In his preface to Vishnupuram, Tamil writer Jayamohan narrates an incident that inspired the idea for the novel. While spending a night outside the Adikesava Perumal temple at Thiruvattaru in Kanniyakumari district, he had overheard two people saying, “The lord inside will turn over once in a yuga (epoch).” Standing in front of the sanctum sanctorum and imagining the 22-foot-long deity reclining on the bed of Adi Sesha turning over offers an exhilarating experience.
The statue of Adikesava is unique not just because it is the longest among the deities of the 108 Divya Desams, but it is also the longest Kadusarkarai yogam deity in India: it has been created by covering 16,008 salagramas with Kadusarkarai (a paste), made of over 60 ingredients.
“Even the statue of the Anandapadmanabha Swamy, another Kadusarkarai yogam, at Thiruvananthapuram is just 18 feet,” said S. Subramaniaru, the Tantri of the Kalpakamangalam Madam, known as Manalikarai Madam, which is vested with the right of conducting and overseeing rituals at many temples, including the Adikesava Perumal temple.
Sung by Vaishnavite minstrel Nammalwar, it remained the principal deity of the Travancore Royal family before they shifted the capital from Padmanabhapuram to Thiruvananthapuram. As the temple is being readied for Kumbabhisekam after 400 years, the structure of the deity that was damaged in many places required elaborate refurbishing. But sprucing up a Kadusarakarai yogam deity in a traditional manner is a lengthy, complex and time-consuming process. There are not many experts who know the method of doing lebanam (the process of applying the paste) and the ingredients that go into making it.
Late Velaparambu Namboothiri helped find K.S. Kailash, an expert in repairing Kadusarkarai yogam, from Brahmamangalam in Kerala. Lakshmi Nalapat, the princess of Travancore, has sponsored the project.
“We have decided to work from the Mathur Madam, another residence of the Tantris, because we could find an old wooden box there containing the ingredients needed for making the paste. It is evident it had been done in the past,” Mr. Subramaniaru said, showcasing the contents.
Mr. Kailash said the makers of the deity had followed the human anatomy while making it. “They have used the ebony wood for creating ribs of the deity and fresh coconut coir for arranging arteries and veins. It is as if they are creating a human being. We refurbish the deity by applying layers of the paste and there should be adequate gap between each application to ensure it dries up naturally,” he said.
Obtaining materials necessary for making the paste is also a difficult task, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. As per the Ahamic principles, only water from the Ganges should be used for grinding the paste. Tender coconut water is also added.
“The sand for making the paste has to be collected from a confluence of three or five rivers. Sand deposited on the tusk of elephant, on horns of bulls and on the pointed edge of the tiller pulled by bullocks in a paddy field is also mixed,” said Sajith Sankaranarayanaru, the scion of the Manalikarai Madam.
Triphala, an Indian traditional medicine that consists of the fruits of ‘Nellikai’ (Emblica Officinalis), ‘Kadukkai’ (Terminalia chebula), and ‘Thantrikai’ (Terminalia bellirica), sandal paste, kozhiparal, a type of sediment found on the banks of the river Bharathapuzha, the gum from the jackfruit and the ripe fruits of Vilvam (Indian Bael) are the other ingredients. Conch powder and red stone powder are used for finding cracks on the statues before the initial stages of applying the paste. “We required 40 kg of jackfruit gum and sourced it from a chips maker in Palakkad. Some ingredients should be ground in cow’s milk. We hope you understand why there is a delay,” said Mr Subramaniaru, who has used the opportunity to collect the ingredients and documented the process.
They make nine types of concoction and treat the sand in it for purification. “The sand should be kept in each concoction for 10 days before using it for making the paste. We cannot use a trowel to apply the paste. Instead, we use wooden tools and the leaves of jackfruit tree to give a finishing touch. Peacock feathers are used for cleaning,” Mr. Sajith explained before entering the sanctum sanctorum with Mr. Kailash to start the work.
“Once entered you cannot leave the place without finishing it. We cannot store the paste for a long period as it will petrify. If there is an urge to attend to nature’s call, you have to take bath before entering the sanctum sanctorum again,” Mr. Subramaniaru said. Mr. Sajith said the work was almost over and the deity is getting ready for the final layer of lebanam, which would be done by month-end.