Yes, Ancient Tamils Celebrated the Festival of Lights. But, it’s not Diwali. Have you Heard of Karthigai Theepam?
Karthigai Theepam is considered to be the oldest Tamil festival that we celebrate today, even older than Thai Pongal.
Supanki Kalanadan
Researcher, lawyer
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There is no reference about Deepavali (or Diwali) in Tamil literature. It was only introduced to the Tamils during the Vijayanagara Empire in 1500 AD. Some Tamil scholars even argue that as Tamil worship was largely nature oriented, the celebration of the slaying of kings (especially Ravanan who many believe to be a Tamil King) is contrary to Tamil traditions. However, Tamils have a separate festival of lights called Karthigai Theepam, which is one of the oldest festivals we celebrate today. Tholkappiyam which is the oldest available ancient literature which dates back to 2500 B.C. carries a marked reference to this festival.

Karthigai Theepam falls during the Tamil month of Karthigai (mid Nov -mid Dec), when the monsoon season ends and the chilly season commences. The term “Tamilakam” refers to the geographical region inhabited by ancient Tamil people. It covers today’s Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and southern parts of Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka. Today, Karthigai Theepam is celebrated in all of these regional states with slightly different names. And of course by Tamils across the globe!

In all Tamil literature that discusses this festival, the key element seems to be lighting of lamps. This is the symbolic ritual of this festival. Historians are unable to identify the time as to when this festival came into being. It is considered to be the oldest Tamil festival that we have, and one that might be even older than the much celebrated Thai Pongal 

As there is no “one text” that explains the significance of Karthigai Theepam, scholars have attempted to put together the pieces through studying references across ancient Tamil literature. 

There are many Hindu mythological stories that are associated with Karthigai Theepam today. Popular Vedic stories of Shiva and Murugan are used to describe the significance of Karthigai Theepam. However, it appears that this festival was in existence prior to the spread of these Vedic mythological stories. 

Some scholars claim that it is a day to mark the end of the rainy season and to gratefully celebrate the send off of the rain by lighting flames upwards at the sky. Scholars point to references in ancient Tamil texts in Ahaanaanuru and Karnarpathu to associate this festival with rain. 

There’s also another Tamil poem about a friend consoling the heroine not to worry about her lover/husband (who some scholars believe may have gone on a sea voyage), assuring her that he will return by Karthigai Theepam. As this month involves harsh weather conditions, some believe that women may have come together to light lamps to pray for the safe return of their men. There are references of men going on long sea voyages to East Asian countries for trade and returning during this period. 

There are also references in ancient Tamil poems of a lamp being lit on top of a hill, possibly one that represents the entire village. This may have been a collective prayer for the safe return of the sea voyagers. This ritual may have been converted into current Hindu rituals of lighting a lamp in temple spaces during Karthigai Theepam. 

Ancient poems also point to karthigai Theepam as a day to do good deeds. It’s important to highlight here that as there are ample references in Tamil literature on the importance of being charitable, it is seen as a way of life for the Tamil people.

As a final note, it was difficult to find information on this ancient Tamil festival and most sources on google point to Hindu mythological stories of Shiva and Murugan and current Temple rituals. However, as Tamils were nature worshipping people, the association with rain and sea makes more sense to me. 

Light a lamp on Karthigai Theepam which falls on November 26, 2023 this year. Together, let’s spread our ancient Tamil practices!


பண்பாட்டு அசைவுகள் by தொ.பரமசிவன்⁣; தமிழர் மதம் by தேவநேயப்பாவாணர், ஞா⁣; Agananooru; Natrinai ; Karnarpathu

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Supanki Kalanadan
Researcher, lawyer | @whatthepottu
I am a lawyer, mother and a passionate Thamizh enthusiast! I felt motivated to share ...
I am a lawyer, mother and a passionate Thamizh enthusiast! I felt motivated to share ...
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