CHENNAI: The sastras give us many avenues for cleaning ourselves of sins we knowingly and unknowingly commit. Of these, tirtha snana or bathing in a sacred place is considered preeminent. It is convenient as our country has a large number of sthalas or holy places with rivers or tanks which we can go to for the bath. The Mahamaham tank in Kumbakonam is a much sought after among these, and bathing here on the day of the Mahamaham is a rare blessing.
Mahamaham is a festival that is celebrated in Kumbakonam once in 12 years. Hindus consider taking a holy dip at the Mahamaham tank on the day of Mahamaham as a great blessing, and people from all over India come for the sacred bath. The timing of the festival is determined by the specific position of the sun, moon and stars. Generally the required combination of positions happens on a full moon day of the Tamil month of Masi — either in the latter half of February or in the first week of March.
The last Mahamaham was held on March 6, 2004 and it is scheduled for February 22 this year. The festival began with the Dhwajarohan (ceremonial flag hoisting) in several temples like Adi Kumbeswarar, Kasi Viswanathar, Abhimukheswarar, Kalahastheeswarar, Nageswarar in Kumbakonam in the presence of Kanchi Sankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati Swamigal besides pontiffs of Saivite mutts on Saturday (February 13).
The focal point of this festival is the Mahamaham tank located in the heart of Kumbakonam town, to the southeast of the famous Adhi Kumbheswarar temple. It covers an area of 6.2 acres and is trapezoidal in shape. The tank is surrounded by 16 small mandapams (shrines). The tank has 20 holy wells named after the 20 holy rivers of India. People take bath in these wells which are called tirthams (holy waters).
The Mahamaham occurs once in 12 years and we see many sanyasis from all parts of India coming to this festival. We understand that Govinda Dikshitar, chieftain of Raghunatha Nayak of Thanjavur, constructed the mandapams and stone steps around this tank. It is said the river Ganga and other great rivers approached Lord Siva with a prayer, a wish that had long remained unfulfilled: “O Maheswara, crores of human beings come to us to seek absolution for their sins and take bath. We have to carry all the sins they leave with us, some of them unspeakably horrific. Give us a way to cleanse ourselves of these sins we have had to take from the humans”.
Lord Siva answered: “O tirtha devatas! Visit Kumbakonam today. Today happens to be Mahmaham and a very sacred day. Take a dip in the paapanodhaka tirtha or the Mahamam tank and you will be cleansed fully. This is an incontrovertible truth”.
All the holy rivers of our punya bhoomi assemble here on the Mahamaham day every 12 years, and anyone who has a bath in the tank gets the benefit of having bathed in all these punya tirthas, the sacred rivers. People absolve themselves of sins by taking a dip at different punya kshetras. People who live in these places do likewise by going to Kasi (Varanasi). The people of Kasi do the cleansing at Kumbakonam. Then where do residents of Kumbakonam go to absolve themselves? It is in Kumbakonam itself — they don’t have to go anywhere else.
It is worth repeating that at the time of the Mahamaha utsava (called avabhruta kala) all holy rivers, all yogapurushas from different parts of bhooloka and the devas from other lokas assemble at Mahamaham tank. Your presence and devout bath is therefore bound to have lasting benefits for you and your family.