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Chithirai Festival- Kallazhagar comes to Madurai

Chittirai festival happens every year in the month of Chitrai (or Chaitra) at Madurai when the celestial wedding of Goddess Meenakshi of Madurai to Lord Sundareswara is celebrated. This 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”.

As a part of this festival, Lord Azhagar, who resides 20 kilometres away from Madurai, comes and steps into the River Vaigai but does not come and witness the wedding. This act of stepping into the river is celebrated as a great event.

This is the story behind this event.

Azhagar Kovil is a quaint village with a hill situated about 20 kilometres from Madurai. The place is very beautiful, lush with vegetation with the River Silambaar flowing by. Silambaar is also known by the name “Noopura Gangai”. Here Lord Vishnu is known by the name Soundararaja Perumal or Azhagar (the handsome one). 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.

Once a sage by name Suthapas, lived in this beautiful place propitiating Azhagar. 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, Azhagar came to Madurai. Since he had to pass through forests, he dressed like a bandit it is said and therefore the name “Kalla Azhagar”. The Tamil word for bandit is ‘Kallan”

Kallazhagar 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 Chittirai festival with Goddess Meenakshi’s wedding used to be celebrated by the Shaivites at Madurai. Credit goes to the great ruler Tirumalai Nayakkar for combining this Azhagar festival with the Chitrai festival. Nayakkar 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 and created a beautiful lore for this purpose…

Goddess Meenakshi invites her brother Kallazhagar for her wedding with Lord Sundareswara. 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, 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 Nayakkar 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 pomp and gaiety and for any person born and brought up at Madurai, the mention of the Chittirai festival and Azhagar brings lots of nostalgia and joy to the mind.

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 ghee lamps made of rice flour and jaggery and sprouts called Mulappari. It is a sight of great religious fervour and joy and the welcoming ritual 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 Pudu Mandapam which was built by Tirumalai Nayakkar is now the house of 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 one 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 Chittirai festival in its entirety brought enormous joy 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!

The Legend of Madurai

meeeeeeeeeeeee kalyanam

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!!

The city of Madurai is believed to be in existence for over thousands of years – one of the oldest living cities in the world. It is said that Megasthenes, the Greek historian  visited this city when he visited India in  302 BCE and has mentioned about  “Pandaie” and “Methora” which are interpreted as “Pandya” and “Madurai”

This city was the capital of the Pandya kingdom for centuries and was taken over by the Cholas during the tenth century CE. 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 Nayaka 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 two festivals into one and celebrated it in the Tamil month of Chitra ( Chaitra in the other parts of the country). The festival came to be known as ‘Chithirai festival’. 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’ meaning to ‘joining of the four towers’. 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 Pandya. 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 great 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. Therefore the name  “Aalavai” which 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 ‘Yaga’  seeking divine blessing for begetting a child. To the surprise of one and all, a young girl of three years, dressed in fine silk and bedecked with ornaments, came out of the fire of the ‘Yaga’ 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 to a son.

The royal couple were overjoyed, but soon found that the child had abnormally three nipples. As they were concerned on this, the voice further went on, “this girl will have three breasts. However, the third breast will vanish the moment she sets her eye on her suitor”.

The king and the queen were extremely happy and felt 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 and she picked up everything with equal alacrity giving immense joy to her teachers.

In course of time Malayadwaja Pandya 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. Thereafter she proceeded north.

On reaching Mount Kailasha, she demanded to see the Lord Shiva.

“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. Lord Shiva then 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 he 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 gaiety. 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 is said to have 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 at the temple at Madurai every year during the Chithirai festival. This festival used to be 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.

The story of that is, 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 on the banks of the Vaigai River and said that he would be emancipated from the curse by the blessing of Kalla Alagar. This event also used to be enacted every year and celebrated by the Vaishnavites at a place called Thenur near Madurai.

When King Tirumalai Nayaka was ruling Madurai in the seventeenth century, he wanted unity between Saivites and Vaishnavites and therefore merged the two festivals into one. This is how he did it. He brought in the practice of making Lord Vishnu (Kalla Alagar) arrive for the wedding of Meenakshi with Sundareswara. But he made it such that  Kalla Alagar arrives late due to spate in Vaigai, and the wedding is over and therefore Kalla Alagar goes back in a huff, however blessing the sage Mandooka on his way back. Thus the festival was celebrated by Saivites and Vaishnavites jointly and by combining this festival there was more unity among people.

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.

Glossary :
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.

Sangam Period – Is denoted as the period from 2nd Century BCE to 3rd Century CE when major literary works were composed by numerous poets which included the Tholkappiyam which is the oldest surviving treatise on Tamizh grammar.

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