The busy and vibrant Kapaleeshwarar Temple is the oldest place of worship in Chennai (formerly Madras). Although the current temple complex was built around the 16th century, it is believed that there has been a temple on the site since the 8th century. The gopuram (the ornate carved tower common to Hindu temples) was added in 1906.
The temple is in the district of Mylapore, in the south of Chennai. This was an early Portuguese base in India but the settlement itself goes back to the 2nd century. The name Mylapore derives from the Tamil word for ‘peacock’, and there is a strong association between peacocks and the Kapaleeshwarar Temple. In the courtyard you will see people praying and lighting incense, resting or just chatting with their friends. The streets around the temple bustle with shoppers and market stalls selling all manner of goods, and you can watch as colourful garlands are woven for worshippers.
The gopuram, seen from the busy street outside the temple
Shrines of Kapaleeshwarar Temple
Kapaleeshwarar Temple is dedicated to Shiva, one of the main Hindu deities, but there are also shrines to other gods including Ganesha and Muruga. There is a tradition that the goddess Karpagambal (another name for Parvati, Shiva’s consort) was turned into a peahen as a penance, and there is a shrine to her in the form of a peahen.
The temple is full of intricate carvings
Near the south entrance worshippers request the blessing of the elephant-headed Ganesh by breaking coconuts by his shrine. Offerings are also made to fish in the temple’s tank.
In the inner sanctum you may be surprised to see cows and black peacocks. Cows are of course sacred in India and elsewhere in the city you are likely to encounter them wandering about the streets. Also in the inner sanctum is the Temple Tree, an ancient Punnai tree under which Parvati is supposed to have rested. This tree is covered with miniature cradles and scrolls, placed there by people who are praying for a baby or for success in their exams.
Celebrating Hindu Festivals
Four pujas (rituals) are performed every day and on Fridays, the statue of the goddess Karpagambal is decorated with a garland of golden coins.
The Spring Festival of Arupathimoovar takes place each year in the Tamil month of Panguni (approximately mid-March to mid-April). Idols of the gods are dressed in lavish clothes and jewellery and processed around the temple. At this time there are large carnival-style gatherings in Mylapore.
Visiting the Kapaleeshwarar Temple
The temple is open from 6 am -1 pm, and from 4-8 pm. The nearest railway station is Thirumayilai, on the Chennai Beach to Tiruvanmiyur line.
Visitors are asked to remove their shoes and leave them with the attendant in a small room at the entrance to the temple. (If visiting in the middle of the day, it is advisable to wear thick socks as the floor can be very hot.)