Maargazhi maasam or Maargashira (the month of Maargazhi) is a holy month for the Hindus living in the southern Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. These regions witness innumerable classical music and dance concerts as well as celebrations and special rituals across most of its ancient temples. Come let us discover the importance and relevance of ‘Maargazhi’ through this post.
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The time of day is of cuddle and comfort, to be immersed in a deep slumber, to snooze the alarm and beg for some more time and catch up on a little more sleep.
Just when one thinks that they have cajoled time for some respite, one starts hearing a very bleak ringing of bell and chants. In this win of a few more minutes of sleep, the chants and ringing of bell grow louder and a realization dawns that it is the month of Maargazhi. And, one cannot escape soothing songs and divine chants on the streets that start, as early as four in the morning, especially if you have a temple in your vicinity.
As a child, with no excuses left, I used to reluctantly get out of the comforts of a cosy bed and adorn the portico of our home with beautiful Kolams. Soon, there would be a group of people singing bhajans (hymns) and devotional songs on the streets. Participating in this mini-concert though was the purpose of me getting up early, though, most of the times I never ventured due to pre-dawn nip in the air.
Then getting ready, I used to look forward to quickly reach school and not miss the ‘stories and songs of Thiruppavai’, recited by the teachers who taught us prayer songs. The divinity in the prayer hall of the school used to enthral me to no end. Oh! and of course, the delicious prasadam that were dished out during this season has to be another reason to watch out for this festival apart from Navaratri.
These are the memories associated with the month of ‘Maargazhi’ start of the winters ahead) for me and I am sure it must be the same with some of the readers hailing from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Mumbai’s Matunga and Chembur. And, also you will be surprised to learn that a section of Thailand celebrates Maargazhi!
Not convinced? Read along to know more……
What is Maargazhi
The Tamil month of ‘Maargazhi’ starts around the 15th / 16th of December and ends on 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. A spiritual fervour virtually grips the people of this state, complemented by perfect weather.
Often, Maargazhi is also translated and written as Margazhi in English.
Legend around Maargazhi
The Maargazhi festivities have been around for ages since ancient times in Southern India. However, in recent times, the celebrations have taken a modern avatar.
Maargazhi and the Indian Freedom Movement
Interestingly, the Maargazhi festival in Chennai was started to challenge the imperialistic celebrations of New Year and Christmas of the British Raj. Thus, it showcased Indian classical art forms and music and shunned the western celebrations in a mark of revolt.
It is believed that Lord Vishnu in the Krishna Avatar and in his rendition of the Bhagavad Gita has proclaimed that the month of Maargazhi or Maargashira is nothing but his incarnation! Co-incidentally, it is an auspicious month for the worshippers of Shiva, too.
Vaishnavaites and Shaivaites are people of two different religious sects and are devotees of Vishnu and Shiva, respectively. Maargazhi being an important month for both – Shaivaites and Vaishnavaites, there are important festivals that fall during this spiritual month. I shall be covering them in my subsequent posts, soon.
According to legend, Srivilliputhur Andal is the one who started these early morning spiritual singing during Maargazhi. Originally called Kothai Nachaiyar, Andal composed 30 songs known as the Thiruppavai, praising the God (Krishna/Vishnu) consisting of 8 lines each. The first day of these mini-musical concerts is kickstarted with the ‘Maargazhi Thingal’ song and the month ends with ‘Vangakakadal Kadainda’ that is sung on Bhogi festival (Lohri).
This is the equivalent of Tiruppavai but chanted by the devotees of Shiva (Shaivaites) and is part of Maanika Vaasagar’s Tiruvasagam. 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?
Maargazhi is celebrated in Thailand, too!
Yes, 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 way to the village of BonSang, I was looking up for information on the traditional importance of Umbrella in religious ceremonies of Thailand. That is when, I read about the coronation ceremony and was pleasantly surprised to see the mention of ‘Thriuvembavai’.
On further research and talk with some local Tamilians settled in Thailand, I got to know that a temple has been built for the priests and brahmins who had migrated to Thailand many centuries before. It is known as the ‘Devasthana’. The priests had impressed the then kings with their Vedic knowledge and found patronage under the Thai kings. Also, the Indian influence is marked in religious practices and the presence of various Hindu Gods and Goddesses in the form of idols at various places, too.
Ganesha and Shiva are particularly famous and the Shiva lingam finds a prominent place in Thai temples. In Thai culture, it is believed that praying before the lingam shall bring success, a bounty crop and happiness.
The ‘devasthana bosth brahmana‘ or ‘devasthana’ temple has three lingams and their origin is traced back to Rameswaram, the birthplace of Brahmin priests who had migrated to the then Siam. It also houses the Trinity!
This is the place where the Thiruppavai-Thiruvembavai festival takes place for 15 days during Maargazhi in the month of December and all the Brahmins in Thailand come and stay in the temple, reciting the verses, dishing out the prasadam (Offering to Gods) in complete reverence. In Thailand, the festival seems like a combined mix of Shaivism and Vaishnavism. They have a ‘Dolotsavam’, in which the Gods are depicted to Swing in an ‘Oonjal’, which is a Vaishnavite tradition. Interestingly, the God depicted is Siva and not Vishnu on the ‘Oonjal’.
Maargazhi in Tamil Nadu
The capital city – Chennai, witnesses a season of frantic dance, drama and musical(Carnatic) shows and concerts which render a festive look to this cultural capital. Thus, the name ‘Maargazhi Festival’.
The modern version of Maargazhi festival was actually started to showcase the cultural richness of India and to revolt against the imposition of Christian festivals. As time passed, the festival became synonymous with Madras Music Season/December Season.
Apart from Chennai, the Maargazhi season sees a heightened spiritual pursuit in temples across the whole of Tamil Nadu as it is considered an auspicious month to please the Almighty and serve the Gods and Goddesses with a sense of devotion. The temples hold special poojas, there are village fairs and in some temple towns like Suchindrum in Kanniyakumari district, there is a Temple Car/Chariot festival that 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 especially on these Mada streets, in colonies of row-houses called agraharam.
Reach any of the mada streets in temple towns like Suchindrum, Srirangam or any agraharam at pre-dawn during Maargazhi. And, you will see women with wet hair waiting outside their homes while men walk down the street, singing bhajans, devotional songs with mridangam, dholaks and harmonium hung around the shoulder and necks.
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.
Maargazhi in Chidambaram
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 temple flag on the first day. This is followed by colourful processions of the five deities (Pancha Murthys) on first eight days on various mounts. The fifth day features Mount Kailasam, while the sixth day features the elephant mount. Ninth day, the 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 see it. Local fishermen communities traditionally offer gifts to Nataraja during this procession.
Take a look at the list of festivals in India
Maargazhi transcends religion
The month of Maargazhi 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.
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 TamilNadu 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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