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One of the eight fasts (vrata) of importance in favour of Lord Siva, according to Kanda Puranam, is Thiruvathirai fast. Those, who perform it, are expected to arise from bed before dawn, complete their daily ablutions, go to the Siva Temple, witness the anointing ceremonies, light ghee lamps, offer their prayers, view the Nadarajah’s procession and fast without food until the next day when they can partake meal with Saivite devotees after their early morning ablutions and Siva worship. Patanjali, Vyakrapada and Munsishesha rishis are said to have followed this fast and obtained benefits according to puranic stories.
ARTHIRAI: Only two out of twenty-seven stars are honoured with title “Thiru”. They are Athirai and Onam, which are assigned to Lord Siva and Lord Vishnu respectively. The Saiva world surprisingly has assigned a birthday for the Primordial. Athirai seems to have been assigned to Lord Siva from very early times according to literary evidences (Kalitthogai; Paripadal). Athirai is also called Chemmin, meaning red star. The word Siva too has the meaning of a red person. Those who gave Siva a peerless position also assigned one of the biggest stars to him.
MARKALI THIRUVATHIRAI: The last day of Thiruvembavai is the tenth day, which falls on Markali Thiruvathirai. According to an old verse of Paripaddal, girls on Markali Thiruvathirai find out from elderly women how to perform the rites for Ambavadal and then start off the rites bathing in cold water before dawn and praying that the world become cool with sufficient rains in their ceremony. The Bhagavada Purana also refers to a Karthiyayini fast performed in Markali by girls similar to the above one. The ceremony conducted by girls in favour of the Mother Goddess became extended to Lord Siva and Lord Vishnu irrespective of gender and age in later times. This “Markali bathing” is referred to in some ancient poems (Narrinai; Ainkurunury; Kalitthogai) as “Thai bathing” because after the full moon in mid Markali we get part of Markali and part of Thai, there giving license for both terms. Saivites recite the twenty verses of Thiruvembavai sung by Saint Manikkavasagar daily for ten days ending on Markali Thiruvathirai. Vaishnavites recite the thirty verses of Thiruppavai sung by Saint Andal, one daily for the whole month of Markali. The divine charioteer, Lord Krishna observed that he is Markali of the calendar months and Thiruvathirai of the stars in Bhagavad Gita.
ARDHRA DARSHAN: Saivites hold Markali Thiruvathirai as one of the most holiest days of Siva. Saint Thirugnana Sambandar singing to Poompavai asks whether she is going away without witnessing Athirai (Thirumarai). It is significant that one of the six anointing ceremonies of Lord Nadarajah takes place on this day. Further Lord Nadarajah comes out in a procession of this day to give Darshan to his devotees. In Sanskrit ‘Arthirai? is called ‘Ardhra?and the Thiruvathirai anointing ceremony is called Ardhra Abisheka and the Thiruvathirai viewing as Ardhra Darshan. It is held as a great achievement to be able to view Nadarajah’s procession on Markali Thiruvathirai in Chidambaram. Saivites from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) used to go in boats to Vedarniyam (Thirumaraikadu) and then to Chidambaram for this ceremony annually in olden days. Travel restrictions between India and Ceylon put an end to this annual Saivite trek from Ceylon. However lands and properties donated by Saivites in Ceylon to Chidambaram Nadarajah bear testimony to the attachment of Ceylon Saivites to Chidambaram and its Lord. There is a great festival in the ten days ending on Markali Thiruvathirai in Chidambaram. This will be followed by the anointing ceremony in the early hours of Markali Thiruvathirai. Then it will be followed by the procession of Lord Nadarajah with his consort to bless the multitude of devotees. Chendanar of Cheppurai sang the Thiru Pallandu decade so as to get the chariot, which stuck in the mud to move on a Thiruvathirai procession in Markali (Thiru Pallandu). His only decade forms one of the five hymns recited in Siva Temples even today. Nandanar’s ambition to get Arudhra Darshan saw no bounds. He was forced to go on postponing his departure day after day due to his subservience to his Master thereby earning for himself the name of Thiru Nalai Poovar. His story is the theme of a musical drama by Gopala Krishna Bharathi in the late 19th century. The hermits of Darukavanam, due to their arrogance, overlooked the peerless Lord Siva, paying no heed to the path of knowledge, followed the pathway of Karma (action) and performed a huge fire ceremony. The gracious Lord took the form of a beggar to enlighten them when he dropped in at the doorsteps of the hermits smitten by his Grace forgot what they were doing and followed him one after another. The hermits became furious and brought one of the five dreadful creatures to destroy the Lord. Lord Siva destroyed all of them and stood upon one of them (Muyalagan) and performed a Tandava dance enlightening the hermits who was the Lord of the universe. This darshan is said to have taken place on the Markali Thiruvathirai. Therefore viewing the procession of Nadarajah on this day is said to be very beneficial.
THIRUVATHIRAI KALI (MASHED FLOUR): Cendanar of Naukoor, a disciple of Paddinattu Adigal, used to eat only after feeding some Saiva devotees. Due to a constant bad weather he could not get together all the essentials for a proper meal. He had no option but to mix water with flour and prepare a mashed paste. Lord Siva understood his predicament. He wanted the people to know how sincere his devotee was to him. Therefore he disguised himself as a Siva devotee and visited Cendanar’s hut and enjoyed what was given to him as food. The temple attendants saw the premises scattered with the mashed paste the following morning. Inquiries led to an understanding of Cendanar’s piety and he was thereafter bestowed with all due respect. This incident took place in a Markali Thiruvathirai. This is why Thiruvathirai Kali forms an important prasad on this holy day.