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Vol. XXXIII No. 20, February 1-15, 2024

The Kalikambal Temple and its legends

-- by Sriram v

I embark on this article with a sense of trepidation. I have debated on writing it for years and maybe put it off for too long. These are times when legend is increasingly being accepted as fact and I am sure what I write below will not be to the liking of many. But as a chronicler it is my responsibility to put down what I have researched. I do not write this story with a view to demean anyone but more with a view to point out aberrations in a historic narrative.

For those who are not aware, the Kalikambal Temple stretches between Armenian and Thambu Chetty Streets. It is a popular place of worship and over the years several legends have sprung up about the shrine, which very likely have a core of truth. What has happened in recent times is that these legends have crystallised into fact, buttressed by some ‘records’ that the temple cites. These seem to have many inconsistencies in them. The basis for this article is the Sthala Puranam, namely a book titled Chennai Sri Kalikambal Kamateswarar Devasthanam Thala Varalaru published by the temple authorities (year not specified but definitely post 2000).

The book (pages 39/40) claims that the Goddess was originally known as Chennamma and that the town was named after her. It also says that a Chennamma born here was the person who endowed sculptures to the Govindaraja Temple in Tirupati as evident from an inscription there. Now this Chennamma (vide inscription 1492) was the wife of Tiruvengalanatha, a kinsman of Krishnadeva Raya. There is no evidence to support that Chennamma was born in Chennai. It is a simple usurpation of fact.

The book has more examples like this. It sweepingly asserts (p 40) that Chennappatnam has existed like Kaveripoompattinam from the stone ages, claiming that the discovery of stone implements relating to palaeolithic times near Guindy is evidence of this. While the discovery of such tools near Pallavaram is true, that does not prove that Chennappatnam existed then. For that matter, while we do know that Kaveripoompattinam existed during Sangam times, we cannot on that basis say it was a stone age town.

Moving on to the temple history as given, the book says the shrine was originally located where Fort St. George came up later. And it interestingly draws a parallel – just as Kolkata was named after Kali (not true), and Mumbai after Mumba Devi, Chennai took its name from Chennamma who was none other than Kalikambal. This adds a new legend to the already existing trove on how our city got its name. Chennammankuppam says the book was the old name of the town and that became Chennapatnam over time. East India Company records do not speak of a temple standing on the site selected for constructing Fort St. George.

The English, when they came says the book (p 41), found three hamlets here. Madaraskuppam, Chennaikuppam and Aarukuppam. All three had temples in them and the local ruler when he handed over the area to the English requested them to protect the three shrines. And this they did. The book also adds that the three kuppams can be seen in city maps of 1733 and 1802. The first is clearly sourced from HD Love’s Vestiges of Old Madras where the said map is in the jacket of Vol II. This was drawn based on an earlier one with J. Talboys Wheeler. The map does not mention the three kuppams. I have not yet traced the map of 1802. The temple book (p 41) goes on to helpfully give the location of the War Memorial to be the place where Aarukuppam once stood. This is not substantiated by any map of the city or for that matter any historic record.

Next, we come to the references that the book claims to give from HD Love’s Vestiges of Old Madras. It says that the temple was variously known as the Kalyana Temple, the Cawleyana Pagoda, the Karaneswari Temple and the Comisery Pagoda in Love’s Vol. III pages 338, 388 and 258. A search in Love reveals that p 338 has no reference to the temple but p 388 speaks of temple disputes between the Left and Right Hand Castes and there the shrines referred to are the Calleteesvarah’s Pagoda (Kalahastiswara Swami Temple) on Coral Merchant’s Street and an unspecified Cauleyana Pagoda which Love explains as the Kalyana Temple but does not elaborate any further. He certainly does not say this was the Kalikambal Temple. That interpretation has been made by the author of the Sthala Puranam chiefly because the arguments cited in that page refer to a pyramid chariot with brass cups that was drawn at the Cauleyana Pagoda. Today the Kinni Ther or Brass Cup Car of the Kalikambal Temple is famous but a reading of Love will show that it was a feature also of other temples in the George Town area in the 18th century. We therefore cannot equate the Cauleyana Pagoda with the Kalikambal Temple on that basis.

The third reference, namely p 258 in Love is not in Vol. III but in Vol II and that is about an unidentified Karaneswari/Conisery Pagoda which was between the Island and Periamet. It was therefore not the Kalikambal Temple at all. The Sthala Puranam also claims that HD Love wrote that “it was a sight to see the glorious Kalikambal on the beautifully decorated brass chariot.” The irony is that Love does not write of the Kalikambal temple at all, and it does not feature in his index where several other temples are listed. While on the brass cup car procession, the Sthala Puranam has it that Governor Pitt ordered its cessation, presumably after the caste riots. It does not cite what the basis for this is, but we do know that the conduct of such car processions was halted by Pitt for the above reason at various shrines.

The book then goes on to say the Governor Saunders participated in the procession and drew the chariot himself on September 21, 1790. This seems erroneous for various reasons. Firstly, the temple’s annual festival is held in May/June and not September. Secondly, Saunders was Governor of Madras from 1750 to 1755!

Lastly, we come to the visit of Sivaji to the temple. The dates of his invading the Madras neighbourhood and camping in the vicinity are very clearly given in Company records as May 1677. And within a few days he was gone. In August 1678 he was back but in the Gingee/Kanchipuram area and left soon thereafter. And yet, the temple records that he visited the place on the night of October 3, 1677. The Sthala Puranam cites Love again, this time Vol. I, p 382 and says Sivaji met Muttumari Achari, a prominent carpenter during his visit. The referred page has passing mention of Muttamara the Chief Carpenter and his work in laying the Town Wall. It does not say anything about Sivaji meeting him. The Sthala Puranam also says that on a second visit to the city, Sivaji camped in Armenian Street and that the locality came to be known as Mahratta Town thereafter. It says he worshipped at the shrine on this occasion. This is a patent fabrication as Sivaji never invaded the city or camped in it. He merely threatened to do so. If at all he visited the temple, it was under cover and probably in disguise.

It is very interesting to see how the Sthala Puranam covers itself with a layer of authenticity by citing Love, probably hoping that nobody will bother to search out the references. It is indeed a pity that the official publication of the temple should rely on vague references when it surely must be having enough records to create an honest narrative. That said, it cannot be denied that most shrines in the city, and in this we can begin from the legend of St. Thomas, rely on here say and not on facts.

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  1. Bhavani Chandramouli says:

    Thanks for setting the record straight! During my annual winter visits to Madras I’ve always wanted to check out the Kalikambal temple. This time I did along with a visit to the Armenian church. When looking online for facts to guide my visit, I found many of the ‘facts’ you cite! Your piece has been very helpful in filtering facts from falsehoods

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