Today is the start of the new year for Tamils and in this Chithirai month, I am going to narrate the legend of Madurai which is synonymous with the Chithirai Festival!!
Madurai is one of the oldest cities of the world and is believed to be in existence for more than 7000 years before Christ. It is said that Megasthenes visited this city when he visited India in the fourth century BC.
This city was the capital of the Pandya kingdom for centuries and was taken over by the Cholas during the tenth century A.D. Later it was regained by the Pandyas. Afterwards, it came under the rule of the Vijayanagara Empire and one of the chieftains of the Vijayanagara Empire Tirumalai Nayak who ruled from Madurai added glory to the city by building new structures and enhancing the beauty of the temple by expanding it. He is credited for building the Pudumandapa, which has lot of sculptures, the huge artificial pond (Teppakulam) and the Perumal Temple at Tallakulam, Madurai. He also combined various festivals into one and celebrated it in the month of Chaitra. The festival came to be known as ‘ Chithirai festival’. Chaitra is Chithirai in Tamil. By doing this he facilitated the people to be together and celebrate together. This was something akin to the Ganapati festival in Maharashtra where the objective is more of bonding and celebration.
The city is well known for its famous temple dedicated to Goddess Meenakshi and Lord Sundareswara with its four imposing towers giving the city the name ‘ Naan Maada Koodal’ literally translating to ‘four tower joining’. It is interesting to note that here Goddess Meenakshi is given precedence and Lord Sundareswara is seen only after one has darshan of Meenakshi. She is the queen who rules Madurai.
We will see the story of how Madurai came into being.
Legend has it that Lord Indra who was suffering from a curse, came to the earth and was wandering about searching for peace of mind. When he reached a particular spot which had lot of Kadamba trees, he saw a Shivalingam and his mind was filled with strange bliss. He found a pond with golden lilies and started to worship Lord Shiva there. A merchant who was going by noticed this and reported it to the King Kulasekara. The king with the help of Indra and the divine architect Viswakarma, built a beautiful temple for Lord Shiva and a city around the temple. These structures and the city were blessed with drops of nectar from Shiva’s locks and therefore the name Madhura (Sweetness).
Madurai has also been referred to ‘Tiru Aalavai’. It seems that there was a deluge in the second Sangam period wherein the city was destroyed excepting for the temple and four hillocks and the then king prayed to Lord Shiva to help him rebuild the city by showing him the borders of the city as it existed before the deluge. Shiva obliged and the snake worn as Shiva’s bracelet went around demarcating the city. “Aalavai” translates to ‘the mouth of poison’.
Tirugnanasambandar has sung the “Tiru Aalavai Padigam” when he visited Madurai.
King Kulasekara who built the temple thus, had a son by name Malayadwaja Pandya. King Malayadwaja and his wife Kanchanamala Devi had all the treasures except children. They prayed for an heir for long and performed a yagna seeking divine blessing. To the surprise of one and all, a young girl of three dressed in fine silk and bedecked with ornaments, came out of the fire and went and sat on the lap of Malayadwaja. There was a divine voice (ashareeri) informing the audience that this was a divine child who had come to rule Madurai. “Treat her like you would treat a son and teach her all the skills you would impart your son.
The royal couple were overjoyed, but soon found that the child had three breasts. As they were concerned the voice further went on, “the third breast will vanish the moment she sets her eye on her suitor”.
The king and the queen were extremely happy and blessed with this happening. They named the girl Tadaathagai Piraatti. She was also known as Meenakshi as her eyes were beautifully shaped like fish. (Meen – fish, Akshi – eyed). Meenakshi was soon the darling of everyone in the kingdom. As instructed by the celestial voice, Malayadwaja imparted all the skills to her right from music and art to horse riding and warfare.
In the course of time Malayadwaja died and Meenakshi was crowned as the princess and was ruling the kingdom.
After sometime, she asked permission from her mother to conquer all the kings and expand the kingdom. With the permission of her mother, she set out with her army conquering all the neighbouring kingdoms and she proceeded north.
On reaching Kailash, she demanded to see the Lord.
“You cannot see him. You will have to fight us first “said the bhootaganas (the attendants) of Lord Shiva. Effortlessly Meenakshi vanquished them and as she was advancing, she was confronted by none other than Nandi, the Lord’s bull. He was no match to Meenakshi’s prowess when Lord Shiva came out to see what the commotion was all about.
When Meenakshi turned around to see Lord Shiva, her third breast vanished and she knew that this was her suitor.
Meenakshi’s general Sumathy was also aware of the prophecy and requested the Lord to come to Madurai to seek the hand of Meenakshi.
The Lord accepted their request and assuming the most beautiful form of Sundara Easwara (Handsome lord), Shiva traveled all the way to Madurai to meet the queen Kanchanamala. The queen mother was too happy to have Lord Shiva as her son in law and so the wedding took place with great pomp and show. All the celestial beings rushed to Madurai and Lord Vishnu, the brother of Parvati (Meenakshi) gave her hand in marriage to Sundareswara.
During the wedding feast one of the dwarf bhootaganas of Lord Shiva, by name Gundodhara became very thirsty. No amount of water would satiate his thirst. All the water in the city was brought in all sorts of utensils but Gundodhara’s thirst could not be quenched. Lord Sundareswara asked him to cup his hands. He ordered him “Vai Kai” which means ‘keep your hand’ and the next moment Ganga in the matted locks of Lord Shiva surged and flowed through Gundodhara’s hand and thereafter his thirst was quenched. This water turned into the river Vaigai.
The couple stayed back at Madurai with Goddess Meenakshi and Shiva as Sundara Pandya, ruling the kingdom. They were succeeded by their son King Ugra Pandian who is believed to be an incarnation of Lord Kartikeya.
These events which are stated in the Tiruvilayadal Purana are being enacted every year from time immemorial. This festival was mainly celebrated by the Saivites. In Madurai, there was another Vaishnavite festival celebrated in another month in which Lord Vishnu by the name Kalla Alagar, came from his abode Alagar Koil, to bless a sage Mandooka who was cursed to be a frog in the river Vaigai.
Legend has it that Sage Mandooka once insulted Sage Durvasa who in turn cursed him to become a frog and live in the River Vaigai. When Mandooka repented for his behavior, Sage Durvasa told him to propitiate Kalla Alagar and said that he would be emancipated from the curse by the blessing of Kalla Alagar. This event was also enacted every year and celebrated by the Vaishnavites.
When King Tirumalai Nayak was ruling Madurai in the seventeenth century, he wanted everyone to celebrate together and therefore merged the two festivals into one by making Lord Vishnu (Kalla Alagar) arrive for the wedding. But by the time he arrives late due to spate in Vaigai, the wedding is over presided by the local Alagar (Koodal Alagar). Therefore he goes back in a huff however blessing the sage Mandooka on his way back. Thus the festival was celebrated by everybody and by combining this people could celebrate it efficiently too.
The festival is celebrated to this day in Madurai and goes by the name Chithirai Festival and Lord Kalla Alagar’s crossing the river is celebrated on Chitra Pournami.
Sangam Period is the period in the history of ancient southern India (known as the Tamilakam) spanning from 3rd century BC to 4th century AD. This is further divided into Pre historic, Ancient and Medieval Sangam periods.
Bhootaganas – are lieutenants of Lord Shiva having strange figures, sometimes huge, sometimes dwarfed figures with long teeth, big faces, some with big bellies, long nails etc. They are supposed to be the attendants of Lord Siva. They have terrifying forms.