Temple Gopurams, as integral a part of Chennai as malli poo, filter kapi and checked lungis. That does not mean they are not found elsewhere – just that they are so evocative of this city. In a city where there are temples everywhere, three stand apart – the Parthasarathi temple in Triplicane, the Kapaleeshwara temple in Mylapore and the Murugan temple in Vadapalani. And what makes then so special? Probably the fact that they have been spoken of by various great saints, commonly feature in pictures of the Chennai skyline or perhaps simply because they are bang in the middle of popular areas in Chennai. Whatever be the reason, these three are rather close to a Chennaiite’s heart, and their festivals draw large crowds.
The Gods housed inside are the big ones –benevolent and awe inspiring. They bless the good and chastise the wicked, and generally go about doing what good Gods do. Lord Krishna is depicted as Parthasarathi, the driver of Arjuna’s chariot in Triplicane. He had sworn not to fight in that mother of all wars at Kurukshetra, and so he stands there, with only his conch for company, his face scarred by marks of battle. And yes, a resplendent moustache, thick and curling, graces his upper lip. Our men love their moustaches here, and they are a sign of machismo, but a God with one is a bit of a rarity. Then there is Kapali – Lord Shiva the God of destruction, in Mylapore. A mighty God, with a matching temper, he once found his wife Parvathi paying more attention to a dancing peacock than his words. And zap, there she was banished to Earth, to be born a peacock – some believe in the region that’s called Mylapore now! Shiva soon repented and came down to earth to take Parvathi back with him. And legend has it that this incident gave Mylapore its name – Myil being the word for peacock in Tamil. Then there is Muruga in Vedapalani – the God of War, on one hand, and a handsome heartthrob on the other. Called Karthikeya in the North, he is a part of every puja pandal in Bengal, for he is Durga’s son.
What is even more interesting are people who are in some way associated with these temples. There is Pei Alwar, who sang songs in praise of Vishnu and has sung of the temple in Triplicane. This poet was born in Mylapore. The story goes that the saint was born of a flower in a temple tank in that area. Then there was Sivanesan, in Mylapore again – a merchant who wanted to give his beautiful daughter to a wandering minstrel – Thirugnanasambandar. The daughter died of snake bite, and it only needed the saint to visit them and sing a song to Shiva about her, to bring her back to life once more. And these two share a shrine in the Kapaleeshwara temple till date. Vadapalani has an equally exotic tale to its credit, that of Annaswami Thambiran. This venerable old man worshipped a picture of Muruga, and whenever he did, he found that he had the ability to foretell the future. And he worked miracles – he set the sick back on their feet, got the jobless into the habit of earning money, and generally made his presence felt. When he passed on, the place he lived in slowly grew into a large Muruga temple, and there it stands till today – attracting the faithful in the thousands.