I often travel to Chennai in December, and I know the month of Margazhi has begun when at dawn, the silence gives way to groups of devotees singing down my street. They carry drums and musical instruments and meander through the lanes of Mylapore, rendering bhajan or devotional songs. The Tamil Margali masam, or Margazhi month (mid-December-mid-January) is a month of introspection dedicated to various spiritual practices and bhajan. Hindu mythology tells us that the gods consider the month of Margazhi as one of their day (one human year is one day for the gods and Margazhi period is dawn for them).

Auspicious events and marriages do not take place as the month is dedicated to the Divine. Over the years, Margazhi season has evolved into a comprehensive festival for performing arts. The month is synonymous with Carnatic music concerts (kutcheri) and dance programs, especially in Chennai. Another major highlight of the month is the drawing of kolam (rangoli); a ritual observed with great fervour by devotees during this period starting December 16th in 2020 and ending on January 14th. Almost all houses are decorated with elaborate designs larger than usual. These are drawn on the threshold to welcome guests and divine beings. Kolam contests are also held during this holy month, with rewards beings offered for the best drawings.

"Mārgazhi tingal madi niṛainda naṇṇāḷāl"  On this auspicious day,  full moon in the month of Marghazi ....

Tiruppavai, verse 1, Vidya Dehejia, Antal and Her Path of Love

Among the Tamil months, Margazhi is closely associated to Sri Andal, the Tamil Alvar poetess from the 8thcentury. Celebrated for her intense devotion to Vishnu known as Thirumal or Perumal in the South, she is considered an incarnation of Bhumi Devi. She wrote two major works: Tiruppavai and Nacciyar Tirumoli. The first one is often sung by unmarried girls during the Tamil month of Margazhi. Its great popularity comes from the belief that girls will find a husband as virtuous as the Lord himself if they recite the devotional verses every day, during this holy month. In many Vaishnava temples, devotees gather to sing the poem in unison. Andal’s verses are an endless source for the kolam artists.

Multiple hands to paint Sri Andal

I met a group of women attached to Srinivasa Perumal temple in Mylapore. They belong to the Vaishnava tradition and often gather to create paintings on religious themes.  At this time of the year, they have chosen to draw Sri Andal. About ten women of all ages arrive at noon, they discuss how they will create the image on a low table. In the group, Chitra has painting skills and therefore is assigned the task of drawing the outlines of Andal.

On the left, a poster of Sri Andal placed on a stool ornated with aiswaria kolam and lotuses

The other women mix the colours and applied them on the designated areas. The afternoon is joyful because the temple is also a popular meeting place for them. A means for many stay-at-home mothers to get away from household chores.

Vaishnavi is the youngest and very keen to learn with the elders
On the right of Andal's arm: "at your feet we bow down". The bottom lines repeat each first word of the 30 verses of Tiruppavai.
Left to right: Chitra, Padmavathy, Vaishnavi, Priya, Nandhini, Vasumathi, Jayasree, Aishwarya and Vaarshika
The meeting
M.L Vasanthakumari sings "Margazhi Thingal", the first verse of Thiruppavai