I reconnect with the past
The Brits set up shop here in 1639. They stayed in White Town (now Fort St. George) and Indians from all over filled up the adjoining Black Town (the present day George Town). These two settlements expanded radially in 3 directions (the fourth direction was just sea) into what became Madras (namma-Chennai!).
Before the IT revolution, George Town was THE business district of Madras and anybody who was somebody in business, had his address here. And this is where history was made. Some of the oldest and finest temples of Chennai are in George Town and they reflect the character of the people who lived here. Although it occupies hardly 5 square Km out of Chennai’s 425 square Km, it is home to about 20 of the 120+ prominent temples in Chennai!
My office was in George Town for many years, but never once had I explored its wonders. Now the time had come…
EKAMBARESWARA TEMPLE OF MINT STREET
People believe that about a 1000 years ago there was a sincere devotee of Shiva in Chennai, who visited the (more famous) Ekambareswara Temple in Kanchipuram (please see Kanchi Diary-2: The Siva Temples) on every auspicious day. One day, despite pressing duties, he made his usual trip, but was completely exhausted. He stopped for a short nap at the present site. Shiva appeared in his dream and said: ‘you need not exert yourself anymore, for I have appeared right next to you’. The devotee woke up and found a Swayambhu Shiva Linga resembling the deity of Kanchipuram!
I cannot vouch for the legend, but we know for sure that this temple in Mint Street was built by the generous funding of Alangatha Pillai, in the 1680s. Alangatha Pillai was a VIP in those days: the most trusted Dubash of the British East India Company, its Chief Indian Merchant and also a member of the first council of 12 Aldermen in the Madras Municipal Corporation. The British called him Allingall Pella and the temple he built was, quite simply, Allingall’s Pagoda !
There is a carving of a devotee at the entrance to the temple which I presumed was the honourable Allingall himself. Then, I discovered* that it was a tribute to one Appukutti Chettiar who built the Mantapam at the temple entrance, years later.
The Tamil God of Gujaratis & Marwaris
Huh, “Tamil” God? Isn’t God above Language & Race, or for that matter, even Religion? Yes, indeed: to continue my story…..
Soon, traders from Gujarat & Kutch flocked into this part of town and occupied a substantial part of Mint Street. Ekambareswara became their favourite God. Their trade flourished and they contributed generously to the Temple. The Marwaris came and added something more. At the South-west corner of the temple they built an open shrine under a sacred tree for Sri. Vaveshwar. Vaveshwar is a Rajasthani form of Shiva. Above Sri.Vaveshwar is a pot which sprinkles water on Shiva, reminding us of the Ganges water on Shiva’s head. The tradition in this part of the temple is, anyone can fill the pot and say his prayers directly to Shiva (no need for the priest), to get his/her wishes fulfilled!
This is a South Indian Temple— yet, if you observe the plaques commemorating donations, you will know that the Gujaratis and Marwaris have been more generous!
A feast for sculpture lovers
The temple was deserted in the early morning and serenely quiet. As soon as one enters, there is an eye-catching Dwara Ganesha flanked by Muruga on the other side. The main deity, Ekambareswara, is a large linga. A separate shrine for Ekambareswara’s consort, Kamakshi, is on the right. Kamakshi directly faces the Navagrahas, particularly Shani. The belief is that those who suffer from the ill-effects of Shani can get relief by praying here.
In the inner Prahara, there is a complete representation of the 63 Nayanmars (Saivite savants); the statues of the prominent 4 Saivite savants known as Nalvar (Appar, Sundarar, Sambandar and Manickavasagar) are particularly large and artistic. There are a number of beautiful Shiva Lingas in the inner Prahara and I took a leisurely stroll to get a darshan of all of them.
The most outstanding feature of the outer Prahara is a rare Bhakta Anjaneya.
At the base of the Dwajasthamba is a beautifully carved lion.
On the right of Vaveshwar shrine is an Arasa Tree under which there is Ganesha guarded by a Pancha-Naga. Rivalling its beauty is another double-statue: facing us is a 5 headed Ganesha guarded by a 7 headed Naga; as you go around the tree, there is a surprise—you notice that reverse of this Ganesha is Kartikeya, under the canopy of a different Naga.
And behind all this is a large temple tank. Even at the height of summer, the tank was full and soothing to the eye.
A few ducks were peacefully minding their business at the tank…Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti-hi! —Peace, peace, only peace!
*Chennai Historians, V Sriram and S Muthiah, have written that the icon at the entrance is Appukutty Chettiar, not Alangatha Pillai!
Swayambhu = Something that appears on its own without human intervention
Dubash = Translator (literally, one who speaks 2 languages — from Do Bashi)
Mantapam = Pavilion
Navagrahas= Astrologically, the 9 planetary Gods that influence your fortunes
Shani= Saturn, the God who, people believe, may deliver misfortune
Prahara = The corridor around the main prayer chamber of a temple
Saivite= Worshipper of Shiva
Darshan = An auspicious sighting of the Deity
DwajaSthamba = Flagstaff of the temple
Arasa Tree= Peepal Tree/ Bodhi Tree or Ficus Religiosa