Sunday, April 11, 2004

The car festivals of India are a real treat to watch. No, it is not about the automobile rallies. It is about pulling of the huge wooden structures weighing tons by hundreds of eager devotees. The car festival of Lord Jegannath, Puri is quite famous and in fact is the origin of the word juggernaut. Many temples in South India have these ‘cars’ some small and others large. Some rich temples now have golden and silver ones. They are in fact chariots for the local God usually pulled around the streets once a year.

The car festival is celebrated in my native Thiruvanaikaval too with much pomp and glory. It comes in every March or April. Our temple has Lord Jambukeshwara and Goddess Akilandeshwari as deities. Lord Shiva has got 5 prominent places of worship one each for Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Space. In our temple, he is attributed to the water form. The sanctum sanctorum has a perennial water spring. The Goddess is known to be equally powerful too.

Each of these deities have a separate chariot, a Ther or Radham. The preparations for the festival coincide with the start of the harsh Indian summer. It’s also the time when the annual school exams are over and the two month long summer vacation begins. As a kid, I’ve enjoyed being part of this gala festival and it still fascinates me being a part of it every year.

The chariots that have been kept covered by large corrugated steel sheets for protection against dust and weather all year long, are uncovered. A religious pole is then raised up on an auspicious day conveying to all that the festival is about to happen. The bare wooden chassis is then built over with a temporary form-work which in turn gets covered and decorated with colorful cloth. Two prancing horses made of plaster of Paris are mounted in the front, just to symbolize a chariot. A long and thick rope (called vadam) is then tied to the chariot, thus completing the basic work. On the day before the festival, freshly cut plantains, coconuts and fruits are hung to add to the beauty of the already decorated chariots. One another special arrangement is watering of the muddy streets by fire engines just before the start so that it doesn’t get dusty when hundreds of people move around.

By morning 7 am, people start queuing up and start pulling the first car, that of the Lord Jambukeshwara. The arrangement is to go round the streets once, that form a rectangle adjoining the temple. Previously the huge wheels were made of wood but thanks to BHEL Trichy, they now are of robust steel.

As the crowd pulls along, most of the houses serve water, sherbet and buttermilk. There is also the tingy paanagam made by mixing jaggery, coconut, lime and spices in water. These all keep the people from not getting dehydrated. Many volunteer organizations too now chip in, contributing their own Thanneer Pandhals (water stations) et al.

The man at the top needs a special mention. He hails from a carpenter or goldsmith family and motivates the crowd not to give up. This he does by shouting over a mic and with the vigorous shaking of a towel actioning to move forward. The shouts of "aan, aaan, izhu… izhhhuuu…” ring through the air. It is also a custom of guys below, to throw ice sticks and other miscellaneous items at him, thus teasing him all the way.

One crucial thing is that the chariots don’t have any inbuilt steering mechanism. It is steered by men who apply wooden blocks made of coconut palm logs. It’s real dangerous to be crouching right there at the bottom, with one hand tied to a hung rope and the other holding the heavy steer. Men have lost limbs and even life doing that. Don’t know why they still do it the old way.

Many things happen at the rear of the chariot too. Guys keep beating drums loaded on to the car to keep up the tempo. And there are the large Sanna Kattais that play an important role in moving the chariot forward. It is like having a crowbar and a fulcrum to lift a heavy stone - only that some 10 young men load themselves onto the huge logs and jump on them to provide the required thrust from behind. This is crucial to overcome the static friction as the chariot keeps stopping every so often.

For the children, there are balloonwalas, sweet meat sellers and merry-go-rounds to add to the fun. Stick ice vendors by the dozen do brisk business too.

Once the first chariot is pulled back to its base, it's time for the Goddess to take to the road. And her chariot too gets pulled over. Some years it all happens so fast and both the cars are in their respective bases before noon (as it happened this year). But some times, its only in the evenings that all gets over. There were a very few years when it took beyond a single day for the operations to complete.

Once over, it’s a festival well celebrated and it is another year of worthy wait for it to happen again.

(April 10, 2004)