Starting out from Thrissur early this morning, I have quite a distance to cover. En route are some interesting places to visit. It’s going to be a long day packed with sightseeing. My first stop is the town of Irinjalakuda, only 20 km from Thrissur. Before reaching Irinjalakuda, the bus speeds by another great temple of the region at Arattupuzha. The temple here is famous for its annual Pooram festival that happens sometime in March or April. But I have too many things on my plate for the day. I am going to skip Arattupuzha.
Koodal Manikyam Temple @ Irinjalakuda
‘Roll up your trousers to above your knees,’ tells me a Brahmin boy as I enter the inner temple at Irinjalakuda. I had my doubts if trousers were allowed here as they were at the Vaddukanatha Temple at Thrissur. I do as I am told, enter the innermost courtyard and make my way to a little queue facing the sanctum. But rolling up trousers is not enough. A priest mumbles something into my ear in Malayalam and gestures at my trousers. I get the idea. I leave the temple, retrieve my backpack from the cloak room and pull out my dhoti. There is no changing room of any sort here. I change by the road at a corner by the temple’s outer wall.
Wearing dhoti feels much better in a Keralan temple. People will not look at you oddly as if you are from another planet. They are visibly upset to see someone in trousers. They expect compliance to ancient tradition. I walk under the same gateway and then into the inner courtyard towards the sanctum. Young boys are singing hymns as they keep busy tearing up banana leaves into little manageable portions.
This temple is dedicated to Lord Rama’s brother, Bharatha. Apparently, this temple is one of a group of four, each one dedicated to the sons of King Dasartha of Ramayana. All four temples are within 30 kms of one another and to visit them all in a single day is supposed to be meritorious. This pilgrimage, termed in Malayalam as Nalambalam Yatra, happens during July-August each year.
What is really interesting is the name of this temple. No prizes for guessing that the name is rooted in fantastic legends. A king of the region once brought a jewel (manikyam) to the temple to test if the idol was any more radiant than the jewel. It so happened that when the jewel was held close to the idol, the idol absorbed (koodal) the jewel. The jewel and idol became one.
The sanctum’s interior is dark but many lamps are flickering in the darkness. The enshrined deity is heavily covered in garlands and jewellery. It becomes difficult to make out the expressions on the face. Lamps hang at the entrance to the sanctum with their steady flames. The main shrine is circular with the conical roof structure raised in two tiers. It is every bit as beautiful as the Sankaranarayanan shrine of the Vaddukanatha Temple at Thrissur. The outer wall of this shrine is covered with beautiful woodwork. Portions of it are divided into 5×5 panels, some of which are further divided into mini-panels of very delicate craftsmenship. Lotuses bloom in some of these panels. In others, popular deities are carved out in miniature reliefs and coloured with a silvery paint.
A pair of lifesize dwarapalakas guard the entrance to the sanctum. Wall murals adorn the cloisters of the inner courtyard but these appear modern and not all that interesting. A spectacular mandapa faces the main shrine. A large tank spans the northern side of the temple. There is a marked absence of subsidiary shrines. All focus is on the shrine of Bharatha. The temple is a busy place. Priests keep a close watch on all visitors. Devotees come and go. I wander a great deal around the shrine trying to absorb the multitude of images, sounds and smells of temple worship.
There is a kootambalam in this temple, just as magnificent as the one at Thrissur’s Vaddukanatha Temple. Unlike the latter, the wooden pillars start from almost at ground level with just a minor concrete plinth. I try to imagine what an experience it would be to come here one dark moon night, amidst an array of flickering oil lamps, to take seat in one corner sheltered by a canopy of interlocking rafters and to watch an authentic kuttiyattam performance.
I come out of the inner courtyard to admire once more the wonderful architecture of the temple from the outside. I am tempted to take pictures.
‘Donation of Rs. 101 must be give to take pictures,’ quotes the woman at a counter. Had she been initiated into modern day marketing, she might have said, ‘Rs. 99 only.’
Bell-metal Workshops @ Nadavaramba
I get back to my pants and take a bus to the village of Nadavaramba. My Rough Guides book on South India talks about workshops in this village that specialize in bell-metal. I don’t know if I got off at the wrong bus stop but I can’t find a single workshop. I should enquire with someone but there is no one around.
I am standing by the road with paddy fields on both sides. I walk on the road to Kodungallur, enjoying the green beauty of these fields, the coconut palms standing tall by the fringes and occasional clumps of banana plantations. It is early in the day. I pass children on their way to school. Some of these children have to walk a couple of miles to get to school. I admire their commitment to education.
Kurumba Bhagavati Temple @ Kodungallur
I arrive into Kodungallur by bus. Bus services connecting these little towns of rural Kerala are plenty. I never have to wait for more than a few minutes. I am lazy to change once more into a dhoti and I content myself with admiring the temple from the outside.
My backpack gives me away as a tourist. An astrologer sitting in the parking lot with a caged parrot tries to persuade me to look into my own future. Next to him sits a palmist making his own well-rehearsed set of pleas. His breath reeks of alcohol. Suddenly he lunges forward to grab my hand. I step back just in time. I have no wish to knee-jerk the future into the present. I am content to let time take its normal course without distortion.
I leave my backpack at the cloak room and approach the temple entrance. The temple is a lot busier than the one at Irinjalakuda. Thalabaram is underway. People are buying offerings of oil lamps and flowers. A couple of goats are tied in one corner. I wonder if they are to be sacrified sometime during the day. A giant deepastamba stands on the solid supports of a brass tortoise. Perhaps, this is bell-metal and not brass. The deepastamba is oily black after years of constant use. It is a symbol of India’s ancient rituals.
‘Can I take pictures?’ I ask a security guard. The temple is a complex criss-crossing of roofs, gables and projections.
‘Only if you are posing with temple,’ he replies. ‘You cannot take snaps of the temple alone.’
I give up the idea of taking pictures and walk around the temple without entering the inner courtyard. I notice a small stone idol where a group of women are busy in worship. An old woman attends to the humble proceedings. A little sign announces this to be the “Husk Grandmother.” Grains are offered to the idol. She represents just one of many tribals deities of village India. Her blessing is necessary for a good harvest.
‘What is going on there?’ I ask a priest. In one corner of the temple complex, some priests are bursting loud firecrackers. In an otherwise serene temple ambience, the bombs go off without warning and their smokes pollute that corner.
‘To destroy dosham,’ explains the priest. ‘Do you want to burst some?’
Doshams are an integral part of Indian philosophical beliefs rooted in astrology. Dosham is like an imperfection in one’s character and are determined, like most things, planetary positions at the time of birth. So people take to blaming their ill fortunes on supposed doshams that must be propiated with special pujas and rituals. Bursting firecrackers may seem benign but there is more to it than what meets the eye.
I have no idea what doshams I possess and what to burn. It’s a good thing not to know.
Cheraman Juma Masjid, India’s Oldest Mosque
About a mile from here is what is claimed to be India’s oldest mosque. Another short bus ride and I am dropped off in front of a post office by the road. A sign over the post office dates the mosque to 629 AD. Being the month of Ramzan, I am wondering if I’ll be allowed to take a look inside.
I am stopped at the entrance by a security guard. The mosque is closed for visitors but I can walk around the back to visit the museum next door. From the looks of the mosque, I can hardly place it from the beginning of the Mohamedan era. The mosque looks modern. Nothing in the facade appeals. Nothing inspires the imagination. It is hard to think of it as the first place in India where Friday prayers were held.
I remove my boots at the steps of the museum, buy a five rupee ticket and enter the only gallery. The collection is modest. A piece of articulated wooden beam from the old mosque survives. The mosque itself is enclosed in a glass case in a miniaturized model. I believe it is a faithful model showing the effects of age. The walls drip with dark streaks laid on by many passing monsoons. The tiled roofs slope with layers of deposits. The discolouration on the doors and windows is plainly seen. It is a beautiful model.
‘The artist took a month and a half to make this model,’ comments the museum’s curator. He has seen me admiring this exhibit for many minutes and volunteers to guide me through the museum. There is no other visitor.
‘What happened to the old mosque?’ I ask him. The model shows the old mosque in the traditional Keralan architecture exemplified by the numerous temples of the region. The old mosque certainly has an appeal lost in the new one.
‘It was demolished in 1974,’ he replies. The words almost shock me. I guess the caretakers were more concerned about preserving the ways of Islam and regular prayers than be bothered about preservation of an old building.
‘It was done to make way for a larger mosque,’ continues the curator. He introduces himself as Saraf. He has been living next to the mosque every since he was a child.
‘Are you married?’ he questions.
‘How old are you?’
‘Same as me,’ replies Saraf. ‘I want to get married.’
‘When is that? Are you engaged already?’
‘No,’ he replies with disappointment. ‘I have to sort out some family problems.’
‘Is the pay good at this museum?’ I ask. ‘Do you need a degree to work here?’
‘I have M.A. in English literature. I get Rs. 6000 a month, which is okay. Food is provided at the mosque.’
‘You were born here, were you?’
After a long pause, he confides, ‘I am actually Jew. I don’t know my real parents. My adopted father picked me up from a dustbin in Delhi. I was two weeks old then. I am trying to trace my real parents. My adopted father is no more but he really loved me.’
I buy a little guidebook from him about the mosque. A black-and-white photograph shows the mosque as it was in 1905. I am told that the mosque became famous following the visit of former President Abdul Kalam in 2005. The museum was opened only last year.
‘If you come again outside the month of Ramzan, I’ll show you around inside the mosque,’ offers Saraf. I thank him for the wonderful tour and wish him well in finding a bride. Just before I leave, I spot a wonderful miniature model of a temple. Somehow it looks familiar. Suddenly it strikes me. This is the Kurumba Bhagavati Temple of Kodungallur.
Mahadeva Temple @ Thiruvanchikkulam
The next and last stop on the road to Ernakulam is the temple at Thiruvanchikkulam. This is less than a kilometer from the mosque and I walk to it easily. I arrive at the temple at half past eleven.
‘The temple is closed for darshan,’ tells me a priest. ‘It will reopen at five in the evening.’
It is a disappointment to be denied entry, not so much for darshan of the main deity but more for missing out on the wonderful wall murals that I have read about. I have to be content with walking the outer courtyard.
There are two gateways leading to the temple and one of them is in beautiful pagoda-like construction. The place is literally deserted. The few priests linger around for a while before disappearing into their private quarters. I am free to wander around in my trousers. For once, no one bothers to stop me from taking pictures of the temple. Wooden lattice work on the walls of the temple, nailed with long rows of brass oil lamps, make quite a compelling perspective. Little corner gables break the monotony of long-running tiled roofs. Under the canopy of the main gable, beautiful woodcrafted figures stand in graceful poses. The temple complex has many subsidiary shrines and a map gives complete details of the layout.
I walk back to the road and enquire about buses to Ernakulam. It has been a busy morning and a nice lunch is what I need. I am looking forward to it but Ernakulam is still some distance away.