The district of Chennai, India is home to one of the most visited temples in the state of Tamil Nadu. The Kapaleeshwarar Temple is an impressive ancient structure built 300–400 years ago in the suburb of Mylapore. Although the inspiration to build the temple was drawn from the desire to replicate an earlier and more ancient temple built during the seventh century which was eventually destroyed by the Portuguese, the Kapaleeshwarar Temple is, nonetheless, a sight to behold with its own rich history to tell.
The temple’s distinctive Dravidian architecture provides temple goers with a strange though pleasant fusion of the ancient and the modern world. On both eastern and western entrances of the temple stand each with one lofty edifice. These pyramid-shaped gateway towers or ‘gopuram’ greet and welcome the temple’s guests, with the east gopuram soaring at 120 feet. The west gopuram silently stands guard over the immense sacred water tank that is the temple’s center of activity.
Kapaleeshwarar Temple is dedicated to the god Shiva and the Shaivate saints. Upon entering the temple, one is greeted by a striking sculpture depicting a fascinating story about a saint who resurrected a girl through song. The courtyard houses a small shrine of Shiva and Parvati in the forms of a peacock and a peahen, portraying one of the more popular legends about the god and his wife. ‘Vahanas’ or vessels in various forms such as a bull, elephant, goat, bandicoot, peacock or parrot can also be seen. Shrines of the saints comprising 63 bronze carvings can also be found within the temple walls, while in another courtyard stands a Punnai tree, one of the oldest trees in Chennai which is considered holy by devotees.
With all these wondrous sights, crowds are drawn to the temple for a variety of reasons. Some go in order to satisfy their curiosity about the rich and ancient culture of Hindus. Others feel that visiting the temple can also serve to deepen a visitor’s understanding and appreciation of ancient India’s political and cultural history. Still, there are some who make the trip to the temple to simply enjoy the concerts and musical performances held at the grounds weekly.
However, devotees visit the temple for other reasons. Friday is a special day as huge crowds pay homage to the statue of the goddess Parvati, adorning it with a garland made of gold coins. Other occasions that many locals and tourists make sure to attend to are the biweekly Pradosham festival and the Teppam or float festival.
No other event, however, is as much awaited as the annual Aruvathumoovar Festival. During this festival, the streets spring to life with beautiful and intricate trimmings welcoming the thousands of devotees and tourists. The ten-day spring festival in March and April offers a unique experience which envelops the entire community in an atmosphere of sheer energy and anticipation. Also called the car festival, those who are privileged to witness this affair are treated to the sight of Shiva and Parvati seated on a vahana and carried in a procession around the temple. Throngs of devotees look forward to the chance of lifting the god and the goddess on the vahana. Every day for nine days, the god and goddess are then carried in a procession of a different vahana, each one uniquely embellished with flowers and statues.
The streets of Mylapore swarm with vendors selling sweets, juices, and buttermilk to the pilgrims while performers treat the public to a display of classical dance performances.
Visiting Kapaleeshwarar Temple, whether during famed festivals or during a regular day, indeed offers a unique encounter with authentic Indian culture that, once experienced, can never be forgotten.