METRO PLUS

In memory of a FIRE

IN THE concrete jungle that is Kochi, away from the din, bustle and pollution of the metro, lies the temple town of Thripunithura where history lies asleep.

In the heart of the town lies the Sri Poornathrayeesa temple. Reportedly, this temple, built of concrete and copper is the only one of its kind in Kerala that is made entirely fire-proof. Thereby hangs a tale.

In its heydays, the life and culture of the royal family revolved round this temple whose presiding deity is Lord Vishnu as Santhanagopalamoorthy. It celebrates a variety of major and minor festivals regularly of which one falls on the 9th of Thulam each year. Legend says that Arjuna who is believed to have received the idol from Lord Vishnu, came down to the village of Poornavedapuri which later on became Thripunithura. He, while installing the deity lighted a lamp which is said to be the origin of the present `valiyavilakku' inside the sanctum sanctorum that is kept burning 24 hours. According to a myth, this flame, if put out, spells bad omen. It is believed to have happened only once .....

Going by records, on the 5th day of Thulam more than 83 years ago, towards the wee hours of a Thursday, a loud explosion was heard from the inner precincts of the temple following which a massive fire is reported to have broken out. In a short while the temple which, was made of wood was set ablaze. The raging flames and the spiralling smoke that were rising sky-high brought people scuttering to the place from all over.

The local church and the Hill Palace, then the administrative centre of the maharajahs set the big bell ringing in alarm tone. More and more people began gathering at the premises. Not withstanding the danger, some of the bolder ones went straight into the sanctum sanctorum to retrieve the main deity, say old timers. However, try as they might, it seems they couldn't budge the idol from its place, the story goes. Whereupon they shifted the smaller version of the deity called `thidambu' used only during festivals, and brought it out safely. The main idol was covered with a huge bronze cauldron and a pile of sand strewn over it. By that time , the temple roof and the walls had been nearly consigned to flames.

Meanwhile, the teeming crowd waited outside with bated breath, fervently muttering prayers. When daylight broke, the temple was literally a pile of ashes.

There is an anecdote connected to this episode. In those days the police officer in charge was inspector Chacko. It was a time when religious orthodoxy was steadfastly adhered to and non-Hindus entering the temple was a punishable offence. Nevertheless Chacko and his troops marched into the temple and with great presence of mind, is said to have deftly tackled the situation and managed the crowd.

] Later when his act was questioned before the maharajah, he is said to have boldly spoken up , "All I did was do my duty, not as Chacko but as a police officer". The maharajah, known for his secularistic outlook, was pleased with his sense of dedication and gifted him with an `onappudava' for his meritorious service.

For three days no rituals were conducted inside the temple. The `thidambu' was taken to the `puthenbungalow nalukettu' for the daily pujas. On the ninth day, the deity was taken out in a divine procession, along with drums and clarinets to the temple and installed in its original location. Special ceremonies were held in connection with the re-installation.

Surprisingly, not a speck of damage was found on the main panchaloha idol of the Lord. A celebration marked by nine elephants and `melam' was held on the same day. This day is celebrated as the `'ninth day festival' every year.

In the evening the four walls fixed with hundreds of rows of lamps are lit up and rows of camphor lighted along the pavements and the corridor, in memory of the fire that broke out. This year it fell on October 25th. The present model of the temple was built much later by a temple architect, called Eachara Warier.

VANAJA VARMA

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