On 1st April, 2019, the Aazhi Ther will roll along the four streets surrounding the Thyagarajaswamy temple in Tiruvarur, in an ancient ritual that has been followed since time immemorial. The largest Ther (rath or temple chariot) in Tamilnadu, and perhaps the biggest temple chariot in the world, for sheer size and beauty it has no comparison. Tamil religious poetry is full of praise for the massive beauty of the Aazhi Ther.
The Aazhi Ther when completed weighs a whopping 300 tons, with an impressive height of 96 feet (27m). The wooden base alone measures 31 feet across and the width of the decorated canopy is 60 feet. Each horse of the giant Ther measures 21 feet!
A few days ago, on a visit to the Thyagarajswamy temple in Tiruvarur, I was thrilled to see the construction of the Aazhi Ther and its accompanying chariots, on the road in front of the Thyagaraja temple.
What is the significance of the Ther festival?
It is an occasion when God comes out of the temple to see his devotees every year, travelling in the magnificent chariot, stopping at homes, accepting the puja and offerings, bestowing blessings and moving on. The festival was meant to ensure that even those who could not visit a temple, might have a darshan of God.
People of all castes and communities come together to take part in the festival making it an occasion of social integration and communal harmony. There are no differences. People believe that helping to pull the sacred chariots bestows countless blessings on one and that even watching the moving Ther absolves one of sins.
The Making of the Ther
Preparations for the making of the giant chariots begin a month before the festival. Specific artisans are involved in the various stages of making of the Ther.
The base of the chariot is a permanent structure and specific to the temple. Made of special wood and richly engraved with carvings of mythical incidents and deities, it is a work of art. Every year, for the festival a super-structure made of bamboo. wood and woven palm fronds is built over this base. Built to resemble a temple, this framework is decorated, and embellished with colorful festive cloth, thorans and flowers.
The massive wooden wheels have now been replaced with big steel wheels specially made by Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL) and are equipped with a hydraulic brake system. While the wooden wheels of yore were suitable for the old mud roads, the steel wheels are more suited to modern paved roads.
The chariot has massive colorful horses in front and their reins are held by an idol of Brahma.
Days before the Therottam, the idol of Thyagarajaswamy is brought to the beautiful thousand pillared hall in the temple called as Devasiriya Mandapam, for the ten-day long Panguni Uthiram festivities which culminate in the Ther festival. This is followed by the float festival (Theppam) in the gigantic Kamalalayam tank opposite the temple. Two days before the Therottam (Ther festival), the idol of Lord Thigarajaswamy is installed on the altar of the chariot of the big Ther and special pujas are conducted. Devotees have darshan of the deities here. On the big day, at 7 in the morning, thousands of devotees join hands to pull the huge ropes of the massive sacred chariot to heartfelt cries of ‘Aaroora! Thyagesa!’, with chanting of Vedic prayers,and singing of Thevaram hymns to the accompaniment of traditional musical instruments.
The Great Aazhi Ther is followed by the four chariots for goddess Kamalambal, Ganesha, Subramanya and Chandikeswara respectively. These chariots are also large but built slightly smaller than the Aazhi Ther in keeping with the hierarchy of the deities.
Pulling the massive Ther requires thousands of people. It is pulled with a backup of bull-dozers which help push the chariot from behind. In the olden days, elephants were used to help turn the chariots on the four street corners.
Although I have not seen the Aazhi ther in person, it is said that it is indeed a heart- warming sight to see the massive Ther swaying and moving slowly as it is pulled by thousands of people through the wide Tiruvarur streets. An old Tamil saying says ‘Aazhi ther Azhagu’, meaning the Aazhi Ther is beautiful!
The Ther is pulled at intervals stopping often at pre-determined places and after a leisurely run returns to the base at seven in the evening.
Pulling the Aazhi ther and watching it is an experience of a lifetime. We get to see a glimpse of the Ther on the news on festival day but the residents of Tiruvarur and its surrounding regions are indeed blessed to take part in this divine event.
Pictures of the construction of the Aazhi Ther and smaller chariots.
A picture of Aazhi Ther during the chariot festival