Last week Madurai witnessed the grand spectacle of the celestial wedding of Goddess Meenakshi and Lord Sundareswarar. The day’s celebration was followed by the famed wedding feast, where most of you would have joined the queue to relish the variety of dishes served free. But have you ever given a thought on what it takes to organise such a huge event year after year? Making possible the biggest wedding feast in the State is not a small task. The mega meal that Madurai feasts on during Meenakshi’s wedding involves tremendous hard work, zealous devotion and generous donation by city people from different walks of life. Every year, a month before the spectacle of the wedding, donations ranging from small packets of mustard seeds to huge sacks of rice, weighing hundreds of kilograms pour in for conducting the feast.
“City people belonging to various social strata donate whatever little or big they can, for the noble cause. It is only because of the blessings of Goddess Meenakshi that the feast has been happening successfully for all these years,” says Samundi P.V. Vivekananda, the head of the Pazhamudirsolai Muruga Bhakta Sabhai that has been organising the feast for the past 26 years, without taking any money from the Temple or the Government.
The Sabhai was started by a religious man Sivandhirajan in order to render services to Ayyappa Devotees. “Initially, our Sabhai members used to host a feast every Karthigai at the Pazhamudirsolai Murugan Temple. Seeing that, we were approached for hosting Goddess Meenakshi’s wedding feast and we undertook the service happily. The first year, we spent around Rs.75,000 for the feast,” recalls N. Shanmugam, one of the oldest members of the Sabhai. What started in 1989 as a voluntary service of feeding 3,000 devotees grew in magnitude every year to become the biggest feast in Tamil Nadu. “This year, we were expecting 75,000 people, but people kept streaming in till late in the evening and we continued cooking extra amount of rice. The number of devotees who relished the feast this time easily crossed a lakh.”
Earlier, the feast was cooked inside the Meenakshi Temple and the devotees were served on the Aadi streets. Due to concern for hygiene and in order to regulate the swelling crowd, the venue was shifted to Setupati Higher Secondary School on North Veli Street, five years ago. The Sabhai pays an annual fee of Rs.2,000 to get a hygiene certificate from the State Health Department.
Every Chithirai Festival, the Sabhai calls for service organisations and individual volunteers for the event and they say help is never far or difficult to get. Vegetable vendors of the Central Markets at Mattuthavani and North Avani Moola Street donate thousands of kilos of various vegetables, while rice mandi owners contribute the rice needed for the feast. “Anyone from a simple devotee to an industrialist can donate for the cause. We even have donors from other religions coming forward to help,” says Karthikeyan, a member of the Sabhai. “I have been cooking for the feast for the past 15 years and I don’t take a penny for it. I also engage all my staff in the service and they do it with devotion,” says Damodaran, who runs a catering business. He also hosts an annadanam for 15,000 people every year at Vandiyur during Lord Kallazhagar’s entry into river Vaigai. Different catering groups offer their help every year. Previously, Hariharan Catering were involved in the service.
Once the feast is over, the school campus is cleaned by the women members of Annai Meenakshi Ulavara Pani Kuzhu, a group of devotees who clean various temple premises in the state on a monthly basis. “Though there are dustbins kept in place by the corporation, people litter and we spend around half-a-day cleaning the school ground,” says Anandhammal, a volunteer.