I was at the Kapaliswarar temple yesterday and noticed that Singaravelar and His consorts were in a palanquin and being decked up. A glance at the huge vinyl signboard that gives the temple’s list of events for the month revealed that this is when Singaravelar goes off to the forest for a picnic. This is his day for vana bhojanam, which literally means eating in a forest. Those familiar with the Bhagavatam and the Narayaneeyam will know that Krishna’s vana bhojanam is one of the most beautiful episodes possible.
Google informs me that vana bhojanam is a festival celebrated in the month of Karthik and Shravan in Andhra. People go to the forests or any open space. Food is pooled and community feeding is the norm. Madras was after all more Telugu than Tamil and so I assume that this ritual has come down from that part of the country. I am of course not sure that vana bhojanam does not exist in Thanjavur, Tirunelveli or other parts of Tamil Nadu. And as to why Singaravelar has his vana bhojanam in the month of Thai (Makara) I don’t have an answer.
Leaving all that aside, where does Singaravelar go off to for vana bhojanam? After all, there is no forest anywhere near Mylapore if you exclude concrete jungles. Well, He has an exclusive garden for Himself, with a pavilion in it. Only now that garden has no plants and its courtyard is paved. But it is still a neat little place. It stands at the edge of Mylapore, just before the old post office, on RK Mutt Road. One step further and you are in Mandaveli, which as the name implies, was the pasture for the cattle of Mylapore and which therefore must have meant the outer boundary of the old town of Mylapore. And so, Singaravelar goes off to the edge of his demesne and has his feast.
Nowadays I am sure the priests find this more of a pain. The palanquin has to be carried amidst traffic and so what must have once been a leisurely journey is now a hurried affair. A quick Abhishekam and Naivedyam follow which those rushing by on RK Mutt Road barely notice. Then it is time to get back. We must however be thankful that a palanquin is still used. I shudder to think of the day when Singaravelar will be transported by car.
But in its time it must have been a lovely festival. The devout from the town must have followed the Lord and spent the day with Him in the sylvan surroundings of His garden, with breeze flowing in from the open Mandaveli. With the breeze would have come the tinkle of cows bells… Someone may have sung a Tiruppugazh or two. Then naivedyam and after that feasting in the presence of the deity.
Modernisation brings its own travails and Singaravelar is not immune. He had to fight to regain His garden from encroachments and for the rest of the year when He does not visit the place, He keeps it locked. He must be afraid of real estate sharks.
In this He has proved to be cleverer than his father, old Kapali who had a sprawling vana bhojana thottam (garden) further South. Now known has KVB Thottam (Kapali Vana Bhajana Thottam), it is a huge slum, part of several such thottams taken over by the Government in the 1960s by way of slum clearance. Other victims were Velleeswaran Thottam, Narayanaswami Thottam and Visalakshi Thottam. Wonder where these deities go for vana bhojanam? Perhaps they rent Singaravelar’s home away from home.
In this connection I remember that Parthasarathy of Triplicane also goes out on such jaunts. One such takes Him as far as Ekkaduthangal. Now that that place is also pretty much filled up, I wonder if he feasts at the Hilton and comes back.