Whenever I travel to a new city, I’m always looking for walking tours. This is because I feel that walking tours is the best way to have an introduction to a new place. Walking tour guides are different from your bus tour guides – they give you insights into the history, heritage and culture of the place by sharing stories and anecdotes. Storytelling is always more interesting than a history lesson, and for that reason, I joined a walking tour called Peacock Trail with Storytrails in Mylapore, Chennai.
After having travelled to India nine times over five years, November 2017 was the first time I visited the southern part of India – Tamil Nadu. I came to Chennai (formerly known as Madras), the capital city of Tamil Nadu, for a few days during which I spent an afternoon with Storytrails in Mylapore, the bustling cultural hub and neighbourhood in Chennai.
The meeting point for the walking tour was at Rasi Silks shop, a stone’s throw away from Kapaleeshwara Temple. Ask anyone about top places to visit in Mylapore and the immediate answer you get is Kapaleeshwara Temple.
Kapaleeshwara Temple is one of Chennai’s oldest and renowned temples. Originally built by the Pallavas in the 7th century, the temple was destroyed by the Portuguese in the 16th century in favour of St. Thomas Basilica but was subsequently rebuilt again using the remains of the old temple. The temple features remarkable Dravidian architecture and the main deity of the temple is Lord Shiva.
I met the founder of Storytrails, Vijay who led me inside the Kapaleeshwara Temple where we observed a number of rituals commonly seen in Hindu temples such as devotees smashing coconuts and prostrating themselves before the deities. We also saw devotees standing in front of the deity Ganesh, tapping their temples, crossing their arms and tugging their ears while doing a quick squat three times. I have seen some of these rituals in Hindu temples in Malaysia and have often wondered what these practices meant until Vijay explained to me the meaning behind these customs and symbolisms in the form of stories.
Storytrails has a story for everything. For instance, they have stories to explain why there are many gods in Hinduism and why devotees walk clockwise around the temple. In fact, there is a story how Mylapore came about. Its name derived from the word “mayil” which means peacock in the Tamil language. The legend goes that Lord Shiva found his wife, Parvathi not listening to him as she was distracted by a dancing peacock. Shiva was angry, thus sent Parvathi to earth to be born a peacock. Shiva soon repented and came down to earth to take Parvathi back with him. From this story, I now understand when I see images of a peacock next to a lingam stone (shiva lingam) in Hindu temples, for they represent the deities Parvati (peacock) and Shiva (lingam). Since Mylapore was named after a peacock, it made sense that the walking tour in Mylapore is aptly named as the Peacock Trail.
After Kampaleeshwara Temple, we moved on to another place of worship in Mylapore – a Catholic church called St. Thomas Cathedral Basilica (also known as Santhome). In the 16th century, the Portuguese built Santhome church which is one of the only three churches in the world built over the tomb of an apostle of Jesus, the other two being St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City and Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Spain. Santhome houses the mortal remains of St. Thomas, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus.
It is said that St. Thomas arrived in present-day Kerala from Judea in A.D.52, after which he preached and converted many Indians to Christianity until A.D.72 when he was struck dead and martyred on St. Thomas Mount.
The remarkable aspect of Santhome church is that it incorporates Hinduism and Indian cultural elements in Catholicism – the statues of Virgin Mary are dressed in sarees, the statue of Jesus is standing on a lotus flower flanked by two peacocks, and a cross atop a Hindu flag pole in the church courtyard. I would not have noticed these subtle elements if not for Vijay pointed them out to me. How fascinating!
Apart from visits to the two main places of worship, there were more traditions and customs unravelled by Vijay as we walked along the streets of Mylapore during the two-hour tour. The Peacock Trail walking tour is a great way to see confluence of cultures being an integral part of Chennai’s heritage, and as for me, I found answers to the questions I’ve always had on South Indian & Hindu rituals and customs. In true Chennai style, we ended the tour with an appreciation for filter coffee at one of the popular restaurants in Mylapore.
*Thanks to Storytrails for hosting me on the Peacock Trail walking tour. Opinions expressed in this post are my own.
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