The Origin of Pillayar Nonbu
Traditionally we Nagarathars belong to the Saivite branch of Hinduism. Our clan temples are all Saiva temples. Vinayagar, Murugan and Siva are our three foremost deities. Fifteen centuries ago our Nagarathars lived in Kaveri Poom Pattinam and worshipped a Maragatha Vinayagar(Emerald Vinayagar). That particular Maragatha Vinayagar is not with us any more and it is believed that it is with a branch of Nagarathars who left the main stream Nagarathars and settled down in the Nagar Koil area.
A Nagarathar gentleman of Kaviri Poom Pattinam took a second wife after the death of his first wife who left him a daughter. In due course of time the second wife was blessed with a son and daughter of her own and then she started ill-treating her stepdaughter.
When the second wife’s son came of age, they decided to conduct a Karthigai Pudumai ceremony for him. A Karthigai Pudumai ceremony is like an initiation ceremony for boys done in the month of Kartigai. A similar ceremony called Thiruvathirai for girls is conducted in the month of Markazhi. On the morning of the Karthigai Pudumai Celebrations the second wife was busy making arrangements for the ceremony. When she was doing something with her hands she felt that it would be better to remove the costly diamond ring she was wearing in one of her fingers. So she removed it and left it near by. But when she finished what she was doing and wanted to take back the ring it was missing. At once she concluded that her stepdaughter must be the culprit and started accusing the poor girl in front of all the relatives and guests. Despite the repeated denials by the girl, everyone taking part in the function started accusing the poor girl. Even her father did not do anything to defend her.
Unable to stand the insults and accusations, the poor girl went, without telling any one, to the Maragatha Vinayagar Temple in the center of the town and prostrated before the Maragatha Vinayagar and pleaded thus with all her heart and soul. “Oh Maragatha Vinayaga, I neither saw nor touched that diamond ring belonging to my step mother. But she refuses to believe my words. No one including my own father has raised a finger to defend me. You know I am innocent. If you are truly the supreme deity which our Nagarathars worship with such devotion, prove my innocence to all our people”.
The chief priest of the temple was very moved by the devotion and faith of the distressed girl and assured her that Maragatha Vinyagar will certainly prove her innocence. He also tried to persuade her to go back home. But she said in reply “ I will not leave this temple until I am proved not guilty. I will neither eat nor sleep until my innocence is established”. Thus saying she began a long period of penance and fasting in the temple putting all her faith in Lord Maragatha Vinayagar.. On the first night of her fasting Lord Maragatha Vinayagar appeared in her dream and bade her thus: “I am very much moved by your devotion and faith. Commencing from today you must observe a period of fasting and meditation for a period of 21 days.. During this period you must eat but only one meal a day and pray to me wholeheartedly. On the 21st day your innocence will be established”.
The girl started her prayer and fasting at once but didn’t reveal to any one about Maragatha Vinayagar appearing in her dream. Each day of her fasting she took out a thread from her sari , made it into a thread and planted it into a dough made with rice flour,sugar and ghee(Maavilakku in tamil) and then lighted the thread in front of Lord Maragatha Vinayagar and offered her prayers with great devotion. Twenty days thus passed but there was no sign of the lost ring being found. On the morning of 21st day she made a vow to Lord Maragatha Vinayagar thus: “If by the end of this 21st day the lost ring is not discovered I will surely end my life rather than live a life of disgrace.”
That evening the Nagarathars who came to the evening prayer noticed with astonishment a long line of ants emanating from the 21 lighted doughs(maavilaku) used as offerings by the girl to Lord Maragatha Vinayagar. Everyone became curious and followed the long line of ants starting from the 21 lighted doughs(maavilakku) to see where it ended. The long line passed through the temple and streets and finally ended in an ant hole in the girl’s house. When they looked into the ant hole they noticed something bright inside. When they dug into the hole they were surprised to find the lost diamond ring. Only then the girl’s step mother remembered that she removed the diamond ring from her hand and placed it on a stone step near the ant hole to prevent it from being soiled by the work she was doing. It was not difficult to guess what had happened after that. The ring had slipped from the stone step and had fallen into the ant hole. The girl’s step mother and her father felt very sorry for unjustly accusing the girl.
When the ring was found everyone was overjoyed. All the nagarathars assembled in the Maragatha Vinayagar Temple and offered a prayer of thanks giving to Lord Maragatha Vinayagar for establishing the innocence of the girl. They praised Lord Maragatha Vinayagar as the redeemer of all things lost. To commemorate the above touching episode in the Nagarathar community they decided to celebrate it every year and appropriately named it as Pillayar Nonbu. The nonbu lasts for 21 days beginning from the day of Thiru Kartigai. During the 21 days they must offer daily prayers and take only one meal a day. The nonbu is concluded on the 21st day after Thiru Kartigai when Shashtri coincides with Sathya(Shashti—the crescent moon on the sixth day after the new moon and Sathayam refers to a star).
Each day of the 21 days of prayer a fresh thread is taken from a new cloth and on the 21st day all the 21 threads thus gathered are joined together to form a long wick. The long wick is then cut into shorter wicks and planted on dough made of rice flour, sugar and ghee and shaped into little cones. After praying to pillayar a lighted cone of dough is given to each member of the Nagarathar community present at the Pillayar Nonbu prayer meeting. This act is performed to remind us of one of our girls who prayed and fasted continuously for 21 days to prove her innocence.
Note: The above is a brief history of how Pillyar Nonbu originated. There is no written record about this festival. The story has been passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. The above description of what took place was given by the late Saiva Sithantha Viddhgar Retinam Chettiar Avargal who learnt it from the late Peria Vinagaram Chettiar avargal. We must be very thankful to them. The original story was in Tamil. This translation in English has been done for the benefit of the younger generation of Nagarathars in the west by Mr. S. Thiagarajah of Singapore.