On the peacock trail from Mayilapuram to Mylapore

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. :-)

The main gopuram of the Kapaleeshwarar Temple in Mylapore, Chennai, can be seen rising up in the background

Source: Wikipedia

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 BCE to 300 CE) —  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.

Parvati, in the form of a peacock, worshipping the lingam form of Shiva

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.

This tableau depicts Poompavai coming alive from her pot of ashes and thanking Thirugyana Sambandar, while her grateful parents look on

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.

The wish giving tree “tied with the desires of unmarried women and women yearning to become mothers

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.

The temple tank

Shakuntala Mami

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.

The San Thome Basilica

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 CE. 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.

(L) Jesus is mounted on a crucifix that rises from a lotus, with two peacocks at his feet. (R) Mother Mary in a sari

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 contextualise them 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. :-)

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28 thoughts on “On the peacock trail from Mayilapuram to Mylapore

  1. What a lovely post! I quite enjoyed viewing the sights of Mylapore through your eyes. Loved the mythological stories too.

    BTW, I was wondering when you were coming to the Romans in Togas- then I realized that was a ‘dream sequence’! :D

    Have you been to Khotachi wadi in Girgaum? We used to live nearby and I was always amazed at the contrast it presented to the bustling crowds of elsewhere in Mumbai. A tiny old-world Goa!

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    • Thank you so much, Manju. I’m so happy that you liked this post. I was worried about this slightly rambling post coming good. And as for the “dream sequence”, it was quite real for me, thank you very much ! ;-)

      I’m ashamed to say that I have only read a lot about Khotachi Wadi, but have never visited it. :-( Something that needs to be remedied soon.

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  2. Oh Sudha, you are a dream weaver, did you know that? The sthala puranams are known to me but alas, I have not explored the lanes and bylanes as you did. My older sisters lived in the vicinity as children and they surely would have more tales to share about the place. The mami indeeds looks very charming with a smile to match. :)

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    • I’m a dream weaver, eh? :-)

      Mylapore was a revelation particularly in the context of the stories woven around it. There were many stories narrated and I only chose to share those that I did not know about here in this post. And what a morning it was. After the almost disaster of Dakshinachitra the previous day, this one was perfect in every way, almost as if Chennai was making up for it.

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  3. I have known Mylapore only as an address in Chennai, to think it has such rich history. I am definitely going to do a Storytrail tour when I am in Chennai next. I know such walking tours are conducted in Mumbai, do you know of any other cities that have such tours? It would be fun for DD to learn history this way.

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    • Mylapore was a revelation in every sense of the word, apart from being an address in Chennai. There are many other Storytrails as well and the next time I am in Chennai I plan to do one called the “Steeplechase” which is about Christianity in Chennai. And yes, I strongly recommend that you try out these trails.

      I know that Delhi and Ahmedabad have heritage walks, and though I know that Mumbai has walks and tours, I have never taken one, so I wouldn’t know. But yes, I can definitely conduct a walk in Mumbai myself. :-D

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  4. From the mythological anecdotes of Shiva and Parvati, Sivanechar and Poompawai, to Roman merchants passing by in silken brightly coloured togas, to the Nawab of Arcot to our very own desperate times, it was a mighty time travel that kept me glued to the tail of your mighty time machine. It is an absolutely refreshing and enriching post whose contents remained lucid in my mind even with the passage of a night.

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    • It was a wonderful way to explore, experience and travel back in time, Umashankar. This is one walk and travel experience that will remain with me forever. I so happy that you also liked it.

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  5. First, whenever-and I hope it will be very soon- you decide to do a storytrail yourself, count me in as your baggage carrier! Lovely post. Going deeper, I recommend all serious students of history-the history of south India, in particular- to a reading of Neelakanta Shastri’s scholarly book, The History of South India.Your description of Mylapore has captured the very essence of the book. Even today, a study of Indian history emphasises more on what happened north of the Vindhyas. Very few appreciate that the history of south India is just as varied and rich.

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    • It is a sad and pitiable truth that the history of South India is not considered as varied and rich as what happened North of the Vindhyas. I must admit that there was a time when even I was of this opinion. Neelakantha Sastri’s book and other readings and travels in the South have helped dispel this thought, and I hope that many more will also join this group.

      I have told you before that I do not need any baggage carrier, I always travel light. :-) But you are always welcome to join me in my travels.

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    • Mylapore will never be the same again for me either. And with Romans in the picture, I rather like the idea of imagining them in Kanjiwaram silk togas. It rather makes for an enduring image, doesn’t it?

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  6. Yes, Mylapore has a very rich heritage. I think I will take that story trails walk too ( I was considering joining them. Even met them and they asked me asked me to join one of their trails but somehow I left it hanging there). We go there to buy vegetables every sunday morning-breakfast at Saravana Bhavan is part of the deal. My husband has been going there since his childhood and he absolutely loves it!

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    • It will be wonderful to read about your experience of taking a Storytrail walk too. I look forward to reading it. The next time I come to Chennai, I will fit in another trail to me itinerary there.

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  7. Mylapore does have some very fascinating stories, I see. I like those legends. It was nice to hear about the Mother Mary in a saree and the lotus below the crucifix. Now I’m wondering what that lotus symbolises. :)

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    • Mylapore is drop-dead fascinating. As for the syncretism, it is not surprising at all as it is natural for older symbols to be adopted to make something new more acceptable. In Hinduism, the lotus signifies purity as it is a beautiful flower that grows in swampy, stagnant water. I suppose, that’s what it symbolises here as well.

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  8. What a post, Sudha!!! Chennai appears to me afresh! Man, Shiva did have a temper huh! Glad he regretted it:) What a lovely temple tank–I have not seen it as yet :( Romans and Arabs in Mylapore??? OMG! And that Shakuntala mami looks so happy and cute! And Mary in Sari and Jesus on lotus–talk about syncretism! Fantastic–a must read for all Chennaiphils:)
    You know I was seeing some temples recently and my guide was local farmer. He told me so many things but I kept wishing you were there to listen–to connect the dots, to bring the narrative to life! Your posts are incredibly different and informative!

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    • Thank you, Bhavana. I quite like Shiva, temper and mood swings and all. :-) I too wish I was there with you listening to local legends and myths. I love mythology and am particularly interested in the way they have been adapted to suit or fit modern times. And Mylapore is going anywhere, you can visit it and take a stroll through that place when you get back to Chennai. :-)

      Good to hear from you and I look forward to reading all about your travels across the villages in India.

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      • what a lovely post, Sudha!! makes we want to go there at once!!!!!! it brought back some wonderful memories… not of the temple actually, but the area as a whole….. and the basilica, which i actually remember going into, with my grandfather… i remember visiting quite a few churches in madras with my grandfather…my uncles took me to the temples, but only tatha and i shared a fascination for churches!!! as for the temple and its environs, i am sure the next time i am there, i am going to look at it with a very different viewpoint!!

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        • Thank you, thank you Anu :-D As Meera commented earlier on, Mylapore will no longer be just an address. It has suddenly come to life for me. The next time you are there and knowing you, I’m sure that you will be not only seeing it differently, but also writing about it.

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  9. Nice post Sudha.. I have been to Mylapore many times, but never knew these facts, history and architecture details.. glad that i stumbled on your post :)

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    • Welcome here, Ramya. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. I have been to Mylapore a few times before but didn’t know its history till I went on the walk. I think it is true that every stone, every building has a history. Mylapore certainly proves that. doesn’t it/

      Keep visiting ;)

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