For a few days, 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.
The all-pervading quiet of early morning is suddenly disrupted by a mad clamor of thunderous sound. Ringing bells, pounding drums and piercing nagaswarams (temple horns) almost overpower the belting voices of hundreds of devotees who are singing songs in praise of Siva, the Lord of Arunachala. It is 4:30 am on the 8th December, 2011, and the main sanctum sanctorum of the massive Tiruvannamalai Siva temple in Tamil Nadu is packed with souls who have been waiting all night for this moment.
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 Dipam officially begins. A single flame is then taken from the pots and 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.
“There is immense significance in this 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.”
Town’s people and pilgrims from far afield, are climbing Arunachala some in order to secure a good viewing point for the evening’s lighting of the 2011 Deepam cauldron, others so that they can personally deliver their ghee offerings to the top of Arunachala and some to just touch the cauldron that will hold the flame that will be lit that evening. From the town, the stream of people climbing up the slopes of Arunachala look like a line of tiny ants.
Around 10:00 a.m. this Bharani morning, a group of fishermen were blessed by a priest in a ceremony at the Temple. Amidst ringing bells and temple music, the priest gave the fishermen a lamp in a protected container that has been lit from the Bharani Deepam in the Temple.
This lamp, also called Bharani Deepam, is taken to the top of the Hill by fishermen from hereditary fishing families. Others of the same hereditary fishing family will remain at the Temple and this evening light the Deepam flame outside the Arunachaleswarar Siva Sannidhi.
One of the reasons that fishermen and not Brahmin priests are traditionally given the privilege of carrying the Bharani Deepam up the mountain and lighting the Deepam in the evening both on the Hill and outside the Arunachaleswarar Siva Sannidhi, is because according to a legend Parvati (the wife of Lord Siva) was born in a fishing family.
After the consecration ritual, the fishermen take off up the mountain. It will take them about four hours to carry the flame to the top of Arunachala.
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.
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 approximately 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.