Madurai Float Festival originated in the 17th century in Madurai, the oldest city in Tamil Nadu. King Thirumalai Nayak constructed an artificial tank and built a temple of Lord Vigneswara on the island in the middle. He initiated the custom of taking the idols for a boat ride in the tank, on his birthday. This is how the Float festival came into being.
It is held on the first night of the full moon of the Tamil month, Thai. During the wee hours of the day, the procession of the idols of Goddess Meenakshi and Lord Sundareshwarar (Shiva) starts from the main temple. The deities are taken to the tank called Marriamman Tepakkulam Sarovar, which is a few kilometres east of the old city, in golden palanquins escorted by horses, elephants, musicians and thousands of worshippers. They are then placed in a ‘Mandapam’ (shrine) on the banks of the lake. Here, the devotees dressed in red and yellow dance around and spray coloured water on the spectators.
After this, the idols are again carried in palanquins and placed on a structure resembling a raft. The raft is colourfully decorated with different varieties of flower garlands, flowers and paper lanterns. The deities are taken for rounds in the lake on the float. This takes more than three hours and then the decorated float is taken back to the central island, where it stays till the evening. Devotees throng the island by travelling by boats. By evening, the island temple is decked up in colourful lights. Thousands of tiny oil-lamps are also lighted near the lake. This light is brightly reflected in the water, making it look as if the lake is glowing with its own light. The float is then illuminated with coloured electric bulbs, fluorescent tubes and flood lights. This is followed by a display of fireworks on the shore. Red and green flares soar up from the central island. After a gun signal, the float begins to move again, crossing through the sparkling water amidst fireworks, cheers and prayers of the devotees. After finishing a full round, the float is brought to the shore and the idols are placed on a wonderfully-decorated golden horse and are returned to the main temple in an elaborate procession.
Madurai Float Festival is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque and visually appealing festivals of India and attracts pilgrims from all over the country.
Interestingly, a frame of the Academy Award winning movie “Life of Pi”, directed by Ang Lee, has captured the Float Festival of Madurai on-screen beautifully.