One more Sivarathri. Our elders used to say, "After Sivarathri, the winter chill goes away chanting Siva Siva." True to the saying, it suddenly turned quite warm on Sivarathri day. This will now continue until we get our pre-monsoon showers, again at different times in different parts of the country. In Hyderabad, where I am right now, it won't be until June where as in Bangalore, which is my adopted home, we are lucky to have pre-Ugadi showers, one month from today.
Sivarathri has never been as exciting since my Puthucode days, when it was a big day especially because we got permission to observe partial fast, and keep awake the whole night and make merry. The excitement would begin one week in advance and we would plan what to do for the whole night of Sivarathri and whose house would be our headquarters, whom all we would enroll in our group, etc. Requests would come from many for enrollment in specific groups and there would be a lot of canvassing, approvals and disapprovals, and pleadings and condescending. On the big day or to be exact the big night, we all would assemble in the appointed place and start our program. After Puthucode, I have never observed jagaran for Sivarathri. When I look back I cannot believe how we were able to keep awake the whole night and the following day. These days, one late night results in my feeling drained out for the following few days.
Among the various activities on Sivarathri night, I remember the making of Vibhuthi for the whole year as an important ritual. On the days preceding Sivarathri, our maid would make small balls out of cow dung, called muttan, along with the flattened dung cakes to be used as fuel for the stove, and sun dry them. On the evening of Sivarathri, after her bath she would clean a small area and we would make a small kolam there. She would then stack all the dried cow dung balls there and throw on some umi (chaff from paddy). My echiyamma would then light the chaff and the cowdung balls would gradually smoulder and burn out completely over the next couple of days.The beauty of it is that once the fire is burnt out, the balls of dung could be extracted in its original shape, though as balls of ash. This ash was then collected and stored to be used as Vibhuthi for the next year.
Vibhuthi is the sacred ash smeared on the foreheads of Saivites. In those days, everyone smeared it on their foreheads after their bath in the mornings and evenings, before their prayers. Different people applied Vibhuthi in different fashions. Saivites smeared it in three lines (the Vibhuthi was made into a paste adding some water in the left palm, and with the three middle fingers of the right hand dipping into this mixture it was smeared on the forehead, chest, abdomen, forehands and arms) especially for religious occasions like special pujas, vrathas etc. On the regular days though many people just dipped their hands into Vibhuthi and drew one long line or short line across their forehead. Women and girls, just had a small line above their tilak (pottu). Smearing of Vibhuthi reminds us of the all encompassing truth that ash is what remains after everything is burnt away and ash is imperishable. That was the everyday philosophy of bringing every one down to earth in those days. Nobody needed any special spiritual retreats. The whole community was a large spiritual kendra where one learnt the simple truths on one's own or as advised to. Each time Vibhuthi was made the significance was reiterated to the children who would naturally gather around to see the ongoings which meant that the uncertainities of life was instilled in them from childhood. They were stronger and were able to withstand a lot more pains and disappointments that life inflicted on them with a lot more equanimity. What we lack in today's youngsters is just this. They dont get an opportunity to learn the simple truths of life in everyday rituals. The sayings like, "life is like a bubble which can burst anytime," "at the end we are all going to be ashes," do not find a place in every day talk these days, which were common then.
Many medicinal properties were also attributed to Vibhuthi. It absorbs excess moisture from the body and prevents colds and headaches. It was considered a great antihistamine. At the instance of any insect bite or pollen allergy, which were quite common in those days, because of the large open spaces and houses surrounded by all types of vegetation which were homes to varieties of teeming insects, Vibhuthi was rubbed on the body and this would give immediate relief.
While applying the Vibhuthi on the foreheads of little ones a pinch was also given to them to taste. Perhaps the carbon content of the Vibhuthi would act as an antacid.
It was also a big psychological booster to apply sacred Vibhuthi on one's forehead. Whenever a child was unwell the elders used to take a pinch of Vibhuthi, say some prayers and apply the Vibhuthi on the child's forehead. It was also a practice to exorcise any psychological fear by applying Vibhuthi after special prayers by a specialist chanter. Though many people used to laugh at this practice, especially after they went out to the big world, these days similar practices have come to the limelight in the name of pranic healing.
Vibhuthi abhishekam is a very popular pooja in Siva, Ayyappa and Subramania temples. The devotees of Sri Subramania smear the whole body with Vibhuthi while doing Kavadi dance. This also is the antidote for the sore caused by piercing of the lance across their cheeks as a penance by devotees of Sri Subramania. Pazhani Vibhuthi with its sweet fragrance is very famous. Vibhuthi danam is also one of the danams during special vrathas.
Vibhuthi also gives that sparkle to silver articles. We used Vibhuthi to sparkle the glasses of the kerosene lanterns which were common when we were children.
There was always a container made of wood hanging in the central hall or corner of the main veranda of all the houses in which Vibhuthi was kept so that any visitor to the house need not ask where Vibhuthi was. Vibhuthi in those days was such an important part of everyday life.