A gentle mist spread over the lapping waves of the Tambrabarani or Thamirabarani, as the skies broke into a morning smile. The river did not look as if it was flooded or in full flow, as it lazily gurgled and swirled over pebbles, while small fish sometimes leapt in quick flashes. A pearly hue was just beginning to infuse the waters as the morning rubbed out sleep from its eyes. But by then crowds of people had already gathered — bending, and taking three dips as part of the ritual “bath” for which they had travelled for days, and changed trains and flights to reach Tirunelvelli.
It was the river “soak” for which about 14.5 lakh people had descended on this Tier 2 city from all over the country and even the world. The last time such a Mahapushkaram “bath” happened here was in 1864.
Based on the Jataka Parijata treatise, written in 1462 AD, the festival is dedicated to worshipping rivers and is celebrated in shrines near 12 Indian rivers believed to be sacred. Each river is associated with a zodiac sign or a ‘rashi’ and the river to be celebrated on a particular year depends on which sign the planet Jupiter is in, during that year. The rituals and celebrations include ancestral worship, spiritual discourse devotional music and cultural programmes. The holy dip is said to help devotees shed and drown their ‘bad’ baggage of karma.
The 12 days from October 12th to 23rd, during the Pushkar festival this year, was the ‘Guru Peyarchi’, when the planet Jupiter slipped from the Tula to the Vrichika Rashi, or from the constellation of Libra to Scorpio (and will stay there for a year) and Thamirabarani is the holy river that corresponds to this rashi. The “bath” is a part of the first 12 days of the festival.
While the Mahapushkar was being celebrated after 144 years, one thing that certainly did not dog the Thamirabarani river this time was lack of water; the tides were swelling, thanks to generous monsoons. The river passes through many villages and towns. It is dubbed a “perennial” monsoon-based catchment, even though the water trickles down and sometimes dries up during the drier parts of the year. Thamirabarani is termed to be the lifeline of the largest city in Tamil Nadu.
The Thamirabarani Mahapushkaram reflected the different attitudes of the faithful and the skeptic. Hence, while Nirmala seemed to be as comfortable as a fish in the water, Raju, her husband, was eyeing a handful of water suspiciously. As Nirmala dived and plunged, gulping loads of water, Raju sniffed delicately at his palmful, licked a few drops, shuddered and then threw it back.
“The water has not been treated properly,” he said. “The Municipal Corporation in Tirunelveli is the fifth largest in the state. But it hasn’t done a good job.” He looked over the waves, and it was clear that he was actually recalling an article that he had read, when he declared firmly that the pool had a number of pollutants, such as chemicals, carbon and dissolved oxygen. “The waters are also reported to contain ditch water and night soil, textile and paper industrial pollutants,” he said.
The Tambrabarani is the main source of water supply for a number of towns, including the Tirunelveli municipality, but its water has been found to be turbid and polluted, said Raju. To be fair, however, on this particular occasion, it did not appear to be overly so. In fact, in spite of the crowds, the water did not look too dirty or stink like many other water bodies in Chennai, Bengaluru and other big cities. Most bathers had come for their regular dips only after bathing fully at their homes. Soaps and shampoos were not permitted, while clothes, plastic or flowers could not be discarded.
Arrangements for the festival
Interestingly, days before the festivities, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had asked the District Collector of Tirunelveli, Shilpa Prabhakar Satish, not to take steps to celebrate the Thamirabarani Maha Pushkaram, as it was followed by a particular religion and its followers.
When we contacted Shilpa Prabhakar Satish, she said, rather curtly, that “organisation (of the festival) was very good” and everything had been “celebrated very well”. Refusing to elaborate further, she disconnected abruptly.
The district administration had earlier claimed that arrangements would be made for peaceful conduct of the Mahapushkar at 30 places, even as organisers said that at 149 bathing ghats, the devotees would have facilities for bathing.
However, ghats near Subramaniya Swamy Temple at Kurukkuthurai and Pillaiyankattalai at Kokkirakulam would be banned, according to Joint Commissioner of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE), A.T. Paranjothi. The first ghat is barely accessible through the narrow stretches, while at the second ghat, dangerous and deep whirlpools make bathing difficult, especially as the river swells during the northeast monsoons, making it difficult to ensure pilgrims’ safety.
Arrangements had, in fact, commenced pretty early. Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, with his team of ministers led by Manian, held meetings to discuss transportation, security and parking facilities, especially as larger crowds were expected at Papanasam, Mukkudal and Kurukkuthurai. The teams also discussed the renovation of stone mandapams and ghats on the banks of the river.
In the run up to the festival, the authorities assured that roads, street lighting, bus and parking facilities for the would be in place. Hotels, dormitories and even marriage halls were booked for the event, and the last four days during the Puja holidays saw the city choking in the rush and pressure. Here was a large city, a B-tier town, that had suddenly shot to fame due to the river festival, attracting lakhs of people. And at its peak, not much information on the bathing arrangements was being communicated by the authorities.
In a problem common to most tourist towns, the city was left grappling with garbage. The Litter-free city movement, started in Tirunelvelli two years ago, has placed it among the comparatively cleaner and better equipped cities. Yet, it is obvious that while the Mahapushkar crowds had been anticipated, not enough planning had been made with regard to crowd management or the usual problems that arise from congregations in large numbers.
Tirunelveli, then, during the Mahapushkar seemed to be a happy microcosm of a developing country. It chaotically but peacefully celebrated a medieval festival with ancient rituals and mantras, leaning on the crutches of modern arrangements, perhaps a little underdone, in a B-tier city.