A few summers ago I found myself in front of a small temple on the banks of the Thootha River. I’d call it nondescript, and it probably had nothing on the majestic temples Kerala is so famous for. But I fell in love with it the moment I saw it. Located in my friend’s ancestral village, the little temple had a set of stairs leading up to it, half of which were submerged in water. Mornings were particularly serene. On the opposite bank, women bathed and washed clothes. Children ran around playing in the water. What I probably liked about the temple was how quiet and uncrowded it was. It even had its own “private pool” of sorts: an enclosure meant just for visitors. The pujari would come by once in the evening. An old gentleman, he told us how this was one of the very few temples which still had on its original coat of paint from 400 years back!
An integral part of a Kerala holiday itinerary usually involves visiting one of its various temples. A handy guidebook might list at least twenty five different temples in Kerala, urging you to see them all. A lay google search will direct you to probably double that number. While I was most mesmerized by the small temple on the Thootha river, I did, however, visit the bigger ones. Steeped in tradition and rich in history, the temples of Kerala are usually tucked away in various corners of the sylvan countryside. In ancient times, the temples kings would mandate that the temples couldn’t be built higher than the coconut trees, lest the devotees got too awestruck by its sheer size!
Traditional Kerala architecture usually uses wood considering the ample forest cover the region has. Timber in Kerala is locally known as anjali, and is very strong. Most temples are simple structures made of wood and stone. Woodwork also extends to the murals on the walls, which usually narrate different myths. It is common to compare the temples of Kerala to the wooden temples of Japan. But architect Ramu Katakam in his book, “Glimpses of Architecture in Kerala — Temples and Palaces”, says that the similarity is limited to the design technology used in trusses and rafters.
Temple walls are made of laterite stone, a reddish tropical soil found in the northern parts of the state which hardens on being exposed to air. Granite, lime and mortar would be used on floors and plinths. The sloping roofs would be made of copper tiles. In his book, An Architectural Survey of Temples of Kerala (1978), H. Sarkar writes that it was very difficult to survey and document the temples of Kerala which are closely guarded, especially for non-Hindus. The hallmark of a classic Hindu temple in Kerala is simplicity, geometry and proportion.
One of the most well-known temples of Kerala is the Ettumanoor Shiva temple, built as far back as the 12th century AD in Kottayam. Best known for its Dravidian mural paintings, the temple also hosts the arattu festival where a grand procession of eight elephants takes place. It is also home to the fresco of Pradosha Nritham (Dance of Shiva), believed to be one of the finest wall paintings in India. The other two popular places of worship are the Gurvayur and Sabrimala, shrines which attract thousands of pilgrims every year. Dedicated to Lord Ayyapa, Sabarimala is situated about 3,000 feet above sea level on a hilltop. The ancient temple is known to be open to all castes and creeds, until recently when it was embroiled in a national controversy when the board decided to bar entry of women (in the age group of 10 to 50). The pilgrimage to Sabarimala is quite different from others: devotees dress up in blue or black, smear chandan on their foreheads and remain unshaven until the end. Gurvayur, on the other hand, has a central deity of a four-armed standing Krishna carrying the conch Panchajanya, the discus Sudarshana Chakra, the mace Kaumodaki and a lotus with a garland. The shrine of the Tali temple in Kozhikode is made of a blend of laterite and wood. The brass work on the sanctum sanctorum and the brass carvings on the wooden roofs are other highlights of this Shiva temple.
What is probably the most interesting about Kerala temples is that they are not just places of worship. Ramu Katakam says that most function as fully large households complete with well-equipped kitchens and abundant water supply. Some temples are built in such a “small and intimate” way that it “makes one feel that they are a part of it”. The Kaviyoor temple, which has Lord Shiva, Parvati and Hanuman as the presiding deities dates back to the 10th century AD. Built on an elevated platform, the inner court at Kaviyoor can be entered through a series of steps, and looks almost magical on early mornings. According to Katakam, the shrine of the Vallabha temple at Thiruvalla is the most peaceful, where the silvery statue of Lord Vishnu is lit up by two lamps.
Since time immemorial, temples of Kerala have been closely associated with its people. Apart from religious functions, temples in ancient times became the focal point of social and cultural interaction. And in a way, it still is. From marriages to festivals, from dance performances to dramas, temples have over time become a unique form of cultural expression.
anjali : timber
arattu : a festival of elephant processions
chandan : sandalwood