The recent fire at the Puttingal Devi Temple at Paravur of Kollam that claimed about 100 lives has brought into sharp focus the various temple festivals held across India and the high attendance of devotees in these. Here are some of the most significant temple festivals of southern Kerala and a look at the various rituals followed. A number of these involve lighting of fireworks and sacred fires.
Temple – Sabarimala
Each year, on Makara Shankaranti (usually on 14 January) millions of devout men throng the gates of the Sabarimala temple, keen to catch one glance of their beloved Lord Ayyappa. The highlight of this festival is the appearance of a star, the Makarajyothi, at the time when the deity’s ornaments are brought to the temple. At the same time, the Makaravilakku is a flame that appears thrice on a hillock a few kilometres away from the temple. Last year the Kerala government declared that the Makaravilakku is a manmade flame, debunking centuries old belief of a supernatural light. Devotees bring large quantities of ghee and camphor that are burnt at the temple. Stampedes and accidents have been common in Sabarimala and yet the pilgrimage seems to be one of the most popular ones in India.
Temple – Vadakkumnathan Temple
The Pooram festival (sometime between mid to end April) itself is very famous and is held in many temples of south India but the one at Vadakkunathan Temple in Thrissur is a major celebration and millions are drawn to witness and participate in these festivities. Some of the most significant events of the festivities include a spectacular elephant procession, Chenda (drums) performances, and two rather dramatic fireworks display. Each of these are about an hour long and form a central part of the festivities. Currently, the Kerala High Court, however, is considering if fireworks are to continue as part of the Pooram celebrations.
Temple: Kodungalloor Bhagavathy Temple
The 10-day long Barani festival (held in March-April) at the Kodungalloor Bhagavathy Temple is a spectacular event where men and women take out long processions all dressed in red. Vermillion is smeared over the devotees and they dance to the beats of the chenda as they go to worship the Goddess. Many of them carry sharp swords. During the Kaavu Theendal ritual many enter into a trance and oracles spell out prophecies. Devotees hurl offerings into the temple courtyard and those in a trance strike out with their swords and carry small camphor fires in their bare hands. The festival is quite a fascinating one.
Temple: Guruvayoor Temple
The Utsavam of Guruvayoor is a 10-day long grand festival held in February-March. Over these 10 days there are a number of processions and song dance performances held in and around the temple. Although the festivities include a number of firework displays, the speciality of Guruvayoor Utsavam is that the fireworks do not contain explosives. Hundreds of oil lamps are lit on the temple Deepasthambams (Vilakkumatham) each day. Back in 1970, these oil lamps caused a major fire and since fire fighting arrangements in the temple have been stepped up. Thousands of devotees visit Guruvayoor over these 10 days. The Sreekrishna Jayanti (Ashtami Rohini) festival is another major celebration at the temple.
Temple: Attukal Temple
The Attukal Pongala festival is a 10-day long celebration in honour of the Goddess Bhagavathy. The goddess is decorated in different ways, called alankarams over these days. On the 9th day, the Goddess receives gifts of bangles from all the pilgrims. Thousands of women cook pongala or sweetened rice for the Goddess in small open wood stoves through the festival. It is one of the main temple festivals of Kerala.
Temples: Guruvayoor, Ambalapuzha and Sabarimala
Vishu, the New Year festival of Kerala is generally celebrated in most households by arranging a Vishu Kani. The Kani is an arrangement of a mirror, fruits, vegetables, lamps, and flowers. It is customary to look upon this beautiful arrangement as soon as one wakes up. Some of the important temples of Kerala also arrange an elaborate and stunning Vishu Kani and devotees throng these temples for a darshan and to receive the auspicious coin that temples distribute on this day. The temples of Gurvayoor, Ambalapuzha, and Sabarimala are famous for their Vishu celebrations and hundreds assemble at these temples early in the morning to look upon the Kani.
Temples: Aluva Shiva Temple, Padavathu Mahadeva Temple
Maha Shivaratri is another festival that is celebrated widely across India. Most households and Hindu temples celebrate the occasion in some form or another but at the Aluva Shiva Temple, Maha Shivaratri festivities reach a crescendo. The festival itself is a fortnight long affair and apart from the prayers and bhajans, there is a huge fair held at Aluva. The day after Shivratri is also a day for Bali or animal sacrifice. While the Maradu temple is also famous for its Shivratri festival, it is not as long draw as the one at Aluva.
Temple: Vaikom Temple
Ashtami festival at the Vaikom Mahadeva Temple is popularly referred to as the Vaikathashtami. It is held in November or December. The festival’s highlight is the elephant procession that accompanies the idols of other deities as they are brought to the Mahadeva Temple. Apart from this a number of song, dance, and cultural festivals are held to mark the occasion. Like most Kerala temple festivals, this celebration is marked by a huge temple feast. Unlike other festivals, however, there is no display of fireworks.
Alppasi and Painkuni Utsavams
Temple: Padmanabhaswamy Temple
Among the grandest festivals held at the Padmanabhaswamy temple of Thiruvananthapuram are the bi-annual Alpassi and Painkuni festivals in October and April respectively. Both are 10-day long festivals and are marked by grand processions, and cultural events. Lighting of lamps and bursting crackers are part of these celebrations. Apart from these, once every six years, the temple is lit up with a hundred thousand oil lamps. This occasion is called lakshadeepam.