Festivals of India: Karthigai Deepam

Celebrated on the full moon day or the Purnima in the month of Karttikai or Kartik, the festival of Kartigai Deepam or Kartik Purnima is a pan Indian festival, but celebrated slightly differently and on a different day across north and south India. But commonly it is a festival of lights and is also known as Dev Diwali, the Diwali of the Gods. The festival was celebrated yesterday in South India and Kartik Purnima will be celebrated today in north India.

In south India, it is called Karthika Deepam, Karthikai Vilakkidu or Thrikarthika is a festival of lights that is observed by Hindus of Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka and Kerala. It falls in the month of Kārttikai, which falls from mid-November to mid-December as per Tamil calendar and the full moon day of this month is called Karthigai Pournami. In Kerala, this festival is known as Thrikkarthika, which is celebrated to welcome Goddess Shakti. In other parts of India, a related festival called Kartik Purnima is celebrated in a different date. It is celebrated in the name of ‘Lakshabba’ in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu. Karthikai Deepam is also known as Kartikeya, or Muruga’s birthday.

There are many legends that have grown around the Karthigai star. The six stars are considered in Indian mythology as the six celestial nymphs who reared the six babies in the Saravana tank which later were joined together to form the six faced Muruga. They are Dula, Nitatni, Abhrayanti, Varshayanti, Meghayanti and Chipunika. He is therefore called Karthikeya, the incarnation of Lord Shiva as his second son after Lord Ganesha. It is believed that Lord Shiva created Muruga from his 3rd eye and is believed that the six forms made into six children and each of them brought up by the six Karthigai nymphs, who were later merged into one by his mother Parvati. While merging Lord Karthikeya also formed into a six faced or Arumugam and twelve handed god. Lord Murugan is also portrayed with his six faces and worshiped with six names. As the six nymphs helped in growing and nurturing the child, Lord Shiva blessed them immortality as stars on the sky. Any worship performed to these six stars is equal to worshiping Lord Muruga himself. The stars are worshiped by lighting up rows of oil lamps or Deepam in the evening of the festival day around the houses and streets.

One of the earliest references to the festival is found in the Aganaanooru, a book of poems, which dates back to the Sangam Age which was between 200 BC to 300 AD. The Aganaanooru clearly states that Karthigai is celebrated on the full moon day or Pournami of the month of Karthigai, as per the South Indian calendar. It was one of the most important festivals of the ancient Tamils, including what is now the areas of modern Kerala. Avaiyyar, the renowned poet of those times, refers to the festival in her songs and Karthikai Deepam is one of the oldest festivals celebrated by Tamil people. The festival finds reference in Sangam literature like Akanaṉūṟu and the poems of Auvaiyar and is referred in Sangam literature as Peruvizha.

In Hindu mythology, Lord Shiva appeared as an endless flame of light before Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma, who each considered himself supreme and said that the matter could be tested if the two could search for Lord Shiva’s Head and feet. Lord Vishnu took the form of a boar which in Sanskrit means Varaha and Varaham in Tamil and delved deep into the earth. Lord Brahma took the form of a swan which in (Sanskrit means Hansa and Annam in Tamil and flew towards the skies. Lord Vishnu failed in his search and returned, but Lord Brahma, chancing upon a piece of Thazhambu, a flower which is a species of screwpine and learnt from it that it had been floating down for thirty thousand years from Lord Shiva’s head. He seized upon this and claimed to Lord Shiva that he had seen his head. Lord Siva realised that Lord Brahma has uttered a falsehood and pronounced that there would never be a temple for Lord Brahma in this world. He also prohibited the use of the flower Thazhambu in his worship. The day this incident took place was on the full moon of Karthigai month and it is believed that Lord Shiva appeared as a hill at Thiruvannamalai, Tamilnadu. Since Lord Shiva appeared as a flame, this day is called Karthikai Maha Deepam.

On the day and the eve of Karthigai, rows of Agal vilakkus or clay oil lamps are lit in every house. The lighted lamp is considered an auspicious symbol and is believed to ward off evil forces and usher in prosperity and joy. While the lighted lamp is important for all Hindu rituals and festivals, it is indispensable for Karthigai. We usually light the lamps and place it in every corner of the house to dispel all darkness. I love this festival and even as a child, would love to help my mother light the lamps and place them all over the house. Some people light lamps outside their homes throughout the month of Karthigai and this is something my mother started recently and one that I have also started doing from this year onwards. Children also burst any crackers left over from Diwali (or which their parents may have hidden from them because I believe no child will ever have leftover crackers) and in communities where the Tamil population is dense, this festival is literally like another festival of lights. Growing up in a secular community which comprised of people from different communities, but with a large Tambram diaspora, we grew up loving this festival which was just as important to us as Diwali. Traditional sweets for the festival are laddus made from various kinds of popped rice sweetened with jaggery.

This festival is also celebrated to commemorate the bonding between brothers and sisters in South India, somewhat similar to how Raksha Bandhan and Bhai Dhooj are celebrated elsewhere in India. Sisters pray for the prosperity and success of their brothers and light lamps, specifically an elephant lamp or Gajalakshmi Vilakku to mark the occasion as a sign of prosperity and wealth. There is a story behind lighting the elephant lamp. Once upon a time there lived a King and he had only one daughter. She loved an elephant which grew with her and she considered the elephant as her own brother. After her marriage she missed her brother, the elephant very much and so on every Karthigai Deepam, she would light an elephant lamp and prepare tender coconut as well as elephant leg size offerings for him which is still continued today to honour the bond between the princess and her elephant brother.

In the holy temple of Thiruvannamalai, the Thiruvannamalai Maha Deepam gets lit at around 6 pm at the top of 2668 ft high holy mountain. The entire Mountain is said to be a Shiva Linga and the Maha Deepam is lit using nearly 3500 kg of ghee with Sri Arthanareeshwara blessing devotees in the temple at the time of lighting the Maha Deepam. The Maha Deepam is visible around the Holy Mountain in a radius of 35 km and hundreds of thousands of devotees perform the 16 km Girivalam or circumambulation of the holy mountain. The moist black ash that remains after the lighting of the ghee & cotton wick gets distributed as prasadam or holy offerings to devotees on the Marghazhi Arudra Darisanam day, which falls between mid December to mid-January.

This festival is also famous in the Koneshwaram temple in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka where it is celebrated for three days. The first day is called Appa Karthigai, the second Vadai Karthigai and the final day is called Thiru Karthigai, widely considered as the Karthigai day, when the main pooja is performed. On Karthigai day, a huge fire lamp is lit up on the hill and is visible for several kilometers around. The fire is called Mahadeepam and Hindu devotees visit the place to pray and make offerings to lord Shiva.

For followers of the Sikh faith, this day is celebrated as Guru Nanak Dev Ji Gurpurab and Guru Nanak Dev Ji Jayanti, which celebrates the birth of the first Sikh guru, Guru Nanak. This is one of the most sacred festivals in Sikhism. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, was born on Puranmashi of Kattak in 1469, according to the Bikrami calendar in Rai-Bhoi-di Talwandi in the present Shekhupura district of Pakistan, now known as Nankana Sahib.

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