The first time I attended Thear festivities was when I was on holiday in Sri Lanka. My grandmother was determined to make my sister and I visit the renowned Nallur Kandhasamy Temple in Jaffna, where the annual festival was to occur. I had always overlooked the celebration, especially since I had trouble in believing that there was an actual God. I felt I was an atheist merely masquerading as a Hindu to please my parents and to maintain family harmony; always thinking that it was pointless since there was no real proof for many of the holy stories of the religion.
Yet when I arrived at the temple on that particular day, I was simply mesmerised by the way in which it had changed me in a way I had never felt possible. ‘Thear’ also known as the chariot festival, is one of the most important and popular religious festivals in the Tamil tradition, annually occurring during the summer. Crowds of Tamils flock to the temple procession, where a particular deity of a particular temple is paraded through the streets surrounding the temple. It has been a time-honoured tradition where the deity is brought outside the temple walls to protect its devotees and bless them in a more supplemented way.
Lord Shanmuga, the son of Lord Shiva and brother of Lord Ganesh, was the main deity and whom the festival was being devoted to that particular day. I was always astonished that Tamils heralded a God that was a bigamist when it was against the laws of the religion. I considered it necessary to go and see for myself the reason many people thought this festival significant. During our stay in Jaffna my grandmother explained the details of the particular festival, such as the fact that it is carried out over a period of twenty-five days.
She elucidated that it commences with the flag hoisting ceremony followed by a number of rituals until the day of the Thear. The ‘Theertham’, the bathing of the deities in a pond, then followed this and then a finale of the ‘Tiru Kalyanam’ where there is a re-enactment of Lord Shanmuga’s wedding to his two wives. The entire village, including residents living around the temple, join in decorating their homes and streets with auspicious festive di?? cor such as mango leaves, coconut strips, flowers, plantain trees and coconut flowers together with rangoli designs depicting tales associated with the deity.
Inhabitants were never very far from the salty smell of the sea air and its cooling breezes. I remember listening, captivated by the Thear, for I had never before heard of a festival where the whole village congregated. That day the roads were crowded with people, cows, goats and the constant flutter of scavenging crows. My grandmother was taking us through a shortcut that she knew of, continually persuading us that she would get us there in half the time that it would normally take us.
We were led through a market where the air was pungent with the odour of fruits, spices, dried fish and meat as well as the blood from butcher shops that was running into open drains. The sight of many colourful bazaars, raucous with the cries of vendors and the fierce bargaining of women shopping, dazzled me to the core. Many tables were placed side by side, and positioned on top were an assortment of different fish of all different colours, shapes and sizes. I was amazed since I had never seen such a variety of fish ever before in my life.
As I walked past the tables I saw a fishmonger running her fingers along the coarse skin of the fish, feeling it rippling under her fingertips. We paraded on till we reached the end of the market, leaving behind the cries of the people and the salty smell of fish. As I carried on walking down the long, winding street, excitedly asking my grandmother questions about the Thear I experienced the spectacular sight of the sun rising. I glanced at the first slivers of light on the rolling waves of the distant sea, like silver- coloured sea creatures that surfaced and dipped.
Splinters of light had turned gold and as more appeared the sea seemed alive with golden fish. However, soon the searing heat became unsettling and irritable as we drove down a dusty lane, the temple just visible in the distance. As we reached the temple there was already a little crowd outside, waiting. I was astounded, as I didn’t expect people to stand waiting outside the temple at seven in the morning when the actual festival was to start at nine. We entered the temple entrance, filled with pillars of white marble and the roofs were adorned with cedar, curiously graven.
The ceiling was painted in a deep gold that highlighted the beauty of the temple and emphasised its richness. The natural magnificence and excellent polish of it all impressed me beyond measure. As we stepped back into the warmth of the sunshine I was immediately struck by the number of people that had joined the already overcrowded entrance. All were pressed so close to each other that it was a wonder someone hadn’t been trampled on. I didn’t want to join the stuffy, overbearing crowd and thought it sensible to get some fresh air before the whole festival began.
I ran off, after telling my parents, and stood clutching a gleaming white pillar. Along the numerous archways, which provided an entrance to the temple, crept the purple bell-shaped flowers of thunbergia. The waters of the lake, that was positioned on the left of the temple, was framed by foliage of unrivalled beauty; palms of every variety, masses of scarlet flamboyant blossoms and the waving leaves of plantain trees. Children ran along the paths surrounding the lake screaming in high-pitched voices that filled the air.
I recognised a few stalls that were selling an assortment of refreshments so that the crowd could easily replenish their energy when necessary. One stall was selling curd, a traditional drink, whilst the opposite stall was distributing several plates of brown muck-like substance. This, I was later told, resembled ‘pongal’, sweet rice creamy with coconut milk, the traditional Tamil food. I ran back to join my family and was dazzled by the plethora of colours that met my eyes.
I felt an overpowering stench of kanakambaram flowers, usually known as the firecracker flowers, from the women’s hair as it was something traditional to wear. The orange, of the flowers, was so bright that it reminded me of the juice from when a mango was split open, back in the market. The saris that were festooned by the Tamil women were all so beautiful, bright and vibrant. The women were definitely dressed to impress. The many women crowding at the temple entrance adorned colours from vibrant orange and soothing blue to deep purple and hot pink.
As the crowd began to move I accidently brushed my hand across the ostentatious sari of a woman standing in front of me, and I managed to feel the soft, smooth material, which was then interrupted by the roughness of the sequins that were stitched perfectly on the sari. I was amused as I thought of myself as walking through a multi-coloured sea. I was immediately jolted from side to side because of the crowd trying to get a better view of the emerging deity. This infuriated me yet I resisted the impulse to reach out and pull back the horde of women, which had just shoved past me, by the hair.
I felt bits of hair in my mouth; as I looked down I realised it was the hair of the woman standing in front of me and I pulled away in disgust. The sand underneath my feet felt unusually pleasant and I dug my toes in deeper loving the feel of the sand tickling the underside of my feet and squelching between my toes. The sensation made me forget myself for a moment. Soon a gust of cooling breeze blew around me, whipping my hair around my scorching neck. People all around me were shouting at children telling them to keep close, or calling to people selling drinks, like coconut milk, the heat drawing energy from them.
Within half-an-hour of our arrival the Thaer commenced at the ‘Brahma Muhurtham’, an auspicious time, where devotees gathered to witness the glamorously attired Lord Shanmuga, the Commander in Chief of the celestial armies, regally seated on an elaborately designed silver throne. All at once the bells began to ring, conches blew, the orchestra reverberated and confetti of flowers was strewn as tens and thousands of devotees thronged the temple precincts to catch a glimpse of Lord Shanmuga and win his grace. Followers shout ‘Haro-hara Haro-hara! repeatedly signifying the majestic arrival of the deity at the entrance of the temple surrounded by pious priests chanting mantras, with royal guards in attendance.
As Lord Shanmuga stepped out magnificently, I stood to stare at the beauty of the deity as he accepted the confetti of flowers showered by the crowd. The statues three deities, Murugan and his two wives, Valli and Deivanai were clad in expensive clothes in bright colours embroidered in outstanding designs and borders. Not an inch of them could be seen underneath the bulk of beautiful diamond and gold ornaments that glittered in the tropical sun.
They were slowly and delicately carried towards the waiting chariot and carefully seated as a priest climbed in beside them. He performed a pooja, to celebrate the commencement of the Thear. Ropes were attached to either side of the chariot and a sea of people ran towards the rope wanting to be the first to hold the sacred ropes, even though it was cutting into the hands of many, leaving deep red gashes. Others surrounded the chariot, cracking coconuts, humming incantations and prayers at the same time. Moths migrated in swarms from the lime trees lining the streets to the sources of sweet nectar smells.
The sounds of fluttering droned out the high pitched screaming of the crickets. It was then that I saw a woman who was in the way of the moving procession, closing her eyes and incessantly praying. It appeared as if she was in a trance and she didn’t seem to realise that if she didn’t get out of the way of the procession, she could be very seriously injured. However, as she just stood there, miraculously, the procession just walked past her, without even touching her. I was shocked. My mother brought me out of my reverie, by laughing, saying I looked like a flabbergasted fish.
I smiled out of politeness, but all the time I was thinking about the miracle, wondering how the devotee avoided being trampled upon. As the day proceeded I was aware of more people joining the festival yet I was now used to the jostling and shoving. The air that had once been filled with the scent of aromatic jasmine was now the pungent smell of sweat mixed with the intense heat of the day. I felt dizzy amongst the smells and the pushing, so I just allowed the crowd of people around me to drive me forwards.
Hundreds of devotees performed ‘Angapirathshanam’, rolling around on the coarse sand behind the big chariot carrying the chief deity, to show their ultimate devotion to their protector, Lord Murugan. Female devotees carried pots with burning camphor, to fulfill vows made during the year whilst men danced around bearing kavadis, a physical burden through which the devotees implore for help from the God Murugan. They had pierced their bodies with hooks, without seeming to cause any pain or harm as an act of faith and atonement. The men, however, were groaning with agony though kept up resistance.
As I looked on in horror I saw that they were willing to go ahead with this battle of pain no matter how much anguish it caused them. I was mortified by these acts but my mother assured me that they were ready to undertake these sacrifices and the Lord Shanmuga rewards his most faithful devotees. I realised how much faith they must have had in the Lord if they were prepared to go through so much pain. I appreciated that they were so trusting that there was a God, who would help relieve them of the pain, once they were able to get the needles out of their bodies.
Yet the sight of the tearing skin, bright red blood running down their backs and the smell of the fumes from the camphor pots sickened me. It was towards the end of the day, when crazed bees buzzed by, criss crossing each other’s flight en route to suckle the blossoms. I watched on closely as they brushed their hairy bodies against the blossoms to sample the syrupy, perfumed juices, whilst ravenously munching the sumptuous food. My family and I sat in a huge circle chattering about the day’s events and relishing in the appetizing vegetarian food.
The sweet rice and the mix of spicy curries, such as the sour pickles, bitter gourd and steaming potatoes tasted succulent and the aroma of the luscious curries made me wish for more. The diamond-shaped orange desert known as ‘Kesari’ melted in my mouth. It was then that I began to really understand the necessity of having such festivals. Not only did it bring the whole family or village together, it brought the whole Tamil race together. Many people, like us, had come from abroad specifically for the Thaer festival and this level of importance given to the festival made me appreciate it in a way that I had never before.
The miracle with the devotee and the strong faithfulness withheld by the male devotees who pierced their bodies also amazed me. Was there really a God to look over and protect us people? I was momentarily confused by my beliefs, but after the events of that day I was pretty sure I couldn’t deny the fact that there was a god. Maybe he just presented himself to the most dedicated of his devotees. The Thear could be said to be what started off my true religious beliefs in Hinduism.