Why ‘Thaipoosam’ holds greater significance in Tamil Nadu this year

This year, the Hindu religious festival of Thaipoosam was particularly significant because it coincided with the 150th anniversary of the symbolic Jyothi Darshan. This event is observed with great reverence by the followers of the poet-saint Ramalinga Adigalar

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In a historic move, the AIADMK government recently announced that ‘Thaipoosam’, a Hindu religious festival, will be considered a public holiday in Tamil Nadu from 2021. This year, ‘Thaipoosam’ which fell on January 28, was also special because it happened to be the 150th anniversary of the symbolic ‘Jyothi darshan’.

The ‘Jyothi darshan’ event holds a lot of significance for the followers of the poet-saint Ramalinga Adigalar aka Vallalar, because it is on this day that all the seven screens of different hues are removed to reveal the holy light of the lamp that was once lit by him.

Thaipoosam is considered as an auspicious day for Lord Murugan (or Kartikeya) when devotees conduct special poojas in Murugan temples and those who fast in the Tamil months of Karthigai or Margazhi end it. The day is celebrated in a grand manner in other countries as well, like Malaysia, Singapore and Sri Lanka.

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Though Thaipoosam is generally associated with Lord Murugan, Tamil cultural historians like Tho Paramasivan have proven that the day is also an auspicious one for Vaishnavites. Moreover, it is on this particular day that the devotees of Vallalar get an opportunity to worship the ‘Arutperum Jyothi’ (a holy lamp) lit by the saint. This event unfolds every year at Cuddalore district’s Vadalur, a village where the saint’s mutt is located.

The darshan celebrations start on January 28 and continue till January 30.

The wise child

Ramalingam was born on October 5, 1823, at Marudhur, a village in Cuddalore district. He was the fifth and last child of Ramaiah Pillai and Chinnammai. Ramalingam lost his father when he was just eight months old. Following this tragedy, his family shifted to Pethu Nayakan Pettai in Seven Wells, Chennai.

His eldest brother Sabapathi Pillai ensured he was schooled under Mahavidwan Sabapathi Mudhaliyar in Kanchipuram. One day, the teacher was teaching Ulaga Neethi, a collection of poems that talks about how humans should lead an honest life. While all the students were reading out the lines of the poem, Ramalingam kept mum. When asked why he was not repeating the lines after the teacher, Ramalingam replied that the couplets were ending with the word Vendam (no thanks), which has a negative connotation.

“Instead of learning a book of couplets that ends with a negative word, why can’t we learn a book with a positive word Vendum (I need it)?” said Ramalingam by singing a couplet that he wrote on his own. Such couplets were collected and later published as a book titled Thiruvarutpa. 

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Realising that he was full of exceptional wisdom, Ramalingam’s family did not compel him to attend school. He was more interested in spirituality rather than studying and spent most of his time praying and meditating at a Murugan temple at Kandha Kottam in Chennai. At the age of eight, he started delivering religious lectures.

The revolutionary saint

At the age of 13, Ramalingam renounced his mundane life. But, he was pressured to marry Dhanakodi, the daughter of his elder sister Unnamulai. Even though he married her, Ramalingam never involved himself in family relationships. It is widely believed that  Dhanakodi, too, understood him.

When he was 35, he left Chennai and went to Chidambaram in Cuddalore district and lived there for nine years. A patron who loved Ramalingam’s teachings supported him during that time. Ramalingam taught Jeeva Karunya, a philosophy that did not allow killing any animals for food and to treat every living being equally.

In 1865, he moved to Vadalur and established  the Samarasa Vedha Sanmarga Sangam, a spiritual organisation to fight Varnasrama Dharma, the caste system. In 1872, the organisation was rechristened as Samarasa Suddha Sanmarga Sathiya Sangam (Society for Pure Truth in Universal Self-hood). In order to feed the poor for free, in 1867, he launched Sathiya Dharma Salai, a kitchen, in which the fire lit by Ramalingam continues to burn to date.

In 1872, he founded Sathiya Gnana Sabhai (Hall of True Knowledge), through which Ramalingam preached that both men and women are equal. The hall is considered a temple but it has no idols. He said god is one and exists in the form of light.

During the hall’s inauguration, he lit a lamp and from then on, the devotees are allowed to see the Jyothi only on Thaipoosam day. The holy light would be covered with seven screens in different colours, each screen associated with a feature that prevents humans from knowing truth.

He was a revolutionary in many ways. “In those times, the depressed classes could not enter temples but he built one for all castes. Similarly, caste-based mutts existed in those days and only people from a particular community could go and eat there. Here too, Ramalingam flouted the norms and the mutt he founded continues to serve people from all castes,” said Pa Saravanan, a Tamil scholar who has researched extensively about Ramalingam.

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Contribution to bhakti literature

The poems penned by Ramalingam were made into a collection of six volumes and called Thiruvarutpa. It features nearly 6,000 poems.

“The poems in the first five volumes were on god and have more to do with spiritual experience. It is the last volume that carries the poems centred around society and his revolutionary ideas. That’s why even Periyar published the collection through his publication Kudi Arasu and popularised it,” explained Saravanan.

According to Saravanan, it was Ramalingam’s disciple Thozhuvur Velayutham Mudhaliyar, a Tamil scholar, who gave him the title Vallalar while publishing his poems as a collection in 1864. ‘Vallal’ means ‘a great donor’ (in this case, a donor of poems) and the word ‘ar’ in the end is used as a salutation — as a form of respect to elders. Since then, Ramalingam came to be popularly referred to as Vallalar.

“Residing in north Chennai for 33 years, he used to visit the Vadivudai Amman temple in Tiruvottiyur. The road he travelled then was called Tiruvottiyur high road. It should be renamed as Vallalar, so that the life and works of Ramalinga Adigal would not be forgotten,” tweeted Tamil film actor Vivekh, who recently gave a representation for renaming the road to the chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami.

Vallalar disappeared on January 30, 1874.

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