New Delhi: The world-famous Chithirai festival will commence from April 5 with the traditional temple flag hoisting as announced by the Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple administration.
Chithirai festival, also known as Chithirai Thiruvizha, Meenakshi Kalyanam or Meenakshi Thirukalyanam, is the celestial wedding of Goddess Meenakshi with Lord Sundareswarar.
The history of Madurai Meenakshi Sundereswarar temple goes back a long time, precisely a couple of centuries back.
There are several festivals associated with the temple as mentioned in the early Sangam literature.
Paripadal talks about Thiruvathirai (Ardra) festival, Madurai Kanchi speaks of the Thiruonam and the medieval Pandya inscriptions mention Avani Thirunal.
As per the ancient literature, the Thiruppani Malai and Sritala books detailing the festivals throw light on the Masi festival which has been celebrated from ancient times.
During this festival, Meenakshi and Sundareswarar (Lord Siva) are taken in a ‘Ther’ (chariot) around the four streets.
Interestingly, Madurai city with the temple right in the centre and the streets surrounding it, has each of the streets named after the months in which the festivals are celebrated. For instance, the Masi festival, that is marked in the month of February to March takes place on the Masi streets in Madurai.
Contribution of Thirumalai Nayak
As per historical evidence, when the Nayak kings took over Madurai after the reign of the Sultans, they started revamping the Madurai temple and restored the traditional festivals.
King Thirumalai Nayak, who played a pivotal role in streamlining the temple administration and the festivals, was assisted by Neelakanta Dikshitar, grandson of Appaya Diskshitar.
Notably, when the Nayak kings took over the rule, Viswanatha Nayak made Madurai the capital. However, the sixth king, Muthu Veerapa Nayak, shifted the capital to Tiruchirappali due to administrative reasons, that was again shifted back to Madurai by his successor Thirumalai Nayak.
It has been mentioned in historical texts that Goddess Meenakshi is said to have cured Thirumalai Nayak from a disease and thus he shifted his capital back to Madurai so that he could pay a visit to the temple to see the Goddess every day.
It was precisely due to this reason that Thirumalai Nayak focussed in restoring the lost glory of the Meenakshi temple. Apart from the renovation, he also set up a mandap opposite the Meenakshi Amman shrine. There used to be a float around the Mandap to keep it cool during the summer months.
It was around this time that he started celebrating Vasantha Utsavam (spring festival), where both Meenakshi and Sundareswarar were taken in a procession around this new mandap.
Similarly, he also started the Theppa Thiruvizha (float festival) on the newly constructed temple tank in Vandiyur during the month of Thai (January).
But the biggest contribution of Thirumalai Nayak was instituting the Chithirai festival, the greatest of all the festivals in the temple.
During the renovation work, King Thirumalai Nayak found the temple ‘Thers’ (chariot) in dilapidated condition and wanted to build new ones and so he built two huge Thers – one for Swami and another for Amman – using some of the greatest carpenters of the time. This marked the beginning of the Masi festival using the new cars.
However, since the chariots were huge, gathering manpower to pull them was a huge challenge, especially during the harvest time.
There is a Vaishnava Divya Desam, the temple of Azhagar (Vishnu) in Thirumaliruncholai, near Madurai. The festival associated with this temple is the Chitra Pournami festival and the deity is called Kallazhagar. During this festival, a huge number of people took part in taking the deity to nearby place called Thenur.
So, Thirumalai Nayak decided to use this crowd to pull the Madurai temple cars and changed the Masi festival, that took place during the month of February-March to Chithirai (in April).
He also transferred the celestial marriage ceremony of Meenakshi and Lord Sundareswarar to Chithirai and made Kallazhagar travel to the banks of Vaigai in Madurai, instead of Thenur.
Thus, by merging the festivals this way, he ensured sufficient manpower to pull the big temple cars and there began the famous Chithirai festival.
Rituals of Chithirai Festival
According to ancient history, this grand festival is marked over a span of 15 days, starting with the Dwaja Arohanam on the first day. Both Meenakshi and Lord Sundareswarar are taken around the four Masi streets each day in different Vahanas.
Then on the eighth day of the festival, the coronation of Goddess Meenakshi takes place.
During Thirumalai Nayak’s time, this event was marked with a lot of pomp. After taking part in the ceremonial bath and fasting for the day, the king would mount the state elephant under a golden canopy and leave for temple in a procession.
Goddess Meenakshi would be seated in the temple in a six-pillared mandap and the priests would be carrying the crown and the sceptre.
After performing the rituals, the Goddess would be crowned and the sceptre would be placed in her hand.
However, with time, these ceremonies disappeared gradually. Currently, the head of temple trustees gets the sceptre from the Goddess during the Pattabhishekam day and on the tenth day of the festival, the celestial wedding ceremony of Meenakshi with Lord Sundareswarar is performed.
During the auspicious time of this wedding, it is customary for the women devotees of Madurai to change their Mangal Sutra (wedding necklace) with a new one.
Every year, lakhs of people throng Madurai from all the surrounding towns and villages, to get the darshan of Meenakshi and Sundareswarar, Azhagar and Tirupparankundram Murugan.
Many of them sleep in open fields, bathe in the Vaigai river, take food from one of the Annadhana Mathas just to have a glimpse of the deities.
This year’s Chithirai festival assumes a greater significance as the last two years, the temple administration celebrated the festival sans devotees due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to a report by news agency ANI, repair work of temple chariot is currently underway in Madurai, ahead of the car festival on April 15, that will be held as a part of Meenakshi Amman Temple’s Chithirai Festival.
Tamil Nadu | Repair work of temple chariot underway in Madurai ahead of the car festival on April 15th that will be held as a part of Meenakshi Amman Temple’s Chithirai Festival.
Chithirai Festival will begin on April 5th with temple flag hoisting. pic.twitter.com/1CqIo8DVwy
— ANI (@ANI) April 2, 2022
This year, the Chithirai festival will kick off from April 5 and the Celestial wedding or Thirukalyanam is scheduled to take place on April 14, as per the temple authority. The car festival will be held on April 15 and the Kallazhagar festival would be on April 16.
The Chitharai festival will last for a month – the first 15 days would mark the celebrations of the coronation of Meenakshi as the divine ruler of Madurai and then her marriage to Lord Sundareshwar.