A few metres away from the Puratchi Thalaivar Dr. M G Ramachandran Railway Station, popularly known as the Chennai Central, several brand new vehicles are parked in front of a temple.
For anyone who doesn’t understand the significance of the place, the activity that takes place outside the temple might seem strange. Several temple workers can be seen tying long black ropes to the parked vehicles and packing puja items including lemon, camphor, flowers, and coconut among others.
This is the Arulmigu Om Sri Bodyguard Muneeswaran/Muneeswarar temple at Pallavan Salai in the state capital of Tamil Nadu.
Blessings for vehicles
The temple itself is in a small area, but even in that one can see several devotees waiting to offer their prayers to Muneeswarar. The temple is not decked up with artistic paintings or has huge pillars as one may witness in other popular temples of the city like the Kapaleeshwar temple in Mylapore or the Parthasarathy temple in Triplicane.
Inside a small chamber, there is Arulmigu Om Sri Bodyguard Muneeswarar, a foot-tall idol holding a sickle. The devotees give the keys to their vehicles to the temple’s priest who keeps them in front of the deity and returns to them offering them confidence that Muneeswarar will take care of them and their vehicles.
Outside the temple, other priests perform the puja for the vehicles. The vehicles are decked up with a smear of sandalwood paste and a garland of flowers and a black rope is tied in front of the vehicle. The priests keep camphor on the top of a coconut and after lighting the camphor, they rotate it in front of the vehicle alongside their owner to ward off the evil. They then go around the vehicle and smash the coconut. Then lemons are put under the vehicle’s tyres and the owner runs over them.
These rituals are carried out for every vehicle. To receive these pujas, one may have to pay Rs 350 if they want a four-wheeler to be blessed and Rs 250 for a two-wheeler. This is apart from the donation they provide to the priest who performs these procedures.
East India Company connection
Tamil Nadu has several temples that have a distinct identity and history but this shrine, dedicated to the ‘Guardian of Motorists’, is quite different. There is no particular historic reference to its name—Bodyguard Muneeswarar—but, there are plenty of theories and myths around it.
V Sriram, historian and heritage activist, told indianexpress.com that the Bodyguard Muneeswarar Temple is a very fascinating shrine because it was founded in the colonial period and finally evolved and changed character and became popular in the present times.
“It is one of the wonders of the city. Today, people go there, they take their new vehicles and pray to Muneeswarar because they believe that he will protect their body and the body of the vehicle. But Muneeswar itself is an old deity. You can find Muneeswarar temples all around Tamil Nadu but why in this place he is particularly called the Bodyguard Muneswarar is very fascinating because it has to do with the East India Company,” he noted.
Sriram said the officials of the East India Company came here in 1639 and started work on what is called Fort St George today.
“Initially, the governor lived in what was called Fort House inside Fort St George, which is now part of the secretariat. By the 1690s or so, the governor began to feel that he needed someplace to relax outside the fort. So later at George Town, a company garden was set up and the governor used to go there to relax during weekends. When the French invaded Madras in 1746 and left in 1749, they destroyed much of the old town and the governor’s garden house was in a very dilapidated condition. Then the governor thought that he should look for a new place and they took on rent from a very rich Portuguese family called the Madeiros family and it became the governor’s weekend retreat,” he said.
From a small wayside shrine to a popular temple
Sriram noted that by 1800, the British had become more secure as there was no threat of invasion. He said the governor at that time—Edward, son of Robert Clive—decided that he would convert that garden bungalow into a massive mansion suitable as the residence for the governor. It was converted into what was called Government House.
“Since 1802, it became a practice for governors to live in Government House in Mount Road and they would go to Fort St George for work. The governor’s bodyguards were housed on what was called the Island, known as the Island Grounds today. On the Island, there was what was called the Bodyguard Lines. Every day the bodyguards would come from there, take up duty in front of the Government House and at the end of the day, they would head back to Bodyguard Lines,” he said.
“Many of the guards were Muslims so a Governor’s Bodyguard Mosque was built, which still stands on the Island. I guess this Muneeswarar temple must have been a small wayside shrine that existed by the side of Bodyguard Lines where the governor’s bodyguards were living. Therefore, it came to be known as Bodyguard Muneeswarar temple,” he added.
“The word bodyguard somehow came in the 20th century and every month during Ammavasai (new moon) and Pournami (full moon) you will find huge crowds. It is a very unique instance of how a deity has transformed itself to remain current in modern time.”
Balakrishnan, who hails from Madhavaram, is a regular visitor to the temple. He has been coming to Pallavan Salai to catch a glimpse of the deity for the past 25 years. He said Bodyguard Muneeswarar is a powerful deity and whenever he or his relatives or friends buys a new vehicle, they bring them to this temple to get the deity’s blessings.
“It’s not just new vehicles, whatever good things happen or are about to happen, we come here and do our puja. People offer whatever they could to this deity. He is people’s god. From chickens to country cigars to even a bottle of alcohol, people offer everything. They keep Pongal and distribute it as prasad to everyone. On average close to 150 people gather here, the count will increase on special days and during weekends. Whatever we wish for, it happens here,” he noted.
Another devotee from New Washermanpet said Bodyguard Muneeswaran is his family deity. He noted that everyone in his family—from his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents—has been offering their prayers to this temple and he will be passing it to the next generation.
“He (deity) is our go-to person for anything and everything. Even If I am in other cities, I will come here and offer my prayers before doing any investment or taking up a new project. Initially, I didn’t come here to do any Puja, I met with a severe accident and my financial condition worsened. Later through my mother, I came to know about the temple and started visiting it regularly and since then, good things started to happen immediately, I completely surrendered myself here, we come here on all occasions like Pournami, Ammavasai and other special days,” he noted.
Priya said she has been coming to this temple since she was very young and never misses out on visiting it on special occasions. “Whatever I wished for, has happened, I don’t know about others,” said the Ashok Nagar resident.