Mylapore is synonymous with Carnatic music. Long considered to be the heartland of culture as far as Madras that is Chennai is concerned, its residents can be pardoned for taking undue pride in their artistic and scholastic achievements. Once it was an area known to house rich and famous lawyers. Today, all this may have faded considerably, with the palatial residences now either empty or having made way for high-rise, but Mylapore still exudes a charm all of its own. To speak or write about Mylapore and the contribution of its residents to Carnatic music requires considerable courage, for after Tanjavur, it must rank second highest in per capita creation of artistes, patrons and composers. It is a vast sangeetha sthalam, housing many important sangeetha sthalams within it. And the greatest sthalam of them all is the Kapaliswarar Temple which by its legend gives the area its name.
Perhaps once the area was a grove full of peacocks, but the bird has a strong link to local legend. Goddess Parvati is said to taken the form of a peahen (mayil or mayuram) and worshipped Siva here. Lakshmi at the neighbouring Kesava Perumal temple is referred to as Mayuravalli Thayar. The area has been referred to as Mylapore or Mylai or Mylappu along with other variants since time immemorial. It is one of the oldest settlements that later became a part of Madras, the city that was founded in 1639. Among the various temples that dot this locality, the Kapaliswarar or Tirumayilai temple is the largest. Situated on an east-west axis and fronting a large teppakulam or tank with streets running on all four sides, this shrine is the heart of Mylapore.
Though it is agreed that the temple is ancient, there is considerable debate as to whether the temple has always been in its present location. Some believe that it originally stood by the sea-shore and was later shifted inwards following either encroachment by the sea or demolition by the Portugese who later built the San Thome basilica in its place. Certainly, many stone inscriptions relating to the temple have been found near the beach and were later removed to museums in the city. Early works according to scholars state that Kapaliswara faces the sea while today he faces West. This they say indicates that the temple was relocated. Agama sastras according to them prescribe that the deities in a relocated temple should face exactly the opposite direction to the one they faced in the earlier shrine.
The present structure is not more than four centuries old. It was probably built with stones from the original temple and in design has many Vijayanagara elements. Credit for the present temple is given to Muthiappa (or Muthiah) Mudaliar, the son of Nainiappa Mudaliar. Theirs was a prominent clan – the Nattu Mudaliars of Mylapore. There are streets commemorating members of the family in the area even now. Nattu Subbaraya Mudali Street was where Musiri Subramania Iyer, Madurai Mani Iyer and Palghat Mani Iyer once lived.
The Mayilai temple is not a large one by Dravidian standards. There is only one main tower or Rajagopuram and there is also only one circumambulatory passage. The main shrines are dedicated to Siva-Kapaliswara, the Goddess Karpagambal, Subrahmanya as the six-faced Singaravela along with his consorts Valli and Devasena, and Nartana Ganapati or the dancing Ganesa. There are besides, many sub-shrines to other deities.
Mylai appears to have been an important shrine in ancient times for some of the Nayanmars visited it. As per the Periya Puranam of Sekkizhar, Appar, Sambandar and Sundarar (7th and 8th centuries AD) came to Mylapore and sang of the deities there. Appar in his Tirutandakam and Tiruvirattanam calls the place Mayilappil. Sundarar in his Tirutondar Togai pays tribute to Vayila Nayanar, one of the 63 Shaivaite saints and who belonged to Mayilai. He sings of being servitor to Vayilaan of ancient Mayilai where the darkness of night is dispelled by pink corals that are brought in by the ocean.
Sambandar in his Poompavai Padikam calls it Mayilai. Legend has it that Sambandar sang this set of ten verses to resurrect the dead Poompavai, the daughter of a Mayilai based businessman, Sivanesan Chettiar. Each verse describes at least one festival of the Mayilai temple – the Shravanam festival in the month of Aippasi (Oct/Nov), Tirukarthikai in Nov/Dec, Tiruvadirai in Margazhi (Dec/Jan), Poosam in Thai (Jan/Feb), the ritual bath in the ocean in Masi (Feb/Mar) and the annual temple festival during the month of Panguni (Mar/Apr). It is clear from the verses that these festivals, which are celebrated even today, were well established even then. The Padikam also describes Mayilai to be a prosperous settlement with groves, splendid buildings and occupied by good and pious people. Sambandar also mentions that the area was filled with fragrance of the Punnai tree, which is the sthala vrksham of the temple.
In the 11th century, Nambi Andar Nambi mentions Mayilai in connection with Vayila Nayanar in his Tirutondar Antadi. The 12th century Periya Puranam also mentions yet another Nayanmar – Ayyadigal Kadavarkon, a king who having ruled for long realised that worship of Siva mattered more and so gave his kingdom to his son and spent his time visiting many shrines including Mayilai.
In the 15th century, Arunagirinathar came to Mayilai and sang in praise of Subrahmanya or Singaravelar here. He does not mention the presence of a Siva temple and there is an opinion that the Kapaliswarar temple still stood by the sea while the Singaravelar temple existed where the shrine complex is today. It is believed by this school of thought that the Kapaliswarar temple was later amalgamated into the Singaravelar temple and the fact that the vimana over Singaravelar is taller than that over Kapaliswarar is taken as proof of this. Arunagirinathar however, in his Tirupugazh on Singaravelar states that the shrine stood on the sea shore. Singaravelar here is six-faced and is seated on a peacock. Interestingly, the two consorts, Valli and Devasena are seated on elephants, an unusual depiction not seen anywhere else.
After the temple was reconstructed at its present location, it acquired a large tank on its western side in the 18th century. The land where this was dug was in the possession of the Nawabs of Arcot and was given to the temple on the condition that Muslims would be allowed to use the tank on Muharram day each year, a tradition that continues till date. The present Prince of Arcot is also an honoured invitee during the float festival or Teppotsavam.
During the 17th and 18th centuries Mylapore appears to have dimmed in importance with most of the famed composers of Carnatic music avoiding the place and singing in praise of shrines in Tiruvallikeni and areas further north such as Tiruvottriyur. The area was occupied by the Portugese and the Golconda forces. Between 1672 and 1674 the temple, wherever it was, was occupied by French troops. In 1746 the French returned, attacked and looted the temple taking away a million pagodas worth of treasure. Obviously Mylapore was not a place for music lovers then. Even the 19th century work Sarva Deva Vilasa is silent on Mylai while it waxes eloquent on areas such as Nungambakkam, Choolai and Town as hubs of cultural activity. With Mylapore becoming a part of Madras it quickly re-established its position and by the turn of the 20th century, it was a flourishing centre for the arts. A kumbhabhishekam or consecration of the Kapaliswarar temple was conduced in 1902 amidst fanfare. The rajagopuram or main tower was in place in 1906. Steps around the temple tank were built in the 20th century, paid for by public subscription.
In the early 20th century Umayalpuram Swami Bhagavatar, a nephew and disciple of Umayalpuram Krishna and Sundara Bhagavatars, the last disciples of Tyagaraja, conducted bhajan sessions around the temple’s four mada streets every day during the month of Margazhi. Judges of the High Court such as Sir T Muttuswami Iyer and Sir S Subramania Iyer would be in attendance. Prof. P Sambamurthy writes that the bhajan sessions would begin while it was still dark and would conclude just as the sun’s rays fell on the gopuram.
The Kapali temple’s three festivals- the annual brahmotsavam, the float festival and the Navaratri utsavam became events during which the arts were encouraged. By the 1920s the brahmotsavam had become important enough for artistes to be invited from all over South India to participate. This included nagaswaram ensembles, singers and instrumentalists, Harikatha exponents and bhajanai ghoshtis. During this time, AK Ramachandra Iyer, a resident of North Mada Street and an entrepreneur and patron of the arts, was in charge of organising the musical entertainments during the brahmotsavam. On the recommendations of his friends, he invited Polagam Ramaiya or Papanasam Sivan during the festivities in 1922. From then on Sivan became a fixture during the temple events – leading bhajan ghoshtis during the month of Margazhi, Mahasivaratri and the brahmotsavam especially on the 8th and 9th days.
Interestingly, Sivan writes in his incomplete memoirs (published as Enadu Ninaivukkadal) that his leading the bhajans was not met with universal acclaim. A resident of Mylapore, A Krishnaswami Iyer expressed the view that only those properly trained in Tevara Pathashalas could conduct bhajans around the temple. Sivan felt that if this was true savants such as Ramalinga Swamigal and Neelakanta Dasa could not have become great composers. Prominent citizens of Madras such as the leading lawyer TR Venkatarama Sastry, A Rangaswami Iyengar (of The Hindu) and S Satyamurti concurred with Sivan and his sessions continued. Krishnaswami Iyer was to later lament that none of the ghoshtis managed to attract the kind of crowds that Sivan could.
By 1930 Sivan had moved permanently to Madras and settled in a shared tenement off Mattala Narayanan Street in Mylapore. He became tutor to S Rajam at the invitation of Rajam’s father, Mylapore Sundaram Iyer. The rest is history. Sivan states that Karpagam and Kapali exercised a great attraction over him and this is proven by the fact that a significant number of his compositions are dedicated to the two deities. A friend of mine once remarked that Sivan was created by the Lord to correct the imbalance of the Trinity not composing any songs on Kapaliswara and this is no exaggeration.
It was also in 1929/30 that Ambi Dikshitar, son of Subbarama Dikshitar and therefore the repository of the great Muttuswami Dikshitar tradition, moved to Madras. He lived in Ponnambala Vadyar Street of Mylapore and taught music to TL Venkatarama Iyer, then living on Sannidhi Street, just opposite the four-pillared hall that fronts the Kapaliswarar temple. He also taught music to S Rajam. Later he was to be so impressed with DK Pattammal’s performance at a competition in music for which he was one of the judges, that he also offered to teach her. It was therefore in the shadow of the Kapaliswarar temple that Pattammal learnt Kanjadalayatakshi (raga Manohari) and Balagopala (raga Bhairavi) from him. The tutelage was brief for Ambi Dikshitar returned to Ettayapuram and passed away shortly thereafter but Pattammal continued her training under TL Venkataraman Iyer. Ambi Dikshitar composed two songs, the varnam Kapaliswaram in raga Mohanam and the kriti Kalpakambike in raga Todi in praise of deities in the Mayilai temple.
During the years when Sivan was making a name for himself, another composer was active in the Mylapore area. This was Koteeswara Iyer. He had worked in two of Mylapore’s famous institutions- the Venkataramana Ayurveda Dispensary and the Sanskrit College before taking employment with the High Court as a translator. A resident of the Vadagur Selva Vinayakar Koil Street which leads off South Mada Street, he had in 1916 begun work on composing songs in each of the 72 melakartas. All these songs are on Subrahmanya and were published in two volumes titled Kanda Ganamudam in 1932 and 1938 respectively. Apart from these, Koteeswara Iyer composed kritis, varnams and venbas on other deities. One of these songs is Appane Kapali in raga Todi.
Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar was a resident of Mylapore too. He shared accommodation with his cousin TL Venkatarama Iyer at Sannidhi Street in the 1930s when he was Principal of the Teachers College of Music set up by the Music Academy. One of his songs, Muruganukkoru Seedan, a ninda stuti on Siva in raga Kalyani describes the Lord as Kapali.
The deities at the temple have inspired latter day composers too. Lakshman Ragade’s Alphabetical Index of Karnatak Songs lists songs such as Kapalishane in Todi by NS Ramachandran, Karpagame enai kann parai in Ranjani by Cuddalore Subramaniam, Karpagame in Bhairavi by KS Krishnamurthi and Karpakavalli in Bhairavi by Lalitadasar. The last composer, whose real name was TG Krishna Iyer, was another resident of Mylapore. He and Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar were neighbours at Lalitha Nagar in the San Thome area. He was encouraged to compose by Chembai who sang his creations and made them famous.
Over the years the compositions of Papanasam Sivan on the Mayilai temple deities have been frequently rendered on the concert platform. DK Pattammal and DK Jayaraman sang them frequently and they brought a wealth of emotion to their renditions of these songs, having moved closely with Sivan and learnt the songs from him. Madurai Mani Iyer was known his singing of several songs of Sivan on Kapali and Karpagambal. He was a direct disciple too and he made Kaana Kann Kodi a big hit. Present day artistes too render several kritis on the Mayilai temple. The concert debut of GNB took place during the vidayatri festival of 1928 at this temple. He stood in for an indisposed Musiri.
Music continues to play an important role in the daily temple rituals. While the abhishekam and alankaram of the principal deities are done Tevaram, Tiruvachakam and Tiruppugazh are rendered by Oduvars in the employment of the temple. Nagaswaram and Tavil ensembles perform during the principal hours of worship. And, plenty of music is offered by the devotees who throng the temple at all times of the day. It is this living tradition of music perhaps that makes this shrine a perfect Sangeetha Sthalam.
(This article was originally published in Sruti magazine)