The unusual customs and religious observances of Kerala Hindus are clearly reflected in our three major festivals – Vishu, Thiruvonam, and Tiruvathira. 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 on the Hindu calendar falls between mid -December to mid-January. Since ancient times it is a tradition to bathe before dawn and worship at the temple during this entire month. On the day when the new moon and the star named Tiruvathira coincide in the month of Dhanu we celebrate Tiruvathira festival. It is essentially a festival celebrated in the two southernmost states of India – Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
According to Hindu mythology, Lord Siva was in deep meditation on mount Meru for several years. Goddess Parvathi performed rigorous penance to win Siva as her husband. Finally, with a little help from Kamadeva, the god of love, her wish was fulfilled. Siva was pleased with her commitment and married Parvathi. According to legend Tiruvathira is believed to be the birthday of Lord Siva and on this day his divine consort, Parvathi observes austerities and rigid penance. 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.
In Kerala Tiruvathira is essentially a women’s festival, a celebration of devotion, beauty, love, and dance. Women and young girls offer special prayers to Siva on this day in the hope that they, too, will have good husbands and lead happily married lives. Dressed in traditional attire they sing and dance to the songs of divine love. The festivities begin five days before Tiruvathira. Women wake up before dawn and go for a ceremonial bath, very often at the nearby temple pond. As they walk through the early morning mist, they sing Tiruvathira songs—songs in praise of goddess Parvathi and her husband Lord Siva. Once in the water, they continue to sing while making a rhythmic sound – thudi – by splashing water with their fists. After the bath, the women dress themselves in traditional attire and walk to the nearby Siva temple for predawn prayers. Their breakfast would include tender coconut and bananas offered at the temple.
On makeeram, the day before Tiruvathira, mothers observe ritual fasting for the wellbeing of their children. Among Namboodiris (Kerala Brahmins), the Royal family and upper class Nayars on this day a special dish, “Ettangadi,” is prepared as an offering to the goddess. 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 extended family. Tiruvathira is a day of ritual fasting for women and girls. They observe this for the wellbeing of their husbands and would-be husbands. They consume only dishes prepared with grains such as chama and wheat and vegetables, bananas, and coconut. Certain special dishes—both sweet and sour Koova Varattiyathu, Tiruvathira Puzukku, Tiruvathira Koottu, and Koova Paayasam, are also prepared on this occasion.
They spend the rest of the day participating in various festive activities. They sit on swings singing Tiruvathira songs. At night, the women stay awake and later perform Tiruvathirakkali, a hand clapping folk dance. They also chew betel leaves and nuts and redden their lips. There is a convention that each woman should chew 108 betel leaves on that day. There is also a custom called paathirappoochoodal, wearing of flowers at midnight. The first Tiruvathira after the marriage is known as Pootiruvathira and it is celebrated on a grand scale.
In my hometown, tucked away in the huge mountain pass that separates Kerala from Tamil Nadu, the celebration of this festival is a combination of the practices of both Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Giving a gift of rice is a part of the Tiruvathira ceremonies in my hometown. Two days before Tiruvathira it is customary to send 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 delivered along with deep fried, sun-dried vegetables. After observing the traditional Tiruvathira ceremonies we flock around 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 the nearby state of Tamil Nadu this festival is called Ardra Darsanam, and they celebrate the cosmic dance of Lord Shiva, represented by the Nataraja form. This cosmic dance represents Creation, Protection, Destruction, Embodiment and Release- the continuous cycle of creation and destruction. The most important Ardra Darsanam festival takes place at the Chidambaram Shiva Temple in Tamil Nadu. All Siva temples in Tamil Nadu celebrate a ten-day festival in honor of Lord Siva. 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 unique feature of the chariot is that it contains a swing as the seat of the lord. The procession returns to the temple, where in the pre-dawn hours of the next day, while the moon is full, prayers are offered. The special food offering at this festival is called kali a sweet dish prepared with fried rice powder and jaggery (unrefined Indian brown sugar). In the afternoon, the idol is taken back ceremoniously to his sanctum, in many temples amidst an enactment of the Ananda tandavam, the dance of bliss.