Searching for a lost festival

Kapali on Bhoota Vahanam, East Mada Street, 24/3/18

‘Tis the season of the rains. Let us prepare ourselves for the usual spate of self-righteous messages on social media about grabbing lakes, blocking drains, plastic waste, and how something needs to be done!!!!! We have had time since 2015 for preparing anyway.

We get around ten days of rain during this time and the fuss that is made about it has to be seen to be believed. Anyone would think we were Mumbai or Kolkata, with a three-month monsoon. The ancient Tamils of course, unlike us present-day specimens, knew how to celebrate the monsoon. ஐப்பசி அடை மழை கார்திகை கன மழை (non-stop rain in Aippasi (Oct/Nov) and heavy rain in Karthikai (Nov/Dec) ) is an old and beautiful expression.

In his beautiful Poompavai Pathikam, composed at the Mylapore Kapaliswarar Temple, Gnana Sambandar in the 7th/8th century CE sings of festivals throughout the year. And as I never tire of saying, the wonder of it all is that these are all events that still happen at the Kapali temple, 1,300 years later. What amazing continuity! And this is even though the temple itself has been rebuilt.

Among these, most of the utsavam-s that Sambandar lists can be traced. But the Aippasi Onam event remains a mystery. The verse itself has this to say:

மைப்பயந்த ஒண் கண் மடனல்லார் மாமயிலைக்

கைப்பயந்த நீற்றான் கபாலீச் சரமமர்ன்ந்த்தான்

ஐப்பசி ஓண விழாவு மருந்தவர்கள்

துயிப்பனவுங் காணாதே போதியோ பூம்பாவாய்

In great Mayilai where beautiful women with kohl-lined eyes live

Kapali lives, adorning sacred ash and giving more than what is asked

The Aippasi Onam festival and feeding of

The ascetics – have you gone away without seeing these O Poompavai?

This is the second verse of the decad that comprises the Poompavai Pathigam. Onam is, for those who don’t know, the asterism Sravanam. But what exactly was being celebrated is a mystery. I am told that Kapali does come out in procession on this day but as to what this signifies I have no idea. Interestingly, in his book Festivals of Tamil Nadu (Gandhi Vidyalayam, Thiruchitrambalam, 609204, 1980), M Arunachalam writes that the Aippasi Onam is a forgotten festival today but there is an inscription in the Thiruvizhimizhalai Temple dating to Raja Raja Chola’s time that has it that ascetics were fed on the occasion, which is exactly what Sambandar describes in Mayilai.

And here is something else to ponder over – Aippasi Onam is sacred to the Vaishnavites, as it is the birth asterism of Poygai Azhwar!

This article is part of a series I write on Poetry on Chennai. You can read the earlier parts here