Deepam 2014

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By Carol Johnson

  • Richard’s note: Deepam is the oldest festival in Tamil Nadu, dating back probably more than 4000 years. It is celebrated in so many ways, some small and personal, and some big and grand like the gigantic chariots of the gods being pulled around the temple by thousands of people, and the lighting of the flame atop Arunachala. This post shows some of the smaller, more personal views of the festival, taken from the eyes and camera of Carol Johnson.

This year, Deepam marked the 7th anniversary of our arrival in Tiruvannamalai. It was the 8th time we witnessed the lighting of the Maha Deepam on The Hill. For me, the festival has always been about the frenzy and excitement in the street. And the animal fair. This year I wanted to capture the feeling with my camera.

But what I realized, definitively, is how much joy I get from taking pictures of the people I encounter at these festive occasions. It goes like this: I ask if it’s OK to take their picture. “Photo OK?” They always say yes. I take one or more photos. I show them the photos. They are usually thrilled. This exchange between us, with the children and the adults, is the most precious moment I can imagine. We have exchanged love and respect for one another. I am deeply grateful for these moments. So there are a lot of photos of the people I met along the way, as well as the street scenes and animals that I set out to document. I just can’t help myself that way!

Wednesday, December 3

Last year there was no Deepam Animal Fair because of concerns of a spread of hoof-and-mouth disease. This year the animals were back, and I made a point of documenting their arrival. Below is one of the first bovine-filled trucks to arrive.

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At the air, the livestock is divided into two groups, one on each side of the Bangalore Road at Perumpakkam Road. Cattle are displayed on the lot to the south, and horses to the north. Below is the view into the “cow side,” early in the first day.

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I understood that the first day of the animal fair is dedicated to the selling or swapping of calves and younger cattle. Then the next days are for bulls and older cows.

Some younger cattle are tied together in a row in the photo below.

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This truck has just pulled into the “horse side.” They’re looking for a place to back up against a hill so the horse can get out more easily.

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The people below are from one of the livestock families. On the horse side. They live in their truck or in tents during the fair.

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Lots of sugarcane is visible around the fair, on both sides.

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Another view of the field.

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A whole community springs up around the animal fair. Below is a peanut seller with her grandson.

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A motorcycle drove up, pulling a horse cart.

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The driver drove off, leaving his sidekick to pull the wagon into the horse area.

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Lots of fruit being sold. This banana man catches my eye.

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There is stall after stall selling accessories for cattle and horses. The colors of the ropes attract me every time.

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The man below is selling cowbells and other metal items.

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Waiting for some customers.

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Tying up the last post for his stall.

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Oranges and tangerines. This vendor is starting the day with an incense blessing for his fruit cart.

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This guy was standing with some friends who wanted me to take his photo. He sort of tried to hide from me, but was delighted when I showed him the picture.

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Another peanut seller. Lonely work.

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I saw the man below with his strange-looking bicycle. He was a knife-sharpener, and was glad to give me a working demonstration. As he pedaled the bike, the grinding wheel turned.

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He’s doing some serious sharpening on the flexible knife below. I can see the sparks fly.

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Back into the horse fair. This young man was sitting atop a horse buggy.

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From a different perspective.

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Here’s a close-up of the buggy’s propulsion system. Fancy blinders, and jingle bells around the neck that sound as he trots.

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This young boy was afraid of me at first, but ended up following me around as I explored the horses.

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This man is shaving his pony. Who knew that was a thing?

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He’s just half done here.

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Arunachala presides over the event.

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This cutie is living with his family in this truck. I caught him brushing his teeth.

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Here’s his mom. The family stays in this truck throughout the fair.

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His dad was so proud of this horse. “Super color,” he told me. As always, I am amused by the use of discarded posters as all-purpose wrapping and weather-proofing materials.

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There were two sheep keeping company in the horses’ area. I’ve actually never seen sheep in Tamil Nadu before. I told the owners that they would make a good “sapadu” (meal). Maybe I should have said they’d make a good coat. But I don’t know that Tamil word.

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Colorful horse carts.

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Riding home from this morning’s outing. Out from the cattle and horse fair, there are booths set up along the road with refreshments, jewelry, and toys.

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Farther along on my ride home, I came upon the familiar face pictured below. This sign was the public notice from our friend Dhakshinamoorthy’s father’s funeral last year. (We wrote about the amazing funeral here.) Dhakshinamoorthy is the founder of the Quality of Life Trust, an NGO that we’ve been helping out. This year they set up a booth along the pradakshina route to sell water and Arunachala T-Shirts to help support their on-going project of feeding and housing village elders.

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December 4, Thursday morning

The next morning, Thursday, I went back out to the animal fair. This was the day that was meant for selling or trading bulls. I was hoping to capture the bulls arriving. The truck pictured below was just ahead of me, and turned off Bangalore Road, looking for a good place to display the bulls. Now the driver is backing up to a hill where the animals can more easily step out of the vehicle.

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Whoo hoo! I got some bulls’ eyes!

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Before the bulls could leave the truck, their handlers needed to create a comfortable place for them to be tethered. Below, they are weighing down the tethering rope with the classic all-purpose Indian tool, a rock.

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They tried to level out the ground for the bulls.

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Then they off-loaded some treats for their animals.

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Finally, the bulls are freed from the truck.

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They are being led across Bangalore Road to where their “station” has been prepared.

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Back at the main fair ground, more loads of calves are crammed into a small trucks, waiting to be off-loaded. Since I thought today was “Bull Day,” I don’t know if these calves are coming or going.

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Below, a bull is being untied from its place in the truck below.

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They seems to be presented in pairs. Often, their heads and horns are decorated.

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Except this guy below is one-of-a-kind. Look at this amazing face.

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Another impromptu “shop” selling gear for animals.

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I’m heading back home after this morning’s photographing. The main day for Girivalam (circumambulating The Hill, also called Pradakshina) is tomorrow, but there were lots of people making the walk today. These guys below, with their newly shaved and turmeric’ed heads, are standing under one of the many posters of Jayalalithaa, the ex-Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. We’ll see more of Jaya later today.

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Walking along are some serious-looking devotees.

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Another fruit vendor. The guy inside the truck is too much in shadow, but it makes a good group photo.

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Turning off Bangalore Road onto Pradakshina Road, a group was preparing a large hand-out meal. This giving of food, anandanam, is an ancient Indian tradition.

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December 4, Thursday afternoon

Richard suggested that we drive around the mountain on his motor scooter. I sat side-saddle with my camera in hand. There weren’t so many walkers in the afternoon, but the stalls and shops all along the way were set-up and mostly open.

The thing I noticed this year was the preponderance of large billboards—called hordings here. I don’t remember such signs being so “in your face” before this year. Most of the signs were Deepam-themed. Below is one of the first we saw. Can anyone tell us what it’s about?

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There were a bunch of movie posters. There have been some controversial films coming up for release recently. I think this one stars Rajinikanth, the biggest Tamil movie star.

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One of many, many vendors. With some slightly creepy toys.

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I love the blue light that is created under the blue plastic tarp.

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Ah, here is Jayalalithaa again.

Some of you probably know that "Jaya,” also called “Amma,” has been the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu until recently, when an old court case was revived and ended up sending her to jail for “disproportionate assets,” and for avoiding taxes. She was held in a Karnataka jail for a while until she was finally granted bail. The ruling against her barred her from being Chief Minister again for 10 years. Her hand-picked successor, O. Paneerselvam, has been acting Chief Minister since her imprisonment. People think she is still pulling all the strings, just like the last time this happened and she was forced to vacate the CM’s office. (I learned more about Jaya’s background in some interesting articles, like this one.)

Jaya has been “lying low” since she’s been out of prison. No mention of her in the press, unlike before her “fall,” when you read about her every day. So I found it quite striking that her posters were very prominently displayed all over the Girivalam route. Jaya is making a comeback in front of the 1.5 million devotees of Arunachala.

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Most of the posters have a reference to her mentor, movie star heartthrob MG Ramachandran, “MGR,” founder of the AIADMK party, and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister for 10 years, until he died and Jaya inherited the leadership role of the party (after some intense infighting, of course). MGR’s picture is in the circle at the upper left.

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Afternoon sun protection.

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Another political poster. I think it’s from a rival political party, PMK.

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But mostly it’s Jaya.

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Below, Jaya from when she was a Tamil movie star.

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We’re about 3/4 of the way through our Pradakshina. At the corner of Perumpakkam Road, just before the animal fair, someone had set up a Medical Camp.

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Here’s the place where the medical helpers are stationed.

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Looks like the cattle have decided to do their own Pradakshina.

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December 5, Friday morning

This is the day of the lighting of the Maha Deepam on top of Arunachala. There will be people walking Girivalam all day. Below is a shot of Bangalore Road, closed off to traffic, with Annamalai (Arunachala) in the background.

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Near Ramanasramam, the walking crowd grows.

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Snacks of sugar cane being sold. It’s a sweet treat to chew on the stalks.

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A group of sadhus offering musical accompaniment for the walkers, hoping for donations. It is unusual to see a woman participating in a group like this, but there she was.

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The queue on the left is for people waiting to use the ATM machine.

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Mounds of sweets. And the proud proprietor.

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Tambourine accompaniment.

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Girls at one of the jewelry stalls.

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Kitchen implements for sale.

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The sadhu below is collecting offerings in a conch shell.

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December 5, Friday afternoon

We head out to the street from our house. The crowd of walkers has swelled.

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Ring toss game. No one could score a win while we watched.

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A queue for free food. Richard was not intending to be part of it.

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Below, the truck from which the free food was dispensed. When the workers here saw me taking photos, they insisted on giving us a portion of the rice, explaining that it is “Prasad.” We didn’t even wait in the queue. Perhaps this makes up for all the times when Indians have jumped a queue in front of us.

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Enjoying prasad.

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Predictable trash.

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This sidewalk “stall” was offering aloe vera plants and perhaps other remedies.

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Some people found this 82 degree F (28C) day cold, I guess.

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Oh dear, another pile of trash. There were piles all over the place.

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I took this photo of Richard throwing his prasad plate into the trash bin. I joked that he might have been the only person to use it that day.

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These were for sale. I still don’t know what they are.

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This guy was twirling his tambourine on his finger.

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A challenge to shoot balloons with a pellet rifle.

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Colorful blankets for these cold nights.

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This young man was demonstrating and selling a drawing toy we used to call a Spirograph.

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Deepam lamps, small and smaller, for sale to use this evening.

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Another chance to buy sweets.

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We experienced the afternoon crowd for an hour, then we turned around to get back to our house. Going “upstream.” This is what it looked like.

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On the way back, we passed a stall selling what looked like medicines, “branded” with the poster below. The character on the right of the poster is Vallalar, also known as Ramalinga Swami. I have been fascinated with him for years. It looks like Vallalar, Siva, and the Rishi are sending some kind of energy to the man below.

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“Vallalar products.”

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Rudraksha bead stall.

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We’re almost home. Our house is on the other side of the road from the Nithyananda compound. Rumor has it that he has closed his main ashram between Bangalore and Mysore, and plans to relocate to this one. Oh boy, a celebrity in our neighborhood.

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These are more recent photos of Nityananda. He’s aged and gained weight since his “troubles” from a few years ago.

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We’re at the point where we need to cross the road to get to our house. In order to do so, we need to keep walking straight ahead, turn around and enter the human flow, nudging our way to the other side of the road.

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Friday evening

This is it, the big event. While we were waiting, our dogs were running around. Pippi is in the foreground, and you can just see Freckles’ face. The third dog, “Big Red,” is still a puppy, and is always bothering the “old girls” to play.

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People climbing up to the roof of the building in front of us.

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There it is! The first glimpse of the Holy Flame! It’s always exciting.

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A family from Salem was standing behind us. They lit their own deepam when the Maha was lit.

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The requisite fireworks.

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More neighborhood action. That’s probably another firecracker in the background.

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The light is still visible, really tiny, while the moon has risen.

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Sunday morning, December 7

Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK party didn’t waste any time in setting up an “event” on the Girivalam road. They’ve planted banners all along. Presumably there will be a party meeting or something here later.

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They’re cleaning up! Amazing!

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The former site of the horse fair wears a deserted look. (By the way, the poster in the right foreground decrees that plastic bags are illegal here, beginning from August. I wonder how that’s working out for the cleaning crews?)

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I hope he did some good business. He’s got some cool-looking trinkets.

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Here’s one of the usual fruit vendors. He looks like he’s sitting in the middle of some severe storm damage. But nope, just the aftermath of the huge crowd. He sets up his small fruit stand right by the State Bank of India ATM. He always waves “hello” when we go past.

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The same “serious” devotees.

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But it looks like they’re sick of walking.

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Wow! Look at how clean the road is!

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The cleaning crew is right ahead of us.

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Great work, guys!

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This is the day that the gods from the Big Temple are taken around the mountain. This is the traffic jam that is backed up behind them.

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Outside of Nityananda’s spread, his devotees are waiting for the god procession. The hill seen in the background is Parvati, the smaller hill to the west of Arunachala. It is said that at this spot Parvati blocks the view of Arunachala, just like the ego blocks the view of the Self. Curious that Arunachala can’t be seen at all from Nityananda’s property.

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As usual, there was a large police presence during the festival, 12,000 in all. I bet they’re glad it’s almost over.

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And this sadhu rides by on his bike, sporting a symbol of universal spirituality.

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Here comes the first of 2 tractors pulling the gods. Preceded, of course, by drummers.

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The man below is the “keeper of the flame.”

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Annamalai and Unamalai are being inundated with offerings of flower malas and dhotis and sarees.

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Someone is passing up a plate of fruit to receive the blessings of the gods.

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A priest has received a mala and a saree and is handing them up to the other priest to be included in the offerings.

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The crowd waits for darshan and a chance to take the light of the flame.

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The priest waves the flame.

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Here, the flame from the “chariot” is being offered to the gods at the altar set up by the Nityananda devotees.

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One last darshan before the parade passes.

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Every year, the Kartagai Deepam festival works its magic on Tiruvannamalai. I am so grateful to have experienced this most auspicious event, and I will treasure these memories forever.

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7 Responses to “Deepam 2014”

  1. Michael Bowes Says:

    Carol and Richard,
    I enjoy all of your posts; but this one really caught my attention. Having been in the livestock business I was intrigued by the animal fair that also coincides with Deepam.
    Please keep up the great work.
    Michael Bowes

  2. sathyan2008 Says:

    Thanks Mr.Richard and Ms.Carol for the deepam and other photos and the excellent report..Hope you will there in many more deepams so that the world can see it from your blog.Thanks a lot.

  3. marilynsandperl Says:

    Thank you, Carol! This was so much fun to view, and I felt like I was right there with you. I could almost smell the animals! What a great eye you have. Your photos are outstanding. Great commentary, also! Love all the details! (What will we do when you guys leave Tiru? 😦 )

  4. Pradeep KN (MusicIsDivine) Says:

    Thanks very much for your excellent report on the Deepam festival – hope to stay in Thiruvannamalai some time and experience the fair as you have done. ….. Latha Pradeep

  5. gaiainaction Says:

    Thank you for letting us be part of Deepam festival Carol, it’s a great reportage and I’ve enjoyed being there with you in these photos and text. My last time round there for Deepam was in 2010, so it’s great to see your photos.

  6. cspacenz Says:

    Well done Carol, excellent reporting. You have a good eye for a photograph and so much of what you have taken pictures of are what I have photographed myself. I have just purchased a new, more powerful zoom lens especially for my next visit in January so I can’t wait.

    I absolutely love the knife sharpener guy on the bike, that is outstanding.

    Thanks for your efforts, it’s appreciated.

  7. Kiran Uday Mylavarapu Says:

    Hi Richard
    Thanks for the wonderful coverage. I also liked you sense of humour on the photos of the serious devotees and the metaphor used on visibility of Arunachala from nityananda ashram

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