History & Culture

Lord as mendicant

A view of the Kapaleeswarar temple on the eve of annual 'Bhramotsav' in Chennai.   | Photo Credit: S_R_Raghunathan

The annual festival at the Kapaliswarar temple, Mylapore, is in progress and on the day this article appears in print the great car or Ther festival will be held. The next day, the eighth, is Arupathumoovar when Siva comes out watched with adoration by his 63 devotees or Nayanmars. Huge crowds witness the event and it is late in the evening the procession returns to the temple.

Much later at night, Siva comes out alone, mounted on a horse and as he races around the four Mada streets, the bearers of the deity literally running, he is said to lose a signet ring.

Parvati or Karpagambal on seeing him return to the shrine without the ring does not let him in and so the next day in the evening, Siva sets out as Bhikshatana or the divine mendicant, complete with a begging bowl and accompanied by the four Vedas which take the form of dogs and the bhuta ganas or his demon attendants.

This festival has some unique dance traditions associated with it. On almost all other days of the festival, especially during Adhikara Nandi and Vrshabavahanam that take place on the third and fifth days it is Siva who dances, his bearers adopting a swaying gait to signify this.

On the Bhikshatana day, however, it is the Goddess who dances for Siva. She regrets her harsh treatment of him and is also troubled by the fact that women on the streets are swooning over his good looks. So she decides to lure him back and comes to meet him half way during the procession. The bearers of the Goddess break into a most spirited dance thereby making the deity swing and sway to their movements. Siva relents and the two return together to the Temple in time to be united in holy wedlock which takes place the next day.

In the 19{+t}{+h} century and the early years of the next, it was customary for Doraikannu, the hereditary Devadasi of the Kapaliswara temple to accompany this procession. She would be dressed as Bhikshatana and a large group would follow her as she danced at particular points in the procession. It was said that Doraikannu was so beautiful that her patron who had gone blind, refused to have his eyes treated after her death. He claimed that he had no use for his eyes after she had gone. Doraikannu’s daughter was the famed Mylapore Gowri who continued the dance tradition at the temple and during the Bhikshatana procession. Gowri was guru to Balasaraswathi and later taught Rukmini Devi too. Following the disenfranchising of Devadasis and the revoking of their hereditary rights, Gowri was evicted from the house given to her by the temple. She managed to make both ends meet by teaching dance to people whom she felt would benefit by it. With that ended what must have been a colourful adjunct to the Bhikshatana procession.

This procession evidently made a great impact on Papanasam Sivan.

While Sivan’s ‘Kaana Kann Kodi Vendum’ on the Adhikara Nandi procession is well-known, the songs he composed on Kapali as Bhikshatana are seldom heard in concerts. There are three songs ‘Saundarya Vellantanil’ (raga Mohanam), ‘Tiruvalar Mayilaiyin’ (raga Khamas) and ‘Picchaikku Vandiro’ (raga Surutti) describing this event. In addition, one more song ‘Kapali Karunainidhi’ (raga Hamsadwani) sings of both the Adhikara Nandi and the Bhikshatana processions.

In ‘Picchaikku Vandiro’ Sivan wonders if Kapali has come out like a mendicant in order to show the world that he looked just as good in any garb. He then goes on to ask if Siva has come as a beggar because his wife has asked for jewels or is it because his son Ganesa is asking for modakams to fill his enormous belly. Then the composer asks Siva if he has hidden all his jewels and costly raiment with Kubera so that he could come out as a beggar embellished with ashes and writhing serpents. The song ‘Tiruvalar Mayilaiyin’ has one line that says Siva roams the streets of Mylapore as a mendicant. The song ‘Saundarya Vellantanil’ is set in the sringara rasa as though a maiden is describing the handsome Bhikshatana from head to foot. It states that the singer’s heart is attracted to Bhikshatana just as a needle is attracted by a magnet.

The original legend of Bhikshatana has it that Siva set out thus to seduce the wives of the sages of the Daruka forest and quell their arrogance. In Mylapore, it acquires the colour of a local legend and the aura is only enhanced by the memories of Doraikannu and Gowri and the songs of Papanasam Sivan.

The author can be contacted at srirambts@gmail.com

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 1:42:28 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/Lord-as-mendicant/article16614589.ece

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