The Athi Varadar festival in Tamil Nadu is in the spotlight after four people died in a stampede there on Thursday. The incident reportedly occurred following rumors that authorities were planning to cut short the darshan timings. People standing in queues in a narrow line became impatient and started to push in a bid to move forward.
The temple town of Kanchipuram, 72 km from the heart of Chennai, had been gearing up for this festival for quite a few years. The 48-day festival commenced on July 1 and will go on till August 17.
The massive surge of people from across the country to visit Athi Varadar should have alarmed the Kanchipuram authorities to be better prepared with all necessary arrangements for the festivals. The small town of Kanchipuram certainly couldn’t hold more than one lakh devotees every day. District collector P Ponniah even went on record stating that he was expecting close to 30,000-50,000 devotees per day, but on an average almost double the number is turning up daily.
President Ramnath Kovind and Governor Banwarilal Purohit have also attended the Athi Varadar festival. Durga Stalin, wife of DMK leader Stalin, and Rajathi Ammal, wife of Karunanidhi and mother of DMK MP Kanimozhi, were among those who stood in a queue for a glimpse of Athi Varadar.
There were colorful characters too. Madurai-based don Varichiyur Selvam and his gang members were allowed to sit near the pedestal of Athi Varadar, which created a furor in the state. They allegedly received a VVIP donor pass from local politicians in the area.
Athi Varadar is a nine-feet idol made out of the fig (Athi pazham in Tamil) tree and is brought out from the Anantasaras (the temple tank) in Kanchipuram Vardharaja Perumal Temple once in 40 years. Though there is no written history of when the ritual actually began, people believe it is many centuries old.
Kamala, a resident of Tambaram, feels the grace and excitement is high only this time. “Born in 1954, I had the opportunity to visit Athi Varadar in 79’. There was no rush, no VIP culture; we got the blessings and returned home just like how we come back after visiting other temples. Even in Tamil Nadu, many of them didn’t know this event. But now I hear people even from other states are visiting Athi Varadar daily,” she added.
Some angry devotees have taken to social media to convey their bitter experience. They have complained about the lack of proper parking facilities, drinking water and toilets as well as what is seen as the rude behavior of some of the staff. Others complained that the authorities and police officers were keen on making sure their family and friends catch a glimpse of the deity ahead of the public.
“It was a terrible experience. And the Irony is that commoners like us wait for a long time and cross all these hurdles to pray before the deity, while others are getting VVIP treatment,” said Ragothaman, a resident of Perungalathur.