May 9, 2017

Alagar at Vaigai

[Img Src: Maduraicity] 
Chitirai festival, said to be a four-hundred-year-old tradition,  celebrated for close to a month in my hometown comes to a finish today with Alagar arriving at the river Vaigai. [Okay technically not a finish, but practically is].

Our family lived in the suburbs - 'suburb' is perhaps too fancy. The total perimeter of the city was probably only 5 kilometers in those days and we were barely a couple of kilometers from the city center. We did visit the famous Meenakshi temple from time to time but we mostly celebrated the Chitirai festival at home but for brief visits during the early days of the festival. Still, being part of it just once is enough to make it unforgettable.

The 'Ther' procession, for example, with its huge wooden carriage,  the layered cloth canopies in pink and green rolling majestically down the Masi street is a sight to behold. My memories are not vivid and are a blur, mainly because of the awe-inspiring nature of the moment itself, I think. First the crowd. Millions of people throng the streets freshly showered, in bright clothes, fanning themselves ruing the dreaded May sun, faces gleaming with sweat, and bright white stripes that adorn their foreheads. As the chariot approaches closer and closer you lose yourself in the tremendous crush, in the sea of humanity, all thoughts emptying from your mind. The idols of the four white horses near you as the drumbeats grow louder and you realize the sheer size of the chariot with a mild shock. The wheels alone, as they pass you by, feel so enormous. You register the men and women pulling the rope and those around you chanting with a frenzy that is indescribable. You mostly get a mere glimpse of the deities inside, Meenakshi and Sundareshwara, but a massive dose of the religiosity.

This morning Alagar arrived on the banks of the river Vaigai as a sort of culmination of the festival. An equally crowded affair witnessed by millions of people every year. The myths and legends associated with the Chitirai festival are fascinating. It retells day by day the story of goddess Meenakshi and her wedding to god Shiva.

Meenakshi is a fascinating goddess. She is neither a Sita nor a Kali. She is a princess and later a queen who rules over the kingdom justly and is known for her courage. The highpoint of her beauty is her eyes. Her 'Dikvijayam', part of the Chitirai festival is a celebration of her wars and conquests. She is also a wife, married to a - rather 'the' - powerful angry god, Shiva/Sundareshwara. The festival is as much a celebration of her individual accomplishments as of her love.

The Alagar festival, I read somewhere was merged with the Meenakshi festival only in the medieval times. Alagar's abode, another beautiful temple is away from the city. I find the legend associated with it hilarious and I can't help smile every time I hear it. To add to her woes of dealing with one strong male in her life, Meenakshi also has a brother who is another all-powerful god, Vishnu. Alagar [another name for Vishnu] arrives at the banks of the river Vaigai, fully prepared to give his sister's hand in marriage only to find the wedding already over. He turns back in a huff, despite the bride and the groom rushing over to greet him. Such a universal and familiar theme.

Despite knowing so much about the festival and the temple, it occurred to me only today that both the gods' names mean 'handsome'. Sundareshwarar and Kallalagar. And that I still don't know who actually gives away Meenakshi's hand after all.

While only in Bangalore I come close to feeling completely at home, Meenakshi is perhaps one of the reasons I still think of Madurai as home.

Meenakshim Pranatosmi Santatam Aham.

May 09, 2017