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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 23, march 16-31, 2010
The Mylapore festival
- that Sister Devamata witnessed 100 years ago
(Flipping through yesterday’s pages* by Sriram V.)
*Days in an Indian Monastery by Sister Devamata
(Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai 600 004)

The great temple festival of Mylapore occurs in April. It lasts twelve days and on some of them fifty thousand people are present. As it falls in the hottest season of the year, to temper the heat for coming and going devotees, the rich build large pandals or sheds of bamboo poles and palm leaves at their gates. Here they serve a cooling drink of sweet curd, lime juice, rock candy and water. It is given freely to all who come.

The annual brahmotsavam of the Kapaleeswarar Temple in Mylapore takes place in the second half of March this year. Sister Devamata witnessed the festival in 1910, a hundred years ago, and left these impressions of it. The account shows how much and yet how little has changed in Mylapore. All comments in italics are mine Sriram V.

My door-court and lower front verandah during these days were transformed into a hostelry, and compact rows of weary pilgrims slept there every night. All the verandahs of the neighbourhood had their quota of uninvited guests. Some families gave up a room or two to them. They bathed and washed their clothes in the temple tank, got food or fasted as it came. Those who slept on my verandah asked me for drinking water.

On each day of the festival there was a procession depicting some event or legend connected with the “Great Transformer”. The vivid reality of His living Presence for every person in this vast throng none could doubt. The question was never “What time is the procession?” but “When does the Lord come out of His Temple?” The hour varied; sometimes it was during the day, sometimes in the evening, sometimes at night. I remember being roused at one o’clock one night by the beat of the big temple drum and the plaintive notes of the wood wind instruments. I ran to my verandah and saw at the end of the street facing it a glare of flaming torches, the tall figures of chanting Brahmins, the rising smoke of burning incense, and the flower-adorned image of the “Great God”. As I watched the swaying concourse approach I could easily imagine that the Lord had come out of His temple at dead of night to see that all was well with His children. (This is a description of the vrshabha vahanam festival which happens in the middle of the night. The bearers of Kapaleeswara’s mount adopt a swaying gait for this procession and this is what Sister Devamata also noticed. It was customary for the most prominent nagaswaram artistes to perform by relay throughout the night.)

A Vintage Vignettes picture showing the temple festival at Mylapore around the time Sister Devamata witnessed it.

Another evening we were standing near the temple gate seeing the preparation for the gathering procession. The crowd was dense and nearly all were simple people of modest station, full of piety and devotion. I sought to follow all the religious customs of the festival – not with condescending sympathy, which is so often mistaken for catholicity, but with genuine kinship of ardour and devotion. It was no effort. Such fervour of spirit called forth an inevitable response and created a feeling of oneness of faith. Thus it was that on a special evening when the procession passed before my house, I too made my offering. All my neighbours were making theirs; there should be no blankness of worship at my door.

A Brahmin boy offered to carry it for me and he brought a large brass tray. On this we placed a snowy pile of grated coconut, some choice fruits, sandalwood paste, some sticks of incense and a small coin. The day’s story called for the Lord on a galloping horse (this is on the Arupatthumoovar day of the festival. After the great procession is over, Shiva comes out again late at night on horseback). The bearers of the Sacred Image came running down the road at such speed I was afraid the young Brahmin boy would fear to venture, but he ran out boldly in their path and they came to a stop just beneath the banyan tree. The priest lighted the incense and waved it, lifted up the votive tray, then with clasped hands in salutation and a friendly smile he sent back the blessed offering to be given to friends or to the poor.

The most stirring day of all twelve for me was that of the Car Festival. On the four corners of the car are colossal figures of the elements, terrifying as air, fire, earth and water when they come in the form of wind or consuming flame, avalanche or flood. The body of the car is like a tower carved and coloured and in it rides the Lord of Creation receiving the loving homage of His children. Many of the cars in the different temples are very ancient and crudely built, but all have the same symbolism. The wheels are heavy, solid wooden discs cut out by hand and are guided by placing a stout plank at different angles under them. The one who does this walks bent beneath the car and must exercise great courage, yet each is jealous of his privilege.

The car is carried forward by a long rope with room for many hands. Five hundred could draw the car at Mylapore, and in all its course round the four streets, never once was there a single hand-space. Shy women, aged men, little children, ran out from their houses to seize the rope. Those who could not lay hold on it ran beside those who held it and fanned them. They were content to be servants of the servants of the Lord. Now and then, pushed too rudely by the crowd, one fell. No one was injured while I was there, but I saw the origin of the oft-repeated story that devotees in madness of worship throw themselves beneath the car. Swami Ramakrishnananda pulled the rope at more than one festival. Once he was thrown down, but he rose with smiling unconcern and continued to fan or pull as opportunity offered. It was impossible to withstand the exalted spirit of self-forgetting devotion which swept the throng.

and the Triplicane float festival

I had not been at Mylapore very long when a gentleman of Triplicane came to tell us that the main festival of the year was just beginning. His house stood across from the temple. That evening was to be the floating festival, so we made a special effort to go. A friend took us in his carriage. When we reached Triplicane at dusk we found it a surging mass of human beings. The steps on three sides round the pool were packed with people, the steps on the fourth side had rows of countless flickering votive lights. The streets were seething with more people, there were thousands upon thousands.

The crowd fell back for us; and when we reached the side of the pool in front of the temple gate, we found a wide clear space on the steps. As we took our places there, the float turned and poled its way to the foot of the steps where we stood and remained there for ten or fifteen minutes. This gave us a wonderful view of it. It was broad and long. On the outer edge on either side was a line of men holding flaming torches, next to these were a number of Brahmins chanting Vedic texts in Sanskrit. High up on the throne at the back was the Sacred Image covered with votive garlands. Before it stood the priest waving burning camphor and incense. It was profoundly impressive.

(To be continued)

In this issue

A landmark arising
What are we planning for the Buckingham Canal?
A waterway & an expressway in conflict
The Mylapore festival – that Sister Devamata witnessed 100 years ago
Historic Residences of Chennai - 38
Other stories

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan
Dates for your Diary


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