It was a sultry June morning and I was at a beautiful temple in the little town of Pilicode in Kerala. The melsanthi , head priest, who stood at the sanctum doors, arms akimbo, answered my question about why goddess Bhagavathi was depicted in the form of a metal mirror. “There is too much shakti in her and if she was in human form, her mere gaze upon those who have come to seek darshan would destroy them,” he said.
Bhagavathi, one of the forms of Durga, is worshipped uniquely in parts of northern Kerala as Kannadi Bimbam, or mirror idol, an exquisitely cast metal mirror, which resembles a human form with its leg-like handle and rounded head.
Few parts of India boast of a more profuse integration of mirrors in religious, cultural, social and performative practices as the Malabar coast. In Kerala, the valkannadi , a round mirror with a handle, usually made of metal, is found in the homes of most Hindu communities, and is used as an auspicious symbol in rituals. A mother gives a valkannadi to her daughter on her wedding day. On Vishu, the Malayalam New Year, a ritual viewing of auspicious objects is done; children are led blindfolded to the puja room, and the valkannadi is one of many objects that must be seen, as it is believed to bring good luck and prosperity.
At wedding rituals
The artisans of Aranmula in southern Kerala are expert makers of the famous Aranmula mirror. In parts of coastal Karnataka, wedding ceremonies include kalasha kannadi , a ritual where a pot of water, tulasi leaves, and a hand mirror form a vital part. The list goes on.
Kannadi refers to kannu or eyes in Malayalam, and bimba, or reflection in Sanskrit, suggesting a relationship between that which we perceive with our eyes and that which is reflected. Kannadi Bimbams are cast in bronze or Panchaloha, a five-metal alloy of copper, silver, gold, tin and zinc, in the lost wax method by Musaris or traditional metal casters. The mirror idols are made of granite, wood, or stucco. “Paying obeisance to the Kannadi Bimbam is considered one of the highest forms of worship in Kerala,” writes sculptor Balan Nambiar (in the catalogue to his exhibition, ‘The Mirror Idol’, 2012).
On the day of Pooram during the auspicious month of Meenam, usually in March every year, at the Annur Poomala Bhagavathi Kavu, a sacred grove of the Thiyya community near Payyannur in Kerala, I witnessed a unique Pooram Kuli, the ritual immersion of Bhagavathi as a mirror idol. On the penultimate day of the ritual, at dusk, two Kannadi Bimbam idols were ceremoniously carried out of the sanctum, to the beat of chenda drums, and placed on a stone slab on the stairs of the temple pond. Here, shielded from public view with a multi-coloured curtain, their jewellery and garments were carefully removed while the crowd chanted in unison.
I watched the last rays of the sun setting behind me and a gigantic full moon rising slowly in front of me. The sacred moment was upon us; the crowds were in a catatonic stupor now, and the priests descended the steps into the pond, idol in hand, and immersed themselves three times. The drumming stopped, and minutes later the idols, lit by a single lamp and the moonlight, made their slow journey back to their abode.
One of the most captivating examples of the use of a mirror in performance is the possession ritual during the worship of Theyyam in northern Kerala. As a final act in the ritual, the theyyam looks into a mirror, transforming from human to ‘divine’.
Equally enchanting is the Ali Chamundi Kaliyattam, a performance ritual that narrates the story of Ali, a Mappila Muslim fruit trader, whose reincarnated spirit is worshipped by Hindus and Muslims at Arikkadi Bhagavathi temple in Kasaragod. Performed while sitting directly in front of a large mirror, like the one in our homes, it enacts a local myth where Ali, believed to be a sorcerer with a lustful nature, is drowned by goddess Bhagavathi in the temple pond. But she allows a shrine to be built beside her own, where his reincarnated spirit can meet and bless devotees.
These depictions of mirrors as non-reflective surfaces — whether in metal like the Kannadi Bimbam of Kerala or in wood like those held by the Sati figures of Karnataka — draw attention to the internal rather than an external reality. “The substituting of the body of a deity with an instrument to look at oneself is an obvious tool to stress the importance of interiorisation,” writes art historian Naman Ahuja in the exhibition catalogue to ‘The Body in Indian Art and Thought’, Brussels, 2013.
A devotee is thus urged to worship by looking within, through self-reflection, reiterating the idea of Aham Brahmasmi or ‘I am Brahma’. That they are abstract forms, possessing a shakti so powerful it could destroy the universe, then finds resonance in the search for this inner realm.
The writer was the curatorial advisor of ‘Mirror – The Reflected Self’, which concluded today at Museum Rietberg in Zurich.