Karthigai Deepam

Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu

The basis for the Hindu religion is very ancient. It is the oldest religion on Earth still in practice, with traditions spanning several thousands of years. Hinduism revolves around a triumvirate, with three Gods overseeing the creation, preservation, and destruction of the universe. Brahma is said to have created the universe, while the god Vishnu preserves it. Shiva is the destroyer. But Shiva is not represented as an evil figure—rather an essential piece to maintaining balance in the universe. It is believed that Shiva uses his powers of destruction to affect change in the universe through constructive recreation.

It is said that many thousands of years ago Shiva appeared in the town of Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu to settle a dispute between Brahma and Vishnu, who had been arguing over who was more powerful. Shiva appeared to them as a great fiery column on the Arunachala hillside. He challenged Brahma and Vishnu to a contest: whomever could find the top or bottom of the fiery column first, would be declared the greatest god. Brahma took the form of Annam, a great bird, and flew as high as he could to search for the top of the column of fire. Meanwhile, Vishnu took the form of Varaha, a giant pig, and began searching deep for the bottom of the pillar. But this was all a trick. Being that Shiva was a god himself, there was no limit to his power, and therefore no top, and no bottom to be found. When Brahma and Vishnu realized they had been fooled, their egos became diminished and they resumed their responsibilities presiding over the universe.

Today, more than a million pilgrims flock to the town of Tiruvannamalai each year to pay tribute to Shiva by making sacrifices to their own egos and by lighting small ghee (coconut oil) lamps in his honor. Those who are able, sacrifice their egos by making monetary donations, but many of those who arrive here have little to nothing at all. Some even travel hundreds of miles on the good graces of strangers who provide them with money, food, and transportation. The poor show their devotion to Shiva by sacrificing the only thing they have—their pride—by shaving their heads and beards to appear more “ugly”. 

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All Images ©Adam P. Herrera