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A mystic journey

In the heart of the jungles of northern Kerala lies the Tirunelli Perumal temple. It is, says REMA DEVI R. TONDAIMAN, a sanctuary familiar to Keralites, but little known to the commercial world.

The incomplete vilakkumaadam of the temple

THERE was once a feature on a regional TV channel about Kerala as an alternative tourist spot to the disturbed areas of Kashmir and Sri Lanka, and I was immediately reminded of a temple familiar to Keralities, but little known to tourists — the Tirunelli Perumal temple.

Right in the dense forests of Wayanad, Kerala, as a branch of the Sahyadri ranges bordering Karnataka, is the Brahmagiri hill. Tirunelli rests at the base of this hill, which is in the upper and northern part of Wayanad. Driving from Kozhikode on a road that crosses stretches of swaying palms and majestic teak, one comes across a well-kept herb garden on the outskirts of Kalpetta, the district headquarters of Wayanad. Here, Gandhigramam shops offer handicrafts, spices, essential oils, and tea and coffee. There are excellent resorts for the weary traveller along this route. The most thrilling part of the journey is when the tea, coffee and rubber estates give way to dense forest and one recedes further and further away from civilisation deep into the unspoilt heart of nature.

At Kattikulam, the right fork of the road leads to Nagarhole and the left to Tirunelli through elephant sanctuaries and bamboo forests. For miles there is no sign of habitation except for the occasional vehicle. A tiny hamlet appears in the midst of the jungle and suddenly the temple is visible. Tirunelli has a small population, most of whom are the Adivasis. At the temple locale the HR & CE has tried to ensure decent accommodation. A small restaurant run by one of the families attached to the temple provides (tolerable) food. There is a trinket shop and a loud music system that hurts the ears. There is little else by way of civilisation, but these are portents that the world is ready to enter and overwhelm Nature's pristine beauty.

Historic and archaeological information about the temple is meagre. It is hoped that archaeologists and Indologists will be motivated enough to investigate further locally available information. Copper plate inscriptions of the period of Bhaskara Ravi Varma I and II have been discovered here. It is thought that this was an important flourishing township and pilgrimage centre till the 16th Century. There are references to a samaproksham in the 11th Century A.D.. The Unniyacchi Champu (circa 1299 A.D.) mentions this place in one of its verses. Unniyacchi was a noted courtesan — danseuse of Trissileri (Tirumarudur) not far from Tirunelli. There is also a reference to Tirunelli in the Malabar Manual. Local inhabitants claim that gold coins with zodiac inscriptions (raasippon) used for trade and other bell metal artefacts such as lamps and pots were washed down into the Papanasini river during the monsoons.

A motel in the wilderness

Vestiges of a large village can be seen at Pakshipatalam, a few kilometres away from Tirunelli. There appears to have been two villages called Panchatirtha and Papanasini. (The two streams that flow down to the Perumal temple from Brahmagiri are named after them.) Coins obtained while laying roads are said to show a close connection between Tirunelli and the ruler Kulasekhara (Ninth and 10th Centuries A.D.), as well as the rulers of Puranadu and Kurumburainadu. This is as much information as an unqualified person can gather.

The ancient temple is on a hillock. From here a steep flight of steps leads one to the Papanasini which is believed to have its source in the Brahmagiri and which then flows on into the Kalindi. The Padmapurana and other legends mention that Parasurama and Jamadgni held expiatory rites here.

Most of the legends and stories woven around the temple and its rivers are oral in nature, without evidence, but, nevertheless, fascinating. The legend regarding the origin of the temple is that Brahma, traversing the world on his swan was drawn by the beauty of the Sahyadris. He landed on a hill which later became the Brahmagiri. Walking down the slopes the heady fragrances, sounds and colours of nature exhilarated him. Suddenly his attention was drawn to an exquisite idol resting on an unusual amla tree. His inner vision saw the idol to be that of Vishnu and the area as Vishnuloka. A disembodied voice confirmed his insight and told him to install the idol. With the aid of the Devas, he installed the idol and called it the Sahyamalaka Kshetra. Pleased with Brahma's efforts, Vishnu granted a boon. Brahma requested him to abide eternally in this place and offer salvation to tortured souls. Vishnu consented and assured Brahmadeva that the rivers of this place would always wash away the sins of all mortals, dead or alive. As if to confirm this legend, there is an unpaved area within the temple where Brahma is said to have conducted the consecration rites. To this day, the priests remove all the nirmaalya materials at night and replace them with a fresh quantity of pooja requirements before closing the temple. It is believed that Brahma comes down to worship the Perumal at night.

Another legend states that long before the name Tirunelli was attributed to the temple, and when there were no roads or transport, three namboodri Brahmins set out on a pilgrimage to Sahyamalaka Kshetra. After an unexpectedly long trek, their food and water supply ran out. Fatigued and hungry, they spotted an amla tree laden with fruit on the banks of a river. Overjoyed, they went to the stream to bathe and found themselves wonderfully refreshed. They consumed but one fruit and their hunger was appeased. In all humility they offered thanks to Perumal when the manifestation of Siva and Vishnu appeared before them. Realising that it was no ordinary amla that they had eaten they called it the "Tirunelli". A similar legend tells of a hungry bhakta who plucked a fruit and left it on the river bank while bathing. With renewed energy, he came out of the river only to see that the fruit had turned into a Sivalinga. This is the Gundika Siva temple (a cave temple) that now stands alongside the Papanasini. Strangely, there are no nelli trees now anywhere around the temple.

Why an amla tree should feature in these legends is interesting. Ayurveda says that the amla fruit has extraordinary power to control all illnesses and purify the blood. The wood of the amla has powers to purify water. Hence the amla tree and fruit hold an exalted and sacred position in Hindu tradition. Similarly, the Papanasini is considered to be the purificatory Ganga of the Keralites. If the final rites to ancestors (pitr) are performed on the Pindappara rock, it is said to be equivalent of the Gaya Sraddham. The story about this rock is interesting. The asura Pashaanabhedi was cursed by Vishnu for his misdemeanours. Repenting his sins, the asura asked Vishnu for sapavimochana and He was pleased to convert him into a sacred rock spanning the length from Gaya to Tirunelli with the asura's head at Gaya, body at Godavari and the feet at Tirunelli.

Six other sacred springs are said to have existed at the source of the Papanasini — the Panchatirtha, the Rnamochini, the Gundika, the Sathavindu, the Sahasravindam and the Varaham. The Padmapurana describes the Panchatirtha as a large, glorious lake comprising the Sankha, Chakra, Gatha, Badma and Sreepaada tirthas. Today it is just a puddle, but it still retains the rock with the Sreepaada sculpted on it. It was here that Vishnu stood to issue instructions to Brahma.

Many aspects of the temple have enchanting stories to reveal. Around the temple is a narrow corridor (the Vilakkumaadam or Prakaram) with granite pillars, incomplete on the eastern side. The alien architecture is executed without cement or mortar, based on a strange geometrical calculation. The conflict between two regions seems to have been the reason for the incomplete structure. A Karnataka chieftain of Coorg is supposed to have started renovation of the temple, having brought materials and workmen from his state without the consent of the Kottayam Thampuram who controlled the temple. The angry Thampuram ordered his eviction. The distressed chief had to leave midway and with the remaining materials tried to renovate the Lava-Kusha temple at Kuthirakkode a few kilometres from Tirunelli. For some inexplicable reason, this structure too is also unfinished.

Another structure in the temple that captures the attention is the aqueduct that ensures a copious supply of water into the temple which has no well. Earlier, a limited supply of water was laboriously carried 200 metres uphill from the Papanasini. It was at this point that a North Malabar princess, the consort of the Chirakkal Raja, arrived for worship at the temple. The journey had made her thirsty, but there was not a drop of water available after the abhisekam. Seeing the plight of the priests, she vowed not to eat or drink until a water supply system was evolved. Her attendants and courtiers, with the aid of local tribals, scoured the foothills of Brahmagiri where they found the eternal Varaha spring. Jubilantly, they used bamboos to construct a temporary aqueduct to conduct water into the temple. Quenching her thirst and pleased with the effort, she later sent masons to construct a granite aqueduct, which still serves the temple to this day.

Near the Panchatirtha is the Gundikakshetra cave temple dedicated to Siva. There are sculptures at the entrance and the temple is considered to be as ancient as the main temple. Thus the ambience of the Tirunelli temple is suffused with the divine presence of the Trimurthis of the Hindu pantheon. The abundant grace of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswara await those who visit this spot. The beauty of the area is intense but pilgrims flock here more for the sanctity and glory that the temple exudes. The Papanasini, which flows serenely through the forest, is believed to release the mortal soul from its bonds and wash away all sins. It is not surprising then that Keralites consider this as Dakshina Kasi and Dakshina Gaya. Devotees throng the place with the mortal remains of their dear departed ones, immerse them in the Papanasini and then proceed to worship the Tirunelli Perumal with peace and satisfaction writ large on their countenances. This mystic experience has to be undergone to be believed.

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