Siva’s Kailas of the South
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
BY LAKSHMI SRIDHARAN, CALIFORNIA
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 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.
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.
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.
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.