Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sivarathri 2009

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.


santa said...

Nice post maami.

However I don't agree that today's children don't get daily lessons from their surroundings. I think they get a lot more today via technology , a greater awareness of scriptures and general a greater awareness of how life works around them . I think these traditions were relevant for the times then, and did their job, but to say that , it is the only way is far from the truth. Somehow as humans we tend to fall back on our past and think thats it the only possible truth, but today's children are creating a new future for humanity, and creating many possibilities of the truth.

Ravi said...

Aunty, a lovely post as ever! Btw, could you also post on how you would actually do on Shivarathiri to keep yourselves engaged and awake! Also, what is the actual "aideegam" behind Shivarathiri? I hear different versions. And your points on Vibuthi - wow! I used to canvass the same points to my friends and we used vibuthi for the same reasons as listed in your post. In total a big WOW! Thanks again aunty!

Santa, I beg to differ your view. Maybe what you are referring to is the level of knowledge which children acquire but in terms of striking a balance with knowledge and psyche, I think children are definitely lacking that today. Children cannot take little failures, rejections, denials in their stride and I think parents are also hugely responsible for this.

Jennifer said...

Intriguing, Ammupatti.
I really enjoyed reading this, learning about the process and many uses of Vibuti. As I read it, I also became curious about the use of Vibuti as an 'antipersperant'. I believe it does provide some cooling effect (maybe akin to talcum powders use today) when placed on the body and also soaks up moisture produced from the body, as you have mentioned.

Incidentally, when I bought my new computer, I named it Vibuthi. The meaning of Vibuthi is beautiful and meaningful. Can you share your definitions of Vibuthi (philosophically speaking)?

jayasree said...

What a lovely post on the mahatvam of vibhuti. During my childhood days, even in my house, there was the practise of making vibhuti. I had completely forgotten abt that tradition. Thanks mami,for brining back those memories.

Janaki Gopikrishna said...

For the current generation to start using Vibhuti, we should start branding vibhuti like they brand soaps, detergeents (lakme, lux etc) . If its a branded vibhuti like say Divine Ash!! or say a Vibhuti named 'Shiva'with a good packaging highlighting the benefits people would want to use it. Among sai devotees the importance of vibhuti is very high. Other spiritual gurus n yogis have their own ways of making devotees experience the infinite. All aim at one - live life fully and happily

peearkay said...


Dear patti

It reminded me of the nights we spent at our village during Shivarathri.
The preparations start a month back.
We identfy a drama ,convert ourselves as actors and actress(since girls will not join us for this).We practice hard for a month taking special permissions in the night.
We have to design our own costumes,manage the stage,cut outs etc.Expenses we have to collect from the poor villagers like 1 re 2 rs etc.
On the Shivarathri day we have to organise the stage,sound system etc and also at the same time falling in line with the religeous protocols at home,temples and so on.
Since we dont know much about time managment the rogramme will be over by say 2 am.
Then we have to dismantle the stage clear all accounts and then lay cards till 5 am.Then we all go to the local river, take bath and after temple visit go home for a cup of coffee.
Later we have to go to school also and invariably fall asleep during the boring classes.

I still rememebr once I lost the false hair borrowed from one of the girls to make me as a girl .I managed the girl to forget it since i was a sweet looking boy.But her mother went and comlained to my mother.My mother has to shell out Rs 5 from her earnings of milk sale and I got a handful of beatings for that

Jennifer said...

I like your suggestion, Janaki. I know there are those who would scoff, but I think it is not only good in India but abroad, like in America, where vibuthi is not always easy to find. This would popularize it, especially among Indians and Non-Indian Hindus and Americans into yoga and other Indian healing traditions.

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Anu said...


A very-well written article on a topic I have never known anyone write about. I will be saving these articles for my little girl. Children in our hands do not have the depth of exposure that you point out. You are right. Access to technology can never replace the goodness of growing up with elders, their words and practices.

Ammupatti said...

Hi Santa

am glad you liked the post.

Ammupatti said...

Hi Ravi

Thanks again. I have also heard different ideegams not only about Sivarathri but with all the festivals and traditions we follow. I shall however post some of the ideegams I have heard later.

To say how we spent the night would take perhaps more than one post. In short we spent it playing some indoor games and swapping stories and ofcourse gossiping.

Ammupatti said...

Hi Jennifer

I am glad you liked the post. To give the philosophical meaning of Vibuthi, perhaps I may have to do research.

Best wishes

Ammupatti said...

Hi Jayashree

Thanks. I had a peep into your blog. You have a very wonderful blog.Keep it up.

Best wishes

Ammupatti said...

Hi Janaki

Perhaps you know that even today there are many branded vibuthis available especially in places like Palani.In families with older generation, I am sure applying of vibuthi still continues and they would be applying it on the younger generations also. My point about having elders at home:).


Ammupatti said...

Hi Peearkay

How wonderful were those days. Inspite of the beatings you got I am sure you were the first one to start the preparations for the next Sivarathri.

By the way, how did you spend this years Sivarathri?



Ammupatti said...

Hi Anu

I am glad you find the post worthwhile to be kept for your daughter.


Veena said...


I chanced upon your blog when i was trying to understand different iyer traditions.. it is really wonderful.. please keep up the excellent work..

hari said...

I like the description on vibhuti. I myself and my wife are great fans of vibhuti. When I am present in my home, after bath I usually smear 16 parts of my body with three line vibhuti tilakas. After our marriage, my wife also started doing this practice of smearing 16 parts of her body with tripundra vibhuti tilaka. This practice make the feeling of reaching the extremes of God!