The Kapaleeswarar Temple’s annual festival begins next week. A pageant that lasts for 10 days, it is a must for anyone who loves the colour and spectacle of India. That it is an age-old practice is evident from Sambandar’s 7th Century Poompavai Pathigam. Its character has, of course, changed over the years.
Kanakalatha Mukund’s The View From Below gives us details of some of the headaches faced by the East India Company with respect to the festival. Differences between the left and right-hand castes, vertical divisions in society that have completely vanished now, caused problems in the 18th Century. The agent provocateur was the practice of erecting decorative arches and floral canopies all along the processional route, something that is done even now. Strict codes existed for these, with those of the left-hand using five colours and those of the right-hand being in white. Trouble erupted when the right-hand used the five colours of the left in its decorations. The left-hand appealed to the East India Company, which immediately decreed that all decorations had to be in Company colours — red and white!
In 1789, riots were witnessed once again, with the right-hand caste being the principal offender. Probably bored with the monotony of the red and white and the continuing peace, they resumed putting up canopies and decorations using the colours of the left-hand caste. The left-hands promptly dismantled these structures. The right-hands retaliated at once, bringing in armed men to beat up the suspects and destroy their houses. Edward J. Hollond, then Justice of the Peace and later (a notoriously corrupt) Governor of Madras, ordered that all castes were to use only the Company colours. And what’s more, the canopies had to fly the flag of St. George above them. Both parties accepted this and Kapaleeswarar came out in procession, with St. George keeping the peace for Him.
Ten years later, there was trouble once again, this time thanks to the appointment of hereditary trustees being challenged. While this was sub judice, the Company conducted the festival, with funds being loaned by the Collector of Madras. By 1805, the hereditary rights of the Pammal family as trustees were confirmed. The illustrious playwright Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar held the post between 1900 and 1924. During his tenure, a commissioner of the Corporation objected to the procession wending its way down Brodies (now R.K. Mutt) Road as it delayed his reaching the Adyar (now Madras) Club. Mudaliar held firm and it was the official who had to take another route. On yet another occasion, a Governor of Madras, who viewed the proceedings from a convenient verandah had a request — could the deity be made to turn around in front of the building so that he could see the decorations in full? Mudaliar respectfully refused, stating that it was for humans to go around the deity and not the other way round. The Governor and the first lady cheerfully complied.
This article appeared in The Hindu dated March 21, 2015 under the Hidden Histories column
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