O Poompavai! How can you go without seeing the Thai Poosam festival at Mylai, that town of damsels with dazzling eyes lined with collyrium and where Kapali sits embellished with the sacred ash?

Thus runs the fifth of the ten-verse Poompavai Pathikam of the 7th century saint Gnanasambandar, thereby indicating the antiquity of the festival that has just got over at the Kapaliswarar Temple in Mylapore. It also tells us that the nature of the celebrations have changed over the years. In the composer’s time, “bejewelled women who prepared offerings of rice immersed in ghee for the Lord” observed it. Now it is more closely associated with Murugan and also the float or theppam when the processional deities are kept in a decorated barge that is towed in the temple tank.

How and when Thai Poosam became associated with the float is not clear. But the ancients did have a flair for such events. The timing is perfect — the weather is at its best and the sight of a decorated barge illuminated by a full moon is a delight. Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff, the Governor of Madras between 1881 and 1886 certainly felt that way. This is what he wrote in January 1886: “In the evening we drove to the Mylapore tank and saw, for, I think, the third time, the floating festival in honour of Siva. On this occasion, the effect of this intensely Indian scene, with its raft bearing the semblance of a temple, its dancing girls, its lights, its flowers, and its music, was heightened by the most lovely moonlight.”

The festival lasts three nights. On the first evening, Siva-Chandrashekara is taken on the float along with his consort. On the remaining two nights it is the turn of Singaravelar or Murugan who at this temple enjoys the status of a main deity with his own set of festivals.

Till the 1990s, the floats were open to the public to sit in and sail with the Gods but security threats have changed all that. You can still, however, relax on the tank steps and enjoy the sight, apart from listening to the music. That we have steps to sit on is entirely due to the efforts of the noted playwright Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar. His family had hereditary trusteeship rights to this temple and he officiated in that capacity between 1906 and 1924. He writes in his biography (Enadu Suyacharitai) that in his time the tank had a set of steps leading to the water but the rest of it was just a rough bund. When he expressed a desire to have stone embankments, the local residents baulked at the expense, then estimated at Rs 1 lakh. Sambanda Mudaliar hit upon a winning idea — he announced that those donating Rs. 108 would have their name inscribed on the steps. This caught the public fancy and donations poured in, leading to speedy execution. The Lord fulfils himself in many ways.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated February 7, 2015 under the Hidden Histories column

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