Karthigai Deepam – Day of Maha Radha


Karthigai Deepam is the longest and most extensive Tiruvannamalai festival. This is the time of year when the most people visit Tiruvannamalai. Deepam has eleven main days, from the raising of the festival flag at the Big Temple to the lighting of the Deepam torch on the top of Arunachala at the rising of the Karthigai full moon, about 6:00 in the evening, nine days later. There are also two special days before the raising of the flag, and after the flame is lit, four more special days (or ten, if you count the days after the lighting of the mountain top flame and the subsequent nights on which the torch continues to be lit). These days include the Giri Pradakshina by Sri Chandrashekara on the day after the full moon, then two evenings of Theppam (“Holy Boating”).

Seven days after the raising of the temple flag is the day of the big chariots, Maha Radhas. The procession starts with Ganesh in the morning, Murugan about midday, then Siva and Parvati (in the guise of the Temple rulers, Annamalai and Unnamalai) towards evening. I wrote this post about the full day in 2009, which shows the first two chariots, as well as the final one. This year I thought it would be interesting to take more photos of people and fewer of the chariots (or ‘cars’, as they also call them). So this post only shows the last of the three cars going by.

Dawn this day broke with both clouds and open sky. The clouds over Arunachala never turned very red, so there is much cloud cover towards the Indian Ocean. I guess this means some rain for today.


About 1:30 PM we went to the place that Rajan had secured for our viewing today. This was the same 3rd floor balcony as last year. We are on Tiruvoodal Street, the street that leads to the vegetable market. After the cars start out from the Big Temple on Car Street, this is the next street on the route of the procession, so maybe we will see the chariot of Lord Annamalai and his consort, Unnamalai, about one and a half hours from when it starts to move.

When we got here, we were told that the Murugan car had already passed, and that nothing would move from 1 to 3 PM. The procession stops for lunch.

I decided to walk around on the streets to take photos of people at ground  level. Since I posted about the cars last year, I wanted to find other views of the Deepam today.

Deepam is watched by families who may find a viewing place and stay all day. Naturally they bring their children. This is a big holiday event and families will bring spending money for food and for treats for their children. And so there are many vendors offering things for the kiddies.

Often these are quite colorful. My walk started near this balloon vendor.

This family found a nice viewing spot on these stairs. They sit and wait. They will be waiting a long time.

These young ladies walk by. Most of them wear salwar kameez dresses, and one wears a ‘half-saree’, so I think they are young unmarried girls walking and talking together. Mostly you will see these young women walking in groups.

Another balloon vendor.

These men are getting their food ready for the coming lunch period. No one is eating there yet.

Many people like to sit in front of this temple. It is raised above street level and has a seat built along the entire front wall, so there is good seating and viewing for many people. The lower slopes of Arunachala are seen behind the temple.

This cook is making parotas. He will make dough balls, which you can see to the right side, then put several of them together and roll them out into a flat bread. This is then cooked on the grill to make a bread easy to take apart with the one hand you can eat with. It is served with a tasty sauce for dipping.

A bullock cart passes, carrying a few links of the gigantic chain used to pull the chariots. I guess these were used for Murugan’s car, and they are talking them back to the start to pull the next car.


People stand in a popular chai stand in this neighborhood. Rajan will let us buy coffee here, so they must have pretty good standards on cleanliness and washing of the cups.

Three boys walk by. Naturally they want a photo. Also, naturally, they get together in a pose for the camera.  Here, after you snap the photo, you put it on the camera viewing screen and show it to the boys. It seems to make them happy.

These women have found a good place to sit and wait and watch and talk.

Below is the street view, looking down Tiruvoodal Street towards the vegetable market.


One popular item of street food are ears of corn that have been boiled. This is easy to eat walking around.


Of course there are many hand-pushed ice cream carts. And they all seem to do good business today.


A family walks by carrying a child in a saree hung from sugar cane poles. This means that the child was sick in the last year, the parents came and prayed for the child at the Big Temple, then the child recovered. This day is the time for the family to pay their respects to the god, and this is how it is done here.

This is a building along the route. I like the abstract forms that are built into some South Indian buildings, with their fanciful and colorful paint jobs.


Many people are gathered by this building below. Most are women and girls. A flower vendor stops to see if any need flowers for their hair. If you are a Tamil woman or girl, you MUST have flowers in your hair (unless you are an old lady or widow).

This is a food booth. Now it is getting towards lunch time and there is a long line waiting here.

Two girls stop and ask for a photo. I would guess them to be maybe ten or eleven years old. They both have things from street vendors, one a playful hat, the other a balloon. I wonder if she knows what the balloon says?

More women and girls sit. They have found a place with some shade in front of these shops.

Another child is being carried by. Unusually, this one is carried by two women, with no other family members with them.


Boys, street vendors, with bamboo flutes.

A woman selling sugar cane pieces, sweets for the kids.

Another kid being carried. This one uses the saree as a swing. Most use it as a hammock.

There are police all along the route. Mostly they stand together in groups, talking to each other. Rajan says, jokingly (I think), that they are talking about the baksheesh, bribes, they got, how much and how they got them.

Sadhus sit at this building. One is our buddy, Swami Annamalai, the one wearing 1080 rudraksha beads. We say, “Om Namah Sivaya” to each other as we pass.

People walking up Tiruvoodal Street.

More vendors with colorful whirligigs.  I am not sure how many they sell, since I don’t see many people carrying them.

More people walking up Tiruvoodal Street. The girl in front has scored some kind of balloon toy.

More people waiting. The man in the cap is Muslim. Maybe the family is too, but maybe not; the women are not covered.

Some Muslim women walk by, properly covered. Deepam is a Hindu holiday, so I don’t think many Muslims take part in it.

More people on Tiruvoodal Street, this time with a cow walking by. This is India, after all.

Getting near the vegetable market, the crowd gets thicker.


Now I have turned onto Car Street. Big crowds of people are here. We are not far from where the chariots start.


I can see the next chariot down the street. I start to walk towards it to get a better view.

People are everywhere, standing and walking on the street, standing by the side, watching everything going on.

This was about as close as I could get to the car. It is about 40 feet tall, counting the umbrella at the top.  Given the size of the car vs. the width of the umbrella, I can see that it is just symbolic.


People on Car Street. It is named “Car Street” since this is where they “park” the chariots all year, waiting for processions like today.


These people watch from a nearby rooftop.


A lady selling bananas is busy today.

A woman stands in the shade with four children. I think this must be a mother and her kids.

More balloon vendors.


A lady vendor with clay lamps set out before her. I do not see any customers.

I am not the only Westerner here taking pictures.

Arunachala stands in the background.


Rajan has found the street vendor he has been looking for the whole time. His son wants some new kind of horn, noisemaker, being offered this year. From those standing around, you can see that this is a popular item this year.


Rajan has succeeded. He is blowing the horn to see how it works. He bought two, one for his son and one for his daughter.

Another boy trying to sell whirligigs. No customers, and not many sold today it looks like.

Boys standing in a group watching. They are all “modern” boys, wearing western-looking blue jeans.

This food vendor offers some kind of legume. It will grow on bushes, then be picked and dried by the women, then boiled in salt water. Rajan is buying some to take back to the group to eat.

This vendor has the ever-popular street food, puffed rice with chilies, onions and vegetables, served up in a newspaper cone.


Evening comes. Lights on the temple gopuram make a nice view.


Looking down the street from our viewpoint. The big chariot has not moved. It is more than one hour late. We heard there was some kind of accident with people hurt by the chariot. We heard that one, then two, people were killed, legs amputated, etc. The papers the next day say there were nine people hurt, some critically injured, no fatalities. This happened just after the chariot started moving. It took much more than one hour to get an ambulance there, to take the injured people to a hospital (in Chennai, so some of the injuries must have been pretty bad to take a three hour drive, when there are several hospitals in town). Then another puja had to be done to the chariot, to purify it for the procession.


Now another two hours have passed and it rained one more time. Then, finally, the chariot starts to make its way up Tiruvoodal Street.


The temple gopurams look great in the dark.


There is an amazing crowd in front of the chariot. Many people, (a couple of thousand?) are pulling chains to propel the chariot. Others just walk with it on the route.



As it nears, someone starts a great fireworks display over the city.

We all enjoy the show.

The juggernaut approaches. The lights are powered by a generator in a truck following the chariot.



You can see how intense the crowd is near the car.


Pullers are in action, and police are clearing the way through the crowd in front of the chariot.


Behind the chariot is another mass of people. They work the long levers that are needed to get the chariot moving the first inch or two, to overcome its inertia so it can be pulled by the chain gang.


Below, you can see how they wedge the lever under the rear wheels, and get a group of people to stand on it and jump (in rhythm together, for maximum effect). Not just anyone can do this, Rajan says. This is done by people from one special village. They are housed and fed in the Big Temple in the days before this event. The village, Rajan was told by his grandfather, was selected by the local Tamil king, 900 years ago. It has not changed since.


They get to the corner, and have a big problem. The lever jumpers are not getting it to move. The ones on the inside wheel are doing OK, but the outside wheel crew is not doing what is needed. And it does not do much good to try to move the inside wheels. To turn the corner, they have a primitive brake slowing these wheels. This is the only way they can ‘steer’ it around the corner, applying a brake on the inside wheels.


Here is the inside wheel crew. They are trying. There is not even anyone bouncing on the outside lever. How will will they ever get it to move?


We waited for some time while this chariot was stuck at the corner. It was not moving, and it was getting late. So we just gathered all our people together and snaked through the crowds to some nearby places where there were rickshaws waiting. I got home a little after 9 PM.

I continue to note what an amazing set of activities are at this festival. Many of them, like moving these chariots around the Temple, require the cooperation of thousands of people to ever happen. The only time thousands of people gather in the West, it is to watch something, rarely is it to actually participate. Here this kind cooperation and participation is taken for granted.

Other Deepam Coverage

Deepam has been shown in detail in other postings. Here are some of them. These, together with this post, give a pretty complete picture of the Karthagai Deepam Celebration in Tiruvannamalai.


Deepam 2009 – First Day Chariots
Deepam 2009 – Second Day’s Procession
Deepam 2009 – Day of the Big Chariots
Deepam – Procession of the 63 Nayanmar Saints
Deepam 2009 – The Night of the Silver Chariots
Deepam 2009 – Getting the Torch to the Top of Arunachala
Deepam – Preparing the  Flame
Deepam Night in Tiruvannamalai
Deepam and the Day After

Tags: , , ,

4 Responses to “Karthigai Deepam – Day of Maha Radha”

  1. subhraman Says:

    Traditionally, cart festivals were conducted not only as temple festivals but also to foster social unity.

  2. peter Says:


    excellent info, keep it coming…

  3. The Bests Bussines Online! Says:

    I live in SoCal, travel the 91 toll road. why are the people on the bridges and left lanes counting?CalTrans?…

    Hey, thank you your writing style is amazing. just found your site on yahoo. come back later for sure :)…

  4. shivayashiva Says:

    Great Pictures Richard. Thanks.
    To your doubt if the girls knew what was written on the Balloon. Most probably yes. Almost all kids going to school even in Tamil medium has to know English. English is compulsory second Language. You may try to converse with the kids.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: