The two-week long Chithirai Festival is one of the biggest celebrations in Madurai, in Tamil Nadu. It reenacts the wedding of Lord Sundareswarar (Lord Shiva) and Goddess Meenakshi (Lord Vishnu's sister). According to mythology, Goddess Meenakshi will reign Madurai for the following four months.
Traditionally, Lord Vishnu has high caste followers, while Lord Shiva is worshiped by those of lower castes. What's interesting to note is that Meenakshi's marriage to Lord Shiva unites people of all castes, hence bridging the gap.
When is the Festival?
It begins on the fifth day of the bright half (waxing moon, from new moon to full moon) of the Tamil month Chithirai. This falls in April or May on the English Gregorian calendar. In 2021, the dates of the Chithirai Festival are April 15-30.
Where is it Held?
The festival is divided into two parts. The first part takes place at Meenakshi Temple in Madurai, where it culminates in a chariot parade of the newlywed deities in the streets around the temple (known as the Masi streets). After that, the location shifts to in and around Kallazhagar Temple (also known as Azhagar/Alagar Kovil) in the Azhagar/Alagar Hills near Madurai, where Lord Vishnu presides as Meenakshi's older brother Azhagar (also known as Lord Kallazhagar).
How is it Celebrated?
The festival begins with a flag hoisting ceremony on the first day. Each day, Goddess Meenakshi is taken out on various palanquins in procession around the temple. The most important celebrations occur towards the end of the festival. Two days before the wedding, Goddess Meenakshi is coronated with a gem-studded golden crown and decorated with jewelry, amid the chanting of Vedic hymns and blowing of the conch shell. The goddess is then carried out on a silver throne and presented to the public in another procession around the temple. After the celestial wedding, the newlywed deities bless devotees who have come to see them in the chariot parade.
However, not all weddings go smoothly, and there is drama in this one!
Legend has it that Lord Kallazhagar traveled on a golden horse to participate in the celestial wedding of his sister Meenakshi, stopping at temples along the way to bless devotees. Unfortunately, he gets delayed and misses the wedding. Meenakshi and Lord Shiva come to the Vaigai River, where he reached, to try and pacify him. In his fury he gets into the river to give them his gifts, and then goes back home without visiting Madurai. One of the biggest spectacles of the Chithirai Festival is this procession, particularly the moment that Lord Kallazhagar enters the river.
In 2021, the most important festival dates are:
- April 22 Coronation of the Goddess Meenakshi (Pattabhishekam).
- April 23: Procession of Goddess Meenakshi.
- April 24: Celestial wedding of God and Goddess in a grandly decorated hall inside the temple.
- April 25: Car Festival (Ther Thiruvizha). The newlywed deities are paraded through the streets in a decorated chariot.
- April 26: Edhir Sevai celebration in the evening at Thallakulam Perumal Temple to welcome Lord Kallazhagar.
- April 27: Lord Kallazhagar enters the River Vaigai on his golden horse.
- April 30: Lord Kallazhagar returns to his temple on a palanquin decorated with flowers.
Attending the Celestial Wedding
The wedding commences around 9 a.m. and is held on a flower-laden stage that's set up inside the temple compound. Up to 6,000 devotees are let in, on a first-come-first-served basis, for free through the temple's south tower. Alternatively, devotees can purchase tickets of varying denominations (200 rupees and 500 rupees) for entrance through the north and west towers. These tickets are available online from the temple's website or in person at Birla Vishram on West Chithirai Street.
There are special arrangements for foreign tourists to see the celestial wedding and the chariot festival the next day, including dedicated viewing areas. A representative from the Tamil Nadu Tourism Department escorts the foreigners from the tourism office to the venues each day. The office is located at 1 West Veli Street, Madural. Go there or contact them on (0452) 2334757 for more information.
After the wedding, a grand feast takes place at Sethupathy Higher Secondary School.
What to Expect During the Festival
The Chithirai Festival is a great opportunity to experience local life in Madurai and see a traditional Hindu wedding ritual. It attracts huge crowds of people, who flock to Madurai from surrounding areas. The festival is celebrated with a great deal of excitement and hype -- with the enthusiasm of a real wedding. The celebrations extend all over the city, and the streets are flooded with devotees.
In addition, an annual Chithirai exhibition is organized by the government at Tamukkam Grounds, on the city's northern side. Go there to experience a fun local fair, complete with Ferris wheel.
- Most the activities take place outdoors and the weather will be hot, so wear light clothing and comfortable shoes. Also be sure to carry water and sunscreen.
- Start early in the day.
- The car festival commences at 6 a.m. and goes on for about five hours.
- Take extra care of your belongings, such as wallet and camera. It's easy to lose them in the crowd.
What Else to Do in Madurai
Visiting Madurai for the festival? Check out these top attractions in Madurai.