24 November 2011

Another Deepam Festival

The following fascinating narrative of a previous Deepam Festival was written by a lady from Australia who spent many years living in Tiruvannamalai with her adopted Indian daughter.

“Deepam Festival lasts fourteen days. The Big Temple displays its treasures every night of the first nine days in processions around the circuit of streets in town. Millions of pilgrims come, perhaps two million sometimes, perhaps more; they camp out in the temple complex and fill every available hut, home, shop, guesthouse, ashram, room, corner, balcony, corridor, niche, stone bench, and nook under trees and rocks. They all walk around the hill; some many times because it is exceedingly auspicious to do so. Lord Siva may very likely grant a pilgrim’s wishes.

Many years ago when my daughter was small, the old infirm lady who lived with us - an elderly Brahmana woman of ninety-nine-odd years - used to bundle her pots and pans, condiments, clean white saris – she’d bundle them all up in a cloth and scoot off by rickshaw into town for Deepam every year. She had an age-old arrangement with a family in the main street, she used to camp on their verandah for the ten days, staying awake at night to worship the gods as they came past. The divinities would no doubt reward her for all her trouble.

Although we are tempted to conjecture that the motivation to partake of this exceeding auspiciousness arises from other-worldly concerns lured by the possibility of relinquishment from the cycle of birth and death, this is not entirely true. For the Hindu it is considered monumentally difficult for an individual to achieve the freedom from attachment to this world that is essential for absolute freedom. It is love of this world that fires the hearts of the devotees; the possible fulfillment of desires sustains arduous pilgrimages. The number of pilgrims walking around Arunachala has increased so much during the past ten years that we now have a mini-Deepam every single month. A famous film star’s pronouncement that Arunachala grants wishes at full moon as well as at Deepam is what started it all off. Since then, the entire town has to be frozen of incoming traffic for the duration of the moon’s radiant fullness and thousands of extra buses are scheduled. The ostensibly other-worldly Deepam festival is actually a tremendous affirmation of confidence in life on Earth.

Hawkers come with their wares: food in particular and pictures of gods, film stars and politicians. Hawkers bring spiritual books, protective talismans, plastic toys and bunches of grapes, things to hang on your rear vision mirror and stand on your TV, wind chimes, socks, belts, warmers for heads, underpants, bangles, molded plastic divinities, fruit trees, pillows and blankets, jewels, hair clips, watches, fruit trees and motor bikes – to name a few conspicuous items. The religious festival becomes a vast marketplace. The Holy Hill is garlanded with opportunities.

Beggars come by the busload with their leprous legs and stumpy arms and their begging bowls; some have little vehicles. Sadhus come in orange - the mendicant’s uniform. Businessmen also come. Families come with plastic carry bags of clean clothes and blankets. With their shaven scalps smeared with turmeric paste; they wash their saris, dhotis and shirts in the tanks beside the hill-round road route and walk with one wet sari end tied modestly about their body - the other held by a family member up ahead, the cloth streaming out to dry in the breeze. Skinny people with big feet and wide eyes: these are the true-blue pilgrims who camp on the flagstones of temples and mandapams. Modern middle class families stay in expensive hotels. Groups come with musical accessories and flower garlands, voices joining footsteps. The Hill becomes garlanded in humans, encouraged by the voices of the hawkers and bucket loudspeakers blaring from the frequent stands selling tapes of devotional music.

A recent upsurge in progress has resulted in the construction of several sheds along the way, in which pilgrims can rest and watch TV. A special cable was laid to provide video images of the festival happenings including much film of pilgrims walking around the Holy Hill so that resting pilgrims can even see themselves perhaps, by courtesy of our recent technological achievements.

It is widely believed that the provision of Free Food at Deepam is rewarded by the Lord more than any other provision of Free Food! Down at little shrine area in the only remaining virgin forest adjacent to my house, on one side of the road every year we have The Big Temple servants feeding ten thousand persons a day, and on the other side another group feeding another ten thousand. Crowd Control Barriers sprout and the vast distribution of free food manifests itself all along the Hill Round Route.

We wandered down to the little shrine area around midday on the seventh day of last year’s festival - the day of The Lighting. The Free Food queue in the crowd control barrier on one side of the road extended back for more than a kilometre, forming a static block against the jabbering stream of thousands not interested in free food just then. The field behind where the forest watchman lives was full of onionskins, vegetable peelings, big pots being filled with food and big pots on fires. Full steaming-hot big pots were carried on palanquins by strong men across to the awning on the roadside where more big pots of hot food were lined up and many men were dishing spicy rice onto leaf plates for the long barricaded queue of hungry Tamilians extending out of sight.

We ate our free food on a bench segregated from the crowd by thorns, watching a big fight between temple bouncers and persons trying to eat their food too near to the distribution spot, thereby creating untold congestion in a greatly congested situation. There was no alternative since there was nowhere to go to eat, because the sea of human beings takes up every available space. Discarded leaf plates smeared with spicy rice covered the road and particularly the shoulders of the road, where one had to wade through a great mess in order to move. Huge religious festivals have an agonizingly sordid side.

But the ecstasy is something else."

[By Apeetha Arunagiri]

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