The Kapaliswarar temple was home to a well-established devadasi tradition. Legend has it that Poompavai, the daughter of Sivanesan Chettiar was offered in marriage to Sambandar after he resurrected her. But when Sambandar refused stating that by bringing her to life he had become her father, Poompavai dedicated herself to Kapaliswara. It is believed the nearby Devadi Street was where the devadasi women attached to the shrine lived.
B.M. Sundaram in his Marabu Tanda Manikkangal writes of MylaporeDhanammal who was the dasiattached to the temple in the 19thcentury. Her daughter Doraikannu(1864-1922) was a great beautyand an extremely talented dancer.Her patron Mahipati Rao who wentblind around the time of her deathpreferred to remain sightless as hefelt there was nothing left to see.Doraikannu’s daughter was the famedMylapore Gowri (1892-1971). S. Rajamremembers her to be like a bronzeicon in beauty. He remembers herwalking gracefully to the temple eachafternoon to perform her dance duringthe ucchikala pooja.Act V of 1929 disenfranchiseddevadasi-s from temple serviceand revoked their rights to holdtemple lands and draw incomefrom the shrines. After it waspassed Gowri was evicted from herhouse on Kutchery Lane and facedmany hardships. She later wentblind as well. Her last years weretroubled by irresponsible children.
But she passed on her talents to T. Balasaraswati and Rukmini Devi. She also taught Kalanidhi and Nirmala Ramachandran nee Viswanathan among others. Gowri Amma’s funeral in 1971 was funded by well-wishers, with Rukmini Devi contributing the lion’s share. It was a sad end for a proud tradition. Dance however, made a quick comeback at the Kapaliswarar temple and the temple now hosts an annual dance festival.