The story of Shiva taking on the role of the divine beggar – Bhikshatana is an interesting one for it shows the deity in an amorous light. In order to quell the arrogance of the sages of the Daruka forest, Shiva appears as a handsome mendicant, in the nude, and seduces the wives of the sages. The ascetics try to destroy him by sending a deer, a tiger and a snake to kill him but he defeats all of them. The deer he bears on one hand and as for the tiger, he kills it, flays it and wears its skin. The serpent becomes his garland.
At the Kapaliswarar temple, Shiva comes as Bhikshatana on the 9th day’s festival. Here the story is different. The previous evening, after the Arupathu Moovar festival, Shiva goes hunting on horseback and loses a signet ring. Parvati, suspecting that he has spent the night elsewhere, locks the temple doors on him and so becomes a mendicant. He takes a begging bowl and sets out. Women from whom he seeks alms fall for his charms and follow him.
Parvati, on coming to know of this, sets forth as Mohini. The two meet and she does a spirited dance to entice him back. He is more than pleased and returns with her to the temple, to the accompaniment of fireworks. All is now set for the divine wedding tomorrow night.
I was able to catch Bhikshatana today, though I missed the bit where he meets the Goddess. There is also a clip uploaded on You Tube.
I must have last attended this procession 35 years ago. I somehow have this feeling that in those days, the temple brought out its exquisite Bhikshatana idol, instead of dressing up the processional icon of Kapali as Bhikshatana. I may be mistaken of course. This could still be that Bhiskhatana, undistinguishable from Kapali thanks to all those flowers.
The festival has brought out all that is best in our traditional crafts. Bead work, pottery, wooden toys, palmyra fans and native cosmetics are now flooding the streets, along with plastic horrors. It is a ten day period to be savoured.