The Closed Doors and The Vaigai Bath, Thirumaaliruncholai-Part III
The king of Malabar, had his eyebrows locked into a serious thought. “I have to get the idol somehow”,he said to himself, “then both the statues of Aparanji will be in my kingdom”. He was scheming to get the utsavar idol of Azhagar into the Malabar coast and let no thought go wasted. “Shall I declare a war with the Pandya Empire?”, he questioned his closest of ministers. “I have to get the idol at any cost. We can easily crush them”, he added haughtily.
The minister for treasury stepped forward, ” Your Highness”, he bowed low, “The Pandia army, though smaller compared to ours, is highly versatile. Besides, they have the promise from Somasundara perumal himself that he would protect their empire, no matter what. Have you forgotten the rumour of Indra’s invasion. A single man with a “Bull flag” flying from his chariot, single handedly defeated the army, and all the arrows that found their marks had the Rishaba Muthra (Bull Seal) on them. The Pandia emblem happens to be a fish, and may I remind you that Rishaba is the lord’s mount. I believe the best way to get the idol would be with stealth and magic”, he suggested.
“Hmm… True”, reflected the king.” The protection offered by Shiva is indeed formidable. Then gather the best of Tantriks and Magicians in the empire. Bring them to me before dawn. There is planning to be done”. He dismissed his ministers.
Two days later, 18 people, learned in all sorts of magic, tantra, religious rights and warfare, secretly left for the capital of the Pandia Empire, Madurai. The were accompanied in spirit by the Guardian Deity of Malabar, Malayala Karuppu. Tackling their way through the western and eastern ghats, they ended up at the outskirts of Madurai. Before them, the four towers of Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple thrust high into the skies, twinkling with lights. Ignoring this splendid sight, they turned their heads left. The lonely but equally impressive tower of Azhagar kovil, shone bright in the night lamps.
They had arrived!!!
The arthajama pooja was just over in the temple, and the temple priests were locking up the individual shrines, when it happened. Eighteen large men attacked the temple, with their magic and might. The priests were however, fully equipped for such an attack. Afterall, the presence of a solid gold idol did not come without its share of dangers. They invoked the kshetra palakar for his help and chanting the name of the lord, they went to defend the temple. Within no time, the eighteen attackers lay dead on the ground. The priests buried them just outside the main door, as a symbol of their victory.
It was then that they heard a rustle, like air moving in water. And before them materialised a mighty figure. Dressed as a warrior, complete with a long-sword and matted locks, pitch black in colour, stood Malayala Karuppu. “Oh priests of the temple of Azhagar!!! You have shown immense loyalty and bravery in defending this temple. I am impressed. As a gift to your loyalty and as a penalty for aiding a thieving mission, I will guard this temple till the end of times. I will assure that robbery and other immoralities do not take place in the temple and in the surrounding villages. I will guard the temple, over these very eighteen bodies. In times of trouble, I will come in aid”. Having said this, he suffused into the temple doors, making them glow bright for a moment, before they returned to normal. Malayala Karuppar had taken his place and since he guards over the eighteen bodies of the would be thieves, he is called Pathinettampadi Karuppar and is the guardian deity of Azhagar Malai.
The main doors of the temple remain closed most of the year. It is believed that Karuppar resides within them looking over the kshetra and the neighbouring areas. During this time, people worship the door itself as the guardian deity. They smear sandal paste over the doors to reduce the heat of Karuppar’s Ugram and make offerings of long forged swords. Some of the swords are double a man’s height and offer a very frightening sight. The doors also act as the seat of the local Panchayat. People who utter lies in the vicinity of the doors have their lives destroyed by the guradian god’s wrath. Villagers wanting to resolve criminal and civil issues, make the accused promise in front of the doors, the belief being that if he did do wrong and refuses it in front of the door, then Karuppar would give him his rightful judgement. A nominal fee of Rs 6 is charged for any such case brought to the temple doors.
The door is, however, kept open once a year during the Brahmotsava. A strange thing happens that day. The jungles surrounding the temple, which are usually alive and vibrant with the calls of birds, go absolutely silent. Not a single bird is found in the vicinity on that day, and the temperature in the region increases by several degrees above the average. People believe that this is a manifestation of the god and his vented ugram. Special poojas are offered to the open doors before thay are closed again at night, never to open for another 365 days.
Karuppar also takes part in the day to day running of the temple. Every morning, the priest who brings water for Azhagar’s abhisheka has to pause before the doors and promise that the water was indeed brought from the Noopura Gangai and not from anywhere else. At the end of the day, the accounts of the daily activities are laid before him and finally he is also entrusted with the keys of the temple treasury at night. He is also invoked for the protection of the lord and his retinue when Azhagar embarks on his 10 day long trip to Madurai, in the month of Chithirai every year.
And that brings us to the grandest story ever of the Azhagar Temple. One that is enacted every year, to this very day.
The Queen of Madurai, Thadaathagai, was to marry Somasundara (The one as beautiful as the moon), who is none other than Shiva himself, in a grand ceremony to be held at the city center. Having lost her father, Thadaathagai had no one to give her away during the Kanyadhaan part of the wedding.( The Kanyadhaan is when the father places his daughter’s hand in the palm of her future husband and pours water over the enjoined hands, signifying the giving away of his ownership on the bride. This is the most important part in a Hindu Marriage.) In distress, Thadaathagai turned to her brother for help, “Narayana!!! Azhaga!!! Will you give me away in marriage to my lord?”, she pleaded. Vishnu readily agreed to her prayers. “I will come down from my hilly abodes of Vrishapathri with all the respects and gifts needed and give you away in marriage to Eeshwara. Do not worry and brighten up, oh bride”, he teased. Delighted by the promise, Thadaathagai prepares herself for her marriage.
Next day, at the crack of dawn, the recitation of the vedas and mantras began in the marriage hall. Somasundara sat at the altar, all decked up, radiant and bright, the most handsome one on earth. The sacrificial fire was grown and due offerings were being made when Thadaathagai entered. Escorted by her mother, Kanchanamaala, she made her way to the stage and sat besides Somasundara. The marriage rituals were proceeding in fill swing and everyone was waiting for Azhagar.
At that very moment, on the banks of the river Vaigai on the far side of the city, Azhagar stood with his retinue, in a thorough fix. Vaigai was in spate. There was no way his retinue could cross the river and make it across to the city safely. He decided to go alone and entered the river, wetting himself all over. Through sheer determination he waded across and made it to the city and finally to the marriage hall. And surprise of surprises, the marriage feast was in full swing. The marriage was over!!! Azhagar became livid with anger and stormed out of the city in a huff, feeling dishonoured and embarrassed.
However, at the banks he was met by the newly married couple accompanied by Koodal Azhagar. “Azhaga, dont be in a huff”, reasoned Somasundara,”The auspicious time prescribed for the marriage was running out. I had no choice but to call upon Koodal Azhagar to give away the bride. After all she is his sister too”. Azhagar saw his folly and blessed the divine couple with his whole heart. “Forever, shall I guard this empire of yours, my sister”, he said, and with his retinue returned back to Vrishapathri.
This divine play of wills is enacted every year during the chithirai festival in Madurai. Ten days prior to Chithra Pournami, Azhagar sets out from his abode in Vrishapathri, with a large retinue. Karuppar is invoked for protection during the journey and a complete inventory of the items that are being taken is placed at the doors. Over the next 10 days, the itenary of azhagar covers a lot of places, mandapas and hamlets on the way to Madurai. On the day after chithra pournami, he reaches the banks of river Vaigai and with his entire retinue gets down into the river, seated on a golden horse, dressed in all his finery as a hunter. This marks the highlight of the thiruvizha and is called “Azhagar Aatril Iranguthal”. Before he gets into the river, he is adorned with a garland that has been used by Aandal in Srivilliputhur, keeping up with his unending love for “Soodikodutha Sudarkodi”. Facing him from the side of Madurai, comes Koodal Azhagar on a silver horse, to welcome him and pacify him about the change in marriage plans. This is referred to as EthirSevai and thousands of people bathe in the river when the lord gets into it.
People often get excited about the dress that Azhagar wears when he gets into the river. The general belief is that, the color of Azhagar’s dress will dictate the year ahead. Green silk indicates prosperity and growth, red indicates famine and disaster and white indicates just another normal year. On the morning of the river bath, the chief priest, places a blindfold over his eyes and puts his hand into the huge trunk carrying Azhagar’s clothes and draws out the first one that he reaches. The emergent dress is supposed to be due to divine will and thus a sacred forecast of the year ahead.
That night Azhagar stays by the Vaigai, offers moksha to Mandooka maharishi and accepts offerings from the local people. He thrills them with darshans of his different avatharas over the night in a seva often called “Dasavathara Darshanam”. Early the next morning he leaves back to his abode and five days later returns back to the temple. The inventory that was kept before Karuppar is cross checked with the available items and Azhagar once again returns to his sanctum inside the temple, concluding the fortnight long thiruvizha. This is one of the most colourful festivals of South India, and people throng to Madurai in large numbers to witness both the celestial wedding of Meenakshi-Sundareswarar and the annual Vaigai bath of Azhagar.
Azhagar Kovil is just 18 km from Madurai and plenty of buses ply from the city. I would recommend that you set aside an entire day for this visit, for it would also include a short climb up the beautiful green hill to the Pazhamuthirsolai Temple of Muruga and a further short walk to Noopura Gangai and the Raakayi amman temple. People do come here in large groups for the weekend and it happens to be a hot picnic spot among the locals. The cool waters of Noopura gangai are really a pleasant relief in the hot months of summer. And above all, you get to have a darshan of the awe inspiring closed doors of Karuppar and the beatiful Aparanji statue of Azhagar. The Beautiful one will sure make your life just as beautiful.
Om Namo Naarayanaya!!!