The festival Vaikasi Visaka is observed on the day when the asterism Visaka (Libra) rules in the month of Vaikasai, also called Vaisakha, corresponding to the English months of May-June. It is a full moon day and Dharmaputra, the god of death, is worshipped. The day is also said to be one on which god Subrahmanya incarnated in this world, making it doubly important and meritorious.
Chaturdasi is the fourteenth tithi counted either from the new moon or full moon. If such a day happens to be a Tuesday in any of the dark fortnights, the occasion is said to be specially favourable for the worship of Dharmaputra and it has the merit of freeing the worshipper from bodily ailments. Dharmaputra or Dharmaraja, who is worshipped on this occasion, is one of the Dikpalakas or guardian angels of the quarters of the earth. He is said to be the guardian of the southern quarter while Indra guards the east. Agni guards the southeast, Niruruthi the southwest, while Varuna and Vayu are the respective guardians of the west and the northeast. Thus we see that the eight directions of the universe are under the control and guardianship of these eight Dikpalakas.
Indra rides on an elephant called Airavata, which is said to be milky white in colour. He is said to exercise control over all the deities except the Trimurti or the Trinity of the Hindus.
Agni is said to ride on a goat. He carries sacrificial offerings made to the other gods in the heavens, causes heat and cold and is said to confer blessings on humanity.
Yama or Dharmaraja, who is the god or angel of death, is said to ride on a buffalo. He judges of the actions of the jivas on this earth and rewards or punishes them after their death, assigning them either heaven or hell according to their deserts. His accountant Chitragupta assists him in this task.
Niruruthi, who is said to ride on a demon, is the chief of the rakshasas. His function is to award suitable benefits to people in return for the performance of sacrifices by them to propitiate the gods.
Varuna is the lord of the rains and he is said to ride on a sea monster. Vayu, who is said to ride on an antelope, presides over the air and diffuses good and bad scents everywhere. Kubera rides on a horse and confers wealth of various kinds on those worshipping him. Esana rides on bull and exercises general destructive powers.
This is a month in which the days are extremely hot and sultry. Ponds dry up and plants wither away rapidly. Hence the ancient sages have laid down that acts of charity such as presentation of cooked rice mixed with curd, followed by cool and delicious drinks during the days of this month, would confer longevity on the children, remove sterility in women, cure various afflictions and, in short, would secure for the donor religious merit of a very high order. Presentation of umbrellas, fans and leather sandals as well as the watering of plants and trees in general and Tulasi plant (ocymum sanctum) and the Aswatha tree (ficus religiosa) in particular, are considered to be acts of great religious merit. Wise, indeed, have been the ancient sages, who have laid down rules conducive to the general well being of the people.
Certain places are considered to be specially important for such acts of charity. Swamimalai, near Kumbakonam in the Tanjore district, is one among those. There is a myth reflecting its importance which is as follows:
An asura named Arikesa was giving Indra a lot of trouble. Do what he could; he was not able to get rid of the demon and his troubles. At a loss to know what to do and in great despair, he paid visits to the various religious centres of the land. When he came to Swamimalai and worshipped the presiding deity of the temple there, he is said to have been blessed with the strength to shake off the demon and win back the kingdom that the latter had usurped!
The observance of this festival at Tirumazhuvadi near Tanjore is considered specially important for the reason that Siva had once performed a mazhu or lance dance at this place on the Vaikasi Visaka day. Further, it is said to be the place where Siva's sacred bull had its incarnation on this festive occasion.
Alwartirunagari in the district of Tinnevelly is the next important place for observing this festival. Once there lived a famous Vaishnava saint called Nammalwar. He is said to have rendered the sacred Vedas of the Hindus into Tamil. As he was born on the Vaikasi Visaka day at Alwartirunagari, the observance of this festival there is considered specially meritorious.
There is an image representing the Narasimha avatara (incarnation) of Vishnu, in the hill temple of Simhachalam in Vizianagaram. On all days of the year, it remains coated with sandal paste, but on the Vaikasi Visaka day, the paste is scrubbed off and the form is available for view. It can be viewed again only on the next Vaikasi Visaka day. People flock to have a view of the figure on this day.
On the outer wall of the northern enclosure of the Tanjore temple there is a record of the Chola king Rajendradeva (1050-63) making provision for a daily allowance of paddy to a troop of actors who enacted the drama Rajarajeswara nataka on the occasion of the Vaikasi festival in the 6th year of his reign. On the rock outside the north prakara of the Ratnachaleswara temple at Ratnagiri, Trichinopoly district, there is an inscription relating to the 16th year, 340th day of Tribhuvanachakravartin Konerumelkondan, making a gift of land for Vaikasi Tirunal.