I wish there was a way by which I could bring the atmosphere of the chariot or car or ther festival to this column. The sights, the smells, the sounds…All I can manage are a few photos and a few word pictures.
Adi Sankara in his umAmahEshvara stotram speaks of the divine couple as rathavAhanAbhyAm, thereby attesting to the hoary tradition of a car festival in Shiva temples. I dont find mention of the ther festival in Sambandar’s pUmpAvai patikam composed at Mylapore. But by then, the ther festival as a part of Shaivaite ritual was well established. Certainly Appar speaks of the Tiruvarur Ther. In the 19th century, Muttuswami Dikshitar sings of ‘AshlESha mahArathasthithim’ (being in the giant chariot when the asterism AshlESha or Ayilyam is in the ascendant). Today is Ayilyam and so it is the chariot festival at various Shiva temples including Mylapore.
Last year (or was it the year before that?) Kapali was asked to fall in line with office timings. The chariot left the temple at 6.00 am and was back at the base by 9.00 am. This year however, things have followed a more leisurely pace and as I write this, the chariots are probably still at North Mada Street (1.00 pm). The traffic has been strictly regulated with the police doing their best to ensure everyone, Kapali, the faithful and the office-goers are having a comfortable journey.
As I walked on to North Mada Street, I realised that I was missing something in a long while – the sound of moving vehicles. With the four streets being open only to pedestrians, I could hear only natural sounds – the frequency itself was soothing to the ears. Vendors calling out their wares, devotees talking, birds chirruping, the policemen and women trying to maintain discipline and then the rumbling sounds of the massive chariot wheels. Having cut across the tank-square, I managed to see the chariots. Ganesa and Kapaliswara were already on South Mada Street (10.00am) while Karapagambal, Singaravelar and Chandikeswarar were on East Mada Street.
I could not help reflecting on how modern technology has come to the aid of these festivals. It was in 1968/69 that thanks to M Karunanidhi that the Tiruvarur temple chariot rolled again, after a gap of 40 years. Its immense bulk had made navigation impossible, for it required a huge number of willing hands to pull. Turning corners were tricky and on certain occasions the chariot remained stuck for months on end. At his request, BHEL designed a special chassis for the Tiruvarur chariot. That has since been copied by other temples as well. Navigation is now simpler but we still use the old tools – wooden rods, the famous muTTukaTTai or heel with which the chariot is made to stay in one place, and of course the giant ropes.
It is still a tough task requiring a vast number of security personnel and volunteers. Kapali may look glamourous with bow and arrow but He needs an army to keep him on the move. Water is sprayed on the volunteers from neighbouring rooftops to cool them down. Some of those standing by fan the volunteers with palmyrah handfans. Salt is poured on the roads to prevent the chariot wheels from slipping. Wires and other protrusions need to be navigated with care. Of course, faith is said to move mountains and the cries of “Kapali!!!” are enough to enthuse everyone to pull.
Compared to Kapali’s chariot, the rest are mere bagatelles.
But the Goddess was enchantingly beautiful, though I feel the priests of Mangalambikai at Kumbhakonam do a far better job. Singaravelar followed.
Poor Chandikeswarar! Some misguided authority has decreed that on this hot day he had to put on a silver kavacham. The fine bronze is totally encased in this unaesthetic and showy armour. He looked like Neil Armstrong praying before leaving for the moon.
But the chariot was elegant with its swaying banana stalks.
A vast native bazaar in all its colours has sprung up around the temple, taking advantage of the absence of vehicles. Mercifully, plastic items are few. There are beads sold by kurattis, palmyrah items, mud pots and toys.
Some of the stalls bring to mind the arupathumoovar festival which is tomorrow. The tiruvodus recall Neelakanta Nayanaar, the tanneer pandals recall Appoothi Adigal and the festival itself commemorates Sambandar resurrecting Poompavai. More on that later…