The temple chariot festival is an annual event in temple towns in Tamil Nadu.It is also celebrated in some famous temples in the other South Indian states. The Tamil name for the festival is Ther Thiruvizha. Ther is the Tamil word for chariot and Thiruvizha refers to the festival or fair. It is a part of temple ritual.
Professor Paul Younger in his book, Playing Host to Deity,writes that,‘The annual festivals that are central to the south Indian religious tradition are among the largest religious gatherings found anywhere in the world’.
The chariots are made of special wood, engraved with images of deities, scenes of Indian Epics and other ornate works and are used to carry the idols called urchavar which are representations of the temple deities.
The place where the chariots are kept for the greater part of the year is called as Ther Adi or Ther Nilai. A few weeks before the festival the Ther is spruced up.A temporary structure resembling a temple is put up on the ornate wooden base. It is then decorated tastefully with Thoranam of mango leaves, flowers, banana trees, and brightly colored embroidered cloth.The ropes or chains used to pull the chariot are called as Ther vadam.
The festival lasts for ten days but the day on which the chariot is drawn is the most important and attracts hundreds of worshipers.
THER THIRUVIZHA IN PANDAMANGALAM
In Pandamangalam in Namakkal District, the chariot festival is traditionally celebrated on the day of Ashwini Nakshatram in the Tamil month of Thai. This year it coincided with the last day of Thai Pongal or Sankaranthi.
The villagers have invited their family and friends to join in the celebrations. After the ritual puja, the richly decorated chariot is drawn along the four main streets around the temple. The deities of the temple, Prasanna Venkataramana Swamy and Alarmel Mangai Thaayar represented by their panchaloga idols ride in the chariot along with a host of preists and the Naadhaswaram goshti or temple musicians.
Water is sprinkled on the streets through which the ther will come.Every doorstep is decorated with beautiful kolams. Women place huge pots of buttermilk on tables by the roadside and offer glasses of it to anyone who would like a drink.
The players of traditional vaathiyams (musical instruments) go in front.Behind them the folk musicians beat a steady credence on the Thaarai and Thammpattai (musical instruments used in folk music) as the young men join in a folk dance watched and cheered by the reveling crowds.
Behind comes the massive Ther drawn by the people. All are welcome to pull the chains.
The significance of the Ther festival is that once every year, God comes out of the temple to give darshan to worshippers. When this happens, everyone is equal before Him- there is no distinction of rich or poor, high caste or low, man or woman. The festival is for those who at other times of the year are not allowed inside the temple, for those who were away, for the old and the infirm and also for those who were too lazy to go!!
STOPPING AND TURNING THE THER
Pulling the chariot is only one part of the operations. Behind, a team of village youth are engaged in carrying and operating a system of wooden manual levers that you can only see during such festivals.
The Ther is two or three storeys tall. Along with the deities, there is a whole team of priests and temple musicians on board. It stops many times so that people can give offerings for puja. When the Ther needs to halt, heavy triangular blocks of wood shaped like a wedge are placed in front of the wheels. These act as brakes in front. At the street corners the Ther needs to turn. Long heavy wedged blocks of wood and ropes are used to do this. Little by little, the Ther turns the corner, the wheels guided and carefully controlled by the team of young men who also volunteer to carry the heavy wooden blocks, so heavy that merely lifting them is a feat in itself.
SCENES FROM THE THIRUVIZHA
Temple rituals such as Ther Thiruvizha were aimed at unifying society. No difficult mantras were required, no training in the Vedas. People from all walks of life participated even as they do now. The four castes or varnas were united in a common cause – that of successfully pulling the holy chariot around the four veedhis (streets) which is no mean feat.
Hours later,the journey along the four veedhis is complete.As the sun goes down, the crowds applaud as one , as slowly and carefully the Ther is guided into the resting place called as Ther Nilai. Nilai is Tamil for – to be stationary ,or not in movement. Everyone is happy that a tough task was done well.
Tomorrow it is back to mundane, everyday life.
But with a difference – the memories of this year’s Ther festival linger….. and the soul is refreshed and rejuvenated.