Lady Elizabeth Gwillim was unique. Arriving in Madras in 1801, she till her death in the city in December 1807, proved an indefatigable chronicler. As per the estimate of Dr Patrick Wheeler, in his book A Tale of Two Sisters, which focuses on the writings of Lady Elizabeth and her sister Mary Symonds during their tenure in the city, a total of 150,000 words was written documenting life here. While Lady Elizabeth’s paintings of birds are relatively well known, thereby qualifying her as one of the modern world’s earliest ornithologists, not so are her writings which form a valuable documentation of Madras of the early 1800s. The following extract is a description of her observations on the Kapaliswarar Temple’s annual festival, which she witnessed in 1802. It is interesting to see that little has changed since then in the conduct of the ten-day festivities. As the celebrations are on ongoing now, we thought it fit to publish the commentary, with kind permission of Dr Patrick Wheeler. The book, A Tale of Two Sisters, published by Peter Lang Group in 2021, is a wonderful read and we hope to carry a full review of it soon. In the commentary below, we have added a few observations in parenthesis, wherever needed – Sriram V

Kapali on VrShabha vAhanam


There has been lately a great feast kept at St Thome, where we have been three evenings to see their ceremony, which lasted ten nights. It is in honour, as far as I can learn, of the marriage of Shiva. The God is carried out each night in a different way; one night he rides on a bullock, and on each side of him one of his wives (this is actually the consort Karpagambal on one side and Singaravelar on the other), also on a bullock. The next night they ride out on horseback; a third night on elephants; a fourth in European carriages (probably the chariot festival, which happens on the seventh morning –it is quite likely that the chariots then were designed like European carriages. The present temple cars are of a much later vintage), and so on. On the last night he is carried out without his wives as a Pandararn, or religious beggar (this is the Bhikshatana or Iravalar procession). I believe I have mentioned the village town of St Thome to you before. I frequently go there, as I much admire it. It is very large: one part is quite a Brahminy town. The streets are very broad, planted on each side with cocoa palms, and on the occasions of festivals they always hang festoons across the street from tree to tree, at the distance of every fourth or fifth house. There are sometimes pieces of Silk or cloth made in a kind of fringe, which has an excellent effect from a variety ofcolours. Sometimes they are of leaves strung together, and lamps of transparent paper as clear as glass, with paintings, and otherwise richly ornamented. These lamps and lanterns are of all varieties of form, and very handsome and rich. The houses are all illuminated with innumerable such lamps until it is a blaze of light. The great square at St Thome is about the size of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. One side of this is a wall enclosing the pagodas, which are very handsome in appearance, and the other three sides are Brahminy houses with frequent openings into the countryside. Before this wall, and these houses, there are cocoa palms in two rows, then a broad driving way, and then another double row of cocoa palms at the edge of the tank, the whole square being beside one fine piece of water. This tank has a curb stone round it, and steps to the bottom made of granite. It must have been an immense work, as many of their tanks are. They are not flights of steps at intervals, but the whole sides are steps from one end to the other. It is so deep that a little temple, or pagoda, which is in the middle is now covered, and will not appear till after a long dry season (Lady Elizabeth here refers to the Neerazhi Mandapam, which stands in the middle of the tank. Sadly for us, it remains exposed and not submerged much of the time these days). At present about eight steps brings you to the edge of the water. The illumination of this large tank is the prettiest thing of the kind that can be imagined. I cannot describe the appearance without drawing it. The lamps are placed on each step up and down in a wave down to the water’s edge, and each lamp has a tremulous reflection in the water. They are very strongly lighted, and the reflection is like a pointed fringe of fire hanging in the water. The trees across the driving way are connected, as I have described, and at the four corners of the square what they call pandals are erected. These are temporary buildings, and are only a set of cocoa palm trees, very straight ones, set in the ground for columns of about 50 or 60 feet in height. These support an awning, which is either a large piece of needlework, representing the stories of the gods in patchwork, or else fine carpets with flowers of gold or colours around, and generally five immensely clear transparent paintings for lanterns, hanging from this awning. Under these places the gods rest a short time under this panoply, with the dancing girls performing all the while.

Kapali on Adhikara Nandi, pic courtesy Sujatha Shankar

In order to see this sight, we set out about half-past 10 0’clock having 3 miles to go. The roads were crowded with men, women and children coming from all parts. We went to a choultrey in the street near the square, before which choultrey there was a pandal erected, it being near to the entrance of the pagoda from whence the gods were to set out. They brought us sweets and fruit, garlands of flowers of a kind of white jasmine around our necks, and from a silver ewer sprinkled our handkerchiefs with rosewater, giving each of us a ball of the same flowers as the garland to hold in our hands. These were like our cowslip bells. They then brought some of the best dancing girls, who are very richly dressed. Their hair is combed smooth, parted in front, and sweeping round the corners of the forehead with a fringe of fine work in gold and small jewels edging this sweep of the hair, and lying on the forehead. They wear a conspicuous piece of jewellery on the middle of the forehead, and various ornaments in the nature of clasps. One piece of gold, like a small saucer, finishes the back of the head and, between this and the front ornaments, wreaths of coloured natural flowers were twisted several times round. The back hair is plaited, and hangs down to a great length, mixed with gold and pearl tassels and flowers. Their ears are covered with ornaments; as many as possible hung in the ears themselves, and others are suspended from bands in the hair. The necklaces and chains they wear are very fine and cover their necks. Their arms have bands round the middle of the upper part of the arm, and bracelets on the wrists are innumerable. These jewels are sometimes false but, though very showy, are not of the value they may be supposed to be when real, as they are only table diamonds, and so thin as not to be fit for cutting. These women wear no shoes or stockings, but an immense weight of gold round their ankles, in strings of small bells which sound as they dance. Their dancing is very little like ours; they never step upon the toes but keeps the knees bent, and tread on the outside of their feet and move in a very small space. Sometimes, when they sing as they dance, they advance very forward in a straight line and, but at other times they dance for an hour within the space of a sheet of paper. The feet, however, are all the while in constant motion (I am speaking now of the dancing of a single person). The striking display of their skill is in the motion of the hands and arms, and the air of the head and the expression of the features. In these they excel and, indeed, the upper parts of their figures appear to me to be better formed than the lower. They are not like Grecian figures, but are short from the waist downwards, and dancing with the knees so much bent, and feet kept near the ground, seems to increase this defect.

The action of the other part of the figure is extremely graceful. It is sometimes voluptuous, but never affected. They dance, whether they recite or not, to two or three very loud instruments of a most piercing sound, one of which is a piece of metal held by one hand, and struck by another piece of metal held by the other hand. The man who plays this keeps his head close to the dancers and, with a kind of eagerness, seems to direct her in every motion, for he constantly repeats it. We had this evening a long performance by one dancer, and she was only once relieved by one of the girls in the background. It was a story of Shiva, one of their gods, who in the habit of a pilgrim of great beauty, set all the women in love with him. Some Brahmins at the back take up the chorus. (The tradition of a Devadasi dancing for the Bhikshatana procession at this temple existed till early in the 20th century. As regards the Brahmins in chorus it would seem Lady Elizabeth Gwillim has mistaken either the odhuvars or the Brahmin veda recitation group to be a part of the dance troupe.)

Kapali on the silver vrShabha vAhanam, 5th day procession

About 12 0’clock notice was given, by the loud reports of fireworks, that the gods were setting out, and we went to walk round the square of the illuminated tank with them. They were on three carriages, very large, drawn by numbers of people, Shiva in the middle, and a wife in each of the other carriages, which were a little smaller. The carriages were like large thrones, with many carved figures of the horses supposed to be drawing it, and coachmen in carved wood, and most gaudily painted and larger than life. Besides many angels and lions, the whole was dressed up with hundreds of little flags and wreaths of flowers. In short, the ornaments are so profuse that one can hardly be sure, even after much prying, that one has seen the face of either God or Goddess. After these shows, the ornaments of a theatre would look very miserable. The clear moon above, looking pale with the glare of fireworks and lights, the profusion of which you cannot guess at. It is a constant explosion during the whole tour made by the procession. If it were not almost profane to say so, these things really seem like a god. Thick darkness goes before them. The great clouds of smoke roll on before the carriages, and conceal everything but what peers at them from above. The great waving leaves of the cocoa trees which receive the light of the fires and of the moon, and mango and other trees covered with white clusters of flowers. The glare of fresh fires upon the volumes of smoke, and the showers of fire from different fireworks, whilst rockets thrown up unceasingly, twenty, forty, a hundred at a time, seeming to pierce the skies, have altogether such an effect as could hardly be conceived. The noise of their instruments is most tremendously piercing, but I think a little use would make it not disagreeable. The dancing girls preceded the cars and, when they stopped, perhaps twenty of them danced standing, as ours do, but dancing in their only advancing now and then to meet what we should call their partner, and then retiring. They are all women. Vast numbers of Pandaram men and women follow the cars, dancing in their own way. There are no other carriages allowed; the crowd all walk. (From the description of the procession which was clearly during the night, it would appear this was the Rishabha Vahanam procession which happens on the fifth night. But it is seems that the Gods were mounted on temple cars, which today happens on the seventh day. There was a reorganization of the temple and its festivities at around 1805 or so and it would appear that in Lady Gwillim’s time the order of events was different.)

The Kapali Ther at North Mada Street corner

Thousands attend, and they are the great beauty of the picture, for the dress is so graceful and so clean, the white muslin, turbans and drapery, and the order and tranquillity of their behaviour give great solemnity to the scene. One can hardly be surprised that they are unwilling to give up their shows for a better religion, the fruits of which do not appear very good in the examples our people give them who come out here. After we had walked round the tank, sometimes resting on the verandas of some houses where chairs were set, we came back to the Pandal under which we had sat. The God was taken to the pagoda, and some of the Pandarams entertained us with a kind of buffoon dance. Some boys, having on tigers’ masks, showed some little activity around us in the art of tumbling at a fair. During these feasts the great cause of the tranquillity is the sobriety of the people. Those of caste never drink any kind of spirit, or fermented liquor, but besides this they are naturally very mild in their disposition. Drunkenness they detest to a degree you can hardly conceive. Their shops are just like the stalls in Covent Garden with ranges of fruit in some, and in others confectionery, which they make very pretty, and in a great variety of shapes, but with little variety of flour, and also sugar, clarified butter, cashew nuts in the way of almonds, and sometimes cardamom seeds, like sugar plums. The worst is they are fond of mixing a little arrack which is to us intolerable, and generally the best sort are covered with silver leaf, although all are very greasy. The shops of flowers are much like the flower shops in Covent Garden, more like artificial flower makers because they hang up ready-made wreaths and bunches. It is surprising what quantities of flowers are sold in wreaths; eight months in the year they are of a sort of double white jasmine.

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