Tomorrow, 19/4/2019 is Chitra Poornima. And I am naturally reminded of the “Azhagar Festival”.

This festival happens every year on the Poornima day of Chitrai (or Chaitra) month two days after  the wedding of Goddess Meenakshi of Madurai to Lord Somasundara (the handsome one wearing the Crescent moon) which is  witnessed by thousands of people at Madurai and all over the world.

Earlier in my site, I have written this story under the title “Legend of Madurai”. The “Azhagar Festival” where the Lord Azhagar comes and steps into the River Vaigai is also an integral part of the “Chithirai festival”.

Now I am going to narrate the story of “Why Kallazhagar steps into Vaigai River?”

Azhagar Kovil is a quaint village with a hill situated about 20 kilometres from Madurai. The hill was in the form of a bull and was called Vrishabadri. Legend has it that the Lord of Death, Yama once was enchanted by the beauty of this place and meditated upon Sri Narayana here. When Sri Narayana appeared before him, Yama requested him to stay in that place forever. Lord Vishnu obliged Yama and stayed on as Soundararaja Perumal or Azhagar (both meaning ‘the beautiful one’). The place is also known by the name “Thirumaliruncholai” literally translating to ‘the garden where Thirumal or Narayana lives’

The place is very beautiful, lush with vegetation with the River Silambaar flowing by. Silambaar is also known by the name “Noopura Gangai”. It is believed that when Lord Vishnu took the form of Trivikrama and raised his foot to measure the earth, Lord Brahma poured water from his ‘kamandala’ to wash the Lord’s feet and few drops of the water washing the Lord’s anklet fell at this place and this river was born. Hence the name ‘Noopura Gangai’ or “Silambaar”. “Noopur” in Sanskrit means anklet and “Silambu” in Tamil means the same.

Now, one sage by name Suthapas, lived in this beautiful place propitiating the lord there. Suthapas could withhold his breath and stay under water for long and in order not to be disturbed while praying, he used to go deep under the waters of Silambaar and withhold his breath and meditate.

One day, as he was meditating, sage Durvasa was passing by the river with a group of Rishis. Durvasa, with his yogic powers knew that a sage was inside the river and as was his temperament expected the sage to come out and pay obeisance to him, he being so senior.

Suthapas, on the other hand was so deeply engrossed in his prayer that he failed to notice the presence of Durvasa and the other sages on the banks of the river.

Durvasa mistook this as arrogance and cursed the sage.

‘So arrogant you are, to remain under water, you are not fit to be a human being, may you become the frog that you are! Mandooko Bhava (Become a frog)!” cursed the sage in an angry voice.

The voice shook Suthapas and before he could realise what was happening, he noticed that his body was turning to become amphibian.

He rushed to the surface of the river and fell at the feet of the sage. “Pardon me O Great sage! I was deeply meditating on the Lord that I did not realized your presence. Please pardon me for I never intended to disrespect anyone” he pleaded.

The ring of truth in Suthapas’ voice brought Durvasa to his senses. He realized that he had indeed cursed a person without reason. However, it could not be undone immediately. Durvasa prayed for a moment to Sri Narayana and said to Suthapas, “O Suthapas, you will be known as Mandooka Maharishi and you will go to the banks of the Vaigai River and continue your prayer to Sri Narayana. This Azhagar will come to Madurai and relieve you from the curse” So saying he blessed Suthapas and went his way.

Suthapas, now Mandooka slowly moved to a village by name Thenur, near Madurai, by the banks of the Vaigai River and continued his meditation there. After many years, Soundararaja Perumal (Azhagar) came to Madurai. Since he had to pass through forests, he dressed like a bandit it is said and therefore the name “Kallazhagar”. Another view that since he resided in the remote hill, he was the deity of the ‘kallars’ (thieves) and therefore the name “Kallazhagar”. Yet another view is that he steals the hearts of his devotees with his beauty and therefore the name!

Whatever be the reason behind his name, the Lord came to Madurai with his entourage and blessed Mandooka and relieved him of his curse. He blessed the sage with visions of his ten ‘avatars’.

This festival of Azhagar coming to Thenur was being performed for many years by the Vaishnavites as a separate festival where Kallazhagar used to go from Azhagar Kovil to Thenur and back.

The Chitrai festival with Goddess Meenakshi’s wedding used to be celebrated by the Shaivites at Madurai. Credit goes to the great ruler Tirumalai Nayak for combining this Azhagar festival with the Chitrai festival. Nayak not only wanted to create bonhomie between the Shaivites and Vaishnavites, but wanted all communities to participate and prosper by this festival by inviting Azhagar to Madurai during the celestial wedding of Goddess Meenakshi.

He planned this in a beautiful manner. Let’s see the lore created for this purpose…

Goddess Meenakshi invites her brother Kallazhagar to attend her wedding with Lord Sundaresa. Kallazhagar promises to attend and starts from Azhagar Kovil well in advance. But he has the tendency to stay at every place his devotees ask him to stay and bless them and so by the time he reaches the banks of Vaigai, the wedding is over. Goddess Meenakshi and Sundareswara, along with another incarnation of Vishnu by name “Koodalazhagar”, come to meet and welcome Kallazhagar.

 Kallazhagar is very much angry and disappointed that the wedding has been performed without his presence and turns to go back but is overwhelmed by the affection of the people who revere him and agrees to go to Vandiyur with them to relieve the curse of the sage Mandooka.

Here, it is understood that Tirumalai Nayak shifted the venue of this ritual in 1653 AD from Thenur to Vandiyur probably because Vandiyur was nearer to Madurai. He built a ‘Mandap’ at Vandiyur by name “Thenur Mandapam” where the Lord Kallazhagar could be worshipped and the ritual of granting relief to Mandooka Maharishi could take place.

After blessing the Maharishi, Azhagar goes back to Madurai and blesses his devotees with the visions of the ten ‘avatars’ (He is decorated in the forms of the ten avatars one by one) through the night and stays for one more day at Madurai. The next day in a floral decorated palanquin, Azhagar leaves for his abode Azhagar Kovil.

This event is celebrated year after year with fervor and being a person born and brought up at Madurai, the mention of the Chitrai Tiruvizha and Azhagar brings lots of nostalgia and joy to my mind.

There are a lot of interesting things about this event “Azhagar Aatril Irangudhal” (Azhagar stepping into the river).

From the start till reaching Madurai, Azhagar visits all the communities who welcome Him to their hall or ‘mandap’. There are hundreds of these halts and everywhere food and drink is distributed in abundance. All the communities have the only goal of welcoming Azhagar and work in close coordination. He also visits the Muslim area to the place of ‘Tulukka Nachiyar’ a Muslim devotee and the Muslims of that area take part in the festival. Tirumalai Nayak was indeed great in achieving peaceful coexistence and inculcating camaraderie amongst all religions and communities through this festival.

The moment Azhagar reaches Madurai, he is welcomed with flower showers, crackers and music – the traditional Nadaswaram and Thavil (drum). Ladies welcome the Lord with Maavilakku (Ghee lamp lighted in a vessel made of rice flour and jaggery) and Mulappari (sprouts). It is a sight of great religious fervor and joy and the “Ethir sevai” (welcoming) marks the grand entry of Azhagar into the city. Lots of folk dancers perform dance and music wearing their traditional costumes with their musical instruments in the respective folk styles.

In those days since the festival was in peak summer, maybe to quell the heat and to settle the dust due to huge crowds, there was this practice of spraying water with a leather pouch with tubes attached. This has become like a vow now and people pray for the wellbeing of their families and do this ritual in return. The male devotees offering this vow wear a colourful special dress made of velvet called ‘salladam’. The “Pudumandapam” which was built by Tirumalai Nayak now hosts numerous tailors stitching these clothing and special caps for this vow. Even on this day tailors make good profit in the festival by stitching these special costumes.

Also it is the strong belief that the colour of the silk worn by Azhagar prior to the entry into the river Vaigai indicates how the year would be for the people. When Azhagar comes from his abode he comes dressed as a bandit in bandit costume (to escape from the bandits in the forest route!) Prior to stepping into the river he changes costume.  A number of silk sarees are kept in a wooden box and the priest blindfolded picks out a silk from the box. If the colour is green, it is believed that the year would prove prosperous. If red, it indicated famine and drought, if white or blue, it would be not too good nor too bad and if yellow, it symbolizes lot of auspicious happenings. So the people who are gathered in lakhs to see Azhagar step into the river wait with bated breath to see the colour of his silk!

On the whole, the Chitrai festival in its entirety brought gaiety and prosperity to all as everyone took part in the activities and the city of Madurai wears a festive look buzzing with fairs and melas bringing people from all walks of life together to carry home beautiful memories.

That’s what festivals of our great land Bharat were intended for!