Come November, one can see rows and rows of tiny agal vilakkus before many houses in Tamil Nadu in the days following Diwali. It means that the Karthigai Deepam festival is just around the corner. Like Diwali, Karthigai Deepam is also a festival of lights. The festival is celebrated in Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka, too. It is celebrated in the month of Karthigai (November December).
Not many are aware that this festival has been celebrated in ancient times, and is hence one of the oldest festivals that is celebrated in South India, and even older than Diwali. Also, unlike most of the other Hindu festivals, Karthigai is a south Indian festival and is not known in other parts of the country. The Ahananuru, a book of poems that dates from the Sangam age (200 BC to 300 AD), contains one of the first references to this festival. The work states that Karthigai is celebrated on the full moon day of the Tamil month of Karthigai (November December). It was definitely one of the most prominent festivals (peruvizha) of ancient Tamils. Avvaiyar, the famous Tamil poet of the time, refers to it in her songs. Temple inscriptions, too, refer to the festival. An inscription (mid-16th century) on the Arulalaperumal temple in Kancheepuram speaks of the Thiru Karthigai Thirunal festival.
Karthigai is a festival of lights and lamps. The illuminated lamp is a symbol of auspiciousness. It is said to remove the forces of darkness/evil and usher in joy and prosperity. Lighted lamps thus have an important place in Hindu rituals and festivals, and for Karthigai, it is indispensable.
Legend of Karthigai Deepam:
There is a story that reveals the connection between Karthigai and lamps. Legend says that Vishnu and Brahma had a fight about who was the most powerful of the two. The other gods asked Shiva to intervene and stop the fight. While they were fighting, Shiva appeared before them as an enormous column of fire and told them that whoever found the top and bottom of the fire column would be the superior of the two.
At once, Brahma took the shape of a swan and flew upward. Lord Vishnu became a wild boar and started digging deep into the ground. But even after several years, they could not find the ends of the pillar. Then they realized that the pillar was Shiva himself and realized that he was Supreme. Soon after this event, Lord Shiva appeared as a hill. This is the Arunachala hill in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu. In fact, both “Tiruvannamalai” and “Arunachala” mean “hill of the sacred fire”. The Shivalinga in the Arunachaleswarar temple here is the Agni lingam. People believe that the small lamps that are lit during the Karthigai Deepam festival are, in fact, the tiny replicas of the fire lingam. Every year, hordes of devotees from all parts of the globe flock to Tiruvannamalai to see the beautiful and awe-inspiring Karthigai Deepam. While lamps are lit in temples, agal vilakkus are lit in homes. The lamps signify that God is the light that will drive away darkness/evil.
The lamps are seen to have five petals or nozzles. These signify the five elements found in nature - earth, fire, water, air, fire, and space. They also signify the five main elements required for a good life: wealth, health, value, learning, and longevity.
How do we celebrate Karthigai Deepam:
Thirukarthigai/Karthigai Deepam is observed in the Tamil month of Karthigai on Pournami day(Full moon day). All through the month, lamps are lit in front of houses at dusk. On Thirukarthigai/Karthigai Deepam day, the entire house is decorated with oil lamps.
The first day of this festival is “Appakarthigai”, while the second day is “vadai karthigai”. Devotees offer delicacies like Pori, Vellai seedai, Adhirasam, betel leaves, arecanut, and fruits as neivedhyam for Shiva.
In Tamilnadu and Kerala, Hindu women pray for the welfare of their brothers and light an elephant lamp(Gajalakshmi Vilakku). This is a sign of prosperity and wealth. The story behind this ritual is given below.
Why people light elephant lamps on Karthigai?
Once there lived a King who had only one daughter. She had an elephant, which was her companion, and she considered it as her own brother. After she got married, she missed her elephant brother a lot. Hence, during the Thirukarthigai/Karthigai deepam festival, she began to light an elephant lamp(Gajalakshmi vilakku) and prepare tender coconut, Milagu adai, elephant leg size milagu, Vellai seedai, Pori, Adhirasam, and offered them as neivedhyam.