On Monday evening, as preparations were in full swing for today’s Chithirai festival highlight — the “celestial wedding” between Goddess Meenakshi and Lord Sundareswarar — the Setupati Higher Secondary School on North Veli Street was a beehive of activity.
Members of Pazhamudir Solai Thiru Murugan Bhaktha Sabhai were busy decorating the school ground with shamiana and banana plants, where more than 55,000 people are to be fed over two days. On one side of the ground, nearly 80 culinarians were engaged in preparing kesari, vadai, pongal and sambar for Monday night’s feast.
“We expect not less than 5000 people for the ‘maapillai azhaippu’ virundhu (feast). On Tuesday morning, after the “celestial wedding” ceremony, around 50,000 people are expected”, says Chamundi Vivekanandan, one of the organisers. But the main activity is taking place within the auditorium. Amidst chatting and laughter, more than 1,000 people, mostly women, are busy chopping vegetables.
“For the feast, two truckloads of vegetables have been offered by traders of Paravai and Mattuthavani vegetable markets”, says Mr Vivekanandan. On the auditorium floor, women are seated around mounds of onions, drumsticks and pumpkins, their deft fingers working incessantly. Large baskets of chopped vegetables are arranged neatly in the centre of the auditorium, while children and menfolk bring in fresh supplies of vegetables for the women to chop. The excitement in the auditorium is palpable.
“Until last year, we did not know there was such an event. We consider it an opportunity to render service to God”, says A. Maheswari, teary-eyed from peeling onions. Mrs Maheswari, along with six of her family members, including sisters and their daughters, has travelled from Virudhunagar to offer their service. “We came in the morning (on Monday) and will leave in the evening. We will not even stay for the feast or the wedding, but we are happy to serve God this way”, she adds.
A. Ganesan, a septuagenarian, is one of the few men seen chopping vegetables in the auditorium. “This occasion gives the people a chance to get together, to meet others and render service to God. Such events help improve one’s conduct and learn from others”, he says.
“The celestial wedding is a festival celebrated in all the households in Madurai. That is why all the people come together and volunteer their services, as they would in their homes”, says A. Kaliammal who is in her 60s. She is a regular visitor to the event for the past nine years.
Apart from the regular volunteers, there are the first timers who are excited about taking part in the special task.
“It is a pleasure to offer my help. I have lived in Madurai for 27 years, but this is my first time here. I regret having missed the fun all these years and I have decided to be a part of the event in the coming years”, says A. Vijayalakshmi.
“This apart, 1000 volunteers have registered their names to serve food to the devotees on Tuesday morning, after the wedding”, says Mr Vivekanandan.
“It is good that the venue for preparation and serving the feast have been shifted from Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple to the school premises. Or else, the volunteers would have faced difficulties in bringing the tools, such as knives, to cut vegetables inside the temple”, he points out.
But for volunteers like N. Palaniammal, offering their service the temple premises felt more authentic. “We used to sit in the praharams — and chop vegetables. The festival spirit was more palpable then. I have been offering my service for a decade now”, she says. The menu includes sweet pongal, vadai, sambar rice, tomato rice and curd rice, accompanied by the traditional vegetable curries. A shamiana spread across 12,000 square feet has been erected on the school premises.
The men who decide the menu
The Pazhamudir Solai Thiru Murugan Bhaktha Sabhai has been organising the “celestial wedding” feast in Madurai for 14 years, says Chamundi Vivekandan, one of the organisers.
“Earlier the temple authorities bought food for the feast from commercial outlets. Around 14 years ago, they requested us to prepare the food and serve it. Since then, we have been performing the service”, he adds. “Initially, we served food for only 3000 people. Today, we are happy to serve over 50,000 people. I owe my gratitude to the public and the volunteers for their help”, he says.
“Until two years ago, we served the traditional feast on plantain leaves. The menu was rice with traditional vegetable curries, sambar, rasam and payasam”, N. Damodaran, the chief culinarian, noted. A jewellery store owner, Mr Damodaran dons the master chef’s hat during the special event. “The preparations start a week before the wedding. Mine is an extended family and the culinarians are regulars at my family functions. I rope them in for service during the celestial wedding”, he adds. Speaking of the changes that have occurred down the years, Mr Damodaran and Mr Vivekanandan say the number of devotees who attend the wedding and the feast have gone up and hence changes are inevitable. “The feast has been served buffet style for the past two years. That way, we are able to serve food to around 1000 people in one hour”, they say. “It gives great happiness to render such service, especially during the celestial wedding. I have not slept for four days now and the celestial wedding is a family function for me and Mr Vivekanandan”, he says beaming with pride.