A curious old tale for a new cycle of time: Shebaba by Renuka Narayanan
It’s New Year this weekend in a number of regions across India, so best wishes to us all, dear readers. I’d like to share a most unusual and quaint story for the occasion. Late last month was the Brahmotsavam or 10-day annual festival of the grand temple in Mylapore, an ancient inland pocket of Chennai. Mylapore is an anglicised form of Mayurapuram, meaning ‘the place of peacocks’.
The 16th century Portuguese poet, Luís Vaz de Camões, in his travelogue / poem The Lusiads, described it as “the potent city, Meliapore”.
Mylapore is built around that gigantic temple to Shiva-Parvati where they are worshipped as Kapalishwar and Karpagambal. There’s a big shrine to their son, Kartikeya, in the compound. A raising-of-the-dead miracle attributed to the 7th-century boy-saint and poet Gnana Sambandhar is believed to have happened nearby.
It’s said that the original Shiva-Parvati temple was by the ocean, but was destroyed in the early colonial period. It shifted to its present location thereafter, which, jokes Carnatic historian Sriram V, who leads excellent heritage tours, amounts to the parents moving into the son’s house. The link with the old site is maintained even now, through an annual ritual by the sea.
The Mylapore temple somehow survived the usual attention paid to temples by foreigners; indeed, an old Nawab of Arcot donated land to the present Kapalishwar temple for a water tank because a temple is incomplete without a dedicated source of water, ‘temple, tank, town’ being a traditional plan for settlements.
Sriram V told us of another unusual foreign contribution on the heritage walk he led recently during the Mylapore Brahmotsavam. We gathered at 6 am at Kapalishwar’s door to see the day’s magnificent, peaceful and orderly Adhikara Nandi procession. I cannot properly describe the joy of witnessing that beautiful living tradition, or the mannerly, gentle crowd, or the good energy of local residents who drew kolams and did harati in welcome along the route, or the melodious singing of Thevaram, the ancient Shaiva litanies, inside the temple.
A family that lived by the temple tank was known to have performed annadanam or ‘food seva’ for pilgrims during Brahmotsavam since the mid-19th century.
But why were temple ropes and pandal poles along the procession’s route wrapped in red and white cloth, the colours of the Union Jack? Sriram V told us that for centuries, the temple chariot used to be pulled by ‘left’ and ‘right’ groups during Brahmotsavam. The left group wrapped its ropes in white cloth and the right group used cloth of many colours. However, they quarrelled so violently in the 19th century that the East India Company, which ruled the land then, had to intervene. Colours from the Union Jack were accepted for good and Kapalishwar’s chariot did the rounds under British rule with the flag of St George and the dragon flying above in protection.
Surely the moral, if any, of this extraordinary story is that every so-called spiritual conflict has a practical solution. After all, the enigmatic smiles of the deities are meant to be a reminder that the Eternal God is far above human conflicts and quarrels.
(The views expressed are personal)