August marks the founding of Madras and is therefore an excellent opportunity to survey the temples of Madras. Although Madras was the creation of the British with Fort St. George at its centre, the individual villages it slowly subsumed have ancient histories and temples. The temples of Madras can be classified into three categories – ancient, Colonial and later additions.
Temples in Mylapore, Tiruvallikeni (that has our city’s oldest inscription from the 9th century), Tiruvanmiyur, Tiruvottriyur (that has the maximum inscriptions), Tiruvalithayam (Padi) are important since they are not only ancient but find mention in the Thevaram and Prabhandam hymns. In these hymns, the saints extol the beauty of the villages, the bounty of nature manifested by groves of trees that made such a thick canopy that sunlight did not penetrate, Vedic chants and bird/bee sounds that rivalled the roar of the ocean, wide streets filled with pious and respectable people.
We know that Mylapore had a trade guild but the inscriptions of Tiruvottriyur lead us to conclude that it had the most prosperous business community. The hymns speak of traders who traded in gems, inscriptions mention taxes on trade, salt pans, etc... The location of the Kapali temple , Chennai, was much closer to the shore and the hymns tell us of how there were grand festivals held every month and even mentions of food offerings for some of them that are still celebrated.
Tiruvottriyur deserves greater attention especially from students learning the pre-colonial history of Madras. The range of inscriptions the temple has is diverse and gives us many clues to daily life in medieval Madras. We hear of its gold plated doors, a woman ascetic, who caused the Cholas to bequeath riches to the temple, how it lent money at 10 per cent interest, taxes on looms, drummers, dyers and oil mongers. Tirumazhisai is another temple that finds a place in the hymns.
Madambakkam and Velachery find no mention in the hymns but have inscriptions on local administration. Velachery has the rare Saptamatrika temple , now called the Ch elli Amman temple , one of the few in the state.
The British quickly realised the need to patronise temples to gain the support of the local population. Their financial support was limited but their agents built and renovated lavishly. Many of these temples are in the vicinity of the Fort and give us an indication of style and craftsmanship when traders emerged as the temple sponsors, firmly replacing kings. Madras’s “official temple” will be the Chenna (which means red/beautiful) Kesava Temple built in the 1760s to replace the one that was where the High Court is now. For many years, processions in this temple were accompanied by a representative of the East India Company with their staff. This and the Malliswara templ e are simple structures and share a temple tank. Perhaps their most important feature is to provide some quiet amidst the busy Devaraja Mudali Street. Built in 1673 the Kandasamy temple on Rasappa Street has been extensively renovated but still has some fine sculptures and icons. Ekambareswara temple that is in old records called “Allingall’s Pagod” was renovated or constructed by Alangattan Pillai as a way to compensate for his inability to go to the temple with the same name in Kanchi. Chintadripet’s Adipuriswara temple shares a lovely tank with the Siva temple and is one more of the beautiful colonial temples.
In addition to these are temples of more recent times – the Ashta Lakshmi temple , the Aiyappan temple , and of course the ubiquitous roadside Pillayar temple, most of which are sadly illegal structures. Deserving greater study are the scores of ‘Ellaiamman’ and Amman temples and the economy and community around them.
(The writer may be contacted at pradeepchakravarthy75 @gmail.com)