The annual festival at the Mylapore Kapaleeswarar Temple will start a week from now. The deities will be brought out on various processional mounts twice a day for ten days. Some events are, of course, more important than others – these being the Adhikara Nandi sevai (Day Three), the Vrshabha Vahanam (Day Five), the car festival (Day Seven), the Arupathumoovar (Day Eight) and the Kalyanam (Day Ten). The devout will throng the four mada streets on all days; their numbers rising to unmanageable levels on the eighth day in particular.

Kapali on the silver vrShabha vAhanam, 5th day procession
Kapali on the silver vrShabha vAhanam, 5th day procession

Even as Kapali goes around the four mada streets accompanied by the other deities, those that watch the procession are probably doing what has been a practice for several centuries. There is no denying that the Kapali temple is an ancient one, having featured in the works of the Nayanmars of the 7th Century and after them in other literary creations. Sambandar, in his Poompavai Pathikam, lists a festival for each month of the year and most of these are observed even now. And yet, there are unsolved mysteries about the shrine. Did it really stand on the seashore at one time? Why are there no inscriptions from the times of the Cholas in the present temple? Did the Portuguese destroy the temple or was it because of war or did the sea rise up and swallow it? There are no certain answers, but almost everyone is agreed on the fact that the temple was relocated to where it stands now and was rebuilt there ‘around three hundred years ago’. As to who built the shrine has also been a matter of debate.

The main gopuram and the Amman vimanam (foreground), Kapali temple
The main gopuram and the Amman vimanam (foreground), Kapali temple

A couple of publications by current day scholars throw some additional light on the present temple and its sub-shrines. The first of these is The Diaspora of the Gods, Modern Hindu Temples in an Urban-Middle Class World by Joanne Punzo Waghorne (OUP 2004). The second is The View from Below, Indigenous Society, Temples and the Early Colonial State in Tamil Nadu, 1700-1835, by Kanakalatha Mukund (Orient Longman 2005). A study of these helps to locate the period of reconstruction of the Kapali temple with greater precision. More importantly, it identifies the men who were responsible for the work. Read in conjunction with the playwright Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar’s autobiography, Yen Suyacharitai (1963) we get a more or less complete picture. This article is based on what is written in these accounts.

The Sundareswara shrine, Kapali Temple
The Sundareswara shrine, Kapali Temple

Waghorne in her book dwells at length on the details of the temple as given in Colin Mackenzie’s manuscripts. He had arrived in Madras in 1783 and after 13 years’ military service, began devoting his time to Indology, balancing the demands of his hobby with those of his professional career which culminated in his becoming the first Surveyor General of India. By the time of his death in 1821, he had collected a huge number of manuscripts, besides maps and books. Among these is an account of the Kapali temple with a sketch of the shrine, with the various parts marked and ascribed to the men who built each of them. Waghorne surmises that this particular manuscript may have been done between 1796 and 1800.

The Sundareswarar shrine, Kapali Temple
The Jagadiswara shrine, Kapali Temple

The sketch gives credit for much of the temple to Mootooapa Mood, who from Mukund’s work can be identified as Nattu Muthiappa Mudali, a prominent member of the Tuluva Vellalar community. Mukund, who bases her writing on extensive research at the Tamil Nadu Archives, has Muthiappa Mudali as the ‘original dharmakarta of the temple’ in the early 18th Century. This tallies with Waghorne’s information from the Mackenzie manuscript, which recognises that Muthiappa Mudali renovated the shrine to the Goddess, which was ‘ an old church’ (presumably used here as a synonym for a temple). He constructed shrines for Jagadiswarar and Sundareswarar, both of which still exist on the eastern side of the temple complex. He also built the small gopuram that is on the western wall of the temple. Waghorne states that the present contours of the temple owe their construction to Muthiappa Mudali, but points out that two sub shrines built by him – one to the Sun God on the eastern side and another to Bhadrakali on the western side facing the present day Singaravelar shrine have since vanished. She also has it that the multi-tiered eastern gopuram was built by him but, when read in conjunction with Sambanda Mudaliar’s account, that is debatable.

To be continued…
You may want to read these other stories on the Kapaliswarar Temple:

Keeping the peace at Kapali’s Festival

Mylapore Kapali Ther 2014

Can the Mylapore Temple Festival be better run?

When Mylapore comes alive…

The Mylapore Temple Festival in 1910

Mylapore in 1910

Rishabha Vahanam at the Mylapore Temple

A nun in Mylapore

Music and dance at the Mylapore temple

The Mystery of Mathala Narayanan

Mylai Velli Vidai/Rishabha Vahanam

Adhikara Nandi at the Kapaliswarar Temple

Bhikshatana procession at Mylapore

Singaravelar Procession

The Ballad of Arupathu Moovar

A 150 year old Thanneer Pandal

Some of Kapali’s Vahanams

Adhikara Nandi Sevai at Kapali temple

The quaint ritual of Vana Bhojanam

Papanasam Sivan

Kapali Karpagam Kalyanam!

Articles on other temples of Chennai:

Patnam Temples

The Kalyana Varadarajaswami Temple, Colletspet

The Chintadri Pillary Temple

The Velleeswarar Temple, Mylapore

The God who gives vision

Karthikai Deepam at Velleeswarar Temple, Mylapore

Car Festival at Coronation Pagoda, Mylapore

Music at the Madhava Perumal Temple, Mylapore

Triplicane Parthasarathy Swami Temple

The Kamakala Kameswarar Temple, Triplicane

The Mallikarjuna Swami Temple, Linghi Chetty Street

Ekamreswara Swami Temple, Mint Street

Kacchaleeswara Swami Temple, Armenian Street

The Angala Parameswari Temple, Mundagakanni Amman Koil Street

The Agastyeswara Swami Temple, Nungambakkam