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Connecting with the saints of yore in modern-day Chennai

Groups of enthusiasts explore Tiruvottiyur and Mylapore, two localities that still retain their quaint charm and have many religious locations

August 24, 2022 01:29 am | Updated August 26, 2022 06:18 pm IST - CHENNAI

Members of the Great Cholas Heritage Research Group on a heritage walk in Mylapore.

Members of the Great Cholas Heritage Research Group on a heritage walk in Mylapore. | Photo Credit: R. Ragu

Tiruvottiyur in the north and Mylapore in the south are two ancient settlements by the sea that have witnessed the city grow and expand. Even today, they retain a quaint charm and have managed to safeguard temples, churches, mosques and samadhis of saints around which the villages of yore thrived. Two walks that explored the saints who patronised these places of worship were held recently.

Author and temple chronicler Padmapriya Baskaran and a group of enthusiasts from the Great Cholas Heritage Research Group went on a walk around Mylapore last week, visiting several places worship dedicated to saints of each religion with interesting tales surrounding them.

“The Dargah of Hazrath Syed Badruddin Shaheed in Pallavaram has a connect to Mylapore and Santhome. The saint was a soldier, who had volunteered to be part of the Golconda forces as a horseman in the battle to vanquish the Portuguese at Santhome in 1646. He managed to replace the Portuguese flag with that of the Golconda flag. But a Portuguese soldier is said to have severely injured him when he was climbing down. One legend says his head was almost severed by the enemy. But he managed to get on his horse and reach Pallavaram, where he finally collapsed. A dargah was built at the place where he was buried. Today the dargah is quite popular among the devout,” Ms. Baskaran explained.

The tank of the Kapaleeswarar temple, has a connect with Badruddin Saheb. Though it was said to have been built by one Muthaiappa Mudaliar in the 16 th Century, a legend says the place belonged to some fakirs.The Nawab of Arcot decreed that both the Hindus and the Muslims could use it. To this day, Muslims use the tank on the tenth day of Muharram.

Walkers also got a depiction of the scene from the story of how Saint Thirugnanasambandar brought back Poompavai, the daughter of Sivanesan Chettiyar, to life from ashes and bones. The Chettiar built the beautiful temple of Virupaksheeswarar as a token of gratitude. A statue of Sivanesan stands knee-deep in granite inside the temple for Lord Poompavai Nayanar and Goddess Visalakshi, who has a Nandhi in front. This quaint temple with a gopuram, has a tank of its own and two entrances.

Ms. Baskaran had charted a total of 15 spots, including the Swethambara Jain temple dedicated to Vasupujya Swamy, the Dargah near the Jumma Mosque and the Santhome Cathedral where the tomb of Saint Thomas lay. Vasupujya Swamy was the 12 th Jain Tirthankara and was born to King Vasupujya and Queen Jaya Devi in the Ikshvaku dynasty. In ancient times, Mylapore is also said to have had a temple for Neminatha, the 22 nd Jain Tirthankara. This temple has been described in at least two works including one called Thirunootrandhadhi by the Avirodhi Alwar.

When Muslims looked after the tomb of St. Thomas

Ms. Baskaran, who has documented the temples along River Cooum, explained that the presence of the tomb of St. Thomas in Santhome was first revealed by Arab chroniclers in the 8 th Century. Subsequently, Marco Polo and Portugese traveler Duarte Barboza, the brother-in-law of Ferdinand Magellan, wrote about a Muslim who used to light a lamp at the tomb.

The group visited more locations including the birth place of Peiyalwar on Arundale Street. The Alwar, one of the three Mudhal Alwars of Lord Vishnu, was said to have been born on a red lotus in the Manikairavam tank, which is now a well. A shrine for the saint, who had a vision of the Lord at Thirukoilur on a rainy night, stands at the beautiful silent spot in the middle of the city.

Ancient temple in the north

Several kilometers north of Mylapore, in the Thyagarajaswamy temple, scholar P. Thiruchitrambalam explained to his group of walkers that Tiruvottiyur or Thiruvottriyur was the oldest town associated with the city. This temple was very special as only here, the three Saivite saints – Sundarar, Thirunavukarasar and Sambandar – have sung verses.

To remember them, the temple has a separate precinct called ‘Naalvar Sannathi’, housing Sundarar and one of his two consorts. The temple has three stories to tell on its ancientness, women empowerment, and safeguarding the Tamil language.

The heritage walk in progress at the Thyagarajaswamy temple in Tiruvottiyur.

The heritage walk in progress at the Thyagarajaswamy temple in Tiruvottiyur. | Photo Credit: B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

Though the temple was said to be over 1,300 years old as per the records, Mr. Thiruchitrambalam said its ancient history could be traced back to several thousands of years. He went on to describe the immense contributions made by the Chola and Pallava kings in the growth of the temple, including the construction of the sanctum sanctorum, which housed the main deity Lord Shiva called ‘Padam Pakkanaathar’. The precinct housing the main deity was constructed by King Rajendra Chola as per the Agamas, with Tamil Grantham inscriptions, he added.

Women Odhuvaars

Mr. Thiruchitrambalam, a professor at the Thiruvavaduthurai Aadheenam, said: “The temple had a history of appointing a line of women Odhuvaars, totally 16, for singing the verses (Pathigams).” Heritage enthusiast Sreemathy Mohan, who put together the walk, said as the title of the walk Tiruvottiyurum Thiruppattum suggested, songs from the Thirumurai were sung by the Odhuvaars right from the time the deity woke up till the end of worship for the day.

He also said that the singing of pathigams by Odhuvaars helped in keeping Tamil language and traditions alive and safeguarding it from Sanskrit, which was the dominant language in those days. A few important hymns (pann) of the Saivite saints were sung by Oduvaar Manikandan. By the time the participants disbursed after a four-hour temple walk, they were soaked in the temple’s rich history.

(With inputs from R. Srikanth)

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