Little did I realise at the time that Mylapore in Madras (then and Chennai now) defines a people genteel, intellectual, educated, professional, opinionated, orthodox, ritualistic and, since the advent of the sixties, target of the Dravidian movement whiplash and most recently, a people, confused, shattered and strangely tight-lipped on the Shankaracharya scandal.
Mylapore (a derivative from Thiru Myle) arguably has no parallel in any other Indian city, with an agraharam (a self-styled Brahmin ghetto) in the heart of a city is something of an oxymoron, given that a city, by its very definition, renders its denizens faceless, sans individuality.
Mylapore has for a nucleus, the Kapaleeswar Kovil, a Shaivite temple which takes its name from Shiva who presides over the cremation ground and has the human skull for adornment. An entire Shaivite community has proliferated around this temple. More than the temple, with its characteristic four-sided gopuram, it is the large tank (kulam) in the rear, that is most prominent. In fact, the tank is a landmark in the locality. The water in the tank, as in most parts of the city, has dried up long time ago.
But people familiar with the place in the fifties speak of a lovely reservoir brimming with blooming lotuses and lilies, where during the Theppam festival, a bedecked float with the deities (utsava murthy) would be taken out, to the delight of thronging devotees. The temple still has other annual festivals that are eagerly awaited and attended.
The chariot festival, Karpagambal Kalyanam (wedding of Shivas consort) and Aravathimoovar, a very interesting festival which literally translates as the Festival of the 63, denoting the number of poet-saints enshrined in the temple that are taken out on procession.
These three festivals take place in the second half of the Panguni month roughly corresponding to the first half of April. Lakshadeepam is held in May, when over one lakh lamps are lit in the temple precincts. Maha Shivaratri, a day wholly dedicated to Shiva, is observed here with great austerity as it is all over the country, each year, around end February.
Another important occasion, more social than religious is the auctioning of the sarees offered to Ambal. Every few months these sarees bestowed on the deity by devotees are auctioned. There used to be more nine yards and pure silk sarees in the days of yore but today these have been replaced by six yards and polyester/cotton/silk mixes. Women clamour for these auspicious sarees and the temple gets a bit of its much-needed funds.
Around the temple has grown several satellite institutes and enterprises. On one side of the tank is the series of jewellery shops not known so much for their gold ornaments as for their silverware and costume and gilded jewellery. You cannot ask for better variety in return gifts at weddings and other ceremonies from tiny silver icons, lamps, bowls, plates and framed gods in every hue that even light up at the touch of a button! All requirements from jada shringaram (hair adornments) to odiyanam (ornate belt) for bridal shringar can be procured or even hired here.
The shops also sell silver trinkets like payals and other items dipped or plated in gold! (these are to meet latter-day requirements, for, the staunch Mylaporean would not be seen dead in anything but the pure yellow stuff, however little he or she may afford!)
On the other side of the tank are vegetable vendors with seasonal rarities like fresh green pepper, mango-ginger, tiny green mangoes and amla: all that go into making some of the most delicious and coveted pickles. The flower vendors are of course ubiquitous to any temple, except that in southern India, particularly Tamil Nadu, flowers, especially the fragrant ones, are bought more for the hair than as offering to deities. These are sold by the muzham handspan from the tip of the middle finger to the elbow. It is another matter that these sellers appear to have the smallest hands in the world! The prices vary and reach pinnacle on festive days.
On the third side of the temple is the famous Radha Silks, at one time Nalli and Radha were the two shops people swore by and shopped there for all weddings and festivals. Today there are dozens of such shops, some of them multiplexes with mind-blowing showrooms! Some shops sell framed gods and again of late, cassettes and CDs of devotional music.
Amongst other well-known shops here is Ambika, usually mentioned with the appendage applam, with its best-known product along with a plethora of pickles and snacks. I made the mistake in my early days to ask if the shop had a variety of pickles, the Malayalee who has made it good in the Tamil heartland said it all with an acerbic you can get everything here except your mother and father!
The one institute that is almost legend out here is the Ramakrishna Mission, with a bookshop that is haven for the spiritual populace of the place. Opposite the mission and almost as legendary is the now inconspicuous PS High School. Not that the school ever had any claims to grandeur but yet the humble Pennathur Subramania Iyer High School boasts of an alumni that reads like the Whos Who of Madras. Up to the late fifties, all elite families of the city sent their sons to this school. The Hindu (Kasturi) family, TTK, Enfield, Dr Sanjeevi, SS Vasan ...... These were not people who could not afford the best schools that the city or even the country had to offer, explains an old PS student, but they still chose this school, because the teachers were most dedicated, even though they earned a pittance. Also there was this belief that if a boy is good, he will excel anywhere!
This makes one wonder: was if the students that made the institute and not the other way around The school was so vedic in its approach that all amavasya days were declared holidays!
If the above is a slice of Shaivite lifestyle in Chennai, what of the Vaishnavites Yes, they too have a bastion, not too far away, in Triplicane around the Parthasarathy temple, but that is another story.