Maargazhi maasam or Maargashira, also written as Margazhi and pronounced as Maargali, is a spiritual (holy) month for Hindu families, living in [ as well as belonging to] India’s southern states of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
During this spiritually charged month of celebrations, the states also host a number of classical music and dance concerts, apart from special religious rituals that happen at most of its ancient temples.
Therefore, it is the perfect season to explore these states of Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, especially for this region’s pleasant weather during the months of December and January.
Margazhi – a pleasant season to explore Tami Nadu
You could opt for guided food tours in Chennai’s Mylapore while also paying obeisance at its various ancient temples, visit heritage sites like Mahabalipuram from Chennai, sample street-food of Hyderabad, learn authentic cooking, indulge in some retail therapy or simply take a stroll on Chennai’s Marina beach.
While you decide on which of the tours to embark, why not come with me on a virtual trip down the memory lane: as I reminisce my childhood memories of this beautiful month that’s filled with devotion, music and arts; unravel the importance and relevance of ‘Maargazhi’ / Margazhi, and also get to know how it’s celebrated across southern India.
What is Margazhi or Maargazhi?
The Tamil month of ‘Maargazhi’ or Margazhi starts around the 15th / 16th of December and often ends on the 15th/ 16th of January.
It is a period of heightened spiritual and cultural pursuits across the two states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. More so, in the state of Tamil Nadu, where spiritual fervours virtually grip the people complemented by its perfect weather in the months of December and January.
The start and end dates of Maargazhi/ Margazhi season 2022
This year, in 2022, the Maargazhi season starts on the 16th of December and spans until the 14th of January, 2023.
Legend around Maargazhi season
Maargazhi festivities have been around for ages since ancient times in Southern India. However, in recent times, the celebrations have taken a modern twist.
It is believed that Bhagwan Vishnu in his rendition of the Bhagavad Gita as Krishna, had proclaimed that the month of Maargazhi or Maargashira is nothing but his incarnation! Co-incidentally, Maargazhi is also an auspicious month for the worshippers of Shiva.
For the uninitiated, Vaishnavaites and Shaivaites are people of two different religious (Hindu)sects and are devotees of Vishnu and Shiva, respectively.
Maargazhi being an important month for both – Shaivaites and Vaishnavaites, many important festivals overlap during this spiritual month. And, I shall be covering them in my subsequent posts, soon.
Thiruppavai and its connection with Margazhi season
According to a legend, Srivilliputhur Andal is the one who started the early morning spiritual singing during Maargazhi during the 7th or 8th century. Named Kothai Nachaiyar by birth, she went on to compose a collection of 30 songs known as thiruppavai, praising the God (Krishna/Vishnu) consisting of 8 lines each.
So, on the first day of Maargazhi, the mini-musical concerts that I had mentioned earlier, religiously kickstart with a rendition of the ‘Maargazhi Thingal’ song, while the month ends with a rendition of ‘Vangakakadal Kadainda’, often sung on the festive day of bhogi (lohri).
Tiruvembavai and its connection with Margazhi season
An equivalent of tiruppavai chanted by the devotees of Shiva (Shaivaites) and part of Maanika Vaasagar’s Tiruvasagam is Thiruvembavai. The word tiruvasagam translates to ‘holy script’.
Did you know that verses from the Thiruvembavai are recited during the coronation ceremony of the Thai King, since the days of King Rama I of the Siam kingdom? Interesting, isn’t it?
Did you know that the now- popular Maargazhi festival in Chennai was started to challenge the imperialistic celebrations of New Year and Christmas of the British Raj? Read on…
Know the connection between Maargazhi season and Madras Music Festival
The city of Chennai witnesses a frantic and happening season of dance, drama, musical(Carnatic) shows and concerts, during the month of Maargazhi or the months of December and January; rendering a festive look to Tamil Nadu’s cultural capital. Hence, the contemporary musical fest that happens shares its moniker with the ancient Maargazhi season.
Moreover, this Margazhi music festival was initiated by the Madras Music Academy in the year 1928, and, has been an uninterrupted long-standing tradition of the city.
However, the modern version of the Maargazhi festival was actually started to showcase the cultural richness of India and to revolt against the imposition of Christian festivals of the colonists.
As time passed, the festival became synonymous with Madras Music Season, also called the Madras Music Festival or the December Season. making the city of Chennai, a hub of dance and music.
In the year 2017, Chennai entered the UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network as a Creative City of Music. The city owes this tag to the innumerable music and dance concerts and recitals, that are held during the Margazhi or Maargazhi season.
Memories associated with Maargazhi season
It’s December, and the time of day is one of cuddling and comfort; to be immersed in deep slumber, to snooze alarms, and beg for a few more minutes of coveted sleep.
Just when you think that your cajoling is a success, a bleak ringing of bell and chants keeps you awake, yet you don’t relent.
In this win of a few more minutes of sleep, the chants and ringing bells grow louder and a realization dawns that it is the month of Maargazhi.
And if it is Maargazhi, then there is no escape from the soothing songs and divine chants that fill the streets from as early as four in the morning, especially if you live in the vicinity of a temple.
Welcome to southern-India!
Margazhi season – a perfect time for spiritual experiences
As a child, during Margazhi mornings, I used to reluctantly ditch the comforts of a cozy bed to adorn the portico of our home with beautiful Kolams.
Soon, a group of people singing bhajans (hymns) and devotional songs trickle into the streets. To participate in these mini-concerts was my purpose of getting up early, although most times I dreaded venturing out due to the pre-dawn nip in the air.
Unlike maargazhi mornings, I loved the festivities that came along with the Navarathri Golu [another prominent festival of Tamil Nadu]. As one need not get up early to attend the festivities of Golu!
Maargazhi prayers at school
Although, these early morning maargazhi bhajanai or mini concerts wasn’t to my liking, I used to look forward to reaching school early during this month — so as to not miss the stories and songs of Thiruppavai, recited and rendered by a few teachers, as part of our prayer time at school.
After all, the schools established under the aegis of Swami Chinmayananda, who also established the Sidhabari ashram at Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, have always been known to impart the goodness of Hinduism and Indian culture to its students and patrons.
Our school’s prayer hall and its divine vibes used to captivate and enthral me to no end.
Oh! And of course, the delicious prasadam that was dished out during this season was another reason to watch out for this festival apart from Navrathri Bommai Golu.
Memories of the Decembers spent
These were my memories of growing up in Hyderabad in a traditional Tamil household; associated with the month of December, Maargazhi, and the start of winters.
I am sure it must be the same with many of the readers hailing from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Mumbai’s Matunga and Chembur.
Also, you might be surprised to learn that a section of Thailand celebrates Maargazhi!
Not convinced? Read along to know more…
Learn about Maargazhi celebrations in Thailand
Today, it is not just parts of south India that brighten up during Maargazhi, but also Bangkok in Thailand.
During my trip to Chiang Mai and on my visit to the BonSang village (also known as the umbrella village), I looked up an information board on the traditional importance of the umbrella in religious ceremonies of Thailand.
That is when I stumbled upon the coronation ceremony of Thailand’s King, and was pleasantly surprised to see the mention of ‘Thiruvembavai’.
On further research and discussions with some local Tamil people settled in Thailand, I got to know that a temple has been built for priests and brahmins who had migrated to Thailand many centuries before. It is today known as the ‘Devasthana’.
These priests had impressed the then kings with their Vedic knowledge, and found patronage under the Thai kings.
A reason why, in Thailand, the Indian influence is quite starkly marked in its religious practices by the presence of various Hindu Gods and Goddesses, in the form of idol worship.
Sangam Trail in Thailand
While Hindu gods Ganesha and Shiva are particularly famous, the Shiva lingam finds a prominent place in Thai temples. In the Thai culture, it is believed that praying before the lingam brings success, a bounty crop, and happiness.
May be a reason why the devasthana bosth brahmana or devasthana temple is also home to three lingams whose origin could be traced back to Rameswaram, the birthplace of Brahmin priests who had migrated to the then Siam. The temple also houses idols of the trinity- Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva!
It is at the devasthana temple that the Thiruppavai-Thiruvembavai festival takes place for 15 days during Maargazhi, in the month of December. All brahmins in Thailand come over and stay inside the temple premises for these 15 days of Maargazhi — perform pooja, recite verses from the epics, and dish out the prasadam (offering to Gods) in complete reverence.
Hence, the Maargazhi in Thailand is a combination of rituals and elements from both Shaivism and Vaishnavism.
The Thai brahmins also conduct a dolotsavam, in which the gods are depicted as swinging in an ‘oonjal’ (swing), a practice very similar to a Vaishnavite tradition. Interestingly, the god depicted on the oonjal here is Siva and not Vishnu.
Get to know about Maargazhi festivities in the rest of Tamil Nadu
Apart from Chennai, the Maargazhi season sees a heightened spiritual pursuit in temples all across the state of Tamil Nadu, as it is considered an auspicious month to please the almighty, and serve the Hindu pantheon with devotion.
Almost all temples hold special pooja (rituals); villages brim with fairs, while in temple towns like Suchindrum of Kanniyakumari district, a temple car/chariot festival is conducted.
The four streets that surround ancient temples through which the temple chariots move are known as ‘Mada veedhi’ or ‘Mada streets’.
Previously, the temple priests and brahmins used to live close to the temple, on these Mada streets, in colonies of row-houses called agraharam.
Today, reach any of the mada streets in temple towns like Suchindrum, Thiruvannamalai or Srirangam, or for that matter any agraharam at pre-dawn during Maargazhi. You will witness women with wet hair [ after having taken bath and washed their hair] waiting outside their homes. While, the men walk down the street, singing bhajans, devotional songs with mridangam, dholaks and harmonium hung around the shoulder and necks. Later, the women folk too join in this spiritual endeavour.
The temple towns of Tirupathi (Andhra Pradesh), Chidambaram (near Pondicherry) also hold special poojas during this season on the days of Vaikunta Ekadasi and Arudra Darisanam. And, the prasadam during these festivals is lipsmacking and divine.
Margazhi food and sabha canteens
Indian festivals and food go hand-in-hand. They are indispensable, isn’t it?
So too is the Margazhi.
The Margazhi vibes isn’t complete without good carnatic music and food, especially the food that’s found at the popular sabha canteens during the Madras Music Season.
This is a perfect season to indulge in food tours across Chennai. I found these below food tours interesting. They are offered by various groups and individuals. Although, I haven’t personally utilized these services in Chennai, I have often enjoyed such tours in countries like Russia.
If you are not in Chennai during the December Music season like me to relish Margazhi food, fret not!
You can order kai murukku, mysore pak and other delicacies sitting at home, no?
Today, you have the convenience of ordering Margazhi food online, and get it delivered at your residence.
I live in the remote northeast corner of India, and one online store on which I rely for my snack fixes is Sweet Karam Coffee. They have never ever disappointed me in all these months.
You could also give it a try by clicking on this discount coupon provided to me by them, as their loyal customer. By using the link, you will get a discount of Rs.100/- on your order. Kindly note that I am not associated with them in any capacity except as a loyal customer of their products.
How is the Maargazhi festival celebrated in Chidambaram?
We can go on and on about food. So, let’s come back to the celebrations of Margazhi.
The grand ten-day festival during maargazhi at Chidambaram where Lord Shiva is worshipped as Nataraja involves a grand scheme of traditional observances commencing with the hoisting of the temple flag on the first day.
This is followed by colourful processions of the five deities (panchamurthi) for first eight days, on various mounts. The fifth day features mount kailasam, while the sixth day features the elephant mount.
On the ninth day, Nataraja leaves his sanctum and is taken in a procession through the car streets, in the grand temple car. This is a special occasion and crowds throng to witness this spectacle. An interesting traditional practice associated with the festivities is that of local fishers offering gifts to Nataraja during this procession.
Note : If you are new to India’s festivals and customs, then browse through this list of festivals in India compiled by another blogger friend.
Does Maargazhi transcend religion?
The month of Margazhi is not just restricted to the followers of Hinduism. In Kanniyakumari District, the St.Xavier’s Annual Feast at Kottar ends with a temple car festival during this month. Interestingly, Kottar is nearby to the temple town of Suchindrum.
Hence, it is the perfect time to explore these places. So, do check out some of the exciting tours that I found online:
So, what are you waiting for? Do book your next train or flight ticket to Chennai this music season, and witness one of the largest cultural gatherings in the world!
Isn’t it intriguing, how a season like Maargazhi brings to fore the traditional practices, classical music, and art forms that lie dormant otherwise, losing its sheen in this digital age!
So, why don’t you venture to relish this cultural extravaganza by packing your travel bags, as the best time to visit Tamil Nadu is during the Maargazhi!
Do share your thoughts on this blog-post and also about the special seasons and rituals that are followed in your region, in the comments below. I would be eager to know about them.
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