The Most Important Custom
The most potent propitiatory rite that a devotee of Lord Muruga undertakes to perform is what is known as the "Kavadi". The benefits that the devotee gains from offering a Kavadi to the Lord are a million fold greater than the little pain that he inflicts upon himself.
Generally, people take a vow to offer the Lord a Kavadi for the sake of tiding over a great calamity. Though this might on the face of it appear mercenary, a moment's reflection will reveal that it contains in it the seed for the supreme love for God. The worldly object is achieved, no doubt, and the devotee takes the Kavadi; but after the ceremony he gets so God-intoxicated that his inner spiritual chamber is opened. This is also a method that ultimately leads to the supreme state of devotion.
The 'Kavadi' varies in shape and size from the simple shape of a street hawker's storehouse (a wooden stick with two baskets at each end, slung across the shoulder) to the costly palanquin structure, profusely flower- bedecked and decoratively interwoven with peacock feathers. In all cases the Kavadi has a good many brass bells adorning it and announcing it as the Kavadi-bearer draws it along. As, very often, the Kavadi bearer observes silence; the bells are the only eloquent signs of a Kavadi procession.
The two baskets hanging at either end of the Kavadi will contain rice, milk or other articles that the devotee has vowed to offer to Lord Muruga. The more devout among them, and especially those who do it as a 'Sadhana' (meditation), collect these articles by begging. They travel on foot from village to village, and beg from door to door. The villagers offer their articles directly into the basket of the Kavadi.
The Kavadi-bearer continues begging until the baskets are full or the avowed quantity is reached, and then offers the Kavadi to the Lord. Some keen devotees undertake to walk barefooted from home to one of the shrines of Lord Muruga, bearing the Kavadi all the way, and collecting materials for the offering. He has to walk a hundred miles sometimes! The people who place the articles in the baskets also receive the Lord's blessings.
The Kavadi-bearer is required to observe various rules between the time he takes up the Kavadi and the day of the offering. He has to perform elaborate ceremonies at the time of assuming the Kavadi and at the time of offering it to the Lord. He also puts on the dress of a 'Pandaram', a Shaivite mendicant. It consists of a saffron-coloured cloth, a scarlet conical cap, and a cane silver-capped at both ends. Lord Shiva, the Supreme Pandaram, Himself loves to wear this dress. The Pandaram lives on alms only. The Kavadi-bearer's bare chest is covered with several 'Rudraksha Malas' (rosaries).
The Kavadi-bearer observes celibacy. He takes only pure, Satwic food; he abstains from all sorts of intoxicating drinks and drugs, He continuously thinks of God. Many of the Kavadi-bearers, especially those who do it as a spiritual Sadhana, impose various sorts of self-torture upon themselves.
Some pass a sharp little spear through their tongue, which is made to protrude out of the mouth. Others may pass a spear through the cheeks. This sort of piercing is done on other parts of the body also. The bearer does not shave; he grows a long beard. He eats only once a day. The spear pierced through his tongue or cheeks reminds him constantly of Lord Muruga. It also prevents him from speaking. It gives him great power of endurance.
The Kavadi-bearer is in a high state of religious fervour. He dances in ecstasy. His very appearance is awe-inspiring; there is divine radiance on his face. Devotees often experience the state of feeling complete union with the Lord. Sometimes the Deity enters their body and possesses them for some time.
This is the most difficult Kavadi-offering. With the Kavadi hanging on his shoulders, the devotee walks through a pit of burning coals. The devotees all around the pit sing hymns in praise of the Lord. The beating of the drums and the burning of the incense make the entire atmosphere awe-inspiring. The real devotee gets into a state of ecstasy and easily walks over the fire.
The Kavadi festival is celebrated at all shrines of Lord Muruga. Dancing in a hypnotic trance to the rhythm of drums, devotees of Muruga carry the Kavadi all the way up the Palani hills to fulfill their vow. Ettukudi Kavadi Festival is a famous festival celebrated during the months of April-May. Devotees from places and villages around this temple come here with Kavadis, milk pots, coconuts, cocks and goats. This is a major crowd pulling festival where one can see the true Tamil culture in its habitat.