The Tamil month of Margazhi is synonymous with Andal’s Thiruppavai and Manikkavachakar’s Thiruvempavai. It is interesting that this holy month has one day each for Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva, the former being Vaikuntha Ekadasi. The latter is Thiruvadirai, which happens on the day the asterism Ardhra is on the ascendant. Shiva is worshipped as Nataraja and the icon is brought out in procession in many temples. In homes of course, Thiruvadirai has an entirely different connotation – this is the day the delectable dish of Kali, with its accompanying Thalagam is made and feasted on. The connection of these dishes with the festival is not clear but the word Kali also means to rejoice in Tamil and that is in a way reflective of the happiness that Nataraja radiates as he dances.
Nowhere is this more famous than at Chidambaram. On that day, which marks the climax of a ten-day festival, ceremonial anointing of the idol of Nataraja is performed. This abhishekam, which begins at around 3.00 am, continues for several hours after which the Lord and his consort Sivakami bless devotees. The icons are then ceremonially returned to the Kanakasabha where they reside throughout the year. The previous day has the icons being taken out in procession in a grand chariot. Muttuswami Dikshitar’s Ananda Natana Prakasam (Kedaram, Misra Chapu) does not specifically mention Thiruvadirai but it does describe the Lord as one who displayed his dancing foot to Pathanjali and Vyaghrapada. This cosmic dance is believed to have taken place during Thiruvadirai.
Colloquially known as Arudra Darisanam, the festival is an old one, being mentioned in the Tevaram. It is customary to also associate it with salvation being granted to Nandanar, the outcaste devotee who yearned for visiting Chidambaram. Because he kept postponing his planned pilgrimage, he was known as Thiru Nalaip Povar (he that goes tomorrow). But he does make it, and there merges with the Lord. It is believed that this happened on Thiruvadirai. What is interesting however is that the Periya Puranam of Sekkilar does not say the event took place on this day. In fact the story of Thirunalaippovar is rather cursorily dealt with in the work, receiving at best a skeletal treatment.
It was left to the 19th century composer Gopalakrishna Bharati to create a grand opera out of the story. It is in his treatment that Thiruvadirai gets woven into the story. From a dramatic point of view it makes perfect sense – the climax happening on a grand festival day. To Bharati this shrine was special and it was natural that its greatest event be a part of the story. That the composer was a regular at Chidambaram during Thiruvadirai and the other festival in summer – Ani Uthiram is clear from his song Piravada Mukti Tarum (sung in Dhanyasi/Adi). ‘Have I not come to your shrine on Ani Uthiram and Margazhi Thiruvadirai,’ he asks. Another song, ‘Maravaamal Eppadiyum (Sri, Adi) has Bharati joining the procession around the four streets and then entering the sanctum of Kanakasabha via the Devasabha on Thiruvadirai day. ‘O Lord, I have come to see you on Thiruvadirai day,’ goes another song (Thiruvadirai Darisanathirkku) set in Dhanyasi/Adi. ‘Please glance at me and speak that I will not have any rebirth,’ it continues.
That Nandanar wants to go to Thillai on Thiruvadirai day is established in several songs. ‘Margazhi Madam Thiruvadirai Naal (Senjurutti) has Nandan begging to be let go off by his master to enable him to go to Chidambaram because the festival of Thiruvadirai is fast approaching. In another song, (Maadu Thinnum Pulaiya), the landlord asks Nandan if a meat-eating outcaste like him ought to even dare think of the holy day in Margazhi. Of course, Nandan’s piety wins the day and he does visit Chidambaram.
A song in the savai genre in the same opera has Nandan stating that the sinners who have not yet seen the Lord of Chidambaram on Margazhi Thiruvathirai have achieved nothing in life (Margazhi Madathil Adirai Naalaiyil). Another song, set in the Lavani format has Nandan speak of the qualities of devotees of Chidambaram. Will they not be seeking ways and means of going there on Thiruvadirai day he asks (Tillai Veliyile). His journey to Tillai is described in another song – Kollidakkarai Ponan Nandan (Mukhari/Adi). In that his resolution to go to Chidambaram is described as determination to see the holy face of Nataraja on Thiruvadirai day.
Lakhs of devotees descend on Chidambaram on this day, challenging the town’s infrastructure. However for those unable to go, a reading of Gopalakrishna Bharati’s Nandan Charittiram is a good alternative. It helps to understand why the event is so important from a devotional perspective. And the language is delectable with its varying metres and wonderful prosody. Of course, hearing it performed is even better.
This article appeared in The Hindu dated December 29, 2017.