It’s that time of the year when people throng one of the city’s well-known landmarks, the Kapaleeswarar Temple, to witness colourful processions

It’s 4.15 a.m. There’s a nip in the air. The bustling alleys (mada veedhis) by day are shrouded in silence and darkness. Men in crisp white dhotis with vibhuti smeared across their forehead walk briskly towards the Kapaleeswarar Temple. A small group of women seems excited to spot an old man setting up his flower stall so early in the morning. His honest confession nethi poo ma (yesterday’s flowers) doesn’t deter them from adorning their still wet hair with a few mozhams. The small white lights on the majestic gopuram of the centuries-old temple cast a refreshing glow on the miniature sculptures and carvings. The still waters of the temple tank appear like a quiet spectator to the grand proceedings. And as you enter the vast precincts of the temple, the celebratory atmosphere immediately draws you in. The Adhikara Nandi procession, an integral part of the Panguni Uthiram festival of the temple, a landmark event in Mylapore, is about to begin.

Behind a satin curtain, the designated make-up artists (read senior priests) of Kapaleeswarar are giving the last touches to his special avatar for the day. Young men carrying huge colourful umbrellas take position as the sambrani smoke creates a haze. The crowd gets bigger and bigger. Some stand with hands folded, a prayer on their lips. Young parents desperately try to find vantage positions for their children to have a clear view. A few overwhelmed elderly gather their breath to reminisce about this celestial spectacle as they had seen it over the years. Lakshmi ammal, in her early eighties, says she has never ever missed this annual festival for the last 60 years, while her friend Shakuntala has been a regular for the past 30 years. There are many NRIs and people residing in other cities across the country who time their visit to Chennai during this 10-day Brahmotsavam (Arubathimoovar on day eight draws the maximum crowd). Girish Rao, who grew up in Chennai and is now settled in Pune, is one such. “More than religious sentiment, to me it’s about an emotional bonding,” says he. “Each time it takes me back to my childhood when my father carried me on his shoulders as he walked along with the procession. It also reminds me of how I would serve buttermilk and water through the day at the kiosks put up by my grandfather.”

And finally, the curtain goes up amid resounding drum beats and sacred notes of the nadaswaram. Devotees crane their necks to catch a glimpse of Siva bedecked in heavy colourful garlands, luminous jewellery and resplendent silk. But most of them are busy capturing the spectacle on their mobile phones. They follow the diety, clicking every move and position. College-goer Sukanya even immediately emails the pictures to her aunt in Mumbai. “She is usually here during this time but could not make it this year,” she smiles.

The presiding deity is then brought out to be placed on the huge silver nandi made 97 years ago. Seated on his gigantic vehicle, he is carried around the temple before he sets out on his journey around the mada veedhis. The Lord gracefully swings as he steps out of his abode. This dance of joy is what inspired legendary composer-singer Papanasam Sivan to come up with the song ‘Kaana kann kodi vendum’ that captures the beauty of this vibrant procession in emotion-packed lines.