'Deepam', 'Vilakku' or 'Diyas' in north India, are an inseparable part of the thousands of years of Indian culture. For the uninitiated, it can be described as a lamp. The difference is, that a lamp is used to dispel the darkness of the surroundings, but the sole purpose of a 'deepam' is to dispel 'agnana' (ignorance) and bring in gnana (knowledge), which helps attain the ultimate wisdom.
This simple lighting of the lamp, every morning and evening in Hindu households, is a path to seek salvation, and all along with this blog post, I will use 'deepam', 'vilakku', 'diyas', interchangeably to describe the sacred lamp.
Many people have different explanations for the significance of the daily lighting of a 'vilakku' in every household. Traditionally, oil is poured into a metal or clay lamp and a cotton wick is used to light it. The oil signifies all the vices present in human beings, the wick signifies the 'atman', and by consuming the vices(the oil), the wick(atman) burns and gives out light or wisdom, thus taking us towards the path of enlightenment.
The sheer variety of 'pooja lamps' used in our country can send one into a daze. These pooja lamps come in all sizes and shapes, used according to the rituals and ceremonies they are assigned for, in houses and temples.There are 'kutthu vilakkus', 'thooku vilakkus' , seven faced lamps, agal vilakku, 'Yanai vilakku' etc.
The 'kutthu vilakku' is considered to be the very embodiment of beauty. It is used as a metaphor to describe a virtuous wife, who literally carries the responsibility of upholding family values. This lamp, with its five-pointed edges, is considered to house the trinity, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. The glow from the light symbolizes goddess Lakshmi, the light itself represents goddess Saraswathi and the heat that is generated is considered to be Parvathi, the embodiment of Shakthi.
The 'thookuvilakku' is a hanging lamp with a link and chain, to be hung from the ceilings of pooja rooms. Nowadays, some houses showcase it as an objet'd'art. It is most popular in Kerala and Tamil Nadu and is basically cast in bronze and also in brass. It signifies a sense of positivity and balance.
Then there are the seven faced lamps which come in varied sizes, it has seven grooves to hold seven pairs of wicks in it. These lamps are nowadays available online. The Kerala style vilakku is a distinct lamp cast in bronze or brass. It is famous for its sturdy and elegant looks, with minimal ornamentation. 'Agal vilakkus' are small 'diyas' made of clay, brass, or bronze. It is customary in Tamil brahmin weddings, for the parents of the bride to give her 6 or 12 'agal vilakku' made of brass or bronze. This is used by her to light the 'Karthigai Deepam'.
All these pooja lamps are said to spread positivity in our households, hence the oil used is very significant. Many brands of pooja lamp oil or lamp oil are available in plenty. The most common among them is sesame oil, which has been used for lighting lamps since time immemorial.
Cow ghee is also a favorite for lighting lamps.
There are special lamp oils, like 'Pancha deepam' oil, which is a mix of five oils like sesame, neem, mahua, coconut, castor.
Some have a combination of cow ghee, mahua, sesame, coconut, and castor, and many other combinations, which claim to be a remedy for various doshas. Vegetable oils are usually avoided.
When we have so many lamps and lamp oils, it is only natural to have a festival for lamps. Many people associate Deepavali with lights and lamps, but down south, the 'Karthiga Deepam' festival, which falls on the full moon or 'Pournami' day of the Tamil month of 'Karthigai', between mid-November and December, is the actual festival of 'Deepams'. The prevalence of this festival is mentioned in the 'Sangam' literature and it has been described as a 'Peruvizha' or a big festival, back in time.
It can be easily called one of the oldest recorded festivals.
The story goes, that Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu, had an altercation, as to who was greatest among them, and in that instant, Lord Shiva took the shape of a pillar of fire. Intrigued by the happening Brahma took the form of a swan and flew high up in search of the source of the fire, while Vishnu transformed into a boar and dug deep into the earth to find the end-fire pillar. Both of them were unable to find the beginning and end of Lord Shiva. Thus, he is considered as the Lord with no Adhi(beginning) or Antham(end) and hence the greatest among them.
Lord Shiva is supposed to have taken the form of the 'Arunachala hill' in Tiruvannamalai district of Tamil Nadu. Here, he is worshipped as 'Agni Lingam', one of the foremost among the twelve jyotirlingas. The whole hill is considered as an embodiment of Lord Shiva. 'Girivalam' or circumambulation of the 'Arunachala hill' which is the representation of Shiva as the 'pillar of fire' is supposed to bestow one with the choicest of blessings.
Thiruvannamalai is also famous for the great Saint 'Sri Ramana Maharshi'. It is here that he realized the Lord and chose to establish an Ashrama, which is famous in India and abroad. His teachings are relevant for centuries to come and opens up the question of self-discovery or "who am i". He attained 'samadhi, at the foothills of the 'Arunachala hills'. The Ramanashramam with its flora and fauna and a sense of bliss is a must-visit from my personal experiences.
The 'Karthigai Deepam' festival is celebrated with great elan in the south Indian states. Some houses light lamps at their threshold, all through the month, which culminates on the 'Pournami' or full moon day. This festival also celebrates the bond between a brother and sister and is similar to the north Indian 'Bhai dooj'. Sisters light lamps, praying for the long life and prosperity of their brothers, and the brothers, in turn, send money called 'karthigai Panam or some other gifts to their sisters. Special sweets and savories like, 'Appam', 'Vella pori' and 'Adai' are made as 'neivedhyam' or food offerings to the deities.
The quaint town of Thiruvannamalai comes alive during the 'Karthigai deepam' festival. The temple houses Lord Shiva, in the form of 'Arunachaleshwarar' and his consort, goddess Parvathy as 'Unnamalai Amman' or 'Apithakuchambal'. It is one of the larger temple complexes with four towers. The tallest tower was built by Sri Krishnadevaraya of the Vijayanagar Empire. The temple has inscriptions from the 7th century Pallava period and the 9th century Chola period. The view of the temple from atop the 'Arunachala hills' is spellbinding. The temple houses a tank called the 'Agni theertham'.
A day before 'Karthigai Deepam', on the 'Mahabharanideepam' or 'Annamalai Deepam', a huge 10 feet tall copper urn which is placed atop the hill, is filled with ghee, karpooram(camphor), and cloth wicks and is lit at a predetermined time. The huge fire can be seen glowing from miles away. The whole town is decorated with lamps and it is considered to be an absolute treat for human eyes, though I have not had the pleasure to be present there on 'Karthigai deepam' day. The town is supposed to reverberate with chants of Arunachala's Shiva, the protector and destroyer all rolled into one. The fire burns like a glowing star for approximately 11 days atop the hill, recreating heaven on earth, and can be seen from miles afar.
In the month of December-January, the Tamil 'Margazhi Masam is heralded. In this month the 'Thiruvathirai' festival dedicated to Lord Shiva and Parvathy is widely celebrated in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. On the pious day early at dawn, 'Arudra darshanam' takes place in all Shiva temples. In Thiruvannamalai, on this day the soot or 'mai' collected from the hill fire is distributed as prasad to the devotees.
This miracle seed rudraksha beads which are considered as an offering of Lord Shiva are made from the tears of Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva devotees always wear Rudraksha mala and Rudraksha Bracelet on their body this is the reason why. In fact, different grains of Rudraksha are associated with different deities and desires.
Thus, comes to an end the 'Thiruvannamalai Deepam' for that year, only to blaze in all its glory in the coming year.
I'll end this post, with a poem on SHIVA, which I was inspired to compose after listening to the song 'Thandai Thai irundhaal', whose composer I'm not sure of, as there are divided opinions, but the song has moved me immensely.
Cosmic dancer, with no beginning nor end,
No birth, nor death;
Balancing this Universe you dance with mirth.
Bestowing your grace on those, that chance and chant upon your myriad names;
Arent you the one who bears all the agony, inflicted upon by your mindless progeny???
Accepting all the bouquets and brickbats flung at you with equal elan;
You've been stoned and trampled upon;
attacked with bows and ax, been called deranged, and caned.
Only to accept all that with a smile and knowing glance.
As only a true sire can, to his wayward clan.