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The Sivarathri Marathon

On Sivarathri day, devotees go on a marathon pilgrimage from Tirumalai to Tirunattalam, covering nearly 75 km within 24 hours, to show the oneness of Siva and Vishnu. This rare practice is observed in Kanyakumari district, says S. PADMANABHAN.

THE SHRINES at Tirumalai, Thikkurichi, Thirupparappu, Tirunandikkarai, Ponmanai, Pannippagam, Kalkulam, (Padmanabhapuram), Melankodu, Thiruvidaikkodu, Thiruvithamkodu, Thiruppantrikodu, (Palliyaadi) and Tirunattalam are considered the 12 sacred Sivalayas in Kanyakumari district. They are called Dwadasalayam in Sanskrit. On Sivarathri day, devotees wearing s robes, carrying a fan of palm leaf and chanting the names of Vishnu as "Govinda, Gopala" start from Tirumalai and finish their marathon pilgrimage at Tirunattalam, covering nearly 75 kilometres within 24 hours. The fact that Siva and Vishnu are one is the rationale behind this concept. This rare festival is prevalent only in Kanyakumari district.

According to legend, Yudhishtirar required the milk of Purushamirgam, otherwise known as Vyagrapadha (half human and half beast) to complete a great yaga. The mighty beast was a highly devoted Sivabhakta and had a strong aversion to Vishnu and His devotees. When Bhima took up the job of bringing the milk of the beast, to subdue the haughtiness of Bhima and show that Siva and Vishnu are one, Sri Krishna gave him 12 Sivalinga images, advising him to drop an image as and when he needed help.

Bhima reached the jungle where the beast was in deep meditation. Uttering the words "Govinda, Gopala" he tried to get milk from the beast. When the beast heard the words "Govinda" it lost its concentration and the Sivalinga appeared to be the image of Vishnu. Enraged, the beast caught hold of Bhima. Unable to escape from its clutches, he dropped one of the images, from which sprang a Siva shrine. Being a devout Sivabhakta the beast proceeded to offer worship.

After sometime, Bhima again tried to obtain the milk uttering the words, "Govinda, Gopala" and the beast chased Bhima for a few miles and caught him. Another image was dropped on the spot, where another shrine of Siva arose. Thus the 12 stones created 12 sacred Sivalayas.

Finally, when all the images were exhausted, Bhima was with one foot within the area of the latter's control and another outside. Bhima argued that he should be freed for the above reason.

Yudhishtirar passed the verdict that half of Bhima's body which was within the jurisdiction of the beast belonged to it. Deeply touched by the impartial verdict of Yudhishtirar the beast freed Bhima and willingly supplied milk for the fulfilment of the yaga. The haughtiness of Bhima was thus subdued.

This story is attractively depicted in stone at a temple at Krishnapuram, near Tirunelveli. It is believed that Bhima and Vyagarapadha started their race from Tirumalai and finished it at Tirunattalam.

Muniswaranpaarai near Tirumalai temple is said to be the abode of the saint. In Tirumalai there are separate shrines for Siva and Vishnu and in Tirunattalam the main deity is known as Sankaranarayanan, a combination of Siva and Vishnu.

Tirumalai, locally known as Munchirai, is situated seven kilometres northwest of Kuzhithurai. The mother of Tirumalai Nayak of Madurai is believed to have stayed in the place and worshipped the deity to have a child, and she gave birth to Tirumalai Nayak.

The dilapidated fort near Tirumalai is now known as Uthachikottai. The golden angi and crown, 182 tolas each, are said to have been donated by Tirumalai Nayak himself during his conquest of this area.

The earliest Lithic record in the temple is the inscription assignable to the seventh year of the Chola King Rajendracholadeva I (1013-1045 A.D.)

Among the 12 Sivalayas, five temples have shrines for Vishnu. In the last Sivalaya at Thirunattalam both of them stand together as Sankara Narayana. On Sivarathiri, special celebrations are held at all the 12 shrines.

Ghee abishekam is performed in all the temples. Once in 12 years, it is performed in all the 12 temples at the same time.

It is also said that the race of the pilgrims on Sivarathri was organised as a token of the unity of the quarrelling sects of Saivites and Vaishnavites to overcome the challenge posed by Jainism that was becoming popular.

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