Posted in Culture, Religion

Of Temples, Gods and Saints …


Temple Gopurams, as integral a part of Chennai  as malli poo, filter kapi and checked lungis. That does not mean they are not found elsewhere – just that they are so evocative of this city. In a city where there are temples everywhere, three stand apart – the Parthasarathi temple in Triplicane, the Kapaleeshwara temple in Mylapore and the Murugan temple in Vadapalani. And what makes then so special? Probably the fact that they have been spoken of by various great saints, commonly feature in pictures of the Chennai skyline or perhaps simply because they are bang in the middle of popular areas in Chennai. Whatever be the reason, these three are rather close to a Chennaiite’s heart, and their festivals draw large crowds.

The Gods housed inside are the big ones –benevolent and awe inspiring. They bless the good and chastise the wicked, and generally go about doing what good Gods do. Lord Krishna is depicted as Parthasarathi, the driver of Arjuna’s chariot in Triplicane. He had sworn not to fight in that mother of all wars at Kurukshetra,  and so he stands there, with only his conch for company, his face scarred by marks of battle. And yes, a resplendent moustache, thick and curling, graces his upper lip. Our men love their moustaches here, and they are a sign of machismo, but a God with one is a bit of a rarity. Then there is Kapali – Lord Shiva the God of destruction, in Mylapore. A mighty God, with a matching temper, he once found his wife Parvathi paying more attention to a dancing peacock than his words. And zap, there she was banished to Earth, to be born a peacock – some believe in the region that’s called Mylapore now! Shiva soon repented and came down to earth to take Parvathi back with him. And legend has it that this incident gave Mylapore its name – Myil being the word for peacock in Tamil. Then there is Muruga in Vedapalani – the God of War, on one hand, and a handsome heartthrob on the other. Called Karthikeya in the North, he is a part of every puja pandal in Bengal, for he is Durga’s son.

What is even more interesting are people who are in some way associated with these temples. There is Pei Alwar, who sang songs in praise of Vishnu and has sung of the temple in Triplicane. This poet was born in Mylapore. The story goes that the saint was born of a flower in a temple tank in that area. Then there was Sivanesan, in Mylapore again – a merchant who wanted to give his beautiful daughter to a wandering minstrel – Thirugnanasambandar. The daughter died of snake bite, and it only needed the saint to visit them and sing a song to Shiva about her, to bring her back to life once more.  And these two share a shrine in the Kapaleeshwara temple till date.  Vadapalani has an equally exotic tale to its credit, that of Annaswami Thambiran. This venerable old man worshipped a picture of Muruga, and whenever he did, he found that he had the ability to foretell the future. And he worked miracles – he set the sick back on their feet, got the jobless into the habit of earning money, and generally made his presence felt. When he passed on, the place he lived in slowly grew into a large Muruga temple, and there it stands till today – attracting the faithful in the thousands.

Posted in Religion

Temples in Mylapore, Triplicane, Adyar, and Thiruvanmiyur

Chennai has hundreds of temples to boast of, each accompanied by a host of wonderful traditions and intriguing myths. And hidden amongst the many well known temples are stories of lesser known temples or lesser known stories of what at one time were important temples. This article covers some such stories, and as with all such stories based on faith, it would be hard to separate individual interpretations from the beliefs of a larger community. Stories tend to change with each teller and there never seems to be a right or a wrong version when it comes to faith…

Thulakkathamman Temple, Triplicane

Are you familiar with Goddess Thulakkathamman? Probably not. But walk across the bylanes of Triplicane and you might just end up at a 300 hundred year old temple dedicated to this Goddess.

Speak to the temple priest and the story you will get to hear is that this idol was found by a local Muslim boy, and then the Goddess subsequently appeared to him in his dreams. ‘Thulakkan’ being a local slang to refer to Muslims in those days, the deity promptly acquired the name of Thulakkathamman, loosely translating to ‘Muslim Goddess’.  The temple is frequented by people of many faiths today, and the deity like most ‘Amman’ temples is considered extremely powerful, and capable of ridding one of all evils.

Velleswara Temple, Mylapore

Built a few centuries ago, the Velleswara temple tells us the story of a saint called Shukracharya who became a teacher of the demons. It is believed that long ago, Bali, the King of Asuras (Demons), had the heavens and earth under his possession. When the gods approached Lord Vishnu for help, he disguised himself as a Brahmin named Vamana and decided to take the three worlds as alms from the Asura King in three footsteps. The wise sage Shukracharya over heard the plan and rushed to warn the King. But Bali was a man of his word and surrendered his kingdom to Vamana whole heartedly. Shukracharya was taken aback and angered by the pride of King Bali and just as Bali was about to seal the promise by symbolically pouring out water from his vase, Shukracharya shrank himself and sat on the spout of the vase. Vamana then simply picked a straw of hay that lay on the ground, and directing it up the spout, poked the left eye of the sage. And that left Shukracharya blind in one eye. Shukracharya felt insulted and prayed deeply to Lord Shiva, who, pleased with his devotion, appeared before him and gave him back his sight. The Velleswara temple commemorates this penance of Shukracharya. It is interesting to note that this temple houses idols of both Shiva and Vishnu, which while not unique is fairly uncommon.

Marundeeswar Temple – Triplicane

This ancient temple dates back at least to the 7th century. ‘Murundeeswarar’ translates to ‘the lord of medicine’ and this temple is dedicted to Lod Shiva, worshipped here as a divine physician. And the temple has an impressive list of associations cutting across Hindu eras. Sage Agastya the all powerful sage who practiced Herbal medicine is believed to have been introduced into the mysteries of the herbal world in this very place by Lord Shiva himself.  Tirugnanasambandar, the ardent devotee of Lord Shiva is believed to have visited this temple and sung the praises here, as is Arunagirinathar the 15th century poet from Thiruvannamalai. Sage Valmiki the author of the epic Ramayana is said to have been blessed by Shiva here and hence the place started being known as Thiruvalmikiyur, gradually changing to the current ‘Thiruvanmyur’.

Mundakanniamman Temple, Mylapore

Like many other temples dedicated to ‘Amman’ this temple also plays host to many practices seen as ‘mystic’ by the west. From fire-walking to body piercing, you see it all here during the festive months. This is also the place devotees come to, to get cured of chicken pox and measles. This temple is believed to have been built around an idol that was found among snake pits, and worshippers soon took to the practice of ‘feeding’ the snakes. And though there are no snakes here today, the practice continues and people still leave raw eggs and milk at a dead tree within the temple that might have once been home to snakes. An interesting story that you would get to hear in this temple is about why the main shrine does not have a permanent roof over it. It seems many have tried putting a roof over the idol, and each time it has come down in haste. So people believe that the Goddess here considers the sky to be her roof and will not allow any other structure over her head. So till date, the idol is kept in a thatched temporary structure.




Posted in Personalities, Religion

The city of St. Thomas

Chennai, a study in contrasts, where IT coexists with cottage industry, modern glass buildings live cheek by jowl with agraharams and orchids are sold along with the ubiquitous jasmine. So it really comes as no surprise that temple bells and church bells unite in their call for prayers. And as much as temples contribute to Chennai, so do its many churches. But how did Christianity come to Chennai? The long saga of Christianity began when St. Thomas, an apostle, picked a chit which had Asia written on it, and so had to come here to spread the word of his God.

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This apostle made Chennai his home and preached here, staking claim to the title of the founder of Christianity in India. It is not insignificant that Christianity came to India with him, in 52 AD, much before it was even recognized as a religion in the west. Thomas lived in what is today called Parangi malai, or Little Mount, in a cave and prayed and preached from there. Till date, one can see the cave with its spring, which Thomas brought forth to help the people who were suffering due to drought. There is an imprint of a hand on the wall there, which people believe is the apostle’s. The site where he was killed, on St. Thomas’ Mount, is a land mark today, for there is a small but beautiful Portuguese church standing there. It houses a cross, which is said to have bled, and a secret passage which connects it to the cave in Little Mount. All these stories lend an aura of mysticism to the place. Today, it is the best spot to have an uninterrupted view of the busy Chennai airport, and the city beyond. The small church on St. Thomas Mount is a memorial to this man who came from so far away to preach a new religion in a strange land, driven solely by the force of this conviction.

A long drive leads you through some of Chennai’s busiest roads and to Santhome, the place where the basilica of the same name stands, with its tall white spire visible for miles around. This breath taking white Gothic basilica is a monument to Saint Thomas again, and is said to be built over the remains of the apostle. His body was brought down and buried here before it was disinterred by the Portuguese and taken away to Spain. They constructed a small church here, which was later rebuilt by the British a century ago. The beautiful stained glass behind the altar shows St. Thomas touching Christ’s wounds. According to legend, St. Thomas was the original Doubting Thomas. It seems he refused to believe Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and said he would believe it only if he saw and touched the wounds on Christ’s body. He did, and the relic in the crypt below the Basilica has a fragment of a bone from his hand, that believers say touched the wounds on the body of Jesus Christ.

The skyline of Chennai today is a medley of buildings – temples, churches and of late, multi storied IT hubs. But the story of St Thomas, who came way back in 52 AD, still stands tall. Many powers came after him and the architects of Christianity in India have been many – the Portugese, Dutch, Danish, French, Armenians, British … and each invariably built towering monuments to their faith, many of which still dot Chennai’s skyline. The Luz Church, Armenian Church, St Mary’s Church at the Fort, St Andrew’s Kirk, are just some beautiful examples. A drive past these surviving monuments is an enjoyable experience that helps you reflect upon the city, its history and the common stereotypes associated with it in a new light.


Posted in Great Places, Religion

A Story to die for …

By Vaishna Roy

I was in Tranquebar a few weeks ago. Incidentally, Tranquebar, the site of an old Danish fort, is a story in itself. And deserves its own post. But let me first tell you this quaint story.

A few kilometres from Tranquebar, I noticed great big hotels in the middle of what seemed like nothing more than a village. Curious, I checked with the cab driver, who told me that the place was called Tirukkadaiyur and that it had a temple where couples celebrated their shashtiapthapoorthi (a spouse’s 60th birthday) or sadabhishekam (80th birthday). That’s all he seemed to know.

So, I poked around a bit and found the sweetest story ever.

Once upon a time, many many eons ago, when the gods roamed between heaven and earth freely, making occasional forays into hell as well, there was a holy sage who did not have any children. He prayed to Shiva long and hard, and Shiva obligingly appeared before him. (As he markedly does not these days). He agreed to grant the sage an offspring but, as was the wont of gods those days, he made things a tad difficult. He asked the sage to choose between a son who would live a long and healthy life but would be a bit of an ass. Or a smart, intelligent boy who would live only till the age of 16.

The sage, having little patience for fools, chose the latter and accordingly Markandeya was born to him. The boy was perfect in all ways. He grew up an ardent devotee of Shiva, and worshipped the lingam devotedly.

The day Markandaya turned 16, Yama, the god of death, duly came calling but the boy ran away. He ran hard and fast to the Shiva lingam and threw himself around it. Hugging it hard, he refused to go away quietly with Yama. The disgusted Yama threw his noose around the boy, but it obviously landed around the lingam as well. Now, it was Shiva’s turn to be furious. He emerged out of the lingam and kicked Yama with his left foot, trapping him under and refused to let go.

The defeat of death itself caused utter chaos in the cosmos. There cannot be life without death! Ultimately, after much worship and placation, Shiva agreed to let Yama go, provided he allowed Markandeya eternal life. The deal was duly signed.

The temple at Tirukkadaiyur celebrates this myth, and has a lingam that reportedly has the marks of a noose around it. And because it is the place where Death was temporarily defeated, it is the temple where people go to celebrate their 60th and 80th birthdays. As a thanksgiving for their longevity.

If I had known the story then, I would have made the detour to visit the temple. Unfortunately, I drove past in a hurry. Well, no matter. Tranquebar is always worth another visit, especially now that Neemrana has this gorgeous heritage resort there. And next time, I have the added attraction of this 11th century Chola temple at Tirukkadaiyur to draw me there.

Note: Tranquebar is 279 km south of Chennai, about a six-hour drive down a very pleasant NH45A. You reach this temple town just about 10 minutes short of Tranquebar.