Karthikai Deepam

The Karthikai Deepam is lit one day before Karthigai. I found an amazing write-up about the Karthikai Deepam on the FB page titled – A Pinch of Turmeric. Reproducing it here with the author’s permission.

The link to the FB post is – A Pinch of Turmeric: Karthikai Deepam.


Karthikai is one of oldest festivals recorded in history and we see that it has been mentioned in the Agananooru (Sangam literature). 
குருமுயல் மறுநிறம் கிளர மதி நிறைந்து அறுமீன் சேரும் அகல் இருநடுநாள் அறுகு விளக்குறுத்து, மாலை தூக்கி, where the wife tells her friend that her husband who has gone out of town on business will definitely be back for the Karthikai festival. Avvayar has mentioned this festival in her poems and in கார் நாற்ப்பதில் (kar narpadil), the great poet Poygayar says …..கார்த்திகைச் சாற்றிற் கழி விளக்கைப் போன்றனவே …. celebrating Karthigai deepam. Tirugnanasambandar has sung in his Poopavai tiruppadigam 
கார்த்திகை நாள் …. விளக்கீடு காணாது போதியோ பூம்பாவாய் where he asks Poompavay if she is not going to wake up to see the Karthikai lights?

Goddess Parvati wanted to atone for her sin (she had playfully covered Lord Siva’s eyes which resulted in all living beings thrown into a state of turmoil as they were enveloped in complete darkness), by doing tapasya. Lord Siva was extremely angry with her as his devotees had been frightened in this manner and so she was advised by her brother Lord Mahavishnu to perform the Kedara Gowri vratham, which would reunite her with Lord Siva. At Lord Siva’s suggestion this tapasya was done at Tiruvannamalai.

After successfully completing it Lord Siva appears in Tiruvannamalai in the form of a light (Jyotiswaroopam) and accepts Parvati in his வாம பாகம் or the left side. It is here that they first manifest as Ardhanareeswarar or half Siva and half Parvati. This event is said to have occurred on Pradosham in the month of Karthikai. Even today when Karthikai festival is celebrated at Tiruvannamalai, the idol of Siva and Parvati as Ardhanareeswarar is brought dancing out of the temple. 

Most of us are familiar with the story of Brahma and Mahavishnu competing with each other and Lord Siva manifesting as a humongous column of fire, which was seemingly endless. Finally both Brahma and Vishnu concede their inability to see the beginning or the end of the light. They request Lord Siva to bless his devotees by giving them divine vision as a light. This is what we see once a year at Tiruvannamalai on Karthikai Deepam. 

A song in the Periya Puranam describes Lord Siva manifesting as a column of fire
காணாத அருவினுக்கும் உருவினுக்கும் காரணாய
நீள்நாகம் அணிந்தார்க்கு நிகழ்குறியாம் சிவலிங்கம்
நாணாது மேடிய மால் நான்முகனும் காணநடுச்சேணாலும்
தழல் பிழம்பாய் தோன்றியது தெளிந்தார் ….

Vaishnavites celebrate Karthikai as Vishnu Deepam and is the day when Mahavishnu as Vamana pushed Mahabali into the netherworld with his big toe. 

Another popular legend has it that the six celestial nymphs brought up six babies who were created by six sparks from the eyes of Lord Siva. These babies were joined together to form a single supreme force when Parvati embraced them and Murugan or Arumugan (six faced one) also known as Karthikeyan was born on this day. So we see how this festival has many legends associated with it. 

In temples, this is celebrated over a ten day period of which lighting of the Bharani deepam is a significant event. This is a sacred lamp lighting ceremony. In Tiruvannamalai, five earthen lamps signifying the five elements are lit in the sanctum sanctorum and these five are combined to light the Bharanai deepam. The five elements are said to combine to form a light that signifies life. This is done at 4 am in the morning and then taken to the top of the hill to light the Karthikai Mahadeepam in the evening. It is only after this is done that all the residents light the lamps in their homes. It is usually lit in a huge circular metal vessel or “kopparai” which can hold more than 2000 litres of ghee. 

As with most Hindu festivals there is a spiritual meaning to the festival wherein the negative character flaws like ego, jealousy, anger, greed etc. are destroyed and we then move towards spiritual upliftment and inner transformation. The oil/ghee used symbolises these innate negative tendencies, the wick itself is the ego and the flame symbolises spiritual knowledge which empties the oil/ghee as it burns the wick. Lord Siva is said to come alive in this light and radiates a unique energy that enables you to move from human intelligence to divine intelligence.

The significance of the சொக்கப்பனை வைபவம் (sokkappanai vaibhavam) which is celebrated on this day is to remember the manifestation of Lord Siva as agnimayalingam whose beginning and end was not visible even to Brahma and Vishnu. It is to remind us of the limitlessness of the Supreme One. The பனை மரம் or palm tree is also known as bhooloka kalpakavriksham. Every part of this tree is useful to man. Usually a palm tree is cut and brought to the temple. It is then covered with palm leaves till it is a huge 30’-40’ gopuram like structure. This is lit to remind one of the jyotiswaroopa Siva peruman and the ashes after this is burnt are usually spread over the fields to assure good harvest.

Starting from Deepavali, some families will start lighting ahal vilakku (clay lamps) signifying the arrival of Karthikai. Many families do this for the entire month of Karthikai. Rows of these lamps are lit and there is indeed a very festive air. After the first two days of Bharani deepam and Kartikai deepam, the third day of Karthikai celebrations is called “Kuppai” karthikai where lamps are lit in places like the bathrooms, in the backyard, store rooms, where the garbage is kept and other such places. This is a symbol of the holistic approach of Hinduism to recognise every aspect of daily life in our prayers and worship. In Southern Tamilnadu and in Kerala Hindus pray for the well being of their brothers and light a Gajalakshmi lamp on this day. 

Finally, what is a festival without neivedyam? The neivedyam is all jaggery based. Be it kadalai urundai, pori urundai, manoharam or ney appam every one of the sweets is made with jaggery. I was wondering about this and then realised that in all their wisdom, our elders have intended it this way for a reason. Jaggery generates heat in the body and so is a good form of sugar during the rainy season and cooler months of November and December. Similarly, kadalai urundai which is a must for this festival is a good source of protein in the winter time.

I still remember the pori urundais my mother would make. She would get the நெல் or rice with the husk. Dry roasting would release the husks and roast the rice which would pop. This would then be combined with jaggery syrup, dried coconut pieces, dried ginger powder and cardamom powder to make பொரி உருண்டை (pori urundai) that would be stored in these huge stainless steel dabbas for us to enjoy over the next few weeks. And her kadalai urundai, sometimes made as chikki would be made many times even after Karthikai to see us through the Delhi winters. 

Karthikai is essentially a Tamil festival, though it is also celebrated in some other parts of the country and in SriLanka also. In terms of significance, it is a more important festival than even Deepavali, though the latter has gained global popularity. In the words of Arunagirinathar, Deepa Mangala Jyoti Namo Nama – தீப மங்கள ஜோதி நமோ நம.

Every festival has such significance and history ! We need a good way of sharing these back stories, legends and significance. Just following a ritual is not very exciting. I don’t like following anything blindly, but while growing up there wasn’t much of an explanation given for most of the rituals and traditions that we followed.

During our wedding, Krishnan and I insisted on understanding every shloka and mantra that was being recited. They hold tremendous meaning and it was a very different experience.

An earlier blog about Karthikai – Karthigai – 2016 and 2017


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