December 18, 2002
Revised with photos December 28, 2017
The unusual customs and religious observances of Kerala Hindus are clearly reflected in our three major festivals – Vishu, Thiruvonam, and Thiruvathira. A unique feature of all three festivals is that a large part of the celebrations take place at private homes although prayers are offered at temples as part of the festivities.
The month of Dhanu in the Kerala Hindu calendar (Margazhi in Tamil calendar) falls between mid -December to mid-January. In times past it was a tradition in Kerala to bathe before dawn and worship at the temple during this entire month. On the day when the new moon and the star named Thiruvathira coincide in the month of Dhanu we celebrate Thiruvathira festival. In Tamil Nadu it is celebrated as Ardra darsanam.
According to Hindu mythology, Lord Siva was in deep meditation on mount Meru for years. Goddess Parvathi performed rigorous penance to win Siva as her husband. Finally, with the help from Kamadeva, the god of love, her wish was fulfilled. Siva was pleased with her commitment and married Parvathi. According to legend Thiruvathira is believed to be the birthday of Lord Siva. The story goes that Siva was also furious at Kamadeva for interfering with his penance and burned him to ashes by opening his third eye. And at the tearful pleading of Kamadeva’s wife Rathi, Siva restored him back as Ananga, representing true love and affection not just physical lust. Another mythological tale is that a young Brahmin girl who was an ardent devotee of Goddess Parvathi was widowed soon after marriage. Touched by her sadness Parvathi requested Siva to restore her husband's life. Although he was reluctant in the beginning, Siva finally obliged and restored the young husband back to life.
In Kerala, Thiruvathira is a celebration of devotion, dance and love. Women and young girls offer special prayers to Siva. Dressed in traditional attire they sing and dance to the songs of divine love. In times past the festivities began five days before Thiruvathira. Women woke up before dawn and went to the nearby pond for a ceremonial bath. As they walked through the early morning mist they sang Thiruvathira songs - songs in praise of goddess Parvathi and her husband Lord Siva. Once in the water, they continued to sing and make a rhythmic sound - thudi - by splashing water with their fists. After the bath the women dressed in traditional attire and walked to the nearby Siva temple for predawn prayers. Their breakfast would include tender coconut and bananas offered at the temple.
A special dish, Ettangadi, is prepared as an offering to the Siva and Parvathi on the evening before Thiruvathira. Eight different kinds of root vegetables and plantains are fire roasted to prepare this dish. Later it is served to all the women and girls of the family. Women and girls observe ritual fasting on Thiruvathrira for the wellfare of their husbands and would-be husbands. Mothers also observe ritual fasting on the day before Thiruvathira for the wellbeing of their children. Ritual fasting meant abstaining from all rice-based food. They consumed only food made with millets, wheat, fruits, vegetables and tubers. Certain special dishes such as both sweet and sour Koova Varattiyathu and Koova Paayasam - all made with arrowroot flour, and Thiruvathira Puzukku made with a variety of tubers, raw plantains and broad beans and coconut are prepared on Thiruvathira. Women celebrating Thiruvathira spent the rest of the day participating in various fun and festive activities. They took turns to sit on the swing hung from a tree in the yard and sang Thiruvathira songs. At night, the women stayed awake and performed Thiruvathirakkali, a hand clapping folk dance. The lyrics of these songs revolve around Parvathi’s love and longing for Siva’s affection. There is a custom in some parts of Kerala that each woman should chew 108 betel leaves. Another custom is called paathirappoochoodal, wearing of a garlad of ten kinds of flowers in their hair at midnight. The first Thiruvathira after the marriage of a young woman is known as Poothiruvathira and it is celebrated on a grand scale.
In my hometown, tucked away in the huge mountain pass that separates Kerala from Tamilnadu, the celebration of this festival is a combination of the practices of both Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Giving a gift of rice cooked with fragrant spices and packed in banana leaves is a part of the Thiruvathira ceremonies in my hometown. Two days before Thiruvathira it is customary to send these rice packets to relatives living in the same town or village. A rice packet consists of cooked long grain rice mixed with yogurt, milk, and butter and seasoned with fresh ginger and curry leaves. This rice is packed in fresh banana leaves, placed in stainless steel or brass containers with lids, and sent along with deep fried, sun-dried vegetables. After observing the traditional Thiruvathira ceremonies people gathered to watch the chariot procession starting from the Siva temple in the local gramam, an area in the town exclusively populated by Kerala Iyers (Tamil Brahmins).
In Tamil Nadu this festival is called Ardra Darsanam which celebrates the cosmic dance of Lord Siva that symbolizes Creation, Protection, Destruction, Embodiment and Release- the continuous cycle of creation and destruction. Legend has it that Lord Siva performed the Ananda tandavam - cosmic dance- as Nataraja on Thiruvathira at the temple in Chidambaram for his devotees. All Siva temples in Tamil Nadu celebrate Ardra Darsanam as a ten day festival in honor of Lord Siva. It is celebrated on a grand scale at the five major Siva temples in Tamil Nadu - Chidambaram, Madurai, Tiruvalankadu, Tirunelveli, and Kutralam. Kali - a rice and dal dish sweetened with jaggery and flavored with cardamom, and koottu - made with root vegetables, pumpkin, banana and beans in a spicy tamarind sauce are the two special food offerings for this festival. On the ninth day, the idol of Siva is taken around the town in a big chariot. Thousands gather around to watch the colorful processions of huge decorated chariots pulled by devotees. The procession returns to the temple, and prayers are offered in the predawn hours. This festival is also observed with great enthusiasm in Siva temples in Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Australia, and South Africa and in other parts of the world where there is a large Tamil speaking population.