Kanyakumari sees a very special spiritual marathon on Maha Shivaratri that has devotees Shiva run for 88 km chanting the names of Vishnu.
'Gopala Govinda' resounds the air, as a voice chants the names aloud. 'Gopala Govinda' answers the group.
'To see whom we run?' cries one in a Tamil that is peculiar to the area with a heavy tinge of Malayalam.
'To see Shiva we run' chant others. 'Gopala Govinda' the chant roars again. 'By seeing Him what do we get ? ' (சிவனை கண்டால் என்ன கிட்டும்) the man leading the group asks. 'Liberation we get' (மோட்சம் கிட்டும்) cry the others. 'And where do we get this liberation' (எவிட கிட்டும்) he asks again in a lyrical chant as he runs. 'Here and now we get liberation' (இவிட கிட்டும்) answers the group in an equally lyrical manner in unison.
The youths start running, some bare feet even, through the serpentine roads that worm through the villages that rarely see any visitors otherwise. The scenic narrow roads often end at small but ancient Shiva temples. The saffron clad youths enter the temple after taking a ceremonial dip in the temple pond. With water dripping down, they go and see their Lord - Shiva, but the air is filled with the chants of 'Gopala Govinda'. It is the day of Maha Shivarathri - the great night of Shiva but here in his temples the air resounds with words glorifying Vishnu in the voices of Shiva’s own devotees who would have run 88 kilometre in a day by the time this great night of Shiva begins.
Welcome to Shivalaya Oottam – the great spiritual marathon for Shiva that is peculiar to Kanyakumari district. And attached to this spiritual marathon is a beautiful legend, a puranic story set in the Mahabharatha.
Yudhishtra, the eldest of the Pandavas wanted to do Rajasuya Yagna. For this, he needed the milk of Purusha-Mirugham - a gender variant fierce man-animal which could also give milk. Purusha-Mirugam had two traits: one is that it was a staunch Shiva devotee, so much so that it would get infuriated on even hearing the name of Vishnu. Secondly, it was violently territorial and would eat any creature that walked within its territory – but it would lose all its strength and could be tamed if it stepped outside its enchanted territory. So the mission was to lure the man-animal outside its territory.
Krishna chose Bhima for this task. Bhima had to venture into the territory of Purusha-Mirugham and shout 'Gopala Govinda'. The man-animal would get enraged and start chasing him. Bhima would then have to run taking the animal towards the boundary and ultimately outside. But the strength of Purusha-Mirugam was phenomenal. So Bhima was given twelve Rudhraksha beads by Krishna. If the man-animal came too close to Bhima, then he could drop a bead which would instantly transform into a Shiva Linga. Purusha-Mirugam, an ardent Shiva devotee, would not move without doing puja to the Linga, giving Bhima some time to run a little ahead before he can shout 'Gopala Govinda' again. So Bhima ran. He had to drop all the twelve Lingas and in the end as Bhima placed his one leg outside the boundary the Purusha-Mirugam caught him. Bhima argued that, technically, he was outside the territory and hence he should be left free. Purusha-Mirugam argued that he was still inside and hence he should become the food of Purusha-Mirugam. So the dispute went to Yudhistra, whose sense of justice Purusha-Mirugam too had faith in. Yudhishtra said that the body of Bhima be split into two halves and one half be given to Purusha-Mirugham. Bhima was humbled as he always thought none could beat him in physical feats. On hearing this, Purusha-Mirugam was moved by the impartial sense of justice. At that very moment Shiva appeared before Purusha-Mirugham in the form of Shankara-Narayana removing the delusion of worshiping the Divine in one form and despising the others. And Purusha-Mirugam willingly gave his milk for the Rajasuya Yagna.
The Shivalaya Oottam essentially is the reenacting of this puranic incident by devotees. The Shivalaya Oottam takes off from Thirumalai or Munchirai temple, from where the devotees run through Thikurichi, Thirparapu, Thirunanthikarai, Ponmanai, Pannipagam, Kalkulam, Melancodu, Thiruvidaicodu, Thiruvithancodu, Thirupanthicodu and Thirunattalam. Interestingly, in each of these temples, the prasad is Vibuthi or holy ash and at Thirunattalam, where the Purusha-Mirugam was given the combined view of both Shiva and Vishnu, the prasad is sandal paste, symbolic of the unity of Shiva and Vishnu.
These days many devotees use bikes and even arrange vans and come with families. But there is a sizable number of youths clad in saffron who still prefer to run - some barefoot, some with footwear. Here we shall see some glimpses of this rare spiritual marathon that is unique to this town of Kanyakumari.
The fervour is such that even Marxists abandon all their usual leaders: no Lenin, no Marx, No Stalin - not even Che! The posters of DYFI (youth wing of CPI(M)) welcoming Shiva devotees show only Swami Vivekananda!
Today every house on the way of this spiritual marathon offers food and resting place for these running devotees of Siva. Also free food and ‘panakam’ - a special traditional drink is distributed to all the devotees.
Also this day is used by every informal traditional local trader to market his or her products. One can see such 'shops' come up again spontaneously around all these twelve Shiva temples.
This spiritual marathon also has a great potential to boost religious pilgrimage to the district in novel ways which has twelve ancient temples which are also of great historical value. For example, the rock cave temple of Thirunanthikara is attributed to the imperial Cholas which has many inscriptions and paintings. However, the paintings are lost and if only they could be retrieved with the help of experts to their original forms, it could give the devotees a spiritual experience in a very historical context. Here is what the Archaeological Survey of India report dealing with rock-cut temples in Tamil Nadu has to say about the paintings in the temple:
On the bays of the hind wall and the eastern wall as also over a large part of the ceiling is a thin plaster covered with paintings with red ocher outline. The colours inside the extant fragments have faded out. The western bay of the hind wall obviously had the painting of Durga. This would be clear from the outlines of the lion and the antelope one at the either top corner of the panel. Of the weapons the trisula and the khadga are clear, while on the left the bow alone is extant. The main figure of Durga has completely peeled off. The body colour seems to have been green...
All temples have exquisite features in them, which if properly documented and presented to the devotees can help turn this spiritual marathon into a festival of cultural-historic literacy. Given the fact that in the name of renovations most of the fine aspects of these beautiful temples are disappearing, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism needs to act directing the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department to renovate the temples highlighting the historical and cultural value that these treasures hold. Such a value addition to Shivalaya Oottam can make this event attract Shiva devotees from all over the world. What can be more joyful for Shiva than seeing devotees from all over the world, with various languages, ethnicity and nations join in chanting the name of Vishnu and visiting the temples of Shiva on his great night!
Next year, on Maha Shivarathri, come to Kanyakumari district and run for Shiva!