Purtassi is an annual festival of the Tamil Indians which occurs from mid September–mid October every year. During this period, Tamil Indians observe a fast and this is a time devoted to the cleansing of the mind and body while observing strict discipline and praying. Purtassi means September in Tamil and devotees pay homage to Lord Vishnu, the Protector, by observing this fast. They pray to the Lord to seek forgiveness for all their sins and they offer thanks for the life on earth and its preservation.
Story and Significance
During Purtassi, Lord Vishnu is worshipped in his reincarnation as Lord Venkateswara (Balaji). There are many legends associated with this festival. According to one legend, Lord Vishnu came to earth in the month of Purtassi. The form he acquired was that of Lord Balaji. Therefore, devotees flock to the Tirupati temple at this time of the year. According to another legend, south India experienced a bad drought many centuries ago and the people prayed to Lord Vishnu for respite. The rains came soon after and their fears were allayed.
During Purtassi, devotees fast for a month but prayers are offered only on Saturdays. This is because Saturday is free from the influence of the planet Saturn (believed to bring bad luck). Positive energies flow at this time and this is a motivation for people to pray. People either pray at home or they may visit temples to pray together. Prayers are usually conducted in the late afternoon, so that devotees can break their fast after offering prayers.
Lord Vishnu is invoked by chanting holy verses from Garuda Parthu and Thirunaam Padhigam. A ‘V’ or ‘U’ is drawn on the forehead of men and children as they offer prayers. This is known as ‘Namu’ or ‘Naamam’, the symbol for Lord Vishnu that represents his reclining feet. This Vaishnavite symbol is drawn using a special chalk known as ‘Nama Katti’. As Lord Vishnu is a male deity, women do not wear this symbol. They put a red dot on their foreheads and offer prayers.
Offerings Made During Purtassi
A banana leaf is placed outside the house or temple and vegetarian dishes prepared for the Lord are placed on it. Vadas, fruits, payasam and other sweet dishes are some of the items prepared. A coconut is cracked open in front of the Lord and camphor is lit. Then the devotees move inside the house or temple, chanting prayers. This movement signifies the journey of the Lord from darkness to light. Each verse of their prayer ends with them chanting ‘Govinda! Govinda!’. Prayers are accompanied with the singing of hymns, ringing of bells and the blowing of conch shells. Milk, sugar and tulsi leaves are mixed together and offered to the Lord. Then this is shared among the devotees.
Practices Followed During Purtassi
Devotees eat only vegetarian food during the month of Purtassi. This allows them to discipline their diet and cleanses their body of all toxic heat-producing substances. They abstain from smoking and drinking and sexual activity during this period. They try to cleanse their minds of any impure thoughts and observe a disciplined lifestyle. Purtassi is a major festival among Tamil-speaking Indians in South Africa. This festival brings the community together in a joint celebration.