Here’s the story of the famous temple in South India where people celebrate their 60th, 70th, 75th, and 80th birthdays, and where we celebrated my dad’s 70th birthday. There once lived a sage who was a great devotee of Shiva. Every day he would joyfully offer his prayers to Shiva. One day however the sage was a little downcast when doing his daily poojas. Shiva appeared before him and asked him why he was not his usual happy self. The sage told Shiva that he had no children and that was the cause of his misery. Shiva smiled and blessed him with a baby boy. But he warned the sage that the boy would only live till the age of sixteen. The sage was ecstatic and he named the boy Markandeya. When the boy turned five, his father taught him how to do Shiva pooja. The boy prayed to Lord Shiva every day without fail. When he was going to turn sixteen, his distraught parents told him that his end was near.
On his 16th birthday, Markandeya was praying to Shiva when Yama, the god of death came for him. Yama told Markandeya that his time was up and that he had to go with him. Markandeya ignored him and continued with his pooja. Yama repeatedly called the boy but he refused to go with him. Yama, livid with rage, took his noose and threw it around the boy. Unfortunately, Yama’s noose fell over Shiva’s idol. Shiva flew into a rage and annihilated Yama.
Shiva granted Markandeya the boon of immortality, so he would stay 16 forever. Markandeya was so grateful to Shiva that he travelled from one Shiva temple to another singing 16 verses in praise of Shiva. The last temple which also happened to be the 108th temple he visited was Thirukadaiyur. “Kadaisi” means last in Tamil. The deity in this temple is Shiva accompanied by Markandeya and a vanquished Yama underfoot. Abirami, Shiva’s consort is flanked by Saraswati, the goddess of learning, and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Right across from the deity is a shrine for Yama.
The story goes that after Yama was vanquished, there were no deaths on earth, but the births continued unabated. Mother Earth went running to Lord Shiva lamenting that the burden was too much for her to bear. She begged Shiva to do something. Shiva in his infinite mercy released Yama and gave him back his powers. With Yama back in his post, births and deaths were balanced out and Mother Earth heaved a sigh of relief.
The number 16 shows up in the temple quite often. They performed 16 homams for my Dad’s 70th birthday. Sixteen kalashams or pots of water were poured on my parents. The priests recited the 16 verses composed by Markandeya and we had to do 16 namaskarams or prostrations. The belief is that people who visit this temple will also be granted a long, happy, and prosperous life. And I do wish that for my parents and for my aunts and uncle who accompanied us.