MADURAI: Chithirai Thiruvizha is known for Meenakshi Thirukalyam and Kallazhagar entering the Vaigai River, but the hymns sung by the varnipalargal during the processions are also a speciality of the festival that many relish. Thousands of devotees wait eagerly to catch a glimpse of the Thirukalyanam and Kallazhagar, but the interesting part of the festival, which has been celebrated for decades, is these songs that praise the deities to promote harmony.
It is believed that the Meenakshi festival, related to the Shaivas, and the Alagar festival, related to the Vaishnavas, were earlier celebrated in different months. However, King Tirumala Nayaka changed the Meenakshi festival from the Tamil month Maasi to Chithirai, merging both festivals to unite people from both sects. This apart, people say the location of Alagar entering the Vaigai River was moved from Thenur village to Madurai.
Though Alagar Kovil is one of the 108 Vaishnava temples, during the Kallazhagar procession, instead of singing ‘Nalayira Divya Prabandham’ by Vaishnavas, varnipalargal sing ‘varnippu paadal’, written by the gurus. This is to encourage harmony among people, as per traditional practices.
The history behind this is that the bagavadars sing songs from ‘Nalayira Divya Prabandham’ — a collection of works of 12 Alvars — during the deity processions. But, in the case of the deity of Alagar kovil — Sundarraja Perumal — who disguised himself as Kallar (thieves) in the Chithirai festival, the songs sung for him are different. The singers are called ‘Varnipalar’ (persons describing the beauty, pride, and history of Kallazhagar) and there is a separate mandapam constructed in the name of ‘Sri Kallazhagar Bakthargal Varnipalar Pakta Sabai’ by these members.
Sri Kallazhagar Pakthargal Varnipalar Pakthasabai’s president SP Sivaramakrishnan, who is a fifth-generation ‘varnipalar’, said he does not know the story behind this tradition. He added that to his knowledge, the tradition of singing has been followed since the Pandya king ‘Malayathuva pandian’ regime.
“Eleven Vadiyars (teachers) from all communities including Yadava, Pillaimar, Dalits, and Naidus, taught ‘varnipu’ songs — ‘Kallazhagar’, ‘Karupasamy’, ‘Significance of Alagar hill’ — to their communities. We still have palm leaf manuscripts of these songs from those ancient days.” In 1965, Arumuga Konar and Periyasamy Konar created ‘Sri Kallazhagar Pakthargal Varnipalar Pakthasabai’ and included all varnipalars as members.
Sivaramakrishnan said they (varnipalars) believed that if one carried out this duty for Kallazhagar, they and their family members would be bestowed with wealth. “It’s not just singing songs during the procession. Members fast for 21 days from April 1 (no moon day) till the festival ends on April 21.
On April 1, we wear tulsi mala and follow strict fasting and avoid eating non-vegetarian food, smoking, and alcohol. During the procession, we disguise ourselves as Kallazhagar, sing songs on the pride of Kallazhagar, and spray water from our ‘thopparai’ (goatskin bag) to reduce the heat of summer and assist the devotees walking on the road,” he explained.