A less discussed subject is the name of Mylapore; much before it was called as Mylai or its various European interpretations. There are claims of Mylapore being known as Sukra Puri, Veda Puri. Roshen Dalal in her book Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide claims Mylapore was called Manikaivaram in ancient days. Let’s focus on the lesser discussed names Manikairvaram and Punnaivanam as Mylapore used to be known.
Punnai Tree with Kapaleeswarar Gopuram in the background. Photo Copyright: The Hindu Archives
Peyazhwar was born in Mylapore. His birth is debated among scholars as 7th century CE.
Periazhwar (Perialvar), born in Srivilliputhur also around 7th century CE, composed hymns for a lullaby Lord Krishna wherein he mentions about Manikkam, Kapaleeswarar and Karpagam (as a flower). The first two stanzas of Periyazhwar Thirumozhi hymns read:
maNikkam katti vayiram idai katti
ANippon naalseidha vaNNach chiruththottil
pENi unakku piraman viduthandhaan
mANik kuRaLanE thaalElO ! vaiyyamaLanthaanE thaalEO!
The four faced Brahma lovingly presents Krishna a grandeur gold cradle, decorated with rubies interlaced with diamonds. The one who took avatar as Thrivikrama, please sleep ! one who measured the worlds with His feet, please sleep !
udayaar ganamaNiyOdu oNmaa thuLampoo
idaiviravik kOththa yezhilthezhgi nOdu
vidaiyERu kaapaali Esan viduthandhaan
udaiyaay azhEl azhEl thaalElO ! ulagamaLanthanE thaalElO !
Siva, who rides a bull for his commuting and has various names such as Kapali, Esan etc., has sent a silk belt for the waist, interwoven with golden beads and a pendant for you Krishna . Don’t cry, don’t cry, please sleep ! the Lord who measured the worlds, please sleep.
Mylapore was once known as Punnaivanam. It is held in such reverence that the Sthala Vriksham of Kapaleeshwar temple is the Punnai tree. Also, Tamil literature from Sangam period classifies Punnai as a tree suitable for Neithal landscape (sandy soil along sea coast).
Punnai tree is native from East Africa, southern coastal India to Malesia and Australia. And like in any forest, snakes could have been plenty in Mylapore’s Punnai forests too, for Poompavai was bitten by a snake. There has been a belief since antiquities on Naagamanikkam, a mythological pearl believed to be found on the hood of cobras. Naagam is not just a term meaning cobra but it also means Punnai tree (Punnagam – the root of the raga name Punnagavarali, a raga associated with snake dance). A reason why Kapaleeswarar Temple has the traditions of having Punnai Vaahanam which is unique to this temple’s Panguni Utthiram festival traditions?
There is a Siva Sannithi in the Kapaleeswarar Temple premises known as ‘Punnaivananathar’ close to the Sthala Vriksham – Punnai tree. So Mylapore referred to as Punnaivanam is unambiguous, for Sambandar also mentions Punnai in his verses on Mylapore.
Sambandar in his 7th century Thirumurai begins verses on Mylapore as:
மட்டிட்ட புன்னையங் கானல் மடமயிலைக்
கட்டிட்டங் கொண்டான் கபாலீச் சரமமர்ந்தான்
ஒட்டிட்ட பண்பி னுருத்திர பல்கணத்தார்க்
கட்டிட்டல் காணாதே போதியோ பூம்பாவாய்.
Translation as given by the Madras Chronicler S. Muthiah in his book Madras Miscellany:
Where art thou, Poompavai? Lord Kapaleesawar has chosen as his seat the beautiful Mylapore. Surrounded by the sweet smelling Punnai trees. Why hast thou gone without seeing? The legions of the Lord given their repast here.
Some 30 km down ECR, at Thiruvidanthai, inside the compound of the Nithyakalyana Perumal Koil, is another magnificent Punnai tree on a specially-erected platform. Evidence that once upon a time Punnai forests were lining the coast.
Hence, as Roshen Dalal claims Manikaivaram which should actually read Manikkavanam could be an ancient name of Mylapore, just as Punnaivanam does.
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