customs, festivals. Happy Karthigai to you and your L&M.

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    1. This is the land of festivals and with so many cultures, we will keep discovering new ones every day. btw, the L&M ate up all the puffed rice laddoos and i literally had to fight to keep some for myself and the maid. 😀

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  31. Happy wishes for eco-friendly karthigai celebration!

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    1. Thanks for the wishes Arpana. Enjoyed lighting all those lamps and for once, they didn’t go off in the wind. This is usually a windy month and I am run off my feet lighting them as they go off. 🙂

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  32. HAPPY KARTHIGAI TO YOU AND YOURS!!
    Am so happy that there wont be fireworks 🙂

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    1. Thank you magiceye. I am just about to light the lamps before starting the pooja.

      Like

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