Float Festival of Tamil Nadu Temples

S Balakrishnan
Similar to the annual rath yatra (car festival) of temples, float festival is also celebrated in Tamil Nadu temples. While in the rath yatra procession the devotees directly take part by pulling the rath, in the case of float festival devotees can only have a darshan of the float from around the temple tank.
The float festival date varies from temple to temple, though from March to May it is widely held across Tamil Nadu.
It is customary that big temples have a pond/tank (theertham) attached to it; it could either be a well, tank/pond or a river or even sea as in the case of Sri Ramanathaswamy Temple in Rameshwaram where the Agni Theertham Ghat is in the sea besides many wells inside & outside the temple.  
Many of the very big temples even have a tank within the very temple complex itself; if this is not possible then the tank is either just in front of the temple’s eastern entrance or on other sides.
 A temple’s sanctity is measured by three aspects-the divine power of the moorthy (deity), sthal (location) and theertham (sacred water). The temples also have a sthal vriksha (tree) indigenous to each temple.
The temple tank where the float festival is held is appropriately called theppakulam because theppam means float and kulam means pond in Tamil. It is customary that a mandapam is raised at the centre of the tank; this is called ‘neeraazhi mandapam’ which enhances the beauty of the whole tank. The top three large temple tanks in Tamil Nadu are-1. Haridra Nadhi tank (23 acres) in Mannargudi town, 2. Kamalalayam (16.2 acres) in Thiruvarur town and 3. Mariamman theppakulam (16 acres) in Madurai City.
Three years of my middle schooling were in a school bang on the bank of Mariammn theppakulam in Madurai. It was always brimming with water, even during the summer months.  A visit to the tank after a few decades gave me such a shock as it was bone dry and boys were playing cricket match which game I hate the most ! It seemed the traditional channels that brought water from the river and other sources had been blocked. Now they have been revived and the tank is in its full form. An unforgettable memory of this theppakulam during my school days is that of a floating body of a man in bent position. One day the breeze from the tank carried such a stench to our school that we ventured out to discover this body of a man. We concluded that it was a murder because his hands were tied to his feet. Or could it be a suicide? We could not eat our lunch that day because of the suspense and the overbearing, nauseating stench.  
Maybe in the olden days they used light wood that floats as base to construct the temple floats; nowadays, empty barrels are tied together to create the floating base. A mandap is erected upon this which is decorated with cloth, flowers, serial light, plantain trees, toran, etc. The dome atop resembles the tower atop the sanctum. The ‘utsava moorthy’ (procession deity) of the temple is brought out in procession to the float and then the float begins its journey which is usually in odd numbers like three rounds, five or seven.
Big floats could accommodate about 50 or more people including Carnatic music party, priests, trustees, VIPs, security people, etc. Live Carnatic music ‘kutcheri’ (concert) is held onboard big floats.  It is a divine experience to watch the glimmering theppam gently float along on the waters with its beautiful reflection sailing along, and soothing Carnatic music echoing all around
. The central mandapam of the theppakulam is also equally decorated to match the occasion. The float is either operated mechanically or pulled with ropes from the banks and the central mandapam and as well oared. As a small boy I once had the privilege of getting on to the theppam in Kamalalayam Tank of Thiruvarur.
An uncle owned a house on the southern bank of this temple tank which will be crowded with relatives during the temple’s car & float festivals. Golden memories of olden days!
This divine entertainment not only enthralls devotees but also helps trade to flourish aids currency to flow. The recent darshan of a Chennai temple’s float festival was such a refreshing one after the Corona pandemic.  
This can be watched on Youtube link
https://youtu.be/rHmvcHuzpO0 and https://youtu.be/0WOMR5cPmYg