For the past 25 years, Mohammad Rabiq has been sitting outside the Parthasarathy temple in Triplicane, selling iron vessels. On Wednesday, however, he shifted his wares to add to the bargain and bustle surrounding Kapaleeswarar temple in Mylapore, because for him, the Arubathu Moovar festival plainly meant better business. For the over 65-year-old Y. Pichammal, however, the festival was about braving the crowds and catching the first glimpse of the Lord as he came out in procession.

Thousands throng the temple every year to witness this festival that is a celebration of devotion. It is only on this day that the 63 Nayanmars are brought out in procession. “The Arubathu Moovar festival has been taking place every year for nearly 450 years. Preparation for the festival begins almost one and a half months in advance and hundreds of people are required to lift the idols and take the procession forward,” said Brahmashri Dr. Srinivasa Sastrigal, Vedavadiyar (Priest), Kapaleeshwar temple.

While hundreds waited near the main gopuram for the procession to begin, several crowded around two young boys on a bicycle, who claimed to have caught God within a laminated sheet. “Keeping looking,” they said, holding a sheet with psychedelic prints, “you will see an image of the Lord.” A short while later a man was manoeuvring his way through the crowd with a strange cardboard box with Chinese letters on his shoulders. But once the Nayanmars were brought out, four in each vahanam (vehicle), Lord Kapaleeswarar and his 63 devotees were the axis around which devotees thronged.

With barely any space to stand, and the unforgiving April sun beating down, most seemed undeterred and resilient as they waited for the procession to move on. While many scouted for a safe vantage point to observe the procession, some valiantly strode past the crowd to the vehicle to collect the viboothi and kumkum.

When asked about what made them travel long distances and brave the crowds, most said they could not miss the procession, no matter how difficult it was. “Once you come here, it draws you year after year,” said a devotee.

Goutham Chand, who was born and brought up in East Mada Street, has been watching the festival every year for over 50 years, and the number of devotees, he says, has only been increasing.

“It is astounding to see so many elderly people coming despite the crowd. The procession halts in several places, of which the Padinaru Kaal Mandapam, Kapaleeshwar Tank, North Mada Street and the Eesanamulai or the eastern corner are significant. Several people also come and set up food counters and distribute food and drinks like buttermilk and coffee to the devotees for free. My family too is going to distribute food in the evening on Mathila Narayanan Street. The entire area looks festive, grand and great during the festival. Nothing can replace this experience,” he said.

Though the streets were buzzing with stalls selling beads, bows and arrows, flutes and inflated guitars, among other things, not all vendors come here just for the money.

For a vendor who was selling lamps and pots near the bus stop on R.K. Mutt Road, the festival was not just about making money. She said she comes all the way from Kancheepuram every year to be part of the festival and devotion.

In places like these it is hard to define what makes the devout religious.

For the man sitting atop his merry-go-round, looking down at the throngs of devotees, religion may seem like a spectacle, but for the man balancing his child on one shoulder and holding his aged mother's hand, religion is perhaps about keeping a living heritage alive.

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Asha SridharJune 28, 2012