A festival unique to the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, Thiruvathirai or Arudhra Darisanam is a Hindu festival celebrated on the full moon night in the Tamil month of Margazhi (approximately in December–January), which is also the longest night in the year. The Thiruvathirai vrata is one of the eight significant vratas dedicated to Lord Shiva as it is considered to be the nakshaththram of Lord Nataraj and is the longest night of the year. The word
Thiruvathirai or Arudhra in Tamil means “sacred big wave”, that was used when this universe was created by Lord Shiva about 132 trillion years ago. The famous Chidambaram temple in Tamil Nadu, celebrates this temple with great pomp and splendour and has been celebrating for more than 1500 years, as evident from literary and historical evidence in the form of stone inscriptions.
The festival celebrates Lord Shiva’s cosmic dance of Natraj. The cosmic dance of Lord Shiva represents five activities – Creation, Protection, Destruction, Embodiment and Release. In essence, it represents the continuous cycle of creation and destruction. This cosmic dance takes place in every particle and is the source of all energy. Arudra Darshan celebrates this ecstatic dance of Lord Shiva. Arudhra or Thiruvathirai signifies the golden red flame and Shiva performs the dance in the form this red-flamed light. Lord Shiva is supposed to be incarnated in the form of Lord Nataraja during the Arudra Darshan day.
Lord Shiva never took birth and therefore there is no nakshaththram dedicated to celebrate his birthday. It was mentioned in the Hindu mythology that once Lord Vishnu was resting on the great serpent and Adhi seesha felt that He was in some deep thinking. On asking Lord Vishnu told Adhi seesha that he was remembering the dance of Lord Shiva. This answer invoked the desire in Adhi seesha to witness this great dance. He asked Lord Vishnu how this desire could be fulfilled. Lord Vishnu then urged him to do rigorous ‘tapasya’ at Chidambaram’. Adhi seesha followed his advice and devotedly prayed to Lord Shiva for a very long time. At the same there, a muni and devotee of Lord Shiva known as Viyaagra Paadha also lived in that same place. He worshipped to Lord Shiva to obtain the legs of a tiger in order to pluck flowers at the dawn, without being touched by the bees for offering to the God. He also observed ‘tapas’ to see His great ‘Nataraj’ dance. Finally, Lord Shiva was pleased with their prayers and devotion and he showed his ‘Nataraj’ dance in Chidambaram on the day of Thiruvaadhirai. From then onwards the ‘Nataraaja’ image of Shiva is worshipped here with great fervour on this day.
Tamil hymns of Maanikavasagar’s Thiruvasagam (particularly the hymns Thiruvempavai and Thiruppalliezhuchi) are chanted in temples instead of Sanskrit mantras. On the very day of Thiruvathirai, the idols of Nataraja (Lord Shiva) and his consort Shivagami (Parvati) are taken out of the temple premises for a grand procession. It is one of the major events in almost all the Shiva temples in Tamil Nadu.
In Tamil homes, during Tiruvathirai, a special dish called Thiruvadhirai Kali is made. The kali is made with rice, jaggery, moong dal, coconut, cardamom and ghee. The kali is usually eaten with a special curry called Thiruvathirai ezhlu curry koottu which is made out of seven vegetables, that is cooked and served on this day. The vegetables used for this kootu include pumpkin, ash gourd, raw bananas, field beans, sweet potatoes, colocasia, potatoes, eggplants etc.