I gaped at the Roman merchant as he passed me by in a parrot green silk toga with a golden border. And then gaped some more as two more Roman merchants, in bright blue silk togas with flowery motifs, strolled past me in the marketplace. Romans in Mylapore? And that too in colourful silk togas?
“Sudha…Hey, Sudha? Are you listening? Where have you gone off?” a voice broke into my rambling, and rather colourful, imagination.
“Sorry, Akila,” I replied a little bit sheepishly. “Your mention of Mylapore’s Roman connection triggered off some time travel. The idea of Romans in colourful silk togas was too delicious to resist.”
It is a quarter to eight in the morning and I am standing outside the Kapaleeshwarar Temple in Mylapore, Chennai. I am there to explore and experience the many layers of Mylapore through the Peacock Trail, a walk conducted by Storytrails, an organisation that promises to give “a glimpse into the local way of life, using… stories as the medium”.
Akila is my storyteller and guide for this trail, and her narration of Mylapore’s rich past is so vivid and detailed that my journey of exploration through this ancient place is an unforgettable experience. And one that I hope you will also be able to undertake with me as I relive that experience through this post.
Mylapore is a fascinating place. Though, today, it is known as Chennai’s oldest residential area, its history predates that of the city it is part of by more than 2,000 years. Mylapore is also a famous address—it was home to and perhaps also the inspiration for the great poet-saint, Tiruvalluvar, the author of that seminal treatise on ethics, Tirukkural.
Some of the earliest references to Mylapore is in the literary works from the Sangam era in South India (200 BC to 300 AD) — a period when arts, crafts and literature flourished. It was also the time when Romans travelled to India for trade. Mylapore or Mylarpha, as the Romans referred to it, was an important port town and a trading post. The Romans or the Yavanas as they were referred to in the Sangam works, traded their gold and silver for spices, iron, precious stones, sandalwood, teak and ebony, ivory, pearls, cotton, silk and exotic (for the Romans, that is) birds like peacocks. The Romans were, however, not the only travellers to visit Mylapore — the Greeks and the Arabs also came visiting. Ptolemy and Marco Polo have left rather detailed accounts of their sojourns to Mylarpha. The Portuguese were the next to arrive in the 1500s, followed by the British a few decades later.
If one were to consider mythological stories and legends, then Mylapore is older than the 2,000 years that historical/literary/archaeological records claim. Known then as Mayilapuram, or the land of peacocks (Mayil is the Tamil word for peacock), the story of how this name came about is worth sharing here.
A long time ago Shiva and Parvati were chatting. Or rather, Shiva was talking and Parvati, like a good wife, was listening. But rather half-heartedly, as she was distracted by the antics of some peacocks nearby. When Shiva noticed that his wife wasn’t giving him the 100% wifely attention he deserved, he flew into a rage and cursed Parvati to become a peacock herself. And poof ! Parvati vanished instantly. Shiva regretted his harsh curse immediately, and decided to take the form of a lingam on earth till the time that Parvati lived out her life as a peacock. Parvati, in her peacock avatar on earth, did not neglect her wifely duties of caring for Shiva. She would bring fresh flowers to the lingam every day, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the people living in the area. Taking this to be a divine sign, they decided to name the place Mayilapuram.
The Kapaleeshwarar Temple has a played a central role in the legends and culture associated with Mayilapuram. This temple and its main deity are eulogised in the works of the great 7th century Saivaite saints, Thirugyana Sambandar and Tirunavukkarasar. It is, therefore, not surprising to see many of their works immortalised in the various shrines within the temple complex. Poompavai Pathigam, by Thirugyana Sambandar, is one of them.
Sivanechar, a great devotee of Lord Shiva, lived in Mayilapuram with his beautiful daughter, Poompavai. He was so impressed with the poetry of the prodigy and boy saint, Thirugyana Sambandar, that he decided to get Poompavai married to him. But before he could do this, Poompavai died quite suddenly of a snake bite. The grief-stricken father carried out his daughter’s last rites, but could not bear to immerse her ashes. A few years later, when Thirugyana Sambandar came to Mayilapuram, Sivanechar met him told him the full story. Deeply saddened by the story, Thirugyana Sambandar took the pot of ashes to Lord Kapaleeshwarar at the temple and sang the pathigam, which brought Poompavai back to life. The overjoyed Sivanechar offered Poompavai in marriage to the saint, who declined saying that since he had given life to her, Poompavai was now like his daughter.
The present day Kapaleeshwarar Temple Complex at Mylapore is just 300 years old. The original Kapaleeshwarar Temple, which was located closer to the shore, was reportedly destroyed by the Portuguese, circa 1566. The present temple complex has been built using the ruins of the older temple as well as newer material.
So while the base is built of granite, the gopurams, spires and domes of the various shrines within the temple complex are made of colourfully painted stucco. These narrate stories of gods and goddesses, of saints, of miracles, of living and life.
A walk through the temple reveals personal spaces of worship for people, as well as shrines for special wishes and favours. For example, within the temple complex is the Punnai tree or the Kalpavriksha, a wish granting tree for women desirous of getting married or becoming a mother. Those wanting to get married need to tie a yellow thread on a branch of the tree; those women who want a baby tie a miniature cradle as the photo below indicates.
Like all major temples, the Kapaleeshwarar Temple has a large water tank for its use, with a matching grand story attached to its origins.
When the temple was being built, the land opposite was the obvious choice as the site for the tank. There was only one problem—the land belonged to the Nawab of Arcot, a Muslim. The temple authorities were not sure if he would be willing to lease the land to them. They were right; the Nawab was not willing to lease the land. But he was more than willing to just give it to them with a condition—Muslims should be allowed to use the tank on Muharram, every year. The temple authorities agreed, the contract was signed, the land handed over, and the temple tank built.
A walk through the temple’s neighbourhood reveals shops and businesses that only a local would know—a bharatanatyam costume maker, a window (literally a hole) in a wall through which some of the most delicious snacks are sold, etc.
Akila took me to see a traditional house belonging to a priest at the Kapaleeshwar Temple. Though the house has all the modern conveniences one can think of, the structure and layout is traditional, much like the houses I saw at Dakshinachitra. It is a beautiful house and with the best ventilation that I have experienced in a house in recent times. It was a fairly humid morning that day, but when we stepped into the house it was like stepping into an air-cooled house. Or maybe it was just the warm welcoming smile of the 85-year-old matriarch, Shakuntala Mami. In her peacock-blue coloured 9-yard saree, she looked like she had chosen the colour to match the theme of the walk I was undertaking.
Peacocks used to be abundant in Mayilapuram/Mylarpha/Mylapore and till not so long ago, the place used to resound with their cries. Little wonder then that the peacock is present as a leitmotif across the various sub-cultures in Mylapore. While the peacock theme (if one can call it that) is quite common and often a recurring one in Hinduism, it came as a surprise to see how Christianity has adopted and adapted the peacock as a symbol of syncretism in Mylapore.
It is after 10 am when the Peacock Trail brings us to the San Thome Basilica in Mylapore, which is not too far from the Kapaleeshwarar Temple. A pilgrimage site today, the Basilica commemorates the site where St. Thomas, one of the 12 apostles, was martyred in 72 AD. Today, it is also perhaps the most important church in Chennai. While I am silently wondering about the connection of peacocks and the Basilica, I am presented with the first surprise there — the statue of Mother Mary is dressed in a sari ! Though I had heard about such things, this was the first time I was seeing one. I am yet to recover from this surprise, when the second, bigger, surprise inside the cool and peaceful Basilica comes up. At the altar, Christ is depicted on a crucifix that rises from a lotus. Two peacocks at His feet complete the setting. The Peacock Trail makes perfect sense now, and so beautifully too.
Urban sprawls fascinate me—their sub-cultures, the multiple realities that co-exist, the urban and urbane veneer that envelops everything … But what interests me the most are those parts which stubbornly hold out against being subsumed by the “one size fits all” development sweeping through cities and metropolises that they are part of. Places like these are old. Older than the city they are now part of with colourful myths, legends and histories and a character to match.
It is difficult to explain in mere words, but such places give out vibes to connect and explore. The fact that these places are not miles away or preserved in some wilderness, but are right there in the middle of a developed metropolis makes them that much more appealing, fascinating and challenging to to contextualise to present day realities. Mayilapuram / Mylapore is one such place, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed exploring and experiencing.
Every city has pockets like these. I known that my own Mumbai does. Does your city have such pockets too? Do share them, so that I can explore and experience them too.