Hidden histories Metroplus

The night of the dead

Children taking part in Mayana Kollai. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam  

The festival of Mahashivaratri took place last week, accompanied by wide media coverage. What passed unnoticed is a uniquely Tamil celebration that takes place the day after. Known as Mayana Kollai, it is a pre-vedic ritual that is closely associated with the worship of the Goddess Angala Parameswari.

Worshipped initially wherever a snake hill was located, the Goddess has, over the years, acquired human form. The shrines were usually positioned at the outskirts of villages, close to places of burial. In Chennai, we have temples to the Goddess in most of the older localities — Royapuram, Choolai, Saidapet and Mylapore, all villages that became part of the metro. A fierce version of the Mother Goddess, this deity has over the years become a manifestation of Parvati. Shiva, it is said, sent her to destroy a demon who hid in a burial ground. The Goddess, accompanied by her guard Pavadairayan, entered the area and feasted on the corpses till she identified the demon and killed him. Mayana Kollai symbolises that annual raid on the dead. In olden days, it had some of the faithful chewing on the bones and flesh of a corpse or two, but in modern times the procession is chiefly symbolic. Its fervour and energy, however, remain undiminished. It is a matter of surprise to me that so uniquely local a celebration does not get the publicity it deserves.

Thanks to heritage enthusiast Karthik Bhatt, I am familiar with the Mylapore temple, which is on Mundakakanniamman Koil Street. This is a unique thoroughfare for it is home to no less than four Amman temples, all of varying antiquity. The Mundakakanniamman is perhaps the oldest, going back to very ancient times linking us to the Sangam age war Goddess Korravai. The Draupadi Amman temple has been there probably since the 18 century. Of more recent origin is the Mariamman temple. The Angala Parameswari shrine is probably 96 years old, for the tradition of Mayana Kollai here began in 1919.

The festival here is observed entirely by the fisherfolk of the place. Mylapore was, after all, a village of fishermen as averred by the fourth stanza of Thirugnanasambandar’s 7 century poem, the Poompavaipathikam. Portuguese accounts of San Thome also speak of fishing hamlets by the sea, perhaps the ancestors of the present day Nochchi, Ayodhya, Dooming and Parthasarathy Kuppams. Francis Day, the founder of Madras, certainly saw only a few isolated fishing hamlets by the sea. It is quite likely that the Angala Parameswari migrated inland over time from one of these.

The procession begins at around 3 p.m. and wends its way to the crematorium on Radhakrishnan Road, accompanied by traditional folk instruments and a retinue of nagaswaram performers. The idol of Pavadairayan, which is resurrected once a year, follows the Goddess. The return takes place at around 11.00 pm and is a colourful spectacle. It connects us to an era when Madras or Chennai was not even an idea.

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Printable version | Jun 23, 2021 1:25:15 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/the-night-of-the-dead/article6916283.ece

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