Masi Magam is one of the biggest festivals, celebrated by the Irular people. They belong to the Irula tribe of Tamil Nadu. This festival is dedicated to seven goddesses, known as 'The Seven Sisters' or 'The Seven Virgins'. Interestingly, in the ancient Indian geo centric astronomy, the seven sisters refers to a constellation. Adivasi Awaaz creator Thennarassu, gives insight into this festival.
Every year, the Masi Magam festival is celebrated during the Tamil month of Masi, which overlaps a few days with both February and March, at Mamallapuram Thirukkadalmallai temple, next to Chennai. The people of the ancient Irula tribe, from all over Tamil Nadu, come together to worship their Patron Goddesses, the Seven Sisters or the Seven Virgins. It usually falls on a full moon night. Several rituals are performed on the seashore. Tall posts are erected at the four corners of the beach and the whole area is surrounded with cloth, usually sarees. Neem leaves and Turmeric are tied to the boundaries. It is the belief of the people that Neem and Turmeric, cleanse the area and ward off evil. Cleansing, is an important part, conducted before the festival, as the festival is considered to be utterly pious and holy.
The time period when all the worshipers come down to the beach is called ‘Koodugai’. During the Koodugai period, which is about four days, the Irula people hunt together in the forest surrounding the beaches. They catch crabs and lobsters on the beaches of Mamallapuram. With the items available locally, they cook various kinds of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. Drinks are also served. The Irula people wear yellow strings on their hands with flowers and clad themselves in yellow clothes waiting for the Goddesses. One among the devotees is Kanniappan, from the Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu. He is one of the local priests. We asked him more about the festival. “With the thought of our goddesses in our hearts, when we take a dip into the sea, we believe it washes our sins away. Hang around a bit more and witness the festival tomorrow morning”, said Kanniappan.
The next morning, families flocked at the seashore and made a pandhal with Neem leaves. They then washed it with water and decorated it with turmeric, sandalwood, saffron and fresh flowers. They prepared a feast with puffed rice, fruits, beetle leaves, nuts and Coconuts. Everyone then took a dip into the sea, marked themselves with fresh sandalwood and wore garlands. They gathered around the Seven Holy Virgins’ statues erected on the seashore. The elders in the families became ecstatic with 'bhakti' and lit camphor on all the seven statues. They raised plates over their heads and shouted ‘Kanniamma’. After that, they began dancing, as a portrayal of their bhakti, sometimes quite violently. Then began the famous fortune telling sessions. It is believed that the predictions made at the Mamallapuram beach during the festival are true. Ear-piercing and head tonsuring of children is also done during this festival as sacrifices to the goddesses. Marriage proposals, engagements and sometimes marriage ceremonies also take place during the festival. All this along with the dawning sun makes the beach look festively pristine. People leave the Mamallapuram beach, with the belief that Kanniamma would guide them in their lives.
In recent times, many non profit organizations have come forward to organise events during the first day of the festival. Many traditional Irula customs, dances and arts are displayed in such events. One such organization, is the ICTRRR, which has worked against bonded labour and for the education of the tribal children. Another such organization is Pazhangudi Makkal Munnani (Tribal People's Front). The founder of this organization, Mr Sudaroli Sundharam, when discussing about the festival, raised some important questions. He questioned why the state governments for the past fifty years have maintained that there are less than two lakh Irular people in the state while every year the festival sees an attendance of lakhs and lakhs of people. He questioned the government's inaction in accounting the total number of Irulas in Tamil Nadu. He also opined that only when such accounting is done, targeted policies can be drafted to help the Irular people of Tamil Nadu. He further requested the government to sponsor and organise the festival for the Irulas as it is one of the ancient Tamil tribes that continues to exist.
This article is created as a part of the Adivasi Awaaz project, with the support of Misereor and Prayog Samaj Sevi Sanstha.