Masi Magha is a festival observed by the Hindus in the month of Magha, also called Masi in Tamil, corresponding to the English months of February-March, on a day when the asterism Magha (Leonis) holds sway. The day of observance of this festival will generally be the full moon day of the month Magha referred to above. The deity presiding over the Magha asterism is said to be Brihaspati (Jupiter), considered by the people to be the preceptor of the gods also. Hence offering worship to him on this festive occasion is believed to confer on people all the desired boons, if it is done in the right way and in the right spirit.
In all the temples of the land, festivals in honour of the presiding deities are celebrated, and people flock to those temples in very large numbers not only to witness the observance of the festival but also to take active part in the same. There is a mythical statement that Iswara had his initiation at the hands of Sri Subrahmanya in Swamimalai near Kumbakonam in the Tanjore district on this particular festive occasion. The famous place under reference is situated on the north bank of the river Cauvery and the sacred temple itself is located on a little hillock.
The goddess of the universe is said to have appeared at one time on this earth of ours, being born as a daughter to a king named Daksha Prajapati, in the form of a Sankha (conch-shell), right turned (Turbenella Pyrum), considered by the people to be rare, sacred, ~d capable of bestowing on its owner immense prosperity. The king Daksha is said to have found the beautiful conch on a lotus flower in the holy spot called Kalindi near Allahabad on the river Jamna, a tributary of the holy river Ganges of the Hindus. When he tried to handle the precious find, it turned into a fine and attractive female child and it was forthwith handed over to his queen to be taken care of and brought up as their own child! The divine gift of this child in such a miraculous manner is said to have taken place on a Masi Magha day and consequently the occasion has derived its special importance.
The place considered as the most sacred and important for the observance of this festival in southern india is the Maha. Magha tank in the town Kumbakonam. There are nine rivers in India which are considered by the people to be most sacred and they are, Gangs (Canges), Jamna (Yamuna), Godavari, Saraswati, Nannada, Cauvery, Kumari, Payoshni and Sarayu. The waters of all these holy rivers are said to be present in fhe Masi Magha tank at Kumbakonam on this festive occasion. Consequently people from all parts of India flock here to bathe in the sacred tank and get purified of their sins.
The above named rivers are also worshipped as sculptures placed in the temple of god Visvanatha at the northern bank of the Masi Magha tank itself. The tank is said to have been in bad need of repairs prior to the regime of Govindappa Dikshithar, the prime minister of the Nayak kings of Tanjore. During his time, however, the tank was properly repaired, and as many as sixteen temples were constructed on its banks.
Though gifts are given by one individual to another or to a large number Of people or in support of charitable institutions, yet this practice has unique modes of observance. Of the many ways of helping people by gifts, the one called tulabhara is worth noticing. This mode of gift consists in weighing oneself against gold and distributing the precious medal to the deserving poor. At times, the gold so weighed, is utilised for building or renovating temples or for opening charitable institutions.
One of the Nayak kings of Tanjore is said to have adopted this mode of gift to repair the Maha Magha temple at Kumbakonam and to build temples on its banks. He weighed himself against gold coins and with the amount he not only repaired the tank but he also caused the erection of temples on its banks.
There is also a sculptural representation of this tulabhara incident of the Tanjore Nayak king, on the bank of the Maha. Magha temple at Kumbakonam, which confirms the facts narrated above.
Besides the sacred centres mentioned above, a bath in Sethu near Rameswaram where the two seas Rethnakara (Indian Ocean) and Mahodhadhi (Bay of Bengal) join, or in Vedaranyam, is considered to be of great importance. The river Swarnamukhi at Kalahasti is also considered a sacred one and a bath in it on the occasion of the Maha Magha festival is said to bestow a special merit.
Though the asterism Maha recurs every month, that occurring in the month of Masi is considered specially important. Further the Maha Magha festival is celebrated at Kumbakonam once in twelve years and that occasion is considered to be very important. People flock to the place from all parts of the land to bathe in the tank and take part in the festival. The year in which such Maha Magha festival is observed, is not considered auspicious for certain purposes. People do not generally perform marriages in that year.
We have epigraphical evidence to show that the famous Vijianagara king Krishnadevaraya witnessed the Maha Magha festival. At the entrance into the north gopuram of the, Vedanarayanaswami temple at Nagalapuram, Chingleput district, there is a record of this. The king himself dated Saka 1445, Svabhanurefening to the visit he paid to Aragandapuram (i.e Nagalapuram) on his way to Kumbakonam to attend the Maha Magha festival. An Inscription on the north wall of the mandapa in front of the central shrine in the Uttaravedisvara temple at Kuttalam, Tanjore district, refers to the gift made by King Krishnadevaraya on the occasion of the Mamangam festival in Saka 1440, Dbatri in favour of the temple of Sonnavararivar. On the west wall of the Ganesa shrine in the Nedungalanathasvami temple at Tirunedungalam, Trichinopoly district, there is an inscription dated the ninth year of the reign of Chola king Rajarajakesarivarman (985- 1013), relating to a gift of land for feeding 550 Sivayogins during the seven days' Masi festival.