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On Arubathumoovar Mylapore Kapaleeshwarar temple festival |Times of India

March 22, 2016  Published by


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Mylapore Arubathumoovar festival


Mylapore Arubathumoovar festival is unique in the sense that it celebrates not an abstract god but a god who manifests in the actions of devotees, the Nayanmars who number sixty three. Saiva Agamas do prescribe celebrations of devotees bhaktorsavam but their prescription is restricted to celebrating a festival for Chandikeswarar, the foremost devotee of Shiva who finds a place of sculptural honour in the inner prakara of the Shiva temples. The first of the sixty three nayanmar Chandikeswarar could be the earliest devotee who earned Shiva’s blessings for his focused meditation. Periyapuranam narrates that Chandikeswarar was deep in meditation in front of a sand linga pouring milk over it and he did not see his father, enraged over the wastage of milk, was about to kick the linga. He struck his father’s leg with a stick and the stick turned into an axe and severed his father’s leg. Shiva manifested himself, restored the father’s leg and appointed Chandikeswarar as the guardian of his wealth. In the Shiva temples of Tamilnadu the devotees snap their fingers or clap their hands in front of Chandikeswarar to wake him up from his meditation and inform him that they are not taking any of Shiva’s wealth home. Richard Davis’ translation of twelfth century Agama text, the Mahotsavavidhi authored by Aghorasivacharya mentions only Chandikeswarar among the nayanmaras a processional deity in the festivals of Shiva temples.

So the celebration of all the sixty three Nayanmar in procession must have started at the Kapaleeshwarar temple and elsewhere in Tamilnadu after the compilation of the life histories of Nayanmar by Sundaramurthy in Thiruthondathokai, Namaniyandar Nambi’s Thiruthondar thiuvanthathiand Chekkilar’s Periyapuranam. The compilations of the life histories of the devotees at the height of bhakti movement not only started the festival but also brought in several caste groups and geographies into Saivism. Kapaleeshwarar temple’s Arubathumoovar festival is an enactment of its talapuranam, assertion of the temple’s relationship with the village deities, and a recognition of its social network of devotees and patrons spread across the villages surrounding Chennai. Arubathumoovar is also reminder that the city of Chennai has not forgotten its rural roots of being a collection of villages, being part of a precolonial agrarian order, and being a society of small communities within the larger urban structure.

The eight day festival of Arubathumoovar appropriately begins with the puja to the village goddess and hoisting of the flag. The last day of the festival needs to coincide with Panguni Uthiram a day that is meant for kuladeiva worship for most of the castes in Tamilnadu. On the morning of the Nayanmar procession in the western bank mandap of the Kapaleeshwarar temple tank the enactment of the temple myth of Thirugnanasampanthar giving life to Angampoompavai (who has been reduced to ashes and bones after death by snake bite) takes place. Poompavai is kept behind the screen on a palanquin, Sivanesan Chettiyar welcomes the Sampanthar, and the Othuvar sings the Thevaram beginning with the lines, mattitta punnai. After the singing of the full Thevaram, passages from Periyapuranam are recited. Angampoompavai, Sampanthar, and Sivanesar in a procession through the north mada street reach temple entrance. In the afternoon Kapaleeshwarar grants them his dharshan.

In the evening the deities from other temples gather in their palanquins just like the devotees who gather from all over the neighbouring villages. Mundakakanni Amman, Kolavizhi Amman, Vasuki with Thiruvalluvar, and Draupadi amman join the procession. From Chindaderipet Lord Murugan joins them in his palanquin. Even with the flag hoisting for the festival, Mylapore has begun to transform to a village it once was. The pavements are filled with shops that sell earthenware, plastic toys, fruits, vegetables, and trinkets of all kinds. Balloons and Kurava gypsy sales women dot the streets. Suddenly the four streets surrounding the Mylapore tank gains prominence with its rows full of little shops and fathers carrying their children on their shoulders.Pandals serving buttermilk to ice-cream, brinji to pongal spring all over. The police loudspeakers scream warnings of safety. A sea of humanity, about ten lakhs people converge into these four streets.

In the picturesque procession Chandikeswarar, Appar, Sundarar, Sampanthar, and Manickavasagar are given separate palanquins. Eighteen other palanquins accommodate the other nayanmar. With the Vinayaka palanquin leading in the front Kapaleeshwarar comes in the silver float with thousand wearing rudhrakshas and singing Thevaram If you forget the sweat, crowd, and heat the sight is incredible and photogenic as it is also a telling visual of the rural folks asserting themselves over the metropolitan façade of Chennai.

David Dean Shulman: Chronicler of the inner lives of the South Indians, especially the Tamils

March 21, 2016  Published by

David Shulman

My article on David Shulman’s scholarly contributions to the understanding of Tamil society, culture, and religion is published today in the Times of India Chennai edition. You may read the article online at
David Dean Shulman: Chronicler of the inner lives of the South Indians, especially the Tamils


David Shulman’s latest book published in 2015 has an amazing title More Than Real: A History of the imagination in South India. In his preface, Shulman says, “ All the great civilisations, and probably all human societies, have known that human beings are capable of imagining; India merely cultivated this art, or faculty, more boldly than most.” Elaborating further he writes that in the premodern South India the praxis of imagination played a central role in shaping up the models of cosmos, self, and mind. Turning to the Puranic story of Poodsalar in Chekkilar’s Periya Puranam Shulman describes how Poosalar builds a temple in his mind which Shiva chooses to reside in preference to the grand physical temple built by the Pandiya king. Shulman’s valid questions appear to be what are the emotional, cultural, and intellectual resources that are required to build a temple in the mind? How do the South Indian societies historically nurture such social imaginaries of the divine? In Shulman’s proposition imagination is no longer relegated only to the realm of arts but it is to be seen as a field of social practices, a form of work, and a form of negotiation between individuals and the field of possibilities.

In retrospect it appears that Shulman as a scholar of South Indian folklore, literature, religion, philosophy and history has always been interpreting the imaginary worlds of the South Indians and discovering intimate truths about their inner lives. His celebrated early work, Tamil Temple Myths sought to explain the central motifs that define our religious life. Collating a vast oral and written sources of talapuranams in Tamilnadu Shulman unearthed that sacrifice is a primal and pervasive theme in Tamil temple mythologies. The talapuranams equated the goddesses and the women in general to the earth and created sacredness to the localities that are pacified by the grace of the feminine. According to Shulman, the goddess in our temples represents a place, its beauty, its purity, and an invitation to have a sense of belonging. The all pervasive sacrifice motif is concerned with the need to express, preserve, and use power and maintain the purity of a locality. The bhakti expressed in the talapuranams is not concerned with the ultimate release or moksha but it is concerned with the Tamil affirmation of the self, person, and life by engaging in relation with the divine, a relationship often expressed in sensual terms.

In his book The King and the Clown in South Indian Myth and Poetry Shulman declared that he was going to reveal the “inner world of feelings and ideas” of the Tamils. Shulman discovered that the power invested in the Tamil kingship was weak and nebulous. The kingship’s intimate relation to his double, the clown – his comicality, and wisdom – revealed the balancing critique that prevailed in the Tamil democratic polity. Collaborating with Velcheru Narayana Rao and Sanjay Subrahmanyam for the book Symbols of substance: Court and State in Nayaka Period Tamilnadu Shulman argued that the definitive feature of the Nayaka state was its fluidity and throughout its rule the kingdoms of Thanjavur, Senji, and Madurai were in the processes of becoming. Ruled by the Telugu migrant warriors the Nayaka period also saw a lot of wealth being wasted on enjoyment.

As a translator Shulman excels in communicating the uniqueness of the original author and his texts. In Songs of the Harsh Devotee: The Tevaram of Cuntaramurtinayanar Shulman distinguishes the poetic voice of Sundarar from that of Appar and Sampanthar and writes that his voice unlike theirs is “complex, probing, characterised by a high degree of internal tension, often angry or antagonistic to the deity addressed, bitterly personal, extreme in tone- in a word ‘harsh’ as the Saiva tradition has always recognised”

It is the Saiva tradition Shulman has taken most prominently to the forums of comparative religion and spirituality. Co-editing a volume on Self and Self-Transformation in the History of Religions Shulman wrote in his essay Tamil Saivism offers a rich programme for self transformation beginning with the daily nyasa rituals which are meant to turn the ritual performer into Shiva. On another significant work co-edited with Galit Hasan Rokem, Untying the knot: On Riddles and Other Enigmatic Modes Shulman contributed an insightful essay on Shiva’s game of dice with his consort Parvathi, a mural painting in the elephanta caves.

David Shulman, Renee Lang Professor of Humanist Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem has been recognised worldwide as the ambassador of South Indian culture and religion. David Shulman’s scholarly journey into South India is a karmic passage, as he himself would title one of his books, that is suitably rewarded by the prestigious Israeli Prize.

On Mayana Kollai | Times of India

March 17, 2016  Published by

Mayana Kollai


After Shivaratri, Folk Festival Celebrates Shiva’s Consort
After the pujas and fasts for Mahashivaratri, Tamil Nadu sees a cel ebration of Shiva’s consort in the graveyards. The Mayana Kollai (looting of the graveyard) festival is celebrated amidst the dead. Observed in the Angalamman temples in the villages of northern districts of Tamil Nadu, this folk festival symbolises one of the main cultural scripts of Tamil life that the feminine energy is capable of rejuvenating, recovering, and revitalising human life beyond death and destruction.The revelry involves processions to the crematorium with deities on palanquins, devotees dancing with painted faces and narrating the lives of gods through songs. The songs narrate the mythology of Angalamman in which Shiva severed one of the heads of Brahma and brought an end to creation. Angalamman, the consort of Shiva, then walks along with him to the cremation ground that the world has become and dances with him to bring back life.

In a classic 1986 study on the myths and cult of Angalaparameswari, Evelyn Meyer records not just one myth but a cluster of mythologies that surround the Mayana Kollai festival. She notes with perplexity that not all the episodes in the myths are enacted in the ritual procession to the graveyard and the return. In some places, the myth of Shiva and Dhakshayani is enacted, in others, Parasuram and Renuka Devi.Mayana Kollai also borrows features from neighbouring traditions such as Mahabharata koothu performances, which are common in north TN.

If among the Chennai temples, Krishanampet, Saidapet, and Velachery are known to celebrate the festival in a big way because of their vicinity to the graveyards, the Melmalayanoor temple in Tiruvannamalai has emerged as the hub of the festivities across the state.

Being a folk carnival, the celebrations vary across the region.In the Velachery Angalamman Mayana Kollai the deity visits the cremation ground on her ceremo nial float, while the Saidapet temple celebrations are marked by sacrifices. A woman dressed as Kali or Angalamman skins a fowl, drinks its blood, hangs it by the mouth and gets into a trance while drummers play . The mood of revelry is amped up by transgenders and women dancing around her.

At other places animal and bird sacrifices are absent. In the Melmalayanoor temple celebrations, the presence of the transgenders has increased over the past decades to such an extent that the temple is fast gaining popularity as the rallying point for the community . This lends credence to the belief that the festival is also a fertility ritual since the transgender people’s the transgender people’s liminal bodies are believed to bless longevity of human lives and procreational prowess.

Devotees of Angalamman temples in the districts of south Arcot, Salem and the Union territory of Puducherry erect mud or terracotta statues of Angalamman in the vicinity of graveyards or inside them. Many scholars point out that these statues are similar to that of Duryodhana statues constructed during the Mahabharata Koothu performances.Draupadi amman, on whose behest the Mahabharata festival is performed, is also like Angalamman, a manifestation of Kali, a destroyer and a regenerator of life. In variation of the theme, there are also villages where Shiva’s statue is erected instead of Angalamman.

The evolving nature of Mayana Kollai makes the festival complex and interesting.Through its complexities, Mayana Kollai makes one experience the paradoxical nature of human existence, its impermanence, and its darker relation to death. In a way, human life is a loot gained out of graveyard but blessed by the will and pleasure of feminine energies.

On Manickavasagar and Thiruvasagam | Times of India

March 9, 2016  Published by



A day after Sivaratri the Times of India recalls the works of influential Saivite poet-saint Manickavasagar. To read the article online, click on 

Manickavasagar’s poetic achievement


Of all Tamil bhakti poetry Nammazhvar’s Thiruvaimozhi and Manickavasagar’s  Thiruvasagam are accorded special places over and above their canonical status because of their philosophical disposition, emotional intensity, and an easily identifiable personal voice. Nilakanda Sastry, the eminent historian of the Cholas has written that the complete recital of  Thiruvasagam (3414 odd lines) in the homes and the temples persists since the tenth century in Tamilnadu and apparently the verses of Thiruvasagam have served to articulate, and give expression to the spiritual aspirations of the Tamils. Writing in the preface to his English translation of Thiruvasagam in 1900 G.U.Pope noted that “The sacred mystic poetry of a people reveals their character and aspirations more truly than even their secular legends and ballads ..” What exactly is the appeal of Manickavasagar’s poetry beyond its religious contexts?


Kamil Zvelebil in his analysis of Thiruvasagam points out that more than any other Tamil Shaiva devotional poet Manickavasagar emphasises personal inner experience. When Manickavasagar was seized by Shiva, the god, and was revealed to him as the guru in Perundurai he sang:


“While unperishing love melted my bones,

I cried,

I shouted again and again,

louder than the waves of the billowing sea,

I became confused,

I fell,

I rolled,

I wailed.

Bewildered like a madman

intoxicated like a crazy drunk,

so that people were puzzled

and those who heard wondered,

wild as a rutting elephant which cannot be mounted,

I could not contain myself”


The emotional derangement, the slippage into madness, and breaking up of the borders of the consciousness are the repeated motifs in Manickavasagar’s poetry that serve him and the reader to experience the power, glory and the grace of the god. If G.U.Pope and other Christian missionaries see an opportunity for comparative theology between Christianity and Hindu faith in the conception of a gracefulgod, the reciters of Thiruvasagam see in madness (Translation of Tamil word Pittam) an occasion to perceive and experience the grace (arul) which is triggered by the poetry itself. If the altered state of consciousness is the prerequisite and the goal to experience the grace of god, the sacred speech (Thiruvasagam) of the poetry provides it to the devotee as a dialogue in a play would enable an actor to adorn a new garb and a self. Manickavasagar himself writes of this experience in Thiruchatakam;


“Like an actor in a play

I imitate your servants

andclamour to enter the inner chamber of your house,


lord brilliant as a mountain of gems set in gold,

give your grace

so I can love you with love so constant

my heart overflows.”


Manickavasagar’s work has several parts. The Tiruvembavai , a collection of twenty hymns in which he has imagined himself as a woman following the Paavai Nonbu and praising Shiva. The twenty songs of Tiruvembavai and ten songs of Tiruppalliezhuchi on the Tirupperunturai Lord are sung all over Tamilnadu in month of Margazhi. Tiruvembavai depicts the lord of grace as a playful one. In the hymn starting Moyyar thalami poygai pukku mugger ena (In the pretty pond surrounded by bees) he sings:


“Please take us within you,

In this play of life, only those who are fit win

And so help us not to get famished by this play”.


The whimsical abandon, the unpredictability, and the grace of Shiva, all converge around the image of playfulness.


Shiva’s playfulness indeed leads to despair and disillusionment for the poet and he sings the Neeththal Vinnappam (application for liberation from this world) the sixth hymn in Thiruvasagam at Uttarakosamangai, a village that finds frequently referred to after Perundurai and Tillai in his compositions. If we follow the legends of Manickavasagar’s life Thiruvasagam is the register of the poet’s spiritual journey from Perundurai to Tillai where Uttarakosamangai occupies a special place of inspired resignation and desired withdrawal.


In the history of Tamil poetry, Thiruvasagam  occupies a unique place of height and splendour where classicism transitioned into an age of self and its transcendence, otherwise known as bhakti. Thiruvasagam’s sweep over everyday lives of Tamils in our contemporary times is enormous indeed. From birth to funerary rites, from prayers in individual households to festivities in temples, Thiruvasagam offers the common man opportunities to reflect, introspect, and crave for eternal freedom. Even when one hears Manickavasagar’s hymn as a film song, for instance Paaruru Vaaya Pirappara Veendum in Tharai Thappattai the lyrics stun you into a mood of reflection. Such metaphysical offerings are rare in a culture and they are civilisational feats achieved by Manickavasagar and other Tamil bhakti poets.