Celebrating Skanda Sashti in God’s Own Country

Hindu festival

Skanda Sashti is a south Indian festival dedicated to the god Lord Skanda, the Commander-in-chief of the Gods in Hinduism. Lord Skanda is also called Lord Muruga. In this eight-day festival, Skanda kills a demon called Surapadma. He also marries his two consorts, Valli and Devyani. These deities are fictional; Skanda is worshipped and glorified by his devotees, many of whom are Tamils, although there is a history of non-Tamil speaking communities venerating this god.

Tamil priests from the Palani temple perform a ritual at The Hill of the Dancing Peacock (Mayiladumkunnu in Malayalam).

Temple Hinduism has a rich tradition where men, women and children enact age-old stories on important occasions. The six Skanda temples in south India are filled with devotional enactments and assorted rituals on Skanda Sashti. It is not difficult to say that a guru Sharavana Baba (aka Prema Sai Baba) who is believed to be an incarnation of Lord Skanda, is worshipped like Skanda, albeit differently — the real Skanda seems to be his body that nobody can kill. 

Before COVID-19 hit India, I was given an opportunity to attend this festival at his second main ashram (hermitage) in Calicut in the south Indian state of Kerala as a devotee-anthropologist.

The priests move towards the demon-idol with the vel (spear).

I found it exciting that I was in Sharavana Baba’s ashram filming the Skanda Sashti where the guru was not garlanded like the deity, was not bathed in milk and holy water like the deity, but the deity — a beautiful, silver Skanda idol — garlanded and bathed like a true deity instead. These were two Skandas, the living one was simply a witness to the processions and fervour, and the other, equally important to the people gathered in the ashram, was that icon whom everyone was praising. “Haro hara!” they chanted loudly, clapping their hands and carrying the kavadi (a wooden offering put on the shoulder).

Killing the demon-idol is a meditation.

Sharavana Baba’s ashram in Calicut was inspired by the Palani temple in Tamil Nadu. “This is all Swami’s idea,” said Prashanth, a priest of one of the temples in the complex devoted to Shirdi Sai Baba. “You can get your tousled head shaved off at the bottom of the temple, walk up the steps like the way one does in the main Palani temple and offer your ego at the sanctum.”

The priests chat while toddling to the demon-idol.

Skanda Sashti in 2019 saw invited priests from the Palani temple perform all the major rituals required for the festival to be complete. In this photo essay, I capture the two main nights of the festival: the 2nd and 3rd of November, amidst the chaos, wonder and surrender under the stars.

Surapadma with his head.
Surapadma beheaded.
The procession before the beheading.
Waiting for another kill.
“Vetrivel muruganukku!” (“Victory to Lord Muruga!”) they chant.
Hindu gods and goddesses before a street parade.
A man dressed as Saraswati, a Hindu goddess.
On a cul-de-sac, near Swan Lake.
The audience while the procession carries on…
Three children in divine costumes on a mini-tableau.
Gently glides the swan…
Again and again…
The goddess in full form. As Kali. As Killer.
The darkness kicks in as Vishnu dances.
The sun hides into tube-lights slowly.
Guess which God?
Modern Hinduism beautifully stretched out on ancient landscapes.
I did not use a flash.
Sharavana Baba (aka Prema Sai Baba) after the celebrations.

Dhruv Ramnath graduated from SOAS with a Master of Arts in Social Anthropology.

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