In Hinduism, light symbolizes knowledge and righteousness. It is a major motif in many festivals like Diwali and Karthigai Deepam. In most Hindu homes in India, a lamp is lit in the morning and twilight hours, and prayers are offered to deities. This creates positive energy in the surroundings and also attracts auspiciousness. Light dispels darkness, just as knowledge dispels ignorance. It represents the divine, which exists both within and without. Hence, it has a great significance in Hinduism.

Karthigai Deepam is, like Diwali, a festival of lights that has great significance in Tamil Nadu. It falls on Pournami or the full moon day (or a day earlier) in Karthigai month (November-December). Karthigai Deepam 2023 falls on November 26.

On this day, people light traditional oil lamps or diyas in the evening. Karthigai is also the name of a Nakshatra (star). ‘Deepam’ means ‘light’ or ‘diya’.

In Thiruvannamalai, Karthigai Maha Deepam festival is celebrated grandly for 10 days. Thousands of devotees throng to the Arunachaleshwarar temple to witness the celebrations at this time.   

Temples, homes, and streets are illuminated with traditional oil lamps, and special Poojas take place in temples on this day. As an auspicious symbol, the lighting of lamps brings peace and prosperity.

The day has other names, too, like Vishnu Deepam, Vaikhanasa Deepam, Chokka Panai, Pancharatra Deepam, and Yanai Pandigai. In Kerala, the festival is called  Thrikarthika or Karthika Vilakku. It occurs in the Malayalam month of Vrischikam (Nov – Dec).

Legend behind Karthigai Deepam

Once, Vishnu and Brahma started arguing about who was the superior god. The fight began to turn ugly and the other gods were worried. To end their fight, Shiva appeared before them in the form of a huge column of fire and challenged the two Gods to find the fiery pillar’s beginning and end. The one who succeeded, he said, would be the supreme god. Vishnu turned into a boar and dived under the earth to find the end of the fire. But he could not find it and admitted his failure to Shiva. Brahma, meanwhile, turned into a swan and flew up to find the beginning of the fire. But he, too, failed to find it.

Thus, both of them realized that it was Shiva who was the superior god. Shiva then appeared in the form of a hill in Thiruvannamalai. ‘Thiruvannamalai’ and `Arunachala’ mean “holy fire hill”. Karthigai Deepam is observed to commemorate this event. Later, kings and other eminent people built a temple on the hill to honor Shiva.

Another legend suggests a link between Karthigai Deepam and Muruga. Muruga took the form of 6 infants in a lake called Saravana Poigai and was raised by the 6 Krittika stars. Goddess Parvati fused all 6 forms into one boy. Thus, Muruga has 6 faces, due to which he is also called Aarumugan.

History of Karthigai Deepam

Karthigai Deepam is an ancient festival. The actual history cannot be gleaned from the Scriptures, but there are citations in some ancient works. One can find a reference to the festival in Ahananuru, a collection of poems in Tamil. It is one of the renowned works of Sangam literature that talks about the events between 200 BC and 300 AD. Avaiyyar, a renowned saint-poet of the Sangam era, has also mentioned the festival in her poetry.

Shiva has a strong following in Tamil Nadu. Shaivites consider him as the Supreme God who protects the entire world. They see him as a deity with infinite compassion and one who is easily pleased. He is also known to grant his devotees’ wishes readily.

In Tamil Nadu, Karthigai Deepam is celebrated for three days.

  • The first day of Thiru Karthigai Deepam is “Periya Karthigai”.
  • The second day of Thiru Karthigai Deepam is “Vadai Karthigai”.
  • The third day of Thiru Karthigai Deepam is “Kuppai Karthigai”.

        Rituals of Karthigai Deepam

        On all 3 days of the festival, people clean their house thoroughly. In the evening, they draw Rangolis in front of the house, place the traditional lamps or diyas on it, and light them. People call these lamps ‘agal vilakku’. Once the Deeparadhana is complete, devotees keep the lamps in different places in the house and also near the doors, windows, and balconies. They also place some lamps outside in the street. It is also the custom to burst fireworks on this day. On Thiru Karthigai, all the temples are brightly illuminated, and there will be special Poojas and prayers.

        Importance of Karthigai Deepam

        Karthigai Deepam is an auspicious day for Shaivites as well as Vaishnavites.

        This day is also very auspicious for Muruga devotees as he was nurtured by the six Krittika stars. The festival commemorates his divine birth. Karthigai Nakshatra is the birthstar of Murukan. Karthigai Deepam is also celebrated in Kerala, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, etc., where there is a sizeable Tamil population.