Ritual Bharani festival is celebrated at every Bhagavati temple in Kerala, the most important being the Kodungallur shrine. Dr. R. Nagaswamy

Kerala has the unique distinction of preserving over 2,000-year-old customs and festivals in their pure form to this day. One such festival is the Bharani festival of Goddess Bhagavathi in all parts of Kerala. The people of Kerala are greatly devoted to the Goddess Bhadrakali affectionately called Bhagavati Amme, who is also called Durga Bhattari. The festival is held in the month of Meenam, according to the Kerala calendar, (ie., Panguni, March-April) beginning from the nakshatra (star) Bharani, when the flag will be hoisted and the fest continued for seven days usually and this is the most popular festival all over Kerala. This month is generally called the month of festivals echoing with the music of delightful Chendavadya, Panchavadya and Tayambaka and also the great processions of caparisoned elephants converting the landscape of Kerala into a wonderland.

The festival will begin with the procession by women bedecked with jewellery and dressed in the traditional way, carrying plates full of fragrant flowers and lighted lamps, marching around the temple to the accompaniment of music. The procession is called ‘Taalappoli’ meaning flowers in plates. Some carry items such as rice flour, sandal paste, turmeric and incense.

Though every Bhagavati temple celebrates this festival, the most important one is Kodungallur Bhagavathi temple, where an important ritual is enacted as part of the festival. A virgin girl, of about nine years of age, is dressed beautifully as Goddess Durga with jewels and garlands and is taken out in a procession preceding the group of women carrying ‘Taalappoli.’ It is presumed that the Goddess, in the form of this girl, is arriving at the temple. Some times more than one such girl is taken out on elephants in the procession.

There are other parts of the festival such as Kavu Tindal, Chandanppodiserttal and Kolikkallumudal and finally the great elephants march and procession with colourful umbrellas, flags and thrilling music of the drums and pipes.

Taalappoli, in which women are given importance and precedence in the opening of the festival, is common to other temple festivals also, but it receives significant importance in Bhagavati temples.

Kodungallur was the capital of the Chera rulers and it went by the name in ancient times. Even now a part of the Kodungallur is called Vanchi alias Thiruvanchikkalam where there is a famous Siva temple connected with the Tamil Saiva saint Sundaramurti Nayanar. The Kodungallur Bhagavathi temple is situated on a ten-acre land in the middle of the town. The Bhagavathi shrine has a six-ft tall Bhadrakali, made of wood, with eight hands among which one pair of arms holds silambu and the severed head of an asura. On the side of the prakara is the small niche for Saptamatas with Ganesa and Virabhadra images, indicating the remote antiquity of this village settlement and temple. The tiled architecture of the main temple is breathtaking. The narrow front mandapam has a very ornately carved wooden door with bronze images of Siva, Parvati, Ganesa and Subrahmanya.

Architecture well-maintained

By the side is a Sasta temple and Tulabhara pavilion where devotees offer plantain fruits, coconuts, coins of silver or even gold equal to their weight, as per Kerala tradition. In a corner is seen a small niche what is now called Vaisuri but it seems to be the temple for Kuuli, the devilish attendant of Kali. She has a deepa-vriksha in front topped by a Piscachi devil. Kali is called Kadukal in ancient Tamil, the Goddess of forest and cemetery.

The temple is situated in the midst of a large number of Vanni trees which are venerated by devotees who do not touch them even casually – a discipline inside the temple complex to maintain the environment including vegetation. The simplicity, the extremely careful articulation of wooden tiled temples and maintenance of the ancient tradition in terms of architecture, worship, music, instruments, dance and festival of Kerala is fully reflected in this temple.

An important part of the Kodungallur Bharani festival is that the ruler of Kerala leads the festival in procession with sword in one hand and shield in the other and he is followed by his commanders, soldiers and men and women carrying swords, spears and shields with gusto adds to the festival, a war like situation, with violent jumps, speed and shouts of war cries and certain amount of curious moves by both men and women is reminiscent of medieval battle march. As the king himself has led the army in ancient times, when he was the absolute monarch and later only symbolically by being present, it is celebrated with great enthusiasm by people thronging to pay their respect also for the king and devotion to the Goddess, Bhagavati Amme. As the procession wades through, many throw cocks inside the enclosure which remains closed for that period. Cocks are also sacrificed outside by the bali stone. The Bharani festival is virtually a royal victory and thanks giving, and a festival for prosperity of the people of Kerala. Lovely folk and classical songs, praising Goddess Bhagavati have come down to this day and even many films in modern times have utilised this festival with enchanting musical compositions.

Poetic compositions

How ancient is this festival? There are several references to this festival in ancient Tamil literature especially the Sangam and post-Sangam poems. There are 96 different types of poetic composition in Tamil of which one was called Bharani composition. One of the earliest such Bharani poem is ‘Kalingathu Bharani’ on Kulothunga Chola (1070 to 1155) on his conquest of Kalinga country, the modern Odisha, composed by his court Poet Jayamkondar. It is a beautiful description of the war and also how a special festival was held for the Goddess in the victorious battle field itself. The other famous Bharani poem in Tamil is Takkayagabharani by Ottakkuttan on the Chola king Rajaraja II, on the now famous temple of Darasuram near Kumbakonam. In this poem also the festival of the Goddess is extolled graphically which calls it Bharani–Kuzh-Uttarathu (offering porridge to the deity) on the Bharani star. There are many poems in Tamil on Bharani. In all these poems, the Goddess is extolled. A study of these poems will show that the festival being conducted in Kerala was almost identical and appears as a running commentary of what happened then, though there are some gruesome descriptions found about the victorious battle fields.

This adoration is not medieval but was very much prevalent two thousand years ago in the Sangam Tamil country. The goddess was considered the presiding deity of the desert in the ancient Tamil grammar Tolkappiyam, where Eyinar, the people of that region, are said to arrange festival for her. Detailed description of the festival is available in the Silappadhikaram. The festival with many features takes place even now in Nepal. It is also found in eastern India and also the northern part of Sri Lanka (Yazhpanam region) among the Tamil People. And in Tamil Nadu as a part of temple festivals, though in a slightly diluted form, as Kanya Puja. The third one mentioned in ancient literature, is the pronouncement of oracles by some ladies in the procession who get possessed by the Goddess, which also takes place in Kerala. As it was a war festival, sacrifices of rooster and goat were quite common. In modern Kerala roosters are thrown inside the temple and also sacrificed. This custom is also prevalent in the temple of Periyapalayathamman temple near Chennai where devotees throw roosters inside the temple. In Kerala a peculiar form of worship prevails where devotees who go in procession, hurl abuses against the Goddess as a form of worship in addition to shouts and cries in the procession. This is called Nindastuti, a form of poetic expression in which one is praised by ridicule in a negative way. The kings and chieftains of the region personally participate in this great festival so that the goddess may confer prosperity on the whole kingdom which was a firm faith.

The Kodungallur Bharani festival is the greatest that takes place annually in South India in its most ancient form and in a most colourful way.

Importance of the festival

  • The Bharani festival of Goddess Bhagavati celebrated in Kodunganallur, Kerala, is the most important one.

  • The festival, held in the month of Meenam, falls on April 1 this year.

  • The festival will begin with the procession by women called ‘Taalappoli.’

  • There are several references to this festival in ancient Tamil literature especially the Sangam and post-Sangam poems.

  • One of the earliest such Bharani poem is ‘Kalingathu Bharani’ on Kulothunga Chola (1070 to 1155) on his conquest of Kalinga country.