DMTX. More than half a million Hindu devotees gathered from all over the state of Tamil Nadu to celebrate the full moon in the Tamil month of Chitrai, walking barefoot at night around the holy mountain Arunachala. Tiruvannamalai, India. 28/04/2010.
More than half a million strong, Hindu devotees gather from all over the state of Tamil Nadu to celebrate the full moon in the Tamil month of Chitrai, walking barefoot at night around the holy mountain Arunachala. Tiruvannamalai, India.
With daytime temperatures touching 40 degrees Celsius, it's a hot business, but everyone keeps cool, their attention centred inward on God in the form of Shiva, giving thanks for blessings received, or asking for fresh boons. People start out on the 13-km circumambulation of Arunachala by late afternoon, after the heat of the day has passed. Lumps of camphor are burnt and oil lamps lit at the dozens of shrines and temples, both big and small, which punctuate the circuit. All vehicular traffic is halted outside the town, leaving the road around the hill exclusively for pedestrians who form a dense river of humanity flowing clockwise around the mountain, thus keeping the object of their veneration on the right hand.
At Arunachaleshwarar Temple in the centre of Tiruvannamalai town, the main entrance is decorated with lights, all eleven storeys, rising to a height of 217 ft. Midway up the tower, a red neon sign proclaims in Tamil: "Shiva Shiva". Directly opposite it, a tirtam (water tank) is busy with pilgrims bathing, floating oil lamps, and sprinkling a few drops of water over their heads. This is especially wonderful to see because until recently, this tank had disappeared from the collective memory, filled to the brim with decades of garbage, and ripe for takeover by real-estate sharks. Luckily, the temple management and local authorities were able to rescue and renovate the tank for the benefit of the public.
There is plenty of food and drink to be had. Van loads of cooked food are offered free to devotees. The road becomes a thriving open market for all kinds of inexpensive items. Fortune tellers are popular. A plastic robot bedecked with blinking, coloured lights plays back a recording of the customer's fortunes via headphones; you press the button, it tells you the rest. A traditional variation is the parrot who picks out your card from a deck. Ten rupees (25 cents) only. I met Murugan, who happily gave me a demo. He comes to Tiru to ply his trade every full moon from Palani, a long bus ride further south.
Body piercing is not uncommon and also traditional. Like the young man who smeared his torso with turmeric, a long trishul (trident), emblematic of Shiva, lanced through his tongue, a pair of coconuts dangling from the skin of his shoulders. Your donations go into the stainless steel pot he carries in his hands. Or the lady dispensing vibhuti (sacred ash), a vel (spear) piercing her tongue.
At the bus stand, orderly chaos prevails. Cars and buses crawl through the foot traffic, with thousands leaving the town after completing their devotions, while yet more thousands arrive to do their own thing, all seemingly similar but as uniquely different as the human face. There is no let-up in the soft press of humanity, all night long and into the next day. With the moon full overhead, Chitrai in Tiruvannamalai in 2010 was a two-day affair.