The rows of agil vilakkus in front of each house … This is the image that immediately comes to mind when we think of Karthigai Deepam – the festival of lights that is celebrated in Tamil Nadu, Andhrapradesh, Karnataka and Malayalam during the month of Karthigai (November December). Some of us do not know that this is one of the oldest festivals celebrated in South India, maybe even before people start celebrating Deepavali and Navarathri. In addition, unlike many other Hindu festivals, Karthigai is basically a south Indian festival and is virtually unknown in most other parts of the country. One of the first references to the festival is the Ahananuru, a book of poems dating from the age of Sangam (200 BC to 300 AD). The Ahananuru clearly states that Karthigai is celebrated on the full moon day of the Tamar month of Karthigai (November December). It was one of the most important festivals (peruvizha) of the ancient Tamils. Avaiyyar, the famous poet of the time, refers to the festival in his songs. The inscriptions in our temples also refer to the festival. A mid-sixteenth-century inscription on the Arulalaperumal temple of Kancheepuram refers to the Thiru Karthigai Thirunal festival. Karthigai is basically a festival of lamps. The illuminated lamp is considered a favorable symbol. It is believed to remove the forces of evil and lead to prosperity and joy. While the illuminated lamp is important for all Hindu rituals and festivals, it is indispensable for Karthigai. There is an interesting story that explains the connection between Karthigai and the lamps. Legend has it that Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma began to fight to know who was the most powerful of the two. While they fought, Lord Shiva appeared before them in the form of an enormous pillar of fire. Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma stopped fighting and decided to find the top and bottom of the pillar.
Therefore, Brahma assumed the shape of a swan and moved upward. Vishnu became a wild boar and began digging deep into the ground. But even after searching for several years, neither of them could find the ends of the pillar. Finally, they realized that the pillar was none other than Lord Shiva. Soon after, Lord Shiva appeared as a hill (Arunachala Hill) in Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu. In fact, the same names “Tiruvannamalai” and “Arunachala” are translated as “hill of the sacred fire”. The Shivalinga in the temple here is the agni linga. It is believed that the small lamps lit during the Karthigai festival (Karthigai Deepam) are the miniature replicas of the fire linga. Every year, thousands of devotees from all parts of the world flock to Tiruvannamalai to see the spectacular Karthigai Deepam. The lamps on occasion are of different sizes, shapes and colors. Traditionally, lamps are lit in temples and agal vilakkus adorns the thin houses. Large clay lamps; Stone and metal were lighted in the houses. It is said that the ancient Tamils even imported lamps from Greece and Rome, through the ports of Arikamedu (near Pondicherry), Mallai or Mamallapuram and Mylai or Mylapore (part of Chennai). One of these imported lamps was of the pendent variety, conceived in the form of a swan with a fish placed at the top.
Terracotta lamp Arikamedu. Another lamp variety, common to the early Tamil Nadu, was the Lakshmi vilakku or Pavai vilakku. It had the shape of a woman in her folded palms, the tahali or a shallow bowl containing oil to light the lamp. In Arikamedu, archaeologists unearthed a flat circular clay lamp with four nozzles or petals or openings for four locks. Another clay lamp discovered in this site contains 12 nozzles. The ubiquitous five-nozzle kuthu vilakku has been used since the days of Cholas or maybe even before. When the British East India Company began to rule parts of southern India, it presented the petals or kutu vilakku nozzles on some of the pieces that were hit. It is also said that the five petals or nozzles indicate that the five principal elements represent the five elements of nature: earth, water, fire, air and sky or space. The five nozzles also identify the five main elements necessary for a successful life: health, wealth, learning, value and longevity. Traditionally, after Karthigai, most of these lamps, except those that were used daily, were cleaned and stacked, and removed only the following year for the festival. In the old tiled houses, the agil vilakkus were invariably stacked in the attic under the roof. In recent times, changes in lifestyle and taste have led to changes in the lamps used for the festival. Until recently the humble agal vilakku was brought to our door by the lamp manufacturer himself who carried his fragile goods on his head or on the back of a donkey. People bought these lamps in dozens. Now they are packed in colorful boxes and sold in prestigious craft warehouses and handicrafts as well as annual lampshows organized by the town by Poompuhar to coincide with Karthigai. Design clay lamps are becoming popular among younger generations. These come in exotic forms and are often decorated with painted patterns, colored stones, pearls and zari. Many modern families in Chennai no longer prefer oil lamps that stain the floor and walls. Instead, they use scented candles, including those in the form of agal vilakku. On floors that do not have balconies or open spaces, the only lighted candle next to the front door bears witness to a hollow tradition
Why And How do we celebrate Karthigai Deepam:
Thirukarthigai/Karthigai Deepam comes on the tamil month Karthigai on Pournami day(Full moon day). Throughout the month lamps are lit in the front of the house in the evening. On the Thirukarthigai/Karthigai Deepam day the whole house is decorated with the oil lamps. Thiruvannamalai is famous for Thirukarthigai/Karthigai Deepam.
Karthigai Story :
Once Brahma and Vishnu due to the ego started arguing with each other ” who is the greatest”. Both claimed to be the greatest, instead of doing their duty. At that time the God Shiva appeared in the form of fire and told them whoever finds the top or bottom of the fire is the greatest. Brahma took the form of Annam (a bird) and tried to find the top of the fire pillar. Vishnu took the form of Varaha (giant pig) and tried to see the bottom of the pillar. As the God has no limit in his size or power, both of them could not see either top or bottom of the fire. When their ego went down and they prayed the God, He appeared before them. The day in which the God appeared as a pillar of fire is Thirukarthigai/Karthigai Deepam.
Lord Shiva appeared as a hill (Arunachala Hill) at Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu. Indeed, the very names `Tiruvannamalai’ and `Arunachala’ translate as `holy fire hill.’ The Shivalinga in the temple here is the agni linga. The tiny lamps lit during the Karthigai festival (Karthigai Deepam) are believed to be the miniature replicas of the fire linga. Every year thousands of devotees from Chennai and elsewhere flock to Tiruvannamalai to see the spectacular Karthigai Deepam there.
This vradha indicates the non measurable infiniteness of the God and shows that the God is the light that will drive away our ignorance. Lamps are lit in the houses to pray His “Jyothi Swarupam”.
First day of this festival is called as “Appakarthigai” and the second day is called as “vadai karthigai”. All devotees will offer pori,adhirasam,vella Seedai, vetrilai pakku,fruits as neivedhyam for God Shiva.
In down South of Tamilnadu and in Kerala, Hindus will pray god for goodness of their brothers and they will light a elephant lamp(Gajalakshmi Vilaku) which marks as a sign of prosperity and wealth. The story behind lighting elephant lamp(Gajalakshmi Vilaku) is given below.
Why we light Elephant lamp on Karthigai ?
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 elephant very much. So for every Thirukarthigai/Karthigai deepam occasion, she will light elephant lamp(Gajalakshmi vilaku) and she will prepare tender coconut, elephant leg size milagu Milagu Adai, Pori,Adhirasam,Vella Seedai and keep them as neivedhyam for this festival.