Thiruvilakku Pooja in Tiruvnnamalai

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A  Thiruvilakku Pooja is a special Tamil celebration, one of the few temple poojas done by woman. We recently attended one, on 9 August (Aadi 24, in the Tamil calendar), 2013 at Sri Arumuga Swami Temple, just west of Tiruvannamalai, across from the Simha (Lion) Tank. This is during the Tamil month of Aadi, a most important month for women. The most auspicious days are Fridays and Tuesdays in this month. This was held on a Friday, starting at sunset.

The Sri Arumuga Swami  temple celebrates the Six-headed form of Muruga (Skanda). From Arunachala-Live.com:

One of the many legends associated with the origin of Lord Muruga narrates that Lord Shiva emitted sparks from his third eye and these fell into the Saravana Poigai (celestial lake) to become six babies. Six divine damsels then sprung forth to nurse the babies and were subsequently rewarded to appear as the Karthigai or Pleaides constellation. When Shiva’s consort Parvati beheld the beauty of these children, she embraced them all together to become one form with six heads and twelve arms. In this form Lord Muruga is known as Shanmukha or Arumuga Swami(the six headed god).

Thiruvilakku Pooja Background

The pooja, Vilakku pooja (Lamp-worship) is familiar among women throughout Tamil society and is usually done in groups. This group worship occur in hundreds of villages and cities in Tamil Nadu. Groups of women, often 108, or 1008, or even up to 10008 Thiruvilakkus at a time, gather at temples to conduct simultaneous worship to their holy lamps.

‘Thiru-vilakku’ or ‘Kuthu-vilakku’ is an artistically crafted lamp (Deepa, in Sanskrit), which has a place in the shrines in South Indian Hindu homes. It is the symbol of Mahalakshmi, the deity of Fortune and Prosperity. Thiruvilakku Pooja aims at collectively worshipping Mahalakshmi by a large number of women at a time. This is said to bring prosperity to the home and peace to the world. It is mainly done for the well-being of the woman’s family; it brings all auspicious things to each and every member. Mahalakshmi comes to anyone’s house the moment they light the lamp and will grant every single desire of their heart! It is wonderful that the women can gather and do this.

Here is a deep expression of the meaning of the Thiruvilakka Pooja, from Pujyasri Mathioli R. Saraswathy:

“LIGHT LEADS TOWARDS DIVINITY”

One should first realize the divinity within oneself. Only then will one realize that such an essential sacred awareness exists in all living beings.

Relationship with another is Love. Feeling empathy for another’s suffering is Compassion. Love is expressed as Compassion. Illumination is the manifestation of the flame of a lamp, just as Compassion is the manifestation of the nature of Love.

Lighting a lamp is a divine art. The Flame of the lamp should resemble a pearl. When the lamp distributes light in this manner – beautiful to behold yet small and steady like a pearl, we will attain the full benefit of our prayers.

A lamp should not be considered as just providing Brightness. Since it dispels Darkness as well, lighting a lamp is akin to Social Service. A lamp is symbolic of the inner power of Energy (Shakthi). Its rays symbolize the many forms of energy in this world.  It is certain that the Thiruvilakku Pooja will shower benefits on Mankind.

– Mathioli Saraswathy, 1999

The Pooja

We arrived at Sri Arumuga Swami Temple at 5:30 PM. It was still light. The painting of the peacock carrying the spear is a sure sign that this is a Murugan temple, since the peacock is Murugan’s vahana, (vehicle, or mount), and his weapon is Val, the spear.

Murugan is a favorite with the Tamils. Per wikipedia, “Tolkappiyam, possibly the most ancient of the extant Sangam works, dated between the 3rd century BCE and 5th century CE, glorified Murugan, "the red god seated on the blue peacock, who is ever young and resplendent," as " the favored god of the Tamils.”

Aadi, the current Tamil month, is also a time of special reverence towards Murugan, so this is especially auspicious for the Thiruvilakku Pooja tonight.

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Inside the entrance is a mantapam, pillared hall. This is the site of this evening’s Thiruvilakku Pooja. Through the inner door is the Arumurugan shrine.

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The shrine is the pink building. Carol dressed in a saree for tonight’s festivities (naturally). She is looking at some of the women who have already gathered here.

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The peacock and Val, the spear, are in front of the shrine.

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A Tamil woman sits, waiting. If you look closely you can she her vilakku in her bag. That is all she needs to bring, since the temple will provide everything else needed for the pooja.

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Two women with with their daughters, lamps in bags.

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Another group of women, waiting.

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Inside the temple now, women are starting to gather. They sit at banana leaves that have been set out for them.

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Here are many bags filled with pooja materials for the women. The outside of the bags is printed with details of this evening’s celebration.

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A swami sits, waiting to give out the bags.

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The women present him with a chit, an invitation …

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…and his assistant gives them a bag.

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Meanwhile, a woman is still setting out banana leaves. Notice that the places are numbered. I think there were 108 places set.

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Women are starting to set up for the pooja.

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The woman in the center of the photograph below shows the lengths that the women have gone to to prepare themselves. This is surely one of her best sarees and blouses. She wears a nice necklace, with many bangles on her arms.

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This woman has piled flowers atop her lamp.

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In the photo below are Jananee and Raam Kumar, the daughter and son of Rajan, our friend.

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The fancy flowers in the women’s hair, shown in the out-of-focus photo below, are more of the fine decorations that the women wear tonight.

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These two ladies (who we saw in a photo above) are making headway on getting their lamps set up and their pooja materials set out. I think they have done this pooja before; they seem to know what they are doing.

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Meanwhile, some of those not involved in the actual pooja offer full-body pranams to Murugan.

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Another woman decorates her lamp.

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Flowers and dots of red kumkum adorn the lamp. She is tying an orange cord to it.

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Carol is seated now. Her Tamil friend, Lakshmi, brought a lamp for her, and arranged for her to have a chit and with it a bag of pooja materials. She has already removed and set out a broken coconut, matches, and a bag of kumkum. I think wicks for the oil lamp are in her hand.

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To the right in the photo below is Rajan’s wife, Janakee. These women already have their pooja bags’ materials set out.

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Carol now has a bed of rice set out, and the lamp placed on top of it. Six glass bangles, an orange cord, a yellow piece of turmeric, the wicks, and a piece of camphor are on the lower part of her banana leaf plate.

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Carol sits in a crowd of woman. Lakshmi sits to her left, in a red saree. The woman to Carol’s right, also in red, is helping with the proper arrangement of items for Carol’s pooja.

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More than any time since we have been here, Carol is treated kind of like an innocent child. A women helps Carol get items from her bag and arrange them.

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This woman’s pooja setup is pretty well complete. All the items are set out. In front of the lamp are bananas and the coconut halves. Her bangles are set on a piece of cloth (enough for a choli, saree blouse).

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Meanwhile the lady to Carol’s right is still helping her, opening a bag of something.

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Even Lakshmi gets into the act, putting wicks into the top of Carol’s lamp. Notice, below the leaf, that the bottle of ghee that was in the pooja bag has been opened. It will be poured into the lamp, and Lakshmi will saturate the wicks with oil, so they will light and burn.

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Now Carol is pretty well set to go. Items are out, the lamp is full with wicks placed, banana pooja offering and coconuts set out, even sticks of incense lying on the leaf, ready for use.

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Now she fills one leaf bowl with kumkum powder.

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Here it is. There is also another bowl, empty.

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The line of women in the row where Carol sits.

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A woman walks through, distributing what looks like rice grains with turmeric powder mixed onto them.

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Carol shows me what is under her bananas: betel leaves, with paan (areca nut). Betel and paan have been used by Indian people since ancient days. They are said to be a mild stimulant, like coffee, causing a warming sensation in the body and slightly heightened alertness. This tradition is so deep that betel and paan are also offered to the gods, during pooja. In a pooja, the gods are welcomed, and offered food and drink, and some betel and paan for refreshment.

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This woman has her cloth used as dress for her lamp, tied on with the orange cord. She will have to change all this, as the priest will show them later the “proper” use of these materials in the pooja.

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Sitting to the right of Carol, this woman is ready to go. She is wearing a nice pink saree. Everything is neatly ironed.

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Two children play on a platform within the pillared hall.

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The priest has arrived and started to talk. This is a special priest from Chennai, who is particularly expert in the Thiruvilakku Pooja.

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The women are ready to go.

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Now Carol places, under her lamp, on top of the rice, a coin, and some of the turmeric rice and some flower (rose?) petals. The coin was supposed to be 1 rupee. Carol only had a 2 rupee coin in her purse, so Lakshmi took it and gave the correct coin to Carol. These details have to be correct!

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The priest led the ladies through each step of the pooja in meticulous detail. Every gesture had special meaning. But, since we don’t speak Tamil, we couldn’t understand the deep significance that the priest was explaining.

Now he has a cloth out, showing the ladies exactly how to fold and then tie it in an open knot, to be placed around their lamps.

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So this is what they do. I notice the lady in the white saree is checking our how her neighbor is doing it.

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Next is the orange cord. The priest gets it out.

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Carol does too. She has already tied the piece of turmeric into it. She is ahead of the game. 

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Then the priest shows them exactly what he wants them to do. So Carol unwinds what she has done and starts again.

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She is looking at the priest and trying to exactly follow what he is doing. You can see other women doing the same thing.

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Here are rows of women tying their cords.

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Among the women are many small children. Even though the mothers are at this sacred event, they still have to take care of their babies and children.

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Meanwhile, there is Carol, again tying the turmeric into the cord, same as she did last time.

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OK, now she can tie it to her lamp. Whew, that took a lot of effort!

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There it is!

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The bag of pooja supplies contained a nice three-part metal tiffin container. A man walks up the aisle, pouring holy water into the bottom sections of the dishes.

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Rows of women.

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Now the priest leads them through a series of gestures, mudras, a key part of the pooja.

Carol holds the middle two fingers against her thumb.

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Hands down on tiffin plate, covering the holy water.

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The water is scooped out of the tin with one of the betel leaves, and then sipped.

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Pranams.

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Lighting the lamp.

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Everyone lights her lamp. Many of the lamps were larger than Lakshmi and Carol’s. It looked like the official setup was for five wicks, but Lakshmi and Carol only lit two.

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The room fills with the glowing light from the lamps.

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Pranams, again.

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Tapping fists on head to activate the nadis (spiritual channels of energy).

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The special turmeric rice is taken in one hand …

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…covered by the other. Carol was following Lakshmi’s gesture by putting her left hand on top, but she looked around to see that everyone else had their right hand on top. So she changed it up, first grasping the rice in her fist, but then opening the right hand.

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Middle fingers against thumb (again).

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Then a chant, 108 names of god, Om, Ganesha Namah, etc.

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Each time they chant, they pick up a pinch of kumkum from the dish on the left, the fingers still in the same mudra position …

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…touch the lamp with it, top, middle and bottom …

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…and place it into the dish on the right.

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One lady’s pooja plate, with her bracelets on top of the bananas, offered to god, too.

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Get some more water from the dish on the right …

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…and cup it in your hands, and drink (not shown).

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Now more excitement. Camphor is lit.

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Carol lights hers. It is placed in front of the banana pooja plate, only a few inches from where she is sitting.

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Camphor burns brightly in front of this woman.

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Look at how close it is to Carol’s saree. Before this step, Lakshmi told Carol to scoot back. But she was sitting in front of a pillar and couldn’t go back further. She is quite concerned that her saree might catch fire. What a disaster that would be!

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The next step was to put the burning camphor into the other section of the metal tiffin tray. Carol was not familiar with handling lighted camphor, so Lakshmi had to do it for her. Finally the burning camphor is offered to the lamp.

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Out of focus photo of this, but I like the effect.

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Moe pranams.

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Hands down.

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Pranams, yet again.

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I think she is putting something into a coconut.

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It has been about one and a half hours. The girls next to me are getting very restless. At this point, Carol was wondering if she would ever be able to walk again. Or at least stand up after the pooja was over.

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More placements into coconut. The pooja is coming to an end.

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Temple elders are honored by the gifting of shawls.

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And now it is time to pack up and go home. Each woman will get to take home material for a new saree blouse, a new tiffin container, six glass bangles, prasad, and leftover ghee, coconuts, a piece of turmeric, and a box of matches.

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The Thiruvilakku Pooja was special, and we were honored to be a part of it. We have never seen women performing this kind of mass pooja before. Such a wonderful celebration! I wonder, since it is Tamil, and so many Tamil rites are ancient, just how old this pooja is? Does anyone know?

Related Posts

Festivals and Celebrations in Tiruvannamalai Religious celebrations are a big part of Tamil life. See these festivals.

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2 Responses to “Thiruvilakku Pooja in Tiruvnnamalai”

  1. Sunanda Maldonado Says:

    I was so happy to read this account and see the photos. I have seen this type of puja performed in the Kalyana Mandapam of Big Temple but in honour of the Goddess and not Lord Murugan. There one of the temple Brahmin priests chanted the 1000 names of the Goddess while the women mainly offered pinches of kumkum to the bottom of their lamps. But the preparations were the same. I really wanted to take part but was too late to book a place and the following year I couldn’t go. It was a wonderful ceremony, full of sacred energy, as I’m sure Carol experienced too. Thanks for this, Richard.

    • Richard Clarke Says:

      Carol and I both really enjoyed this pooja, and it seemed special that we were invited to it. Glad that it touched you, too.

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