Being Women

Makara Jyothi – The Faith In The Celestial Spark

Marathi rituals in the morning and Kerala's Makaravilakku and Makara Jyothi at night, a day woven with two festivals

As the new year dawns, I ready myself for two festivities. January 1st that happens to be my brother’s and son’s birthday. And January 14th, Makar Sankranti. Unfortunately, there’s no bank holiday for Makar Sankranti, we usually have a working day on the 14th. But that adds to the fun and festivity.

Mumbai’s Makar Sankranti

Makar Sankranti is significant in Marathi culture, and having lived all my life in Mumbai, I enjoy celebrating the festival the way Maharashtrians do. Wake up early, worship Surya by offering water in a Kalash, light the auspicious lamp, wear a black outfit, visit the temple, and last but not least, pack some Til Laddus (sesame seeds and jaggery)to work. Til Laddus are Makar Sankranti specials, and you offer it to all your friends, as you chant, “Til Gud Khava, Goad Goad Bola.” (Eat sweet, and talk sweet)

A Glimpse into Makaravilakku and Makara Jyothi

But as twilight approaches, I gently shift to being a Malayali and switch on what I always look forward to as a Keralite on Makar Sankranti – the Makaravilakku Live Telecast on Malayalam Television, and of course, the appearance of Makara Jyothi. As it happens, whenever I have mentioned these words to non-Malayalis, I have been met with unfamiliar glares. Turns out, not many have heard about Makara Vilakku or Makara Jyothi. So, for the uninitiated, here’s a short description.

Witnessing the Divine

Makaravilakku is associated with Lord Aiyyappa’s shrine at Sabarimala in Kerala. Makara is the month, Vilakku means Lamp, and as it happens, this festival is observed every year on the Makar Sankranti day or rather evening. The festival includes the Thiruvabharanam (sacred ornaments of Lord Ayyappa) procession, wherein, devotees carry huge caskets of gold ornaments on their heads, walking from Pandala palace (where Lord Aiyappa is believed to have lived as a child) to Sabarimala. As the sun sets and the sky begins to turn crimson, more than a million devotees at Sabarimala and many others at home, have their eyes fixed atop Ponnambalamedu (a hillock near Sabarimala Temple).

An eagle, who is believed to be Garuda is suddenly spotted and then all of a sudden, a ‘Light’ that resembles a star, or a torch, mysteriously appears over the hillock. The entire region reverberates with the chants of ‘Swamiye Sharanamaiyyappa’, as devotees are immersed in the deep unexplainable spiritual bliss of having witnessed this miracle. The Light then dies down but appears twice more, a total of three times. And exactly at that point, the door of the inner sanctum of the shrine is thrown open for Darshan of Lord Aiyappa bedecked in all finery brought in the procession.

The Magic of Makara Jyothi

This light I’m referring to here, is Makarajyothi, the star, the celestial mystery, to catch a glimpse of whom, Aiyyappa devotees throng the shrine every Makar Sankranti. And thousands like us sit glued to the television. If only I could describe it in words. The excitement, the surreal feeling, like having goosebumps whenever the Jyothi appeared. Call it a mystery or marvel, the star rising on that occasion precisely and disappearing for a year after flickering thrice, had been inexplainable for ages, and I was spellbound.

Unraveling the mystery

Until 2011. When an investigation was conducted about the authenticity of Makara Jyothi. The temple trust refused to comment but even a few among the board members agreed that the Jyothi is indeed man-made. Apparently, there’s a small temple on the other side of the hillock, where tribals from the forest conduct Pooja every Sankranti, and it’s a torch from the holy fire, that they light over Ponnambalamedu which we witness as Makara Jyothi.

Huge forums, endless discussions, forest official interviews, temple board statements, newspaper articles, everything now seems to be pointing to the testament that Makara Jyothi isn’t God’s magic after all, but a phenomenon created by humans. The news channels had a field day, and the papers for long were flooded with the revelation. Atheist groups all over blamed the shrine for fooling the public and earning pilgrimage revenue. The believers on the other hand termed the investigation false. And thus hangs the suspense.

But having said that, Makaravilakku is a festival that is observed with great reverence across Kerala, because more than the Light, it’s the deity, Lord Aiyyappa whose divine Darshan cements the devotee’s faith in God and goodness. After days of fasting and austerity, the Bhaktas bow to their Lord who blesses them with health and happiness.

Witnessing the Spirit of Sabarimala from afar

As for me, I watch the live broadcast from Sabarimala. As a woman, I’m not sure when I will be able to visit the temple, so watching the procession, the blissful devotion of thousands at Sabarimala, the magical chanting, and the Lord in all his grandeur, makes my Makara Sankranti spiritual and divine. Celestial or man-made, (I wouldn’t wish to comment on Makara Jyothi, as many are bound to the light by their faith), I always intone a silent prayer when the light flickers over the hilltop. The very sight exudes a certain brilliance across the skies of Sabarimala and I believe, the Light cleanses us of all sins and impurities, as The Lord blesses us with his presence.

Let there be Light. Sharanam Aiyyappa.     


  • Makara Vilakku- The festival that ends with Aiyappa Darshan on Makara Sankranti.
  • Makara Jyothi – The flickering torch-like Light that flickers atop Ponnambalamedu
  • Ponnamabalamedu- A hillock near Sabarimala
  • Tiruvabharanam- Gold jewellery that is believed to belong to Lord Aiyappa

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