In the eye of German and French Photographers

Kapaleeswarar Temple Ther from circa 1840-1850 as photographed by German photographer Frederick Fiebig. The photograph is printed using salt print. The structural elements of the Ther are still the same. The flags and bells were a charm that are missing from today’s aesthetics of the Ther. It is evident that the existing Mandapam of the Ther was built sometime after 1840 but before 1851.


Circa 1840-1850, by Frederick Fiebig. Photo Copyright: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The photo below is from circa 1860 from the Vibart Collection of South India from British Library

Circa 1860 – Copyright: British Library

Juggernauth Car, [Madras]

1851 Photo by Frederick Fiebig from East Mada Street, Mylapore. Copyright: British Library

Another view of East Mada Street with the Ther in Mylapore circa 1910 by a French traveller. A curious boy from Mylapore posing for the photo.

East Mada Street, Mylapore in 1910 as photographed by a French traveller during the Panguni Utsavam Festivities.

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On the name trail of Mylapore

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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Mylapore, Thy name is Kapaleeswara

The Kapaleeswarar Temple’s name is derived from the words kapalam (head) and eswarar an alias of lord Shiva. According to the Puranas, during the meeting of Brahma and Shiva at top of Mount Kailash, Brahma failed to show the due respect to Shiva. Due to this, Shiva plucked of one of Brahma’s heads (kapalams). In an act of penance, Brahma came down to the site of Mylapore and installed a Lingam to please Shiva. This place is known as Sukra Puri, Veda Puri, among many other Puranic names including ‘Kailaye Mayilai, Mayilaye Kayilai’.

Kapaleeswarar (Kapali) Temple in Mylapore is praised by Pey Azhwar, one of the twelve Azhwar Vaishnava saints of South India who was born in Mylapore in 5th millennium BCE (or is it 7th century CE as debated by scholars)

Second Stanza of Periazhwar Thirumozhi (circa 7th century), a lullaby for Lord Krishna, reads as follows:

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 (Krishna) who measured the worlds, please sleep.


This allows us to ascertain that Kapaleeswarar Temple had existed since 5th millennium BCE if Pey Azhwar being born in 5th millenium BCE is proved to be true (else it is for sure proven for its existence since 7th century CE). One of the earliest written mention of the four headed Brahma with Vishnu and Shiva is in the fifth Prapathaka (lesson) of the Maitrayaniya Upanishad, probably composed in late 1st millennium BCE. Hence, the Puranic legend of Kapaleeswarar Temple holds true to the timeline.  The ten day Panguni festival of Mylapore was praised in Thirumurai hymns in the 7th century composed by Sambandar, was a young Saiva poet-saint. Bikshaadanar is the form of Siva as a mendicant with a bowl and as per Kapali’s Puranic legend, a bowl made of inverted Brahma’s skull. And only in at Kapaleeswarar Temple of Mylapore, is the Bikshaadanar festival celebrated during the ten day annual festival of Panguni Brahmotsavam alonside the unique festival of Arubathimoovar festival celebrating the 63 Nayanars.

Mylapore, Thy name is Kapaleeswara.

We will see detailed posts on the saints of Mylapore in future.

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One Place, Many Names – Toponomy of Mylapore over the centuries

Mylapore is known by various names such as Mylai, Thirumylai, Meliapour, Mylarphon, Mayilāppūr, Maillarpha and so on. 

Ptolemy (90 -168 CE) the Greek wrote of the port in Maillarpha or Mylarphon that is Mylapore, in 140 CE The Arabs knew of Maila and Meilan in the 11th Century. The Romans referred to Mylapore as Mylarpha, it was an important port town and a trading post. The Romans or the Yavanas as they were referred to in the Sangam works. Some of the earliest references to Mylapore is in the literary works from the Sangam era in South India (200 BCE to 300 CE) – a period when arts, crafts and literature flourished. It was also the time when Romans travelled to India for trade bringing gold coins. Marco Polo, the Venetian merchant traveller had also written about Mylapore when he visited the place in the late 13th century and left a detailed description of the land, its people along with their customs and religion. The etymology of the name Mayiláppúr, popular among the native Christians, is ‘Peacock-Town’, and the peafowl are prominent in the old legend of St. Thomas. Giovanni de’ Marignolli (circa 1350) calls it Mirapolis, the Abraham Cresques‘s Catalan Atlas (1375) mentions Mylapore as Mirapor; Niccolò de’ Conti (circa 1440) as Malepor; Joseph of Cranganore (1500) Milapar (or Milapor); João de Barros and Diogo de Couto, Meliapor.

The Puranic legend of Kapaleeswara Temple says that once when Lord Siva was imparting wisdom to Goddess Parvati, she became distracted by a beautiful peacock. Lord Siva then cursed her to take birth as a peahen, telling her that he would join her after she worshiped him in the form of a Siva-Lingam under a Punnai tree. After many years of searching, the peahen finally found such a Siva-Lingam in Mylapore. She then worshiped her Lord in this form, offering him flowers that she carried in her beak. Fulfilling his promise, the Lord then appeared Parvati and reunited with her.

It is widely thought that ‘Mayil Puram’ meaning ‘Land of the Peacocks’ became Mylapore. The Sanskrit word puri/puram is Proto-Indo-European (a linguistic reconstruction of the common ancestor of the Indo-European languages) language derived from Proto-Indo word *pele which means a dwelling, highground, shelter etc. Its usage became common for autonomous areas or cities. Mayil (in Tamil) or peacock were found plenty in ancient days in Mylapore and the place was identified by the peacock screams. So the name Mylapore is derived from ‘Mayil Aarparikkum Oor’ மயில் ஆர்பரிக்கும் ஊர் meaning the  ‘Land of the peacock scream’.

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A time travel to 7th century Mylapore

Did you know that Sambandar, a Saivaite Poet-Saint, wrote hymns on Mylapore in praise of Lord Kapaleeswara in the 7th Century?

Sambandar describes Mylapore as மடமயிலை, மாமயிலை, உயர்மயிலை appreciating the grandness of Mylapore and Kapaleeswara Temple.

Sambandar (also called as Tirugnanasambandar, Campantar, Gnanasambandar) was a young Saiva Poet-Saint of Tamil Nadu who lived around the 7th century CE.
He is one of the most prominent of the sixty-three Nayanars, Tamil Saiva bhakti saints who lived between the sixth and the tenth centuries CE. Sambandar’s hymns to Shiva were later collected to form the first three volumes of the Tirumurai, the religious canon of Tamil Saiva Siddhanta.


We will see in the future posts on Sambandar’s compositions about Mylapore.

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