Today is the Arupathu Moovar festival. It is 5.45 am and already, lakhs of participants must be making their way to the four Mada Streets of Mylapore. The procession will start at 3.00 pm or thereabouts by which time the crowds and the heat will be at their peak. But such is the spirit and joy of this event that nobody minds such discomforts.

Thanneer Pandal, Arupathu Moovar

An integral feature of this festival are the thanneer pandals. All over Chennai, makeshift stalls will come up today. These will dispense food, water, buttermilk and snacks to those who walk by. Tradition has it that Appoodi Adigal, one of the 63 Nayanmars, set up Thanneer Pandals to welcome Appar, another of the 63. Around my house I can see four thanneer pandals in operation.

Yesterday, Karthik Bhatt and I set out to see the Ther festival and whilst there we saw two Thanneer Pandals that can claim a hoary legacy of their own. The younger of the two has been set up at the same spot for 137 years! There was no one to interview there but at its neighbour, which is 152 years old, we struck gold.

A 137 year-old tradition

This was first conceived by Sabhapati Achari in 1860! He was a practitioner of native medicine and lived at Triplicane. Since then, five generations of his family have made their way each year to the Mylapore tank and set up their thanneer pandal. Venkatesa Achary, sixth in line from Sabhapati, says that he continues the family traditions of Sri Vidya upasana and also native medicine. Each year, he applies for permission to set up this thanneer pandal and the temple gladly gives it. The pandal occupies pride of place, for it is on RK Mutt Road, with its back to the tank, ensconced between two bus stops.

Sivagnana Sambandha Swamigal Thanneer Pandal

When we went in, the women of the family were busy cutting vegetables and cleaning rice. Preparations were in full swing for the massive cooking operation that would follow. Karthik and I were given buttermilk and also gifted palmyra fans.

Venkatesa Achary

The family also distributes pongal each year at the Kalikambal shrine in Town, during that temple’s festival. And a few decades ago, they began distributing food at Tirumala as well. How do they finance it? Well-wishers and Venkatesa Achary’s patients contribute and they keep it going. Incidentally, the family has also lived in the same house for over six generations!

To me, it is stories like this that makes the Arupathu Moovar festival exciting.

My book on Chennai is out and can be purchased here