During the ten-day festival Siva as Somaskanda bestows his benevolence on the devotee in the company of Uma and Skanda.

The Tamil month Panguni (mid March to mid April) is our breezy springtime. It is also the month of the temple festival popularly known as ‘Brahmotsavam,' an annual extravaganza of processions lasting ten days. In the big Siva temples of South India, which have followed customs and edicts from time immemorial, the central processional image is known as the Somaskanda. It is a small group, with Siva seated majestically like a king on a throne on the crest of mount Kailasa, with Parvati or Uma, his Consort, seated next to him in an admiring languid posture, their son Skanda (Muruga), a tiny tot, perched between them. According to Saiva Siddhanta literature, Siva bestows his grace and benevolence on the devotee only in the company of Uma and Skanda – his family.

Art historians have pointed out that this ‘royal' family, sculpted both in stone and bronze, has adorned our temples from the seventh century Pallava times. One can see the stone images of the Somaskanda in Mamallapuram and Kanchipuram (the Kailasanathar temple). The fascinating concept of king as God and God as king was already strong in those times as seen in an inscription in the Kailasanathar temple. It succinctly compares the then king Parameswara Varman I, his queen and the prince, Rajasimha, to Siva, Uma and Skanda!

The Pallava dynasty patronised some of the most skilful sculptors who immortalised the iconic Siva family in many temples. The Cholas and later dynasties followed their example with images of great beauty, some still worshipped in their original abodes, and some encased in various museums in India and abroad.

Today there is no big Siva temple which does not venerate the bronze image of Somaskanda. While the sanctum is occupied by the Sivalinga, the Somaskanda image is taken out in resplendent processions. Decorated immaculately, this image is the central figure, riding the different ‘vahanams' or mounts. It represents the fully manifest form of the Lord. Separate images of Uma and Skanda follow to the accompaniment of the traditional bugles, drums and sacred chants. Since the Somaskanda images in temples are the object of all rituals and rites, they are referred to according to the name of the temple. Thus in Mylapore, Chennai, the image is Kapaliswara, in Thanjavur - Dakshina Meru Vitankar, in Tiruvarur – Tyagaraja and so on.

Universal appeal

Images of the ‘holy family' have a unique and universal appeal. This was well understood by the Pallava and Chola ‘sthapathis' (sculptors). Scholars also opine that the deities in this trio represent a unified eco-zone - namely, Marudam, Kurinji and Paalai – the different landscapes of the ancient Tamil country as described by the Sangam poets.

While we may browse through museums and admire several Somaskanda images, the fervour of Bhakti is aroused only in the grand temple processions which are part of our living heritage. Decorating processional images and their colourful mounts (vahanas) is an art which only experienced priests are adept at. Hours are spent in stringing together vast amounts of fresh flowers by the expert decorators. Floral crowns are assembled to make Siva the royal god. Jewellery donated to temples is carefully brought out from the locker to adorn the God. The priest's job is not only very demanding but it is also one of devotion.

Placing the heavy Somaskanda image, beautifully decorated with jewels and flowers on gigantic mounts such as the Nandi is an arduous task. But even more challenging is carrying the whole formation out of the temple. In village temples, the procession around the four surrounding streets is still a slow progression. Enthusiastic young volunteers, who deem it a sacred duty, vie with each other to perform it .

In the ten-day Brahmotsavam of the Kapaliswara temple, Mylapore, Chennai, the festival is conducted with precision and perfection. Weeks ahead of the festival, the wooden mounts as well as those plated with silver are painted and polished. Several donors undertake the enormous costs involved in each event. This year, the festival gets under way on March 27.

Important days

With grand fanfare, each day marks a different enactment of the many myths and legends connected with Siva. The important days in this festival are the ‘Adigara Nandi' on the morning of the third day, the silver ‘Rishaba Vahanam' at midnight on the fifth day, the ‘Ther' or chariot on the seventh day, the festival of the 63 saints ‘Arupathu Moovar' on the eighth day, and the wedding of Kapaliswarar with Karpagambal on the tenth night of the full moon.

There is a timeless quality about these spectacular events. The only markers of a changed world are the landscapes around temples which have been ruthlessly vandalised. To get a feel of the times gone by, perhaps one has to make a journey to places such as the Tiruvidaimarudur where the night is filled with music of the nagaswaram undisturbed by the sounds of urban traffic. However, a temple festival in urban Tamil Nadu is still a blessing many would not like to miss. Somaskanda is a symbol of the eternity of the cosmos. It is also a Divine family's visit to the world outside the sanctum.