Behind the huge temple in Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu, the holy mountain of Arunachala or Annamalai rises abruptly, with its high peak pointing towards the sky. It is a huge mass of igneous rocks covered with grass, herbs and low scrub. Like other high hills of those plains, Annamalai was thrown up from the depths of the earth by some volcanic eruption in the dim past, when the crust of the earth was formed. It is said that Arunachala was a fire mountain in the Krita yuga, a gold mountain in the Treta yuga, a copper mountain in the Dwapara yuga and a rock mountain in the Kali yuga, our current age.
Once a year, the top of Arunachala is alight with a fire that can be seen for miles around. It is the god Shiva, who is manifesting himself as a blazing pillar of light, the lingobhava. Rudra or Shiva has said, 'I am Agni or great energy and I am Soma; I am myself man together with nature.' Soma is the elixir of immortality, the amrita that when rising in the spinal column from manipura chakra brings eternal bliss. The macrocosmic concept of Shiva as Agni and Soma corresponds to the microcosm of the human body with its six psychic centres, adharas or chakras in the spinal column, of which manipura chakra is the third one, the centre of the fire element and of amrita.
In the Shiva Purana the story goes that once when Brahma, Vishnu and Rudra rose from the waters. Brahma and Vishnu embraced the shakti (energy) of Rudra and asked the lord to create everything as he wished. Rudra plunged into the waters and remained there for a thousand celestial years to contract energy for the creation. Meanwhile Brahma and Vishnu grew impatient, and after conspiring, Brahma created everything conducive to happiness with his shakti.
When that was all done, Shambhu (Shiva) emerged from the waters, lustrous with the thought of creation. But finding everything already created by Brahma, Shiva got very angry, and he opened his mouth and released a flame, which burnt everything. When Brahma saw everything on fire, he prayed to Shankara (Shiva) to cause his excessive energy to enter the sun, so that gods and mortals could live together in the energy of the sun. Shiva agreed to this and said to Brahma, 'There is no good use for this lingam except for the creation of progeny,' and with these words Shiva broke off his lingam and threw it upon the surface of the earth. The blazing lingam penetrated down through the earth and went to the very sky.
As Brahma and Vishnu could see neither the bottom nor the top of the fiery pillar, each of them took his vahana (vehicle), and Brahma as the swan flew upwards while Vishnu as the boar dived down into the earth. But the farther they went the longer the lingam grew, and at last when the two unsuccessful gods had returned, the blazing column burst open, and Lord Shiva appeared in all his glory in the opening. He blessed the two astounded gods that had fallen to his feet and promised that he would appear in the form of a jyoti, light, on the top of this mountain once a year on the day of Kartikeya in the month of Kartika (October-November).
At the bottom of the east of the hill, where the lingam had fallen to the earth, Shiva was worshipped as tejo linga in the temple of Annamalai. Thus this place became one of the mukti kshetras (places of liberation), as it represents one of the five elements, or pancha bhutams, namely that of fire, tejo. Tiruvannamalai is then tejo sthala (the place of the fire's aura), just as Kanchipuram is prithvi (earth) sthala. Of the six chakra location (adhara kshetras), Tiruvannamalai represents the manipura kshetra. The manifestation of the lingobhava (symbol of creation) then resulted in the origin of the mountain and in the celebration of the Deepak Festival. Maybe this is also the origin of the Festival of Light that is celebrated throughout India in the temples as well as in every home with the lighting of hundreds of small oil lamps, or deepaks.
In the Deepak Festival is also reflected the union of Shiva and Parvati in the deity Ardhanarishwara. Once the goddess in play covered the eyes of her Lord Shiva with her hands, and thus the whole world was plunged into darkness. However, Shiva opened his third eye on the request of the gods, and the light was restored. Uma was ashamed of her childish behaviour, and she retired from Mount Kailash to Kanchipuram to do penance and purge herself of her sin. Shiva then directed her to go to Tiruvannamalai to worship him there. Mother Uma became an anchorite and did hard penance, going around Arunachala hill with deep concentration on the holy name of the Lord.
Shiva was pleased with her, and he told her that she was now relieved of her sin which was causing the untimely pralaya (complete destruction of the world). He blessed her and said to her, 'Come and unite with me,' and disappeared in the hill. Then on Kartikeya day the Lord appeared as a blazing light, a jyoti on the top of the hill, and asked Mother Uma to circumambulate the hill. So she did, and when she rounded the western side of the hill, Shiva appeared on his white bull and blessed her. When she rounded the hill on the north-western side he absorbed her into the left half of his body. Thus came into being the form of Ardhanarishwara, the deity that is represented as half male and half female.
Arunachala is indeed the abode of Shiva. On the sides of the hill are many caves and small shrines where sadhus have been living for as far back as this holy place has been known, and some of them are indeed old themselves, being about two hundred years of age. There are several ashrams at the bottom of the mountain, including the ashram of Ramana Maharshi. When climbing up the steep hillside to the top, it becomes noticeable that the hill itself and its immediate surroundings are vibrating with a bright light, as if the sun and the atmosphere unite with the earth on this hill. The borders between the triloka (three worlds) become fluid and interchangeable, and the borderline between macrocosmos and microcosmos, between the universe and man, becomes thin and transparent. The universal energy is all pervading.
The Deepak Festival lasts ten days, and on each evening a special celebration takes place, that is somehow connected with the history of the holy place. The pilgrims are ordained to fast completely on Kartikeya day and to walk around the hill the entire distance of eight miles. By imitating Mother Uma in this way, the pilgrims draw on the energy that she manifested by her penance, and they also receive the blessings of Lord Shiva. One of the days before the Deepak is the Cart Festival, where the pancha murtis, the five deities of the temple - Annamalainatha (Shiva), Unnamalai Ambal (Uma or Parvati), Vinayagar (Ganesh), Muruga (Kartikeya) and Chandeshwara (Durga), are taken the eight miles around the hill in huge, towering temple chariots fifteen to twenty meters high drawn by thousands of people with big heavy iron chains.
On another evening, Shiva and Parvati form a procession in. the streets on their huge silver bull Nandi, or the utsavas, the processional bronze images of the deities, are taken out in a magnificent silver cart. Or the deities enjoy a merry boat ride in beautifully decorated boats on the temple tank. All processions are headed by musicians playing flutes and big temple drums, and the light of many torches gleams from the jewelled dresses of the utsavas and lights the faces of the devotees, who receive their gods with folded hands, bowing down to the ground. Wherever the deities are carried through the streets, mostly at night, people stand in front of the houses with plates prepared with prasad, which is then blessed by the gods and the coconut broken, when the pandits are doing arati (worship) in front of the deities.
Before a procession, the utsavas of the pancha murtis have hours of abisheka (ritual anointment), when milk, water and a brownish mixture of various substances is poured over them and arati, the circling of light, performed in between. All the silver and gold emblems and ritual tools are brought out from the treasury of the temple, and after the abisheka the utsavas are dressed up in robes of pure gold studded with precious stones, and the main puja begins.
For hours on end the gods are showered with scented rose petals, sprinkled with rose water and garlanded under continuous recitation of mantras in the mist of the smoke from oil lamps and burning ghee. In this way the deities are well prepared for the manifestation of divine light on the evening of Kartikeya. In the early hours of the morning on Kartikeya day, the solemn ritual of preparing the five holy fires in five agantams (round vessels) is performed in the sanctum sanatorium of Annamalainathar and they are kept burning until the evening.
At the mystic hour of dusk (pradosha), when millions of people have gathered in the courtyards and on the roofs of the temple, waiting since early morning, the pancha murtis, are carried out into the courtyard in a fast running motion, sitting in their golden palanquins covered with festoons, on the waves of a soughing sound from the wonder-struck crowds. The deities are placed in a mandapa (ceremonial pavilion) opposite the entrance to the Arunachaleshwara's temple and facing the holy mountain. At the moment when the sun is setting behind the western horizon and the full moon is rising in the east, the five deepaks are brought out from the temple and placed in a big cauldron near the flagstaff. At that same moment the beacon light is lit on the top of Arunachala, and with one voice the crowd roars 'Harohara to Annamalai'. At that time also the deity Ardhanarishwara is brought out and placed on the stairs of the temple close to the big deepak. The excited pilgrims are crowding and pushing to touch the holy fire, and puja is done before the pancha murtis in the mandapa until the early hours in the morning.
Many tons of ghee have been carried up the steep, stony hill on bare feet, and the divine light will be shining from the top of Arunachala for nearly one week. All through the night, pilgrims climb the mountain to bring down the holy fire in small earthenware deepaks, so from below a constant row of flickering lights can be seen zigzagging down the hillside like a line of small glow worms. Throughout the next day a stream of pilgrims murmuring the mantra 'Harohara' climb the steep and stony path on bare feet to worship the divine fire, burning in a huge copper urn, and fill their deepaks or containers with holy ghee to burn in their small temples or puja rooms at home, a symbol of lighting the inner fire or jyoti, dispelling the darkness of the soul.
Thus in the life of the pilgrim, the Deepak Festival is an experience of transcending time and space and of being elevated to participate in the powers of the divine world; he leaves this holy place after ten eventful days purified, renewed and in an altered state of being. By the grace of God, the pilgrim might even have undergone a slight transformation through being exposed to the manifestation of so much spiritual energy, rising one step higher on the path towards enlightenment.