Bhagavati in ethereal surroundings
Worship at the four temples in Palakkad, in Kerala, on the same evening, would bring peace of mind, the devotee believes. GOWRI RAMNARAYAN undertakes the pilgrimage.
The Vadakkanthara Bhagavathi Temple ...
"SOME YEARS ago, when I faced major problems, a friend suggested that I worship at four temples in Palakkad on the same evening," said Coimbatore resident Manivannan. The results were remarkable."
From Coimbatore, Palakkad is just an hour and a half away by car. Despite the smooth highway, the late May afternoon can be a trial. But as you get close to Kerala, the dryness gives way to lush green of palm groves. Jackfruit trees groan with giant fruit. Raw mangoes cluster thickly on trees, big and small. Beneath cloud puffs scattered on sunny blue, the level land glows red against the purple hills.
For want of time, Manivannan does not stop at the entrancingly named Meenkulakkavu, where the legend goes that feeding the fish in the temple pond with rice flakes is equivalent to the grace garnered by a banquet offered to 10,000 brahmins. We stop by the peepul tree that makes a live dhwajasthamba at the portals of the Manapullikavu Bhagavati temple. The small, immaculately clean shrine has drawn a respectable crowd for the evening puja. Bells ring in a sweet medley, in perfect tune with the deity's benign smile. Her silver covered form (face and bust) glows like the full moon, refracting the burning incandescence of the oil-swollen lamps surrounding the sanctum. Priests and their apprentices dot the courtyard but none can tell you anything about the temple or the Goddess.
We are temporary appointees, is the explanation, which raises even more questions. However, there is nothing temporary about the fragrance of the raktachandana, part of ancient racial memory through ritual and literature, distributed in a leaf roll. The temple may have no architectural or sculptural marvel to boast of. But the clean ambience invokes sanctity, aided by the row of tall, multi-tiered, multi-wicked lamps before the deity, topped by a lion, swan, parakeet and bull, gazing devoutly at the sanctum. The older divinity is placed at the left and can be viewed from the side.
The next halt is at the end of an agraharam of freshly painted and tiled double-storey houses, with their occupants, young and old, out on thinnais and easy chairs to catch the faint breeze. Lilac tin sheets shade the outer temple court. At the side, an English signboard invites you to buy `Iris Cakes, full of sweet life'. The first chamber houses Mahavishnu, though the smaller one has the main deity Sastha (a plain stone) flanked by Consorts Purna and Pushkala. Fortunately the priest Narayana has a story to tell in English-splashed Tamil. Four hundred years ago, patriarch Kurur Manaikkal Nambudiri who lived here got too old to make the annual pilgrimage to Sabarimala. "Ayyappa! How can I live without seeing you?" cried he and was rewarded with a vision of the Lord. In subsequent decades, this region was overrun by forest. When they began to clear the forest, an axe fell upon a stone that started to bleed. Soothsayers declared that it was Sastha himself in swayambu form. The spot was consecrated as a temple. Gradually other deities (Vishnu, Vrindalakshmi, Ganapati) found their places. A bell and lingam in the left corner mark Kurur Nambudiri's presence. "He remains here to enjoy the daily and festive worship of the annual `Shastapriti' in high summer," the priest tells you.
The festival includes Yajurvedakrama Parayanam (41 days), Rudrajapam, the feeding of visitors, and a grand seeveli (procession) of the adorned deity on an elephant accompanied by panchavadya. As we leave, we see the huge triple-stone fireplaces and the giant pots for making the five kinds of payasam. If you exclaim that God and man will be satiated, the smiling priest will retort, "But there are five varieties of pickles too!"
Malayalam inscribed posters of the "Lord of the Rings" greet you as you wind through the lanes twinkling with jasmine and oleander and reach an open square. The stir announces the temples of Vadakkantara. The enclosed one is for Mahavishnu, draped in jasmine strands, smiling through his sandal paste mask. The open shrine is where Bhagavati is surrounded by a knee-high fence.
It breathes an evergreen vitality. A short metal wall runs round the trunk of a generous tree that makes a splendid canopy of fig clusters and fluttering leaves. Strings of hibiscus hang in vertical strips, complementing the horizontal rows of lamps across the entire wall. Watch them getting lit one by one, transforming the tree into a mystical refuge. The earthly melds into the ethereal. The sanctum has a friendly aperture.
Manappully Kavu Bhagavathi Temple ...
The Goddess appears as a flat black face against red cloth, with metal etchings marking her features. The starkness is reminiscent of both primeval and modern sculpture. In the circling camphor flame those golden eyes leap to life with a startling suddenness. The tilakam flares into molten gold. The priest does not have to tell you that this is a Sakti peetam. You feel the power in those eyes, at once cool and burning. The image blends with its living backdrop of tree trunk folds.
"The deity is of Durga, but in the form taken by Kannagi, who came to reside here after widowhood," the priest continues. He points to an earthen lamp in a niche within the sanctum, the original force field of the temple. The deity he terms `Vaal Kannadi Bimbam' a reflection of that power within, a form for worship four times a day. The temple attracts visitors throughout the year, peaking at the annual summer festival, which includes shows of music and dance.
The final halt is for Hemambika, who guards the town from a quiet corner. Legend has it that Parasurama consecrated her, along with Balambika (Kanyakumari), Lokambika (Badagara), and Mookambika (Mangalore), to protect the Kerala realm that he recovered from the sea. It is also believed that Adi Sankara formulated her modes of worship, so that Hemambika is visualised as Saraswati at dawn, Lakshmi at noon, and Durga at twilight. Wrapped in nightfall stillness, the shrine leads you through a corridor of unlit lamp strands to the sanctum, an enclosed square on a raised platform with plenty of space for priests and elaborate pujas.
Our archana chits are stored for the morrow as the day's ceremonies are over. But there is enough lamplight and camphor flame to view Hemambika who resides within as a pair of silvery hands held up in benison.
As you circumambulate the sanctum a young priest draws your attention to two mounds of sandal paste below those hands, with five-headed serpents of silver on either side. "Those are the original hands of stone which appeared in response to the fervid entreaties of Kurur Nambudiri," he informs you. The sthalapurana myth is a variant of what we had heard at Nurani. On their regular trek through the dense Vadamala forest to worship at the valley shrine of Durga, one day Kurur and Kaimukku Nambudiris were granted a vision. The golden Goddess stood beside an elephant under a tree.
When the aged Kurur was disheartened by his inability to undertake hazardous pilgrimages, the Goddess assured him in a dream that he would find her in the neighbourhood. The next day witnessed the emergence of her hands in the middle of a lake closeby.
When Kurur swam through to clasp them, the divine hands turned into stone. The lake was filled and a shrine erected by the local ruler, whose desecendent remains in charge of temple administration.
The temple's claim to fame in historical times is on account of the visit of Indira Gandhi in 1982 (her signature is a proud showpiece in the visitor's book). Executive Officer Narayanaswamy (whose office cupboards are all marked by chalky hands) tells you that the former Prime Minister not only gifted a bell but also derived the symbol of her party from the image of Hemambika.
The return journey through the lonesome Valayar forest under the stars makes a perfect end to the Palakkad pilgrimage where you had felt the truth of the adage: cleanliness inspires godliness. It also instils peace.
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