Lovely blossoming mango flowers are his lovely arrows,
Kinsuka is the bow and black bees its string.
Bright moon is his imperial canopy,
And the spring breeze is mighty elephant.
Cuckoos sing like minstrels,
Behold ! He has conquered the worlds.
May that victorious Kama shower benefaction on all
– Kalidasa in Ritusamhara
Vasant or the season spring has been the muse of many poets and is considered as the king of seasons; Rituraj. For when else is the air redolent of the fragrance of flowers, for when else is the breeze so cool, for when else does everything seem so pleasant.
Vasant in Indian epics has been depicted as one of accompanying mates of Kama Dev, the God of love who with his bow of sugarcane and string of bees aims sweet arrows of Ashoka flowers, mango flowers and blue lotus towards unsuspecting mortals inflicting them with wounds of deep passion. Therefore the onset of Vasant or spring is celebrated all across the country.
In South India and Tamil Nadu in particular, Vasant is identified with the legend of Kama Dahanam and celebrated as Kaman Pandigai (The Festival of Kama Deva). The legend has been described in various Puranas and also by Kalidas in Kumarasambhava. There are two important places that are identified with this legend. One is Manmatha Tank near Virupaksha Temple of Hampi in Karnataka and the other is Sri Veeratteswarar Temple in Korukkai city of Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu
Legend of Kama Dahanam
This episode is intertwined with Girija Kalyana, the marriage of Shiva and Parvati / Girija. The story goes, after the death of Sati, Shiva decides to forsake everything and become a sanyasi. He goes to a desolate forest near a cremation ground and goes deep into meditation. The heat from his meditation is disturbing the Devas but it is a minor irritant in front of the problem named Trakasura whose death will come only at the hands of the son of Shiva. Meanwhile, Sati is reborn as Parvati, the daughter of the King of mountains, Himavan. Aware of her destiny, she begins her penance to have Shiva as her husband from a tender age.
Indra, worried of the fate of Devalok, approaches Brahma who placates him by informing him of Parvati and her penance and asks him to arrange for Parvati to wait on Shiva whilst he is meditating. Days pass but Shiva does not even notice Parvati lest falling in love with her. The impatient Indra summons Kama Dev, the Lord of love to induce lust in Shiva.
Kama though fearful of Shiva’s angst but knowing that his act will benefit the world calls on Vasant and stocks up on his flower tipped arrows and leaves to face Shiva. On reaching, Vasant turns the desolate forest into a grove with sweet smelling flowers and singing birds. Parvati watches in awe while Kama aims his arrow and shoots inducing lust but Shiva being the ultimate Yogi controls his lust that turns into rage. He opens his third eye and reduces Kama to ashes.
The place from where Kama aims his arrow is the Veeratteswarar Temple of Korukkai and here Shiva is worshipped as Kama Dahana Moorthy. It is one among the Ashta Veerattanam, eight places where Shiva is supposed to have exhibited his valour.
On seeing the image of Sati in Parvati, Shiva’s joy knows no bounds and he immediately decides to marry her. Meanwhile, Rati on being informed of her husband’s fate come running to Shiva and pleads him to restore Kama as he was only doing his duty. Shiva relents and says – Kama will be restored on the day he marries Parvati but only in spirit. He will remain ananga (without physical form) to all except Rati. Only she will be able to see him in his physical form while he will remain invisible to others. Thus, the God of love works unseen and unheard!
The underlying philosophy behind resurrecting Kama Dev in spirit form is to assert that love in its truest form goes beyond the confines of the physical self and manifests in spirit. The day Shiva burnt Manmatha was the full moon day of Phalgun, therefore the holi bonfire represents the burning of pride and desires.
The advent of Vasant in Tamil Nadu begins with Pongal festivities where sugarcane plays an important part symbolizing bountiful produce and also Kama deva, the God of Love. The season spans the 3 months of Thai, Maasi and Panguni of Tamil calendar which corresponds to Makara, Magh and Phalgun months of Hindu calendar. Vasanthotsava or Manmadotsava consists of celebrations on pournami of all the three months
Sri Andal, one of the Azhwar saints of Vaishnava tradition, after a month long fast to be one with her Lord Ranganatha, decides to worship Manmatha throughout the month of Thai. In the verses of Nachiyar Thiru Mozhi, she talks of how to worship the god of love so that he helps her in uniting with her Lord. She can be called Meera Bai of South!
Given below are verses with translation taken from the book ‘Nalayira Divya Prabandam’ Four Thousand Hymns of Twelve Azhwars and commentary by Dr S Jagathratchagan. English rendered from ‘The Sacred Book’ by Sri Rama Bharati. Pictures courtesy: Balaji Srinivasan
The very famous Thai Pusam festival commemorating the legend of Parvathi giving ‘Vel’ (spear) to Muruga is also celebrated during the Tamil month of Thai. It is celebrated in all countries where Tamil diaspora resides in large numbers and in some countries it is a national holiday!
But the festival that generally corresponds to Holi in the Tamil Calendar is Maasi Magam. The pournami of the month of Maasi when the star of Maagam is at the highest point in the sky. On this night Kaman Koothu is performed.
Tamil Nadu has various folk theatre practices for different occasions and it is called Koothu. Kaman Koothu or Kaman Nadagam is performed to commemorate the event of Kama Dahanam and narrates his story of supreme sacrifice for the greater good of the world. It begins with the marriage of Rati and Manmatha.
A priest performs the wedding between the pictures of Rathi and Manmatha. Here children are seen playing the protaganists
After the marriage, the couple goes around the village aiming arrows at each other which are mostly made from Oleander stems (Arali Poo Chedi in Tamil). An accompanying part sings ballads that are based on a dialogue between Rati and Manmatha. One interesting thing to note here is though there are references to Kaman Koothu in Sangam era epic, Silappadikaram, the ballads sung presently are called Lavani. An influence of the rule of Marathas in Thanjavur most likely.
After many exchanges between the spouses, Manmatha aims his arrow at Shiva and the enraged God burns him. Rathi expresses her pain through laments (sung by the accompanying party) and pleads Shiva to bring back her husband or kill her too so that she can join him in death. Finally Shiva marries Parvathi and restores Kama in his spirit form.
This Koothu was performed for 3 nights in succession earlier but now it is performed on one night only.
Kaman Koothu renders poignancy to the celebrations where people see their favourite God being burnt. Knowing that he will be resurrected soon, it renders a solemn air to the festival that is otherwise marked by much fanfare in other parts of the country. Same country, same season, same festival yet a different legend and way of celebration!
The celebrations continue with Panguni Uthiram. Panguni is the last month of Tamil year and Uthiram is the star which is at its highest point in the sky during the pournami. Panguni Uthiram is the day when Shiva got married to Parvati and Manmatha was resurrected. This day of love and romance is celebrated throughout Tamil Nadu and adjacent states with the wedding of deities.
This is followed by a float festival where Utsava Moorthis (idols used during processions) are decked up and taken to the temple tank for a joyride. These celebrations are uniform whether it is a Vaishnava temple or a Shaivite or a Muruga temple
Thus, love in its various manifestations is celebrated in the form of Kama Dev throughout the three months of spring when the land is at its fragrant and colourful best!
The cover picture is the depiction of Vasanthotsav as seen on the ceiling of Varadaraja Perumal Temple, Kanchipuram. Picture courtesy: Balaji Srinivasan
All the pictures of Kaman Koothu used in the post are from the performance staged at Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. The pictures have been clicked by: Sudarsanrao Bhoware
Author – Zehra Chhapiwala with inputs from Mr. Balaji Srinivasan
Zehra Chhapiwala can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and Balaji Srinivasan can be contacted at email@example.com