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Temples of Kerala

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By P.R.Ramachander


Present day Kerala, "God’s own country", is the ribbon-like green stretch of land placed between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats - a chain of high hills which begins from south of Thiruvananthapuram (also colloquially referred as Trivandrum) to the small town of Kasargode on the border with Karnataka state. Legend says that Parasurama, an incarnation of Maha Vishnu, gifted all the land he conquered from Kshatriya kings, as per instruction of Lord Rama. When he found that he did not have any place to live, he came to a place called Gokarna near the Western Ghats mountains and threw his marble axe into the sea. The land reclaimed by him from the sea is the present day Kerala, although Gokarna and a large stretch of land, said to have been reclaimed by Parasurama, are now in the state of Karnataka. The transliteration of the name 'Keralam' is “Garden of coconuts”, but some people believe that the name came from Cherala (the garden of Cheras-the first kings of Kerala).Keralas or Udra Keralas were also mentioned in the Mahabharata Epic as a kingdom which took part in the Kurukshetra War on the side of the Pandavas.

Legends say that when Parasurama started living there he could not find any Brahmins among them. Hence, he seems to have brought in Namboodiri Brahmins, who remain the original Kerala Brahmins, and also consecrated 108 Shiva temples, 108 Bhagawathi (Shaktam) temples and 18 Ayyappa temples. The list of such temples, founded by Parasurama, are available in a few folk songs.

The first known rulers of Kerala were the Cheras and the first known language was Tamil. The first inscriptions were written in archaic scripts called Kolezhuthu and Vattezhthu. One of the greatest among the Chera kings was Cheran Chenguttuvan. His brother Elango wrote a great Tamil book called 'Silappadikaram'. Kannagi was the heroine of the book and has many temples in Kerala dedicated to her. After the Cheras, Kerala split in to several smaller principalities constantly at war with each other.

The first temples of Kerala were called Kavu (places of security or protection). Most of them were temples under a tree in the forest, with no buildings or roof. Similar temples exist all over Tamil Nadu as well. In a majority of such places of worship, the gods consecrated were the guardian deities of the village, who were supplicated to guard the village from enemies, both natural and supernatural. In some cases, a hero who defended the village, or Mariamma (the goddess of Pox) and Lord Ganesa were revered as the deity of the village. In the case of Kerala, most of these 'Kavus' housed the temple of Goddess Parvathi or Kali. Slowly these Kavus became transformed into temples. Side-by-side, large numbers of temples mushroomed up for Lord Shiva, and Lord Vishnu and his Avatharas. Unlike Tamil Nadu however, temples dedicated to Lord Subrahmanya were very few. There are a large number of temples for Lord Ayyappa, who was a prince of a small princely state called Pandalam, and he was considered an incarnation of Dharma Sastha (the son of Lord Shiva and Vishnu), whose temples are still popular in the Thirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu.

Unlike temples in Tamil Nadu, most of the temples were neither of granite structures nor were they gigantic. In fact, brick and laterite stones were used in building these temples and they were comparatively small. The sanctum called the “Sree Kovil” was either square or round. The roofs were mostly clad with copper sheets or unbaked clay tiles. They were in the shape of a pyramid in the case of square temples and conical in the case of round temples. Some temples have 'Kalasam', which is an ornamental piece made of either brass, or in a few cases gold, embroidered near the edge of the roof. A very large majority of temples did not have entrance gopurams or Vimanams over the deity, like those in Tamil Nadu. Temple architectures similar to those in Kerala are also found in the coastal Karnataka districts. Many archaeologists are of the opinion that these structures closely resemble the Himalayan temples. The Sree Kovil was surrounded by a Prakaram (an enclosed space, sometimes with a small corridor). Just outside the Sree Kovil was the Namaskara Mandapam, which was used by the learned Brahmin males for reciting slokas and Vedas. In most cases, there was only one outlet from this enclosed space. On the south western corner, a kitchen was normally constructed, and some temples have sub-temples in this first Prakaram itself. Inside the prakaram there are several 'Bali peedams', which represent deities like the Nava Grahas. Outside this Prakaram, there normally is a Dwaja Sthambham (flag pole) and a big Bali peetam (stone for sacrifice). Big temples often have several small sub-temples outside the Prakaram. Some temples have a Koothambalam, where religious dramas are enacted.The outside walls of the 'Prakaram' are normally fitted with several oil lamps called Vilakku Madam. The structure with the prakaram and the Sree Kovil is called 'Nalambalam'. Very few temples have any sculptures. Some temples also have murals and small sculptures carved in wood.

The idols in these temples are normally made either of stone or wood, though in a very few cases they are made of Pancha-loha, an alloy of copper, gold, silver, brass, and iron, with copper as the major constituent (thus making Panchaloha generically a cast brass or bronze). Unlike Tamil Nadu's temples, there is no 'Uthsava-Vigrahams' which are taken out of the temples during festivals. Instead, a 'Thidambu', or an elaborate artistically created arch-shaped mount with gilded frontage, having the image of the deity, is taken out and mounted on caparisoned elephants. 'Ratha" or Chariots, or floats etc are rarely seen in Kerala. In most of the Kerala temples, only one God is consecrated inside the sanctum although multi-deity temples are also present in some places. For example, it is either a Krishna Temple, or Parvathi temple or a Shiva temple. Of course, the idol of Ganesa can be seen in most temples, since he is regarded as the common factor for any worship.

Abhishekams (anointment) are performed only to stone or metal idols. In the case of wooden idols, the preferred wood was that of the jack fruit tree. Abhishekam is not performed for such statues but the statue is coated with saffron mixed in oil (Chandattam). This ensures a very long life for the wooden statues. The preferred form of worship in Kerala temples is based on 'Thanthra'. The priests who do worship are either Namboodiris (Kerala Brahmins) or Embranthiris (Kannada Brahmins) belonging to coastal Karnataka. Some of them are also called Potthis. Since the worship form is centered round Thanthra, it is very much different from the Agama form of worship practiced in Tamil Nadu temples. As an example, were a thanthri to come out of the sanctum even for a moment, he has to take a dip at the temple tank -- that is fully immerse himself and remain in the wet dress right through his time inside the sanctum. Tamil Iyer priests are not recruited in Kerala temples, since they follow the agama type of worship. Rather, Tamil Iyers have built their own temples in Agraharams where they live, and follow their own way of worship. Uthralikkavu near Wadakkancheri is perhaps the only Kerala temple where a Tamil Iyer is a Thanthri.

Most of the temples were owned by kings or noble families. With the coming of democracy, most of them are under the management of autonomous organizations called Devaswams, which are part of the government. Most of these temples had huge lands as property, but with the enactment of Land Reforms Act by the communist government, most of them became very poor. Nevertheless, today only a very small percentage of temples are dilapidated or neglected. This is because every temple is visited by the local population in the mornings after a bath as a part of their culture and tradition, as also they consider the temple as their own. This community awareness is so great that wherever they are in India or abroad, they make it a point to attend the festivals of the temple and contribute to its upkeep. This fact is a little strange, since the major politicians of Kerala are atheists.

Unlike other states of India, while the worship in the sanctum is performed by Namboodiris or Embrandiris, the management of these temples is done by the rich landlords, assisted by a few Hindu castes called Ambalavasis. (People who live or are dependent on the temples). They are normally strict vegetarians and have different roles to play in the upkeep of a temple. For example, the 'Poduval' caste is in charge of management, the 'Warrier' caste is in charge of looking after the garden of the temple and providing flower garlands for worship in the temple, the 'kurukkals' are in charge of supplying milk to the temple, the 'Marars' are in charge of playing of musical instruments for the temple, the 'Poduval' and 'Nambeesan' are in charge of singing in front of the deity and the 'Chakyars' are in charge of propagating the ancient stories about the temple. Castes with such delineation of responsibilities in temple affairs are not found outside Kerala.

Apart from the 'Agama' practice in contrast to the 'thanthra' practice, several aspects of temple activities are very much different in Kerala. In most of the temples, the custom of Sribali (Seeveli) is carried out, which involves taking the Lord around the temple. In poor temples, this is done on the head of the priest, but in rich temples, this is done on the top of elephants. Chariots are almost never present in Kerala temples, except in those managed by Tamil Brahmins. However, the deity is taken out of the temple on the top of elephants to the nearest river. There the deity is given the ritual bath (called Arattu in Malayalam). Apart from this, most of the temples have festivals called Poorams and Vela. Both these festivals are held in honour of the deity by the local people. The population is normally divided on the basis of the locality they live in and each locality takes a pooram or Vela to the temple. There is virtually a competition among each locality to excel the others. Most of them have seeveli on the top of elephants accompanied by an instrumental ensemble called Pancha Vadhyam with its own typical instruments. Musical instruments like Nadaswaram of Tamil Nadu are not popular in Kerala temples, though it is widely used in family functions. In many temples, as a grand finale, in festivals like Pooram or Vela, a display of a huge quantities of fireworks is done for entertainment. In fact, some temple festivals like the Thrissur Pooram have attracted large numbers of visitors, from both within and outside the country. The fireworks are an offering to please the God inside the temple. In most of the temples where the presiding deity is a Goddess, an oracle called 'Velichappadu' is present. These Velichapadus go into trances and perform activities which are paranormal. They are especially active during festivals and many devotees consult them as representative of the deity to mitigate their personal problems.

Another practice in Kerala temples is that males are allowed entry into the temple only if they do not wear a shirt or a vest - that is, they are uncovered above the waist. Most of them enter bare chested but some drape a towel. Women devotees have to wear Kerala-centric dresses like Saree, Mundu or Pavadai (petticoat). They are not allowed inside the temple without these typical Kerala-type dresses. Most of the temples do not allow non-Hindus, and photography inside the temple is strictly prohibited.

As a reminder of the nature of worship practiced in this region in the past, there are temples dedicated to snake Gods, Para Brahmam, the individual Pandavas, and to Brahma, who normally is not worshiped. There is a temple near Kottayam, where the Goddess is considered to have menstrual periods. In Kodungallor, people believe that the Goddess would only be pleased by singing of very vulgar sexually explicit songs during the Kodungallore Bharani (a major festival).

Yet another interesting aspect of Kerala temple is the 'Ashta Mangalya Prasnam'. This is an astrological investigation to ascertain whether a particular decision by the temple management has divine approval or to seek specific remedy for calamitous happenings around the temple. For example, if the temple wants to find out whether a new idol can be consecrated or acquire one more elephant etc, an ashta mangalya prasnam is resorted to. A group of very capable astrologers carry out the Ashta Mangalya Prasnam, where there is a sustained debate as to what the position of each star means. The majority opinion is taken as the divine interpretation and the decision is finalized and carried out. Both the people as well as the Devaswoms strictly follow the recommendations of the astrologers.