India’s temples are a celebration of many gods, their stories, devotees, and patrons. Come December, temples come alive every morning with recitations of Thirupaavai and Thiruvempaavai – songs devoted to Lord Vishnu, and Shiva respectively.
If the beauty of Bhakthi poetry isn’t incentive enough, there is a delicious serving of hot vennpongal (rice porridge) frothing with ghee (clarified butter) to comfort you, for having stepped out of the bed in the cold Margazhi (a month in the Tamil calendar) morning. In the evenings, little shops flanking the temple complexes sell flowers, fruits, toys, buttermilk, ice cream, and trinkets of all kinds. Temple life is no less than a riot of colours, a burst of activity – economic, spiritual, social, and sensual.
Here are some of Chennai’s decorated temples that you must visit this December, with a sprinkling of the many legends that go around them.
Situated in Mylapore, this temple has given rise to many legends. One goes that Goddess Parvathi worshipped Lord Shiva in the form of a peacock here. Hence, the name Mylapore/Mayilar-parikum-oor which translates to ‘land of the peacock scream’. With shrines dedicated to each of the 63 Nayanmars (the Saiva bhakthi poets) the Kapaleeshwarar temple celebrates the poets and mystics who bridged this world with the other realm.
Like everything about the country, this temple too is a confluence of many streams of faith. For example, on the occasion of Muharram, Muslims of the neighbourhood visit the temple tank to perform rituals.
Lord Shiva is worshipped as the healer of all ailments in this temple located in Thiruvanmiyur. Marundheeswarar (an incarnation of Lord Shiva) is said to have bestowed sage Agasthya with the knowledge of medicine and healing.
It is also believed that sage Valmiki who created Ramayana, one of the great epics of the country, was graced by the presence of the Lord at this site. Thiru-valmiki-yur, named after the legend Thiru Valmiki, has since morphed into what is presently Thiruvanmiyur.
This 8th century Vaishnavite temple in Thiruvallikeni, or Triplicane as it is known today, is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and his many avatars. It is one of 108 holy shrines mentioned in the canonical Vaishnavite literature, Divya Prabhandham. The presiding deity is 9 feet tall. And, this is the only temple where Vishnu appears wearing a moustache, like a charioteer, as was his role in the Kurukshetra war where he guided and protected the Pandava King Arjuna.
Vaikunda Ekadasi, the festival which marks the opening of the heavens for mortals, is celebrated with pomp in the Margazhi season, with nearly a 1000 devotees gathering for prayers in this venerated temple.
Ashta Lakshmi Temple
Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, graces devotees who visit this temple in all her eight visages, bestowing them with abundance. Adi Lakshmi grants health; Dhanya Lakshmi eliminates hunger; Dhairya Lakshmi gives courage; Gaja Lakshmi opens up all avenues of prosperity; Santhana Lakshmi gifts prodigy; Vidhya Lakshmi blesses one with wisdom; Vijaya Lakshmi leads one to victory; and Dhana Lakshmi showers wealth.
Situated in the charming vistas of Besant Nagar, along the seashore, the temple resembles the Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur (also called Periya Kovil for its sheer size; periya meaning ‘big’) in its design. The presiding Goddess, draped in a beautiful 9 yards saree, is a sight to behold.
Vadapalani Murugan Temple
This is one of the most popular temples in the city, witnessing about 7000 marriages every year. The stucco images on the Gopuram (tower) at the entrance depict stories from the Skandapurana – a Saiva religious text named after Skanda, or Lord Muruga, the son of Shiva. The eastern tower, which is more than 40 metres high, bears 108 gestures of the classical dance form Bharata Natyam. The temple is adorned with a traditional tank, a feature that is typical of most Indian temples.