Kapaliswarar Gopuram lit up for the Panguni Uthhiram

“In this Mylai of lovely streets where Kapali has taken residence, the beautiful women sing on the occasion of Panguni Uththiram festival. O Poompavai have you gone away without seeing this celebration?”

thus sings Sambandar in the 7th century. It is a clear indicator of the antiquity of the annual Brahmotsavam of the Kapaliswarar Temple in Mylapore. This year the temple, and we the die-hard devotees have been forced to give it a miss, owing to the worldwide contagion of COVID. I have not been able to come across any year in the past century when this festival was called off. Even the famed evacuation of Madras, during the Second World War took place later in the year thereby enabling the conduct of the event.

Kapali on Adhikara Nandi, pic courtesy Sujatha Shankar

Given the temple’s antiquity, we do not have any clear records as to when the itinerary of the ten-day event was codified in the manner we see it today. Much of the temple that we know  is the work of Nattu Muthiappa Mudali, who sometime in the 18th century renovated/rebuilt the precinct. The shrines of Jagadiswarar and Sundareswarar, as also the small gopuram on the eastern face, are all his. But by 1749, when the British acquired control over Mylapore and San Thome, the temple was in a ruinous condition. Kanakaraya Mudali, the Kanakkupillai of the Export Warehouse of the East India Company became dharmakartha and in his words, he found the properties of the shrine “encroached upon by people of foreign religions. The four Mada streets had become mere lanes. The temple was barely functioning, with daily worship being suspended owing to want of funds.” It was he who rebuilt the temple walls, had the tank fashioned in its present dimensions and more importantly, had processional icons and mounts made, fashioned carriages, widening the four mada streets to facilitate their movement. Towards the end of the 18th century we read of Pammal Subbaraya Mudali spending 20 to 30,000 pagodas in constructing the temple chariot.

Kapali, rShabha vAhanam 2014, Mylapore

But immediately thereafter, there was a break in the conduct of the event for ten long years. In 1789, there was a riot between the Left and Right Hand Castes of the area, chiefly over the colour of the pandals that had to be put up on the processional route. The latter wanted to usurp the traditional five colours of the former for their pandals. That led to suspension of the festivities, which resumed only in 1799, with the Company’s red and white colours being used, with St George’s flag flying on top!

But there was trouble even then when it was alleged by Mudali inhabitants of Mylapore that Masilamani Mudali, then Dharmakarta was not carrying out the ceremonies of the temple. This was sorted out with the East India Company funding the celebrations pending further enquiry. The same scenario was to repeat itself in the 1820s, when Kovur Sundara Mudali, remembered today for bringing Tyagaraja to Madras, after spending copious amounts on the annual festival, found the Company thwarting his attempts at becoming Dharmakartha. He managed to get Aiya Mudali, the ageing trustee of the shrine to write a letter to the Collector of Madras stating that with two harvests having been poor, the temple was short of funds and that he Aiya Mudali was not rich enough to finance the festivities “on a grand style unless assisted by a rich man with his own money,” for “the servants will not be attentive unless their balance is paid to them.” This clearly was a powerful hint that Kovur Sundara Mudali, being a rich man, ought to take over. The Board of Revenue simply authorised the Collector to spend the required money from Government funds.

Kapali ther 2014, Mylapore

In 1826 Kovur Sundara Mudali reiterated his claim, directly petitioning the Company. It was March and it became clear that unless the matter was resolved, the temple festival would become a casualty. But the Company was implacable and it went on to conduct the event under its own auspices. It later appointed Dharmakartas and sadly Kovur Sundara Mudali was not one.

For some reason, the East India Company was very keen that the Kapali Brahmotsavam was held in all its customary grandeur. Perhaps because the temple was never administered by a public charity but directly by the Government since 1749,  the EIC felt the non-conduct of the event would be a reflection on its prestige. The traditions continued unbroken post 1857 when the Company vanished and India was administered by the Crown. Since Independence of course, the festival has only got bigger.

But then who would have thought that a virus originating in China could put a stop to a temple festival in Mylapore? This too is God’s doing and His will hath no why.

This article has quoted from Dr Kanakalatha Mukund’s book, the View from Below, Orient Longman, 2005. The article was published in The Hindu dated April 10, 2020 in the Friday Features section.

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