As the name implies, the Masi Magham festival is celebrated on the full-moon day of the Magham nakshatram in the Tamil month of Masi (February-March). Although this is the most important day, the entire festival lasts 12 days, culminating on the day of Magham nakshatram.
Every 12 years, aligned with the orbital cycle of Jupiter (Brhaspati / Guru), the Masi Magham festival takes on a grand scale with the Mahamaham festival. In south India and Tamil Nadu, this festival is considered as sacred as the Kumbh Mela. In Hindu mythology, the festival is said to have been started by Brahma.
The venue of the festival is the Mahamaham tank itself, which is closely connected to the story of Kumbakonam.
The tank – spread over nearly 20 acres and dotted with shrines for Siva along its border and corners – is regarded as a confluence of nine rivers / river Goddesses, Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Narmada, Godavari, Krishna, Tungabhadra, Kaveri, and Sarayu. According to the Periya Puranam, on this day, these nine rivers rejuvenate their waters by cleansing themselves from the sins they have taken on from those who bathed in them over the years.
Interestingly, Magham is also the nakshatram of Mangalambika Amman of Aadi Kumbeswarar temple.
The festival itself is rather ancient, and is said to have been conducted since time immemorial. Archaeological and epigraphical evidence indicate that Krishna Deva Raya of the Vijayanagara Dynasty attended the festival (this is according to an inscription in the Ukta Vedeeswarar temple at Kuttalam near Kumbakonam). In the 16th century, a Nayak minister named Govinda Dikshitar is recorded as having attended the event and donated gold, which was used to build the 16 shrines around the Mahamaham tank.
Significance of the festival
The Magham nakshatram is also called the Pitrudeva nakshatram. In Hindu mythology, it is believed that Pitrudeva was the first to be created, even before the creation of gods, celestials and humans. Therefore, on the day of this nakshatram, Pitrudeva is honoured.
According to astrology, the Magham nakshatram enhances prosperity and elevates one’s status – spiritually and otherwise. It is also a day for new beginnings, congruent with the beginning of Kumbakonam itself.
For devotees, bathing in the Mahamaham tank on this day is considered one of the most auspicious events in their lifetimes. Those who are unable to attend the festival in Kumbakonam take a bath in the Teerthams of other temples, or in the sea.
A little-known fact is that in the year preceding the Mahamaham festival, there is a separate Ilaya Mahamaham (little-Mahamaham) festival that is celebrated, to welcome the rivers the following year.
Shrines and Teerthams
There are 16 shrines for Siva (Shodasa Lingams), dotting the perimeter of the Mahamaham tank. These are for: Brahmateertheswarar, Mukundeswarar, Dhaneswarar, Vrishabheswarar, Baneswarar, Koneswarar, Bhaktikeswarar, Bhairaveswarar, Agastyeswarar, Vyaneswrar, Umambikeswarar, Nairuteswarar, Brahmeswarar, Gangadeswarar, Muktateerteswaarar and Kshetrapaleswarar. These are regarded as individual temples.
There are also 20 teerthams associated with the festival, which are: Vayu, Ganga, Brahma, Yamuna, Kubera, Godavari, Isana, Narmada, Saraswati, Indra, Agni, Yama, Kumar, Nirutti, Bayoshini, Deva, Varuna, Sarayu and Kanya Teerthams, and the Kaveri river. The very devout also take a bath in each of these Teerthams, and also at the Teertham of the Aadi Kumbeswarar temple, in addition to their bath at the Mahamaham tank.
The Ramayanam connection
When Rama consulted Agastyar about invading Lanka to bring back Sita, the sage advised Rama that Ravana was a great devotee of Siva. And so, without the benediction of Siva Himself, it would not be possible to defeat Ravana.
To this end, Rama first bathed in the Mahamaham kulam, and then worshipped at the Kasi Viswanathar temple (adjacent to the Mahamaham tank), thereby imbibing Rudramsam into Him, which enabled Him to defeat Ravana.
The following 12 temples are directly connected to the story of Kumbakonam (detailed feature).
- Kumbesam is the place where the base of the pot stayed, and came to be the Aadi Kumbeswarar temple. Interestingly, the moolavar Lingam at this temple is shaped a little like a pot.
- The string (Sikkam or Uri) around the kalasam landed nearby, a little to the east, along with another shard of the pot. Later, Chandran worshipped here, because of which this place is revered as the Someswarar temple.
- The vilvam fell a little to the south, and is the Nageswarar temple.
- The coconut on top of the kalasam fell east of the Mahamaham tank, and is the site of the Abhi Mukheswarar temple.
- The sacred thread in the kalasam fell at what is the Gautameswarar temple.
- The part containing the mouth of the kalasam fell at the place we call Kudavasal (vasal or voil stands for mouth or entrance, in Tamil), site of the Koneswarar temple.
- The mid-portion of the kalasam fell a little southeast of Kumbakonam, at Kalayanallur (or Kalasanallur, the old name of Sakkottai), where the Amirtakadeswarar (or Amrita Kalasa Nathar) temple is located.
- The flowers adorning the kalasam fell south-west of Kumbakonam, at a place that came to be called Malathivanam. This is the location of present-day Adi Kambatta Viswanathar temple.
- Banathurai is where Siva stood with his bow and arrow (banam) and broke the pot open, which is the location of the Banapureeswarar temple.
- The chandanam adorning the kalasam fell a little north of Banathurai, at where the Srikalahasteeswarar temple is situated.
- The various other decorations fell close to the Nageswarar temple, and is today the Ekambareswarar temple.
- Finally, some residual drops of the nectar that flew out, fell west of Kumbakonam, which is where the Kottaiyur Koteeswarar temple is located.
The amritam filled the Mahamaham tank, and also flowed over into the Portamarai tank which serves both the Adi Kumbeswarar temple and Sarngapani temple.
On this day, at many temples, teerthavari (ceremonial bathing) is carried out for the utsava murtis. Interestingly, several temples in and around Pondicherry bring their utsava murtis to Vaithikuppam in Pondicherry, on the day of Masi Magham, for teerthavari in the sea.
Other interesting temples connected with Masi Magham
However, many other temples have sthala puranams connected with the day of Masi Magham. Some of the more interesting ones among these are:
- Siva’s ganas transporting grain from Kundaiyur to Tiruvarur, after Sundarar’s prayer, and the related utsavam at Tirukkuvalai.
- Vishnu appearing as the resplendent Sundararaja Perumal at Nagapattinam on Masi Magham.
- Teerthavari of Siva dressed as a hunter (related to Kiratarjuneeyam), at Tiruvettaikudi.
- Kunti bathing in celestial waters on the day of Magham nakshatram, as atonement for having borne the sons of the pancha boothas, at Nallur Kalyana Sundareswarar temple; it is also here that the Lingam sweats on that particular day, and needs to be continuously fanned to keep cool.
- The unusual annual rituals of the Srimushnam Bhuvaraha Perumal temple, where Vishnu is worshipped by the Muslim community
- Budhan (Mercury) bathed at the temple tank at Tiru Koshtiyur on the day of Masi Magham, because he could not bathe in the Ganga river, and so the temple Teertham is called the Mahamaham Teertham
- Siva Himself performing the last rites of a Vallala king who died on the day of Masi Magham, which is re-enacted every year, at the Arunachaleswarar temple at Tiruvannamalai.
As one can see, most associations with the festival are with Siva temples. However, five Vishnu temples in Kumbakonam are also connected with the Mahamaham festival: Sarngapani temple, Chakrapani temple, Ramaswami temple, Rajagopalaswami temple and Varaha Perumal temple. the Teerthavari of the murtis of these temples takes place in the Kaveri river. (Except for the Sarngapani temple, posts are not yet published for the other 4 temples above.)
If one intends to visit all of the temples in and around Kumbakonam connected to the Masi Magham festival, it can be done in two days. There are several accommodation options available in Kumbakonam, including right next to the Mahamaham Kulam. However, these will get extremely crowded on the day of the Masi Magham festival.