The Kapaliswarar Temple is a very important shrine of this city and its ten day annual festival in the Hindu month of Panguni (Mar/Apr) is all about participation. On all the days, five deities, Ganesa, Kapaliswara, Karpagamba, Singaravela with consorts and Chandikeswara are brought out in procession twice, once in the morning and again at night on various mounts. And each day’s procession is accompanied by nagaswaram and tavil ensembles which walk along with the procession and perform at specified spots. A western band also accompanies the deities.
Certain days are more important than others during the ten day festival. The third morning has Kapaliswara borne aloft on the silver Adhikara Nandi. Karpagambal and Singaravelar are borne by veena wielding divine personages. The whole atmosphere is filled with musical associations for Nandi is considered a master on the drum. The bearers sway from side to side as they carry Adhikara Nandi and this gives the impression that the Lord is dancing. It is an awe-inspiring spectacle. It is no wonder that this procession inspired the great composer Papanasam Sivan to compose Kaana Kann Kodi Vendum in raga Kamboji. In the word picture it paints of the Adhikara Nandi sevai, this song is unsurpassed.
On the fifth day the vrishabha vahanam procession takes place late at night. Kapaliswara rides a silver vrishabham or bull while Karpagambal is on a golden vrishabham and Singaravela on a golden peacock. The procession takes the whole night to wend its way around the four Mada Streets and it is early morning and still dark when the five deities are brought to the sixteen-pillared hall on Sannidhi Street.
The seventh day has the car festival when thousands throng the temple and the four streets to witness the procession of five chariots. The eighth day is the most important. Legend has it that Sambandar, the great 7th century devotee of Siva and one of his chosen 63 followers, composed ten verses to resurrect the dead Poompavai, the daughter of a Mylapore based businessman, Sivanesan Chettiar. Each verse describes at least one festival of the temple – the Shravanam festival in the month of Aippasi (Oct/Nov), Tirukarthikai in Nov/Dec, Tiruvadirai in Margazhi (Dec/Jan), Poosam in Thai (Jan/Feb), the ritual bath in the ocean in Masi (Feb/Mar) and the annual temple festival during the month of Panguni (Mar/Apr). It is clear from the verses that these festivals, which are celebrated even today, were well established even then. The Poompavai Pathigam as it is called, also describes Mayilai to be a prosperous settlement with groves, splendid buildings and occupied by good and pious people. In Sambandar’s time the eighth day was when Siva came out in procession with his eighteen bhoota ganas or ghostly attendants. In time it metamorphosed into the day when Siva comes out in procession with his 63 devotees, the Arupattu Moovar, all of them preceding him in palanquins, with their faces turned towards him; their palms pressed together in adoration. Deities from other temples join the procession and lakhs of devotees throng the area. Pandals are put up at all locations and water, cold drinks and food are distributed to the throng by devotees. Some of the tanneer pandals as they are called, have a hoary history themselves, going back as they do by many years. A unique song associated with the Arupathu Moovar festival is the Vazhinadai Chindu, written by an anonymous poet in the early years of the 20th century. It describes in Chindu format, the route taken by a beau and beloved of George Town to attend the Arupathu Moovar festival. The song describes several landmarks of Chennai.
On the ninth day, Siva comes as Bhikshatana, the handsome beggar who seduced the wives of the sages of Darukavana. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Doraikannu, the Devadasi of the temple would lead this procession dressed as Bhikshatana herself and her dance would thrill the audience. At a particular point in the Bhikshatana procession, Kapaliswara is met by Karpagambal decked out as Mohini. It is now the turn of the Goddess to dance and she performs most spiritedly and finally enchants him.
The tenth day witnesses the wedding of Kapaliswara and Karpagamba and late at night after the ceremony, the deities are brought out on the Ravana Vahana. On this occasion, musical accompaniment is provided by the mukha veena, a variety of clarionet.
A unique feature of the ten day festival is the dolls exhibition at the Vyasarpadi Vinayaka Mudaliar Chattram often referred to as Bommai Chattram on South Mada Street. This building which functions as a marriage hall for the rest of the year transforms itself into a dolls-house for the ten days and on display are age-old leather puppets and clay dolls all of which are locked up for the rest of the year.
The vidayatri festival begins immediately after the brahmotsavam and continues for ten days. The Lord and His consort are entertained each evening by music and kalakshepam performances.
The ten days of the festival see Mylapore going back in time and becoming a village once again. Clay pots, traditional toys and native beads will be available on sale, in makeshift stalls set up by vendors who come from far and wide to do business. True, the logistics of such an event had become daunting over the years, but when public spirit is more than willing, what cannot be achieved?
The writer is a well known historian of the city