16 December 2008

Bharani Deepam 2008

Click on all photographs to enlarge

At about 4:30 am on the day of Bharani Deepam, which this year fell on December 11th, this is how the day started:

Early morning at Temple

The chief priest has just finished a simple ritual called Bharani Deepam and now ceremoniously waves a huge camphor flame in the direction of nearby Arunachala mountain. Although he is chanting Sanskrit slokas, he cannot be heard amidst the deafening furor of devotion that surrounds him. Finally, he touches the flame he is holding to the wicks of five huge, earthen, ghee-filled pots, representing the sacred elements earth, air, fire, water and ether. As these five flames loom up with red-yellow light, the famous, one-day, South Indian festival of Krittika Deepam officially begins.

The five pots

The one flame

A flame taken from the five earthen pots that were lit just after the early morning temple ceremony of Bharani Deepam is kept burning in the Temple throughout the day as a symbol of the merging of manifestation back into God, the one source of all. This single flame is referred to as the Bharani Deepam. At 10:00 in the morning, a select group of fishermen are blessed by the temple priest with a small ceremony. At this time, amidst ringing bells and temple music, the priest gives the fishermen a lamp that has been lit from the Bharani Deepam in the Temple. This lamp, also called Bharani Deepam, will be taken by the fishermen to the top of the mountain.

Local fishermen are traditionally given the privilege of carrying the Bharani Deepam up the mountain and lighting the Krittika Deepam in the evening, because, according to a popular myth, Parvati (the wife of Lord Siva) was born in a fishing village.

Devotees climbing the hill


"There is immense significance in this first Krittika Deepam ceremony called Bharani Deepam. At this time, the universal Lord manifests as the five elements, which will later fully merge to become one when the Krittika Deepam flame is lit in the evening. From one to many and many to one. This is the whole essence of Saivism and the meaning of Krittika Deepam."

All across India, millions of bonfires are lit on hills and in temples on Krittika Deepam. But nowhere is this festival celebrated like it is at Tiruvannamalai. Here it is unique.

Heightened security this year on Hill

Krittika Deepam occurs annually in the lunar month of Kartika, which occurs in November/December, on the last day of the 10-day festival called Brahmotsavam. It is on this auspicious day that, at precisely 6:00 in the evening, a sacred fire is lit on top of the 2,668 foot Arunachala mountain to symbolize the merging of all manifest existence back into the one source of all things. It is said that those who witness this sacred ceremony personally receive the blessings of Siva and Parvati. All of the traditional temple rituals that are performed during Brahmotsavam create a spiritual fervency that culminate with great power on Krittika Deepam as a grand congregation of devotees, holy men, officials, police personnel and media squeeze together, shoulder to shoulder, to witness the festival's magnificent consummation.

View of Temple and town from hill

Preparations for this holy day begin one month in advance with the local administration, revenue department, police and temple authorities. Since early morning, temple staff and volunteers have been carrying five-gallon containers of ghee and large pots of thick, braided cloth wicks to the top of Arunachala mountain. Once the mountaintop flame has been lit, it must be kept burning for ten days, which requires vast quantities of wick and clarified butter.

Deepam pot positioned on top of Hill

Devotees climbing on the hill,
miscreants lighting fires for luck (a local superstition)

Pot waiting to be lit -
moon in left corner background

As the day wanes into dusk and night begins to darken the sky, pilgrims stand or sit, motionless with anticipation, at the base of Arunachala mountain, preparing to worship God Siva as an infinite pillar of light.

By 5:00 in the evening, the area surrounding the Temple flagpole, as well as the adjoining terrace, is packed. People are grabbing seats to observe the dramatic arrival of five exquisitely decorated palanquins, carrying the Hindu Gods Vinayaka, Subramanya, Siva, Amba and Chandikeshwara. The devotees are constantly moving and adjusting their positions to get a better view and to make way for still more people pouring in.

Suddenly, the crowd's attention shifts to the Temple entrance from behind the flag pole. Some devotees jump up to get a better view. The first palanquin arrives with a dramatic flair. It's the Vinayaka Deity, a form of Lord Ganesha. Exquisitely bedecked with a variety of flowers artistically arranged, this relatively small Deity seems magically large in its luxurious setting. More than eight people are carrying the heavy wooden palanquin. They dance with graceful dignity to the accompaniment of temple music, devotional singing and Sanskrit prayers. Soon enough, they reach their designated position in front of the flag pole and come to a stop.

In a few minutes, the next palanquin arrives “Subramanya”. It's a little bigger. Unmindful of its weight, those who are carrying this celestial cargo somehow manage to dance with abandon, rocking the Deity joyously.

Now another palanquin is arriving, rocking to and fro. "Swami, Swami," the crowd shouts. Here, "Swami" is referring to Siva. Amba (Goddess Parvati) is right behind, followed by Chandikeshwara.

Within about 30 minutes, five palanquins have arrived in all their spiritual pageantry.

Later the five murtis gathered in the Temple compound

Finally, the appointed moment arrives. Against the backdrop of a sunset sky, crowned with the rising star of Kartika, thundering firecrackers, ringing Temple bells and a frenzy of rhythmic chanting merge to create a cacophony of chaotic splendor. Camphor is lit in a cauldron by the Temple flag pole, signaling priests on top of the mountain to light their flame.

Deepam on top of Arunachala Hill

The timing is perfectly synchronized

The air is charged as the overpowering sight of light, signifying Siva in the form of Jyoti (divine light), merges with Parvati to become Siva/Sakti. Now, finally, Ardhanarishvara is brought out of the Temple with great ceremonial fanfare. This is the only day of the year that this particular Deity is ever moved. It is most auspicious.

To learn more about the 'Legend of Ardhanarishvara' at Arunachala go to this link here.

When that flame is seen by the thousands of devotees below, the entire countryside explodes with flashing luminescence. Bonfires, lamps, neon lights and fireworks light the night like day as a surging, thronging, emotionally charged mass of devotees chant, "Arunachala Siva," "Annamalai” and "Annamalai Harohara”. The sight of the Krittika Deepam is magical. It brings an inexplicable joy. People are ecstatic, mesmerized by the light.

The Temple is closed for a day after Krittika Deepam, because it is believed that, when Arunachala manifested Himself in the Deepam, He temporarily shifted His abode from the temple to the hilltop.

Long-time pilgrims assert that, even years later, the very thought of an otherworldly moment like this recreates it, just as if it is happening fresh and new.

[Edited extract from ‘Fire on the Mountain’]


Grasshopper said...

Beautiful post, spectacular photographs. Can we please have one with a long shot of the mountain, with the deepam on top?

Meenakshi Ammal said...

I'll see whether I can find a long shot of Arunachala with the Deepam on top. Have quite a few more photographs I intend posting in upcoming days - including some new photos of the madha radham.

igrao said...

Indeed a great coverage! Those we are not destined to be there at that time like me really cherished the nerration and photographs.

Pranams at the lotus feets of Arunachala Ramana.

Divya said...

Thanks for the photographs and detailed writeup, made me feel like I was there experiencing it with you! :-)