History & Culture

An ancient temple in a commercial hub

The prakaram inside the Kalikambal temple, George Town, Chennai  

Nestled in the heart of George Town’s commercial hub, the guardian deity of Thambu Chetty Street continues to keep silent vigil over its noisy, traffic-choked bustle. The two rajagopurams of the goddess’ centuries-old abode, the Kalikambal temple, tower over adjacent structures in colourful, sculpted tiers.

The entrance to the Kalikambal temple, George Town, Chennai

The entrance to the Kalikambal temple, George Town, Chennai  

‘Kalikambal is the sowmya swarupa (amsa) of Adi Shakti,’ says T.S. Kalidas, the hereditary priest, whose ancestors have been this temple’s archakas for generations. ‘Consecrated by the Sri Chakra, the seated ambal holds the pasa and ankusha in her two upper hands, the nilotpala blossom in the lower right, with her lower left hand in varada hasta. A unique feature is that the deity in the garbha griha faces west.

This intensifies Ambal’s power as kshipra prasadini (swift granter of boons). Kalikambal is venerated by the local vendors, traders and residents for bringing success and prosperity in business and commerce. The annual utsavam held in the Vaikasi month includes the special chariots ‘Poonther’ and ‘Kinnither’, and Shiva is worshipped as Kamateswarar.

Shivaji’s visit

History buffs are fascinated by a significant event dating back to the 17th century. On October 3, 1677, Chhatrapati Shivaji, the Maratha king and warrior-general, is said to have visited this temple. Renowned for winning several fierce battles against the Mughal armies and for staving off enemy advances towards the south, the emperor, a staunch devotee of the goddess Bhavani, is believed to have paid obeisance to Kalikambal. The temple houses an image of the king on horseback and a stone inscription specifying the date.

An image of Shivaji Maharaj found inside the Kalikambal temple, George Town, Chennai

An image of Shivaji Maharaj found inside the Kalikambal temple, George Town, Chennai  

Renowned poet Mahakavi Subramania Bharati, who lived in Thambu Chetty Street during his Swadesamitran days, used to visit the temple. His intense outpourings of devotion found expression in verses such as ‘Yaadumaagi nindrai Kali’ (Kali Paattu, Kali Stotram).

S. Subbusundaram, a long-time devotee, says, “The earliest recorded references to this deity appear to date back to the mid-1600s, when she was worshipped at the seashore by the residents of three fishing hamlets. Anointed red with sindoor, the goddess was called Chenni Amman. After 1639, when the British East India company began building Fort St. George and acquired surrounding settlements for their warehouses and commercial establishments, the temple was relocated inside the Fort, with the goddess known as ‘Kottai Amman’.

When the Vishwakarma community of artisans migrated to Tiruvallikkeni to work on the construction of the Parthasarathy Swami temple, they transported stone from Tiruvannamalai to build the Kalikambal temple. Over time, the goddess became one of their chief deities, with the Vishwakarmas vanguarding the temple’s activities and administration.

When forced to relocate again, they built the present temple under the guidance of Muthumari Achari. Says Kalidas, “Although the exact date of construction is unknown, a coin dating to the mid-1800s, discovered during the dwajasthamba pratishta in 2018, testifies to the present temple’s existence at that point and perhaps earlier. The earliest structures are the moolasthana, the utsava, and Nataraja’s granite mandapams. Later additions include the west rajagopuram built under the aegis of my grandfather in 1940, the Vishwa Brahma shrine, and the east rajagopuram completed in 1983.”

The Golden Vimanam at Sri Kalikambal Temple, George Town, Chennai

The Golden Vimanam at Sri Kalikambal Temple, George Town, Chennai  

New silver doors

Adds Sarveswaran Achari, the temple’s managing trustee, “The most recent work has been a major renovation of the utsava ambal’s palli arai (sleeping chamber). While the customary puja is performed after 8 p.m., a special puja will be held to consecrate the chamber in the evening today. Everyone is welcome to attend.” A new set of ornate silver doors and embossed brass walls are also part of the renovation.

An ancient temple in a commercial hub

Helming the project is S. Subbusundaram. Hailing from Valayapatti, his association with the Kalikambal temple spans 40 years. Sundaram says, “The teakwood doors are encased in intricately embossed silver sheets and the brass-plated walls were hand-worked by traditional master craftsmen in Pudukkottai.”

The Chennai-based author writes on music and heritage.

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 6:28:29 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/an-ancient-temple-in-a-commercial-hub/article33685640.ece

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