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.
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/