Kapaleeshwar Temple is a Hindu temple dedicated to Bhagwan Shiva located in Mylapore, Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu, Bharat. The form of Shiva’s consort Parvati worshipped at this temple is called Karpagambal (meaning in Tamil “Goddess of the Wish-Yielding Tree”).
According to the legend, Devi Uma wished to know the meaning of the Panchakshari divine mantra “Na Ma Shi Va Ya”. She asked Bhagwan Shiva to teach her the true meaning of the mantra along with the significance of sacred ash. While Shiva was teaching the same to Uma Devi, her eyes fall upon a beautiful peahen dancing and she lost her concentration. Bhagwan Shiva displeased by this, cursed her to become a peahen.
In order to free herself from the curse she comes to Earth and does penance. Devi Uma does her penance and worships the Shivalinga under a Punnai (Punnaga in Sanskrit) tree. Pleased by her devotion, Bhagwan Shiva frees Her from the curse and she regains her original form.
This is how the place came to be known as Mylapore [Mylai is the Tamil word for Peacock] where Devi Uma in her peahen form worshipped the Shivalinga and freed herself from the curse. Thereafter, She became popular by the name Karpagambal.
The Kurma Purana narrates that during a particular conference of rishis (sages), Bhagwan Brahma arrogantly declares that He is the Supreme Creator of the Universe. Shiva appears at the assembly as an infinite pillar of light and the council accepts Shiva as the true Creator, but Brahma remains stubborn.
Angered by Brahma’s vanity, Shiva—as the terrifying Bhairava—cuts off one head of the five-headed Brahma with a mere flick of his fingernail. Shiva holding Brahma’s skull (fifth head of Brahma) in his hand, comes to be known as Kapaleeswar (Kapalam in Sanskrit means Skull).
The temple’s name is derived from the words kapāla (head) and Īśvara an alias of Bhagwan Shiva. It is also known as Vedapuri as the four Vedas have worshipped Bhagwan Shiva at this auspicious place. Other name given to the religious site is Sukrapuri as Sukracharya offered his prayers to Bhagwan Shiva at this place to regain his eyes. Shiva’s son Subramanya received the spear (Sakthi Vel) for the destruction of a demon from Parvati here.
Shiva is worshiped as Kapaleshwar,in the form of lingam in Kapaleshwar Temple, Mylapore. His consort Parvati is depicted as Karpagambal. The main deity Kapaleshwar is facing west. To the right of the sanctum sanctorum is the south facing shrine of his consort Karpagambal. The presiding deity is revered in the 7th century Tamil Shaiva canonical work, the Thevaram, written by Tamil saint poets known as the Nayanars and classified as one of the temples (mentioned by the name Thirumayilai) in Paadal Petra Sthalam .
Paadal Petra Sthalam contains 276 Shiva temples that are praised and sung in Thevaram by 3 nayanars viz., Thirujanasambandar, Thirunavakkarasar and Sundarar in 7th and 8th Centuries. A.D.
Image of a lion is located in front of Devi Karpagambal. Murti of revered saint, Gnanasambandar is installed at the entrance of the temple. Other shrines include the bronze carving of 63 Shaivite saints or the Nayanars. One of the Nayanars, named Vayilar Nayanar was born at this place and a shrine dedicated to him is built inside the complex.
The temple also houses the sacred Punnai tree (Surpan/ Surpunka in Hindi, Punnaga in Sanskrit), which is believed to be one of the oldest trees in that location. There are also murtis of Bhagwan Ganesh who appears as Narthana Vinayaka or the dancing Vinayaka and of Bhagwan Muruga (Subramanya) who appears as Singarvelan.
The Shiva Lingam worshipped here is a Swayambhu Lingam (a self- manifested lingam). It is one among the 64 Swayambhu Lingams in the world.
The temple’s 120 ft east gopuram (gateway tower) was built during 1906 with stucco figures adorning it while the smaller western gopuram faces the sacred tank.
Initially the temple was believed to have been constructed in the 7th century CE by the Pallavas near the sea shore. Post its demolition by the Portuguese in 1561 A.D. the temple was shifted to the current location and Vijayanagara kings later reconstructed the temple in the Dravidian style of architecture. Thirugnanasambandar’s (6th and 7th century poet) 6th song in Poompavaipathikam and Arunagirinathar’s (15th century poet) 697th song in Thirumylai Thirupugazh, make clear reference to the Kapaleeshwar temple being located by a seashore.
Greek geographer Ptolemy (AD 90-168) visited the place around 2000 years ago and named the place as Malliarpa which means the habitat of the peacocks. Mylapore is also the birth place of Thiruvalluvar (scholars differ on his period 1st century BC or 6th century AD) who wrote the famous Thirukkural. Inscriptions are found in Kapaleshwar temple (in its current location) dating back to 7th century AD as well as 12th century AD.
During the Tamil month of Panguni (Phalguna) the traditional brahmotsavam (annual festival) takes place with a mela (carnival)-like atmosphere. The Phalguna month corresponds to the mid-March to mid-Aprilperiod and the Kapaleeshwar temple celebrates the ten day-long as Panguni Peruvizha (Spring festival).
The festival starts with Dwajarohanam (flag hoisting), includes the therotsavam, (Tamil, ther, “car/chariot”; utsavam, “festival”), Arupathimoovar (63 Shaivaite saints) festival and concludes with the Tirukkalyanam (Marriage of Kapaleeshwar and Karpagambal).
In Brahmotsavam, the murtis of Kapaleeshwara and Karpagambal are decorated with clothes and jewels, are mounted on a vahana, and then taken around the temple and its water tank in a pradakshinam (i.e., a clockwise path). This is repeated with different vahanas over the next nine days. The Arupathimoovar festival on the eighth day is the most important procession. It is named after the sixty-three Nayanmars who have attained salvation by their love and devotion to Bhagwan Shiva.
All sixty-three Nayanmar murtis follow the Kapaleeshwar murti on this procession. During the rath festival, Kapaleeshwar is decorated holding a bow while seated on a throne, with his consort Karpagambal alongside. Brahma is depicted riding the chariot. The chariot is decorated with flowers and statues, and there are huge gatherings of devotees to pull the chariot. The car festival of 1968 is documented in the documentary film Phantom India by Louis Malle (French film director).
Kapaleshwar temple is a testimony that Chennai is a metropolitan city which has a blend of tradition, ancient history and modernity, typical of Hindu Dharma.
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