Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXIX No. 23, March 16-31 2020
The annual Brahmotsavam of the Kapaleeswarar temple is just around the corner. The festival has had a long and at times, colourful past; it had been celebrated with funds provided by the Collector of Madras in the early 19th Century and the flag of St. George was ordered to be placed atop the canopies surrounding the temple in order to resolve a dispute between the left hand and right hand castes.
A tradition that has been kept alive since the days when Mylapore was just a village, the Brahmotsavam starts with an offering to the guardian diety Kolavizhi Amman at her shrine, a short distance away. The ten-day festival draws huge crowds, with numbers surging on certain days such as the Adhikara Nandi on the third morning, the Rishabha Vahanam on the fifth night and the Ther procession on the seventh morning of the festival. However, the pinnacle of them all is the Arupathumoovar festival on the eighth afternoon, when Lord Shiva comes out in a grand procession, granting darshan to the 63 nayanmars – the saints of the Shaivite canon. This piece is a description of the festival published in 1910 in Viveka Bodhini, the magazine that was being brought out by V. Kuppuswamy Iyer, the founder of the Alliance Company.
The legend of Poompavai is inextricably linked with the Kapaleeswarar temple. Briefly recapped, Sivanesan Chettiar, a wealthy businessman of Mylapore, awaits the arrival of Saint Thiruganasambandar to offer his daughter Poompavai’s hand in marriage to him. In an unfortunate turn of events, she dies of a snake bite and is cremated. Sivanesan Chettiar preserves her ashes in the hope that Thirugnanasambandar can bring her back to life. The Saint arrives from Thiruvottriyur and invokes the blessings of the Lord by singing a set of verses (known as Poompavai Pathigam), at the end of which the girl is resurrected. An overjoyed Sivanesan Chettiar offers her hand in marriage to the Saint, who declines it on the ground that having given her rebirth, he had attained the status of a father to her.
The article gives a detailed description of the enactment of this episode that takes place on the morning of the Arupathumoovar day. The idols of Saint Thirugnanasambandar and Sivanesan Chettiar are brought in procession and kept in the pandals set up respectively on the southern and northern sides of the steps on the western bank of the temple tank. Elaborate abhishekams are performed. Ceremonial offerings for the abhishekam of Thirugnanasambandar and gifts for Poompavai are arranged by the representatives of the Kunnakudi Tiruvannamalai Mutt, which stands on Adam Street.
Preceding the processions of Thirugnanasambandar and Sivanesan Chettiar, a bedecked idol of Poompavai is brought out and placed in a fully covered pandal on the northwest corner of the tank. After their abhishekams, Sivanesan Chettiar and Thirugnanasambandar are decked up in readiness to have darshan of the Lord and are brought near Poompavai’s pandal.
The odhuvar of the Kapaleeswarar temple then renders the Poompavai Pathigam. It is interesting to note that these verses describe the various festivals being celebrated at the temple, each of them ending with a lament that Poompavai has died without witnessing them. At the end of every verse, arathi is offered to Thirugnanasambandar. When the recital concludes, the curtain covering Poompavai is removed, after which a grand arathi is offered. Following this, the trio has darshan at the sanctum sanctorum before going on to the join the nayanmars, taking their place at the head of the procession. Lord Shiva comes out in full glory and the grand procession starts around 3 p.m. and takes around seven to eight hours to complete. It is interesting to note from this article that the practice of Tiruvalluvar joining the procession along with the nayanmars has been in place since 1905 or so.
A chat with a priest associated with the temple reveals certain interesting aspects of the enactment of the episode and how it remains almost unchanged till date. Offerings for the abhishekam of Sivanesan Chettiar are brought by the representatives of his community, who have a mandapam right opposite the Eastern Gopuram of the temple. A rendition of the Thiruthondar Puranam narrating the sequence of events up to the arrival of Thirugnanasambandar in Mylapore precedes the Poompavai Pathigam. A pot containing jaggery and covered with cloth represents the urn in which Poompavai’s ashes were kept by Sivanesan Chettiar. This is opened at the end of the rendition of the Poompavai Pathigam and the jaggery is distributed as prasadam to the gathering.
The article also gives a fascinating description of the crowds and the gaiety surrounding the festival. It estimates a crowd of around four to five lakh people visiting the festival and also notes that vehicular traffic in Mylapore is stopped by around 2 p.m. It also gives a detailed account of the various charitable activities carried out on that day. It notes that several thaneer pandals are set up around the temple to serve water, buttermilk and paanakam to the public, with some of them organising annadaanam too. It is interesting to note that the Sivaganasambandar Thaneer Pandal at Ramakrishna Math was set up in 1860 and continues to be active till date. The public is also served bananas and cucumber to beat the heat. An interesting charity mentioned is the distribution of cow’s milk to feed the children who come to the festival. The article also notes that the thaneer pandals continue for a distance of two to three miles, yet another feature that has remained unchanged till date.
The Brahmotsavam starts on March 29th this year and the Arubathumoovar festival is on April 5th.