Kavadi is the most powerful propitiatory rite a devotee can perform for Murugan, the second son of Shiva, and takes place wherever there is a shrine to the god. The Kavadi is a yoke-cum-altar; pilgrims traditionally carried a long pole with baskets for food offerings at each end, and this remains the base of the Kavadi. The elaborate structures are built round half moons of bamboo, wood or Steel and adorned with flowers, brass bells and peacock feathers (the peacock is Murugan’s ‘vehicle’). Kavadi bearers -Bhakta -wear robes of saffron-dyed cloth, red caps and religious insignia over their bare chests. Some carry the Kavadi on foot from village to village collecting alms, but many impose self-mortification. Metal spikes often pierce tongues and cheeks, and some devotees walk through a pit of burning coals (Agni Kavadi); for Vel Kavadi, the altar hangs on hooks from the flesh of the chest and back. This is a physical trial by which devotees seek aid from Murugan; all reach a state of religious ecstasy, which allows them to endure agony.
The town of Palani lies amidst fertile rice fields, backed by the forested Western Ghats. Its hilltop temple, dedicated to Murugan, is
visible for miles over the plains and here, during an exuberant post-harvest festival, hundreds of Kavadi bearers converge. As they approach, dancing in a hypnotic trance to the rhythm of drums, their chanting becomes more frenzied. They dance around the base of the hill before carrying their precious burdens up the hundreds of steps to the temple, exhilarated by the knowledge that their blessings will infinitely outweigh any self-inflicted pain.
The ten-day festival at Palani takes place in January. Kavadi happens at other times at various shrines to Murugan.
Palani, Tamil Nadu BEST FOR:
Religious ecstasy YOU SHOULD KNOW:
Murugan is Ganesh’s younger brother; their mother Parvati promised a golden mango to the first to circle the universe and Murugan set off on his peacock. When he returned, he found that Ganesh had simply walked around his mother, saying ‘You are my universe’, and won the prize. His mother tried to comfort Murugan, saying ‘You are the fruit’ – ‘Pala nee’ – but he left home in a rage and settled in Palani. The temple here is a major pilgrimage destination all year round.