In the coolness of a November night, the sky and earth vie with each other to achieve a level of brightness that dazzles. While up above the full moon and the stars create a canopy of heavenly illumination, the lamps that burn brightly in homes and temples speak of the faith that brings alive the festival of Tripuri Pournima. Varsha Gajendragadkar spotlights the festival’s mythological significance and how it is observed in Maharashtra
The subdued evening light of November suddenly turns into pitch darkness as night falls. This is no ordinary night though. The sky is lit up by the full moon in all its glory, rendering the smaller stars near invisible with its brightness. The air is pleasantly cool, and thousands of devotees have lit up the night with oil lamps in temples and along river ghats. It is Tripuri Pournima, the 15th lunar day of the month of Kartik according to the Hindu calendar, and the most important festival dedicated to Shiva after Shivratri. It is also known as Kartiki Pournima or Raas Pournima and it marks the victory of Shiva over the demon Tripurasura.
Kartik is considered to be the most sacred month of all the other months of the Hindu year. Fairs and rituals which begin on Prabodhini Ekadashi, the 11th lunar day, in the same month, end on Tripuri Pournima. During this period, devotees refrain from eating meat and stick to various vows like eating only once a day or not plucking fruits and flowers or not cutting the crops, etc. All these rituals end on Tripuri Pournima which is the last day for the Tulsi Vivah or the wedding of Tulsi. In Maharashtra, there is a long tradition of celebrating the wedding of Lord Krishna and Tulsi, a personification of the Tulsi or holy basil plant, also known as Vrinda. On this evening, many households celebrate the rituals of this divine wedding.
It is believed that Tripuri Pournima is when Lord Vishnu was reincarnated as Matsya or fish and protected Manu, the first man from the deluge. There is a belief that Lord Krishna and Radha, his beloved, performed raas, a kind of dance, and Lord Krishna worshipped Radha on this day. This is the reason why Tripuri Pournima is also known as Raas Pournima. The Tripuri Pournima festival also coincides with the Jain festival of light and Guru Nanak’s birthday. It is a very auspicious and religious day for Jains. This is the day of nirvana of Lord Mahavir, the 24th Teerthankar. Jain devotees read holy books and their homes are illuminated in his honour.
A popular legend associated with Tripuri Pournima suggests that Shiva in his form as Tripurantaka (the killer of Tripurasura) killed the demon on this day. The demon Tripurasura had worshipped Lord Brahma and received massive powers from him. Soon, Tripurasura became very arrogant about his unbeatable strength and started harassing people of all the three worlds. He became totally uncontrollable. The gods immediately started praying to Lord Shiva. When he asked them the reason behind the prayers, the gods explained to him the nuisance caused by the demon Tripurasura. He had conquered the whole world and defeated the gods. He had also created three cities in space, which were together called Tripur.
Lord Shiva promised the gods that he would give them relief from the demon. Shiva with his divine powers fought with the demon; destroyed all his cities with a single arrow; and finally vanquished Tripurasura on Kartik Pournima. All the gods were overjoyed by this conquest and they celebrated the day as a festival with illuminations. This day is hence called ‘Dev-Diwali’ or ‘Diwali of the Gods’. To commemorate this great victory, it is customary to illuminate the temples of Lord Shiva on Tripuri Pournima.
One of the legends also indicates that in this fierce battle, Kartikeya (also known as Skanda or Shanmuga), the elder son of Shiva, assisted his father. Kartikeya is also known to be the commander of the gods’ army and hence is referred to as the god of war. Coincidentally, Tripuri Poornima is believed to be the birthday of Kartikeya.
Traditions and Rituals
People take a bath early in the morning and draw beautiful rangolis in front of the main entrances. The Shiva temples get crowded with devotees singing prayers while the loud and rhythmic beating of mridangas and cymbals are heard all day long. On Tripuri Pournima, many believers also take a ritual bath – known as ‘Kartik Snana’ – at a sacred lake or river. It is considered to be one of the most auspicious days to take a holy bath at the Ganges in Varanasi. Similarly, in Maharashtra, devotees gather in large numbers on this day by the rivers Godavari, Krishna and Chandrabhaga. It is believed that on the day of Tripuri Pournima the gods descend to earth and reside in the sacred rivers. There are elaborate ceremonies at the Ganges and other sacred rivers.
There is an old belief that one who bathes in the sacred rivers on this day can also get rid of his or her negative energies and receive blessings from all the gods of the heavens. Annakoota (offering food to deities) is held in temples on this day. Charitable acts such as donating cows, feeding the needy and fasting are some of the religious activities that are prescribed on Tripuri Pournima. The temple premises are brightly lit up through the night with deepmalas or towers of lamps, presenting a feast for the eyes. People place 360 or 720 wicks in temples to attain moksha (freedom from the cycle of birth and death). The number 720 signifies the 360 days and nights of the Hindu calendar.
In Varanasi, the ghats present a mesmerizing spectacle with thousands of earthen lamps burning all along the stream. The same scene is observed at the various ghats in Maharashtra such as the Godavari in Nashik, the Krishna in Vai and the Chandrabhaga in Pandharpur. On this day people gift lamps to priests. Small lamps are also floated in river streams or placed under tulsi, fig and amla trees. The lights floated in the rivers or placed under the trees are believed to provide salvation to fish, insects and birds, which is why this day is also known as ‘Kartik Deeparatna’ – the jewel of lamps in the month of Kartik. One may not believe in the legends and the rituals that have been followed for the last several centuries but a glance at the night sky lit up by the full moon and thousands of stars and a glimpse of India with river banks, houses and temples illuminated by an equal number of flickering oil lamps is simply divine.
Author: Varsha Gajendragadkar Photographs: Sachin Naik, Suhas Asnikar Source: Maharashtra Unlimited Volume 2, 2013