God’s blessings flow out to the world during the chariot festival at Chennai’s Kapaleeshwarar Temple—the millennia-old southern abode of Lord Siva

KAPALEESHWARAR TEMPLE, NESTLED in the heart of Mylapore in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India, is one of the most popular temples dedicated to Lord Siva. As a little girl growing up in Chennai, I visited the temple for the first time with my grandmother. “Patti (Tamil for grandmother), we are Vaishnavites. Why are we visiting Siva’s temple?” I asked. My staunch Vaishnavite grandma then quoted Krishna’s words to Arjuna, as well as an old Tamil saying, that Siva and Vishnu, Hari and Haran are different manifestations of one and the same God. Later, as a student in Queen Mary’s College and Presidency College, I used to take a bus from T. Nagar to Triplicane. The bus used to stop by the temple tank. The conductor would shout “Tank, Tank.” His words still echo in my ears.

Then I got busy with my studies and moved to the USA for my Ph.D. Decades later, in 2013, I finally returned to Kapaleeshwarar Temple with my husband. But this was not the Chennai where I grew up! Tall apartment complexes everywhere, theaters, hospitals, colleges, schools and shopping malls have transformed the city’s landscape beyond recognition. Men and women both work now to meet modern demands; almost everyone is caught up in the hustle and bustle of city life. Movie madness has taken hold of young and old alike. Yet residents of Chennai still find time for visiting Hindu temples and celebrating the festivals in grand style. It was inspiring to see that ancient temples built centuries ago, such as the Kapaleeshwarar Siva Temple and Adi Kesava Perumal Vishnu Temple, are still very active, standing tall and solid, a testimony to the religious faith deeply rooted in Tamil Nadu. Wanting to know more about Mylapore and Kapaleeshwarar Temple through the ages, we returned in March of 2016 to join devotees for the temple’s most important annual festival.
Kapaleeshwarar’s Chariot Parade

Kapaleeshwarar Temple attracts Hindu devotees from all over the world. It opens at 5am and holds special pujas throughout the day, closing at 10pm. While every day is festive in Tamil Nadu, some days are more so than others. We joined the throng of devotees here for worship during the grandest festival of all—the ten-day Brahmotsavam (Festival of Brahma). This festival is also called Panguni Thiruvila, as it is held in the month of Panguni (March-April). It is this temple’s annual chariot festival, when the Gods of the temple go out to bless the community and all living beings, commencing with flag hoisting on the first day and concluding on the ninth day with the wedding of Karpagambigai and Eswar,
There are Deity parades on each day; the most important are the Adikaranandi on the third day, the Rishaba Vahanam at midnight of the fifth day, and the seventh-day parade of the main chariot carrying the festival image of the presiding Deity, Siva, in the form of Tripurantaka (with bow) and the Divine Mother by His side. On the eighth day, the Arupathimuvar—63 Nayanmars (devotees who composed Thevaram, Tamil Saiva devotional songs) are paraded through the streets.
It is a tradition here to worship Kolavili Amman (Goddess with beautiful eyes) before celebrating any festival. The Kolavili Amman temple was the first temple built in Mylapore, centuries ago when the city was just a village. She is the guardian angel (gramadevata, village goddess) or Ellai Amman of the area. Ellai means boundary in Tamil. She stands on the outskirts of Mylapore, protecting the town from evils. Priests offer special puja (worship) to Kolavili Amman and get Her permission and blessings before celebrating festivals at Kapaleeshwarar Temple.
The Brahmotsavam began with Dvajarohanam, the hoisting of the flag. In the center of the outer court of the temple stands a huge metal flagpole (Dvajasthamba), with 33 rings. On this occasion a long rope made of sacred dhara grass is wound round the pillar bearing the flag of Rishaba (Nandi the bull). Nandi is the guardian of Kailas. It is believed that those who witness the flag hoisting will attain moksha, freedom from reincarnation.

Sacred power: Priests invoking the shakti into the Mother Goddess parade image

After worshiping Kolavili Amman, priests performed Vastu puja and puja to Bhumi (Mother Earth). Dozens of priests chanted sacred mantras, offering special prayers to the utsava murti. Murtis of other Gods were also assembled: Vigneshwarar, Sarasvati, Mahalakshmi, Guardians of the Eight Directions, and the seven Mother Goddesses—Brahmi, Maheshwari, Kaumari, Vaishnavi, Varahi, Indrani and Chamundi. After the flag-raising, the priests performed arati (the waving of lamps) to all five parade Deities—Siva, Kapagambal, Vinayaka, Singara Velan, Chandikeshwarar—preparing for the grand procession in the streets, when the Deities of the temple come out to bless everyone, irrespective of social or economic status, including anyone who cannot approach the sanctum sanctorum to see the murtis. Dozens of priests chanted sacred mantras as thousands of devotees repeated “Aum Namah Sivaya!,” raising a spirit of hope and joy in the whole crowd. Lord Ganesha as Vigna Vinayaka led the street procession, followed by Singara Velan (with his divine consorts Valli and Devayanai), then Siva Kapaleeshwarar with Karpagambal, and finally Chandikeshwarar.

These day after day of parades of gorgeously flower-decorated palanquins with statues of Gods, Goddesses and the Tamil saints build an awesome experience. The seventh day parade of the temple’s main chariot was the grandest moment. This huge chariot, thirteen meters tall, is pulled through the streets by the massive gathering of overjoyed devotees holding long, heavy ropes. Everyone’s faith is inspired and renewed for another year. To get a feel for the incredible energy of this event, look up “Kapaleeshwarar” on YouTube.

Auspiciousness of this Day

Panguni Uthiram, the final day of the festival, is a particularly auspicious, observed on the transit of Moon in the star (nakshatra) Uthara-Phalguni (also known as Uthiram) in the Tamil month of Panguni which is the last month of the year on our calendar. On this day the temple celebrates the wedding of Kapaleeshwarar with Karpagambal. Panguni Uthiram is known as the “Full Moon of Divine Marriages” because, according to the Puranic stories, other celestial weddings also take place on this day, including the wedding of Goddess Parvati with Lord Siva, and Lord Muruga with Devasena; and the Ramayana says Sita married Rama on this day. It is also believed to be the birthday of Lord Ayyappa. In addition, legend has this as the day on which Goddess Mahalakshmi came to life on Earth from the ocean of milk which was churned by the devas and the demons, on opposite sides; thus Mahalakshmi Jayanti is also celebrated on this day.
This auspicious muhurta (timing) when the full Moon is conjunct with Uttaraphalguni star is considered to be the best day to tackle all kinds of relationship problems and give an immeasurable boost when you join hands with your better half in life. Worshiping the Divine Couples on this day, drives away sufferings and anxiety in nuptial life. We can connect with their energy to alleviate any relationship troubles.

Kailas of the South: Kapaleeshwarar Temple has been a sacred center for over 1,000 years. Here we are (above) in front of the side shrine to Lord Murugan with the main sanctum tower in the background.

Traveling to Mylapore

If you cannot come to the Panguni Uthiram festival in March, the other best time to be in Mylapore is December. The weather is pleasant, and you can enjoy the classical music and dance of Tamil Nadu. If you happen to live in tropical countries, Chennai’s hot humid summer weather should not be a problem.

Mylapore is 15 miles from the airport in Chennai. It is well connected to all corners of India by road, air and railway. Transportation is easy and cheap. The local language is Tamil; however you can easily feel at home when you speak English or any Indian language. There are many five-star hotels that offer excellent, safe accommodation and healthy delicious traditional South and North Indian food that would delight anyone’s palate. (My husband loves the food in Chennai—and it is not easy to please him.) These hotels cater to Westerners, too.

A word of caution regarding the street food—be careful if you have a delicate digestive system. Stay away from uncooked food. Always drink boiled water and hot drinks if you travel from the US or Europe.

This Poonya Bhoomi (sacred land) is also a super destination for those who love shopping. Fine jewelry (silver, gold or costume), clothing, handicraft items, statues of Gods and Goddesses, and puja items such as beautiful lamps are easily available at a reasonable price. So you do not have to go to Himalayas to get the blessings of Lord Siva. You can make this pilgrimage to Mylapore in Chennai, where you are not just visiting one of South India’s oldest cities, you are coming to the Kailas of the South for a totally new blissful religious experience, to receive the grace and vision of Lord Siva in the Kapaleeshwarar Temple in Mylapore.

The Rich Lore of Mylapore

MYLAPORE TOWN IS A SOUTHERN MUNICIPALITY OF THE sprawling metropolis of Chennai. The word Mylapore is probably derived from the Tamil phrase mayil arparikum oor (land of the peacock scream). It is also known as Thirumayilai (Holy Abode of Peacocks). These names are testimony to a time when this area was filled with these marvelous and beautiful birds.

Mylapore has other historical names as well, including Vedapuri, Sukrapuri, Mayilai, Ma Mayilai and Kekhayapuri—each based on an interesting story. According to the story behind the name Vedapuri, the demon Somuka stole the sacred Vedas and buried them under the sea so that he alone could learn them. Mahavishnu killed the demon, restored the Vedas and took them to the temple. Since the Vedas were brought to this place, it is called Vedapuri.

Historical and archaeological records show that Mylapore is an ancient town, with a history of well over 2,000 years. As early as the 2nd century ce, it was a seaport with a flourishing sea trade with the Romans and Greeks. No one knows how long the town existed before then, though the underwater structures off the coast would support speculation that its history goes back many millennia. A well-known saying in Tamil Nadu is Kailaye Mayilai and Mayilaye Kayilai, expressing the Tamil people’s belief that Mayilai (an older name of Mylapore) is the Kailas (the celestial abode of Siva) of South India.

The maritime maps of the ancient Germans and Greeks refer to the town as Maliarpha. In 1523 the Portuguese occupied Mylapore and established the viceroyalty of “São Tomé de Meliapor” or “Saint Thomas of Mylapore.” Portuguese rule lasted a little over two centuries. When the East India Company took over, Mylapore became a part of Madras Presidency, remaining so when the British Empire took over the rule. When India became a free country in 1947, Mylapore remained part of Madras State, which later became Tamil Nadu. Now it is one of the elite districts in Chennai.

The Nayanmar saints (Tamil devotees of Siva) as well as devotees of Vishnu have immortalized the Mylapore temples in their hymns. This is where devotees can perform Saptha Sthana Siva worship, i.e. worship of seven manifestations of Siva. Mylapore has 1) Sri Karaneeswarar Temple, (2) Sri Theerthapaleeswarar Temple, (3) Sri Velleeswarar Temple, (4) Sri Virupaksheeswarar Temple, (5) Sri Valeeswarar Temple, (6) Sri Malleeswarar Temple and (7) Sri Temple, all not far from one another. Devotees believe that Saptha Sthana Siva worship will bring them all the saubaghyas (blessings), such as good children, good education, happiness in married life, prosperity, long, healthy life, peace of mind. One’s blessings will multiply several fold when one worships Saptha Sthana Siva.

Kapaleeshwarar is a most renowned Siva temple, attracting devotees from all corners of the world. Of the numerous Puranic stories relating to Mylapore, the central one relating to Kapaleeshwarar is the worship of the Sivalingam here by Parvati, who, because of a misdeed, had been trapped in the body of a female peacock. At Kapaleeshwarar, She was finally freed from the curse.

The temple’s exact construction date is not known. Probably it was built by the Pallava dynasty in the 7th century ce, a date supported by the hymns composed during this period by Thirugnanasambandar (6th song in Pumpavaipathikam) and Arunagirinathar (697th song in Thirumylai Thirupugal). As mentioned in these hymns, Kapaleeshwarar Temple was originally on the seashore in Mylapore. The Portuguese destroyed that original temple.

Adikaranandi: Lord Siva’s mount, Nandi the Bull, in a rare standing form, carries Siva on his right shoulder and Parvati on his left on a giant palanquin for his parade

The Tuluva dynasty (the Vijayanagar kings) probably built the current temple during the 16th century, using some remains of the old temple. Inscriptions on the stones date the reconstruction back to 12th century. The temple’s rajagopuram (main tower), facing east, was built in 1906. Today the Hindu Religious and Endowment Board of the Tamil Nadu government maintains the temple.

The temple is built in the Dravidian style. Its seven-tiered, 120-foot rajagopuram is adorned with stucco figures. As you enter from the east, you come across Nardhana Vinayakar (Ganesha in dancing pose). In the sanctum sanctorum Kapaleeshwarar is in the form of Lingam (the one worshiped by Parvati as peahen). The Lingam faces the west; this unique feature is believed to be most sacred.

Modern Mylapore is a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multiracial, cosmopolitan city, a far cry from the seaside village of 2,000 years ago. Hindus, Christians, Jains, Sikhs and people of all religions and faiths live there. Christian churches, Hindu temples, mosques and gurudwaras, etc., are in close proximity—even next to each other in some places. But the power and darshan of the temples of Mylapore are as strong as ever, a testimony to the enduring strength of Sanatana Dharma through the ages.