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Published: November 15th 2019
The priest from Kochadai spoke perfect English. He and his five barefooted companions had just descended the temple hill outside Madurai. They were on a pilgrimage, because the next day their village temple was to have its annual festival. He invited me to attend.
I had visited their temple several times. It is a favorite, as all the important deities associated with Ayyanar are housed there. I’ve sensed its power on previous visits. The deities have an important job in guarding the people from misfortune, negative energies, and calamities.
The next day I made my way to the temple, now transformed for the special occasion. Loud speakers blared music and an elephant inside the entryway used its trunk to thump a blessing on the head of anyone who gave it a coin.
The priests were readying the three deities they would carry through the streets. They conducted a puja ritual, then handed out the prasadam, the food blessed by the deities. The priest who had invited me saw and welcomed me, and handed me a bag of prasadam, which included a full meal of briyani, a half coconut, and other treats. The rice was still warm. I tucked
the bag in my purse.
People crowded the small space, praying and watching the proceedings, accepting the prasadam from the priests. A friendly priest who had shaved his head on that special day and smeared it with sandalwood paste greeted me. Other people urged me to take photos and record the happenings.
The three portable deities to be carried were nearly ready. Then with the special drummers and music makers blasting away, men crowded around each of the three carts. They had wheels, but it would take manpower to push them along the streets. I was astounded by how rapidly they worked. They knew exactly what to do, deftly maneuvering the carts and lining them up at the temple entry. Young boys even got in on the action, straining their thin legs and shoulders behind the carts along with the older men.
Then out the door and on to the street they paused with the temple elephant in the lead. People clambered around, taking photos and watching the priests at work atop each cart. They had to place the many flower garlands just so, and shower the deities with flowers, who were resplendent atop their gold horses.
Townspeople lined the streets with their tables of oil lamps, or vilakku, and offerings to the deities. I walked along, admiring the tables made beautiful with flowers and food offerings. Everyone was dressed in their finest.
As the procession lumbered along, people prayed to the passing deities and received their blessings via the priests. Then each family handed out the prasadam they had prepared to family and passersby, which included me. I began what was to become a stomach-stuffing, gluttonous intake of food. I could not refuse the numerous packets of spiced chickpeas, sweet pongal, hot milk, tea, bananas, and numerous sweet treats offered. Not tiny portions, big portions, big bowls of pongal and handfuls of chickpeas. I was grateful when someone offered a flower instead of food. I had sat earlier outside an office along the route and ate the briyani given to me by the temple priest—big mistake—because I had no idea people along the route would continue stuffing me. This was a valuable lesson I learned about attending such a festival!
The high energy continued. The drumming was infectious, especially when the “chorus line” of young men with beautiful bodies dressed in white performed
with choreographed moves and swishing of scarves. The best part of their costumes was the underwear trimmed in ball fringe, worn on the outside of their white pants. They saw me on the other side of the street, and stopped to perform a number so I could get photos.
The procession stopped traffic, but had the right of way. It turned down several side streets and returned to the main street, then traveled down and back a pleasant side street covered in flower petals. A group of guys insisted I take a selfie with them, and they gave me the last prasadam I symbolically accepted.
Energy was still high among the people. But my enthusiasm was waning after three hours of the activity, much of it taking place in the late afternoon sun. So I retreated to the temple where the procession had started. Sitting down on a step and gazing at Karrupanasamy on top of his giant white steed, I felt blessed to have witnessed and participated in such an important event, despite the sugar rush fogging my mind and clogging my veins.
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