Lamps or Deepam play such an important part in our culture. Almost every Hindu household in India has a ritual for lighting lamps. A deepam is made of clay or metal and holds oil with a cotton wick that is lit. Lighting of the lamp is symbolic of one dispelling one’s ignorance or agnyanam and the means to attain mukti or salvation. The most commonly used oil for lighting lamps is gingelly oil, although Pancha deepa oil and cow-ghee lamps are equally popular.
This festival is celebrated on the full moon day, during the Tamil month of Karthigai, which usually falls in November or December. The festival is believed to be the birthday of Lord Muruga, the second son of Lord Shiva and Parvati. It is believed that the 6 celestial nymphs who helped raised Karthikeya were blessed by Shiva to form a constellation and that their worship would be equivalent to worshipping Karthikeya himself. Usually the full moon day coincides with the Krithika star during this month!
Karthikai is celebrated from the first day of the month, where people light rows of clay lamps or deepam, also known as agal vilakkus outside their homes to usher in prosperity. That’s the reason the festival is known as “Karthikai Deepam”! This festival is actually the true ‘festival of lights’ in Southern states of India. Traditionally, a South Indian bride was always given six or 12 brass lamps that were to be used for Karthikai Deepam.
Another legend has it that Maha Vishnu and Brahma once had an argument about which of them was greater. Shiva appeared in the form of massive column of fire and said the decision would be made based on who found the base and top of this column. Vishnu and Brahma went in opposite directions hoping to find the start and end of the column but failed and acknowledged that it was Shiva indeed that was the supreme. Following this, Lord Shiva manifested as the Arunachala Hill as the Agni element in the sacred town of Tiruvannamalai and has been worshipped here with great fervour since then.
Kanchi Mahaswamigal has given the following sloka which is recited at the time of lighting lamps on Karthikai evening.
KeeTaah, patangaah, masagaascha vrukshaa
Jale sthaley yay nivasanti jeevaah
Drishtvaa pradeepam na cha janma baajaa
Bhavanti nithyam svabasaa hi vipraah
Bhavanti nithyam svabasaa hi vipraah The essence of this slokam is that any creature that is able to see the flame of the lamp – whether it is a worm, a bird, an insect or a tree / plant – any life form that lives on earth or in the water, any human belonging to any caste – may this light have the effect of them attaining moksha. May all their sins be washed away such that they transcend the cycle of birth and death.
It is with this understanding that the Maha Deepam is lit atop the Annamalai Hill. Pilgrims and devotees gather in large numbers to witness the lighting of this enormous lamp, which can be seen from miles away. This is not too dissimilar to the deepam also known as Makara Jyoti, that is lit on top of the Kaanta Hill at the end of the Ayyappa pilgrimage season.
Traditions and Celebrations Across Regions
While Karthigai Deepam is celebrated with great fervour in Tamil Nadu, it is also observed in other parts of South India. In Kerala, the festival is known as Thrikarthika, and in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, it is celebrated as Kartika Pournami. Despite regional variations in traditions and rituals, the central theme remains the same – the reverence for the divine light and the celebration of Lord Shiva's cosmic form.
The Essence of Karthigai Deepam
At its core, Karthigai Deepam is a celebration of the divine light that exists within and beyond the material realm. It is an invitation to turn inward, kindle the flame of self-realization, and embrace the spiritual journey towards enlightenment. The festival serves as a reminder that, just as the flame illuminates the darkness, the light of wisdom and love can dispel the shadows of ignorance and ego.
As you celebrate Karthigai Deepam, may the radiant flame inspire you to seek the inner light, connect with the divine, and illuminate the path of your spiritual journey. Happy Karthigai Deepam!