Celebration By The Sea: Tamil Nadu's Indigenous Festival Of Union & Community

Celebration By The Sea: Tamil Nadu's Indigenous Festival Of Union & Community
Narayana Sankar

Sometime mid-February this year, the beaches of Puducherry and Mahabalipuram witnessed throngs of people like never before. The crowds, particularly belonging to the Irular tribe of Tamil Nadu gathered around the shores to witness the annual Masimagam festival; a time when the goddess Kaniamman takes a trip to the beach.

The Irulars of Tamil Nadu are known to possess a culture that is distinct and self-sufficing. Armed with extensive knowledge of herbal medicine, this tribal group currently occupies the coastal towns situated in the northern part of Tamil Nadu.

In one of our earlier explorations of deities created to avenge diseases, we introduced our readers to the famous Mariamman cult of Tamil Nadu. Mariamman was a product of fear, hope, and respite that the people of Tamil Nadu created in the wake of the smallpox epidemic. As a reincarnation of the goddess, Kaniamman is celebrated with festive pompous, the Irulars celebrate Masimagam which happens to fall on the first full moon night of the 11th month in the Tamil calendar known as Masi.

The overnight celebration kicks off in all its festive glory when the idol of Kaniamman is brought into the ocean with an elaborate procession. The Irulars that follow the goddess take steps in numbers 7, 16, or 21 as a vow made to the deity. Cultural showcases include dance, drama, and musical performances curated by the community.

From marriages being solemnised and vows, offerings and promises made to the deity, the day is revered as the most auspicious moment for the entire community. The day also honours the ancestors of the community that have carried out the festival for centuries that have passed by. A make-shift stay on the beach sands hosts thousands of people who will stay overnight by the shore.

Chennai-based photographer and artist, Akilan Thyagarajan documented Masimagam in 2022. His distinct lens and perspective allow him to capture images of home, of people, and his community. Akilan through his photo series reminisces about the simpler moments in life that we only choose to appreciate in retrospect.

Image credit: Akilan Thyagarajan

“My weekends at Mahabalipuram are my escape. It’s very authentic and I’m most interested in capturing their unique facial features. For the Kuravars and Irulas, this is one of their biggest festivals of the year where they get together in large gatherings at the beach for 2-3 days, camp out, celebrate and even tie the knot for many beautiful weddings. With my personal experience, I have come to appreciate how they live simple lives even during this time.”

— Akilan Thyagarajan
Image source: Akilan Thyagarajan

The festival concluded in all its pomp and grandeur on the 16th of February this year at the Shore Temple in Mahabalipuram.

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