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In the hot months of August and September, the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil throbs with exuberant devotion for Lord Murugan, or Kartikeya, the god who has a hundred names. Devotees flock in hundreds of thousands and Jaffna vibrates with life and colour and celebrates the Nallur Festival in Jaffna.
The annual festival of the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple is the longest religious festival in Sri Lanka spanning 27 days throughout the months of Aadi and Avani. In this holy period, statue of Lord Murugan is respectfully transported throughout the entirety of the festival in revered vehicles in the form of animals: peacocks—silver and green; cobra and swan; all considered sacred to the holy spectrum.
(Read more about the month of Aadi here.)
Bringing together thousands of devotees to participate in this colourful spectacle, Nallur Kovil festival parades through the inner premises of the temple by day and its outskirts by dusk, and well into the night.
The different days of the festival celebrate different aspects and legends of Lord Murugan; the presiding deity of the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple.
Saivism in Sri Lanka is a mix of an ancient religion called Nattar Vazhipadu (pronounced, naat-taar va-li-pa-doo) and Agama traditions with Vedic ideologies and practices. Lord Vairavar is an ancient deity belonging to Nattar Vazhipadu. Keeping with ancestral practices, Lord Vairavar is called on to protect the 27 days long festival called Mahotsavam. His permission is needed to begin the festivities.
On this day at dusk, Lord Vairavar rides on a Dog shaped chariot decorated in black and surrounded by flags and symbols.
Kodiyetram or Hoisting of the flag is a ceremony that signifies the beginning of the 27-day Mahotsavam. Thus, it is the 1st day of festivities. The descendants of the Sengunthar Mudaliyar family annually provide the intricately designed white Flag cloth. This family of weavers has maintained this tradition for centuries. The cloth is brought on a chariot from the house of the weavers to the temple, where it is then hoisted. Devotees chant Arohara Arohara and shower the flag with flowers. It is a lovely and moving sight.
Lord Murugan or Katharagama Deviyo (the God of Kataragama) in the form of his weapon, the spear called the Vel is then carried on a Silver peacock chariot. He is accompanied by his 2 wives along with his brother Pillaiyar or Gana Deviyo who rides on a silver rat chariot. Auspicious Red will feature in all decorations, including in the attire of the priests and officials.
And for the following 10 days, a series of religious ceremonies take place and then a series of parades are held.
This is the 10th day of the festival in this series. During this evening occasion, Lord Murugan’s statue in his Muththukumaraswamy form is brought out of the temple to circumvent the Nallur temple along with his wives. The Tamil word manjam, means bed. So the manjam chariot travels slowly. Devotees, men on the left and women to the right, walk along with the majestic chariot. The Chariot depicts scenes of the puranam stories and is brightly lit. The chariot is heavy and large. Thus needs to be pulled by worshipers instead of being carried on shoulders. The priest and officials will be attired in yellow.
This is the 17th day of the festival and happens at late in the evening. Arunagirinathar was a Tamil Saiva poet who composed a set of poems called Thiruppugazh or ‘Holy Praise’ on Lord Murugan. An enactment of Arunagirinathar’s life story in which he transforms himself into a parrot is performed. Parrot green will be worn by the officials and priests.
On this evening festival of the 18th day, Lord Murugan will ride on a large chariot. This chariot is divided into 3 compartments. The middle compartment is for Lord Murugan and the compartments on either side of him are for his 2 wives. Lord Murugan’s wives, Valli, on the left, and Theivanai, on the right, will accompany Lord Murugan as he circumvents the Temple. The colour blue will take prominence in the decorations and clothing.
This is the 19th day morning festival. This festival is for the Sun god. This is the only temple in Sri Lanka that has a festival dedicated to the Sun god. During this festival, the Sun god rides on a chariot formed with seven horses. His 2 wives Chaya, Goddess of Shadow and Maya accompany him as he circumvents the Temple.
On the morning of the 20th day, a festival for Santhanagobalar is held. Lord Vishnu’s avatar or incarnation, in his infant state, is called Santhanagobalar. The playful statue of baby Krishna sucking his toes is mounted on a chariot of a five-headed cobra. Sky blue will be featured in the decoration and clothing.
This festival is held on the evening of the 20th day of festivities. A truly spectacular chariot is used on this day. Mount Kailasa is part of the Himalayan mountain range. This mountain is considered to be the abode of Lord Murugan’s father Lord Shiva and his family. The ancient Sri Lankan ruler, King Ravanan, is believed to be a devotee of Lord Shiva and had attempted to lift Mount Kailasa and fly it to Sri Lanka. The chariot called Kailasa vahanam/vimanam depicts a scene of this story from the great saga, Ramayanam. Lord Murugan in his symbolic Vel form is taken on this chariot along with his 2 wives.
This is the morning festival on the 21st day. During this festival, Goddess Durga also called Maha Kali is honoured. Goddess Durga is taken around the Temple on a chariot of a roaring lion or the mythical creature Yaali. The Yaali is a combination of elephant and lion.
This festival happens on the evening of the 21st day of festivities. On this day Lord Murugan is on a golden chariot pulled by golden horses. Devotees from all parts of the Island arrive to attend this festival. All decorations are generally pink.
This occurs on the 22nd day morning. This festival is also referred to as Mampazha Thiruvizha (pronounced: Mam-pa-la thi-ru-vi-laa). It is an enactment of a puranam story, whereby the importance of parents to children is illustrated. Lord Murugan is accompanied by his elder brother Lord Pillaiyar, who is victorious in a race to win a mango, and circumvent the Temple. An angered and defeated Lord Murugan retreats to the Palani mountain top dressed in a loin cloth and with a mace or Thandayutham as his weapon.
This spectacular festival occurs on the 22nd day evening. This is also called Vettai Thiruvizha. Vetti means Hunt. So this festival is a show of Lord Murugan going for a hunt. A parade of dancers, musicians and soldiers can be seen on this day. The priests too carry weapons instead of the usual pooja items. The grand announcement prior to Lord Murugan leaving the Temple structure to hunt is a fantastic moment to experience. Lord Murugan suitably rides on a horse chariot.
On the 23rd day evening, Lord Murugan circumvents the Temple on a chariot called Sapparam. This mighty and tall chariot requires a large number of devotees to pull. Any visitor to the temple of this day will be dazzled by the decorations and magnificence of the festival.
This is the day of the Grand chariot festival. It occurs on the 24th day morning. A large crowd gathers from around the world to participate in the festival. As much as people rush to see Lord Murugan on his grand chariot called a ther, they believe that Lord Murugan will ‘see’ them. As such, all evil and hardships will be eliminated from their lives. The statue of Lord Murugan with 6 heads and 12 arms, dressed in the finest jewellery and cloth will circumvent the temple. On this day a variety of kavadi, devotional body piercings can be seen. Also, the extent of the devotion and love that the people feel for Lord Murugan can be seen through the strenuous practices women and men partake in on this day.
Lord Murugan returns back to his abode dressed in green dancing on the shoulders of the devotees. This is said to calm down the God who has battled the evils.
This is on the morning of the 25th day. This is the holy bath festival. A ritual tank found within the Temple complex is used for this event. On this day Lord Murugan is given a ritualistic bath in this tank. It is only appropriate after Lord Murugan’s previous day procession destroying evil and casting his eyes on all directions of the Jaffna Peninsula. Young and the old eagerly wait to be drenched by the waters used to bathe Lord Murugan.
On this 25h day evening festival, the flag that was hoisted 25 days ago is lowered. All decorations will be in white. Oftentimes, the devotees also chose to dress in white. The flag is lowered to the applause of the devotees. The flag is then handed over to the family of weavers, the Sengunthar Mudaliyar family, by the Head priest of the Temple.
On this 26th day evening, Lord Murugan’s marriage to Valli is conducted. It is an enactment of the marriage between Valli, the second wife of Lord Murugan and Lord Murugan himself. Upon hearing of the marriage, Lord Murugan’s first wife, Theivanai, locks the newlyweds out of the Temple sanctum. An interesting course of events occurs asking for forgiveness and understanding. Dialogue is carried out in song between the two parties. Eventually, the door is opened after much convincing.
On this day, Lord Vairavar is thanked for his protection and permission to have been able to conduct another year of the annual festival series for Lord Murugan.
Thai Pongal is a multi-day festival celebrated by Tamils in Jaffna on the first day of the Tamil month of Thai. This falls around the 14th of January on the Gregorian Calendar. The festival is dedicated to Sooriyan, the Hindu Sun god, as it is essentially a harvesting festival. The festival marks the end of the winter solstice and the start of the sun’s six-month-long journey northwards when the sun enters the zodiac Makara (Capricorn). Pongal is one of the most celebrated festivals in Jaffna as harvest land makes up most of it. The three days of the Pongal festival are called Bhogi Pongal, Soorya Pongal, and Maattu Pongal. Pongal means ‘to boil and overflow’ and refers to a traditional sweet dish made with rice, milk, and jaggery.
What is special about Pongal?
Thai Pongal, as mentioned above, marks the start of the harvesting season. Therefore, it is also a thanksgiving ceremony as farmers utilise this auspicious day to thank mother nature, the soil, the sun and the farm animals for their assistance in providing a successful harvest. The rest celebrate as a way to thank the farmers for the production of crops. Thai Pongal truly brings all in unison, encouraging social cohesiveness. There is a famous saying in Tamil, “Thai Piranthaal Vazhi Pirakkum,” meaning “the commencement of Thai (the Tamil month) paves the way for new opportunities”, which encourages all to look forward to the coming months.
Customs and Traditions
All Hindus worldwide celebrate this festival of Harvest under different names – Lohri, Makar Sankranti, and Pongal. A lot of customs and celebrations are a part of this traditional festival. During the days leading up to Pongal, families clean up their gardens, make Palakaram (sweet snacks) to enjoy on the auspicious day. The houses are also decorated with banana and mango leaves and embellish the entrance space before homes, corridors or doors with decorative kolams (design made on the ground using coloured flour).
On Pongal day, family members shower early in the morning and wear new clothes. Using three bricks, a firewood heath is set up in the garden outside, exposed to direct sunlight facing the east. A clay pot is then placed on top of the lit fire to make the Pongal. A kolam is put around the firewood heath as decoration. Milk is boiled in the clay and allowed to overflow. As the milk boils, three handfuls of rice, jaggery and other ingredients such as cashew, cardamom, green gram, and raisins are added. As the milk begins to boil and overflow out of the clay pot, a conch is blown, and everyone shouts “Pongalo Pongal” with joy. Sometimes, firecrackers are lit to signify the moment. It is believed that the overflowing of the milk and Pongal symbolises the greater fortunes of the year ahead. Once the Pongal is ready, it is placed on the banana leaf (Padayal) and served to the Sun God, followed by Ganesha and then served to the cows. Simultaneously a prayer is carried out, and then the Pongal is shared among the family starting with the elders first.
Mattu Pongal celebrated the day after Soorya Pongal mainly by the local farmers, is dedicated to the cattle for ploughing the fields and drawing the carts throughout the year. To show gratitude for this invaluable service the animals provide, they are bathed in manjal thanni (turmeric water), decorated with flower garlands and their horns are painted in red, blue, yellow and green. They are also offered a special meal consisting of Venn Pongal (savoury Pongal) and fruits. Kumkumam (Vermillion) is placed on their foreheads and is worshipped by all. Thai Pongal is an occasion for family reunions and get-togethers. Old enmities, personal animosities and rivalries are forgotten
A mere 15 min walk from the Kacheriyady bus station will take you to the majestic, beige and white domes of the St. Mary’s Cathedral, known as Periya Kovil in Tamil, which rise into the sky. It is one of the oldest and largest Roman Catholic Cathedrals in the Country and is located in Gurunagar, a coastal village in Jaffna. St. Mary’s Cathedral is adorned with sincere faith, copious history and massive walls with dome-shaped windows, which give a peaceful facade to the church, which carries a history of sacrifice on its walls.
Local folklore says that Sankili I, also known as Segarasasekaram, the King of Jaffna, killed his son for converting into Catholicism in the very place the St. Mary’s Cathedral now stands. The story goes like this. The reigning King, Sankili I, was known for resisting Portuguese colonisation. However, his son befriended a Portuguese named Andre De Souza, who influenced him to adopt Catholicism. To get baptised, the young prince was planning a trip to Goa to officialise his conversion. This news enraged the King to a great extend resulting in him ordering the execution of his son in November 1544.
Late, stricken by his guilt, the King conducted a grand funeral for his son and buried the ashes. A tiny chapel was then built over this by Antonio Fernandez and was called ‘Emilda de Cruz’. This used to be served as a worshipping place for Jaffna’s Catholics. Some used to say a luminous cross used to appear in this chapel. This chapel was then slowly constructed into the St. Mary’s Cathedral, centuries later, in 1975.
The architecture of this church is simple, which resonates with Goanese design. The solid marble altar has been carved from one block with a large wooden crucifix and has domes that rise 115ft. The Cathedral has a total of 14 novenas. The first parish priest was Rev. Fr. Leonard Rebeiro, who came to Sri Lanka from Goa. For almost 225 years, the St. Mary’s Cathedral which can accommodate 3,000 worshippers has guided thousands of Catholics and has acted as a ray of hope for those in the Northern province. Today, the church is often visited by local & foreign tourists wanting to attend a mass or to witness the beautiful architecture of this Catholic Shrine. It is another must-visit attraction in Jaffna.
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July is a great month to visit Jaffna. Why not swing by to observe Aadi Amaavasai and pay homage to a deceased loved one or vanquish one’s bad karma? In 2020, Aadi Amaavasai is on the 20th of July.
Did You Know?
Aadi is the 4th month in the Tamil solar calendar. The month of Aadi is special for the people of Jaffna because of its religious, cultural, and economic significance. Religious festivals, Temples’ annual festivals, religious fasts all happen during this month, Aadi brings the monsoon rains and thus determines the economic climate of this agriculture-based society for the upcoming year. Aadi Amaavasai is culturally significant as the day that one pays respect to deceased parents. According to the Tamils of this region on Aadi Amaavasai, the Sun, signifying father, and the Moon, signifying mother, traverse to the same Zodiac sign. So this day is annually observed by all who have deceased parent/parents. This homage would often extend to all ancestors.
On The Day
Hindus will head to Lord Shiva’s temples to pray for their deceased relatives. Most will go for a spiritual bath and offering at the Keerimalai tank after prayers at the Naguleswaram Temple. Residents of Jaffna also provide food to the needy or worshippers at a temple of their choice. It is believed that anyone who engages in a spiritual bath in a sea or a holy river is able to rid one’s bad karma. On Aadi Amavaasai, the Hindus of Jaffna will compulsorily eat a vegetable called Katrottikkai. This vegetable is only available in the month of Aadi, and will not be consumed on any other day of the year. The name Katrottikkai is derived from the words, Katru (wind/gas), Otti (remove), and Kai (Vegetable). This essentially means, the Vegetable that eliminates gas. The consumption of this vegetable is said to remove or balance the accumulated gas in the human body. Arthritis is said to worsen during August and September (monsoon season). The general belief is that arthritis begins to deteriorate in July and worsens in August and September. Thus, the consumption of Katrottikkai in July helps in controlling arthritis. In addition, it is believed that Katrottikkai can prevent sinusitis.
Visit the Naguleswaram Temple and enjoy a spiritual bath at the Keerimalai temple. Join with the others who would be floating offerings to their deceased parents and ancestors in the sea off the Naguleswaram Temple. Alternatively, enjoy a delicious vegetarian meal and have a relaxing dip in the sea.