The Temples of Kerala

published on May 26, 2009

The so called God’s own country at present is the ribbon like green stretch of land which stretches from   Trivandrum to the small town of Kasargode. Legend says that Parasurama gave as gift all the land he conquered from kings , as per the instruction of Lord Rama. Then he found that he did not have any place to live. So he came to place called Gokarna on Western Ghats and threw his axe in to the sea. The land recovered by him from the sea is Kerala. The straight translation of the name is “Garden of coconuts” but some people believe that the name came from Cherala (the garden of Cheras-the first kings of Kerala).


     People believe that when Parasurama started living there he could not find any Brahmins among them. So he brought Namboodiris (who are the real Kerala Brahmins), and also consecrated 108 Shiva temples, 108 Bhagawathi temples and 18 Ayyappa temples. The list of such temples as founded by Parasurama is available in few songs.


    The first known rulers of Kerala were Cheras and the first known language was Tamil. The first inscriptions were written in archaic scripts called Kolezhuthu and Vettezhthu. One of the greatest among the Chera kings was Cheran Chenguttuvan. His brother Elango wrote a great Tamil book called Silappadikaram. Kannagi was the heroine of the book (She has many temples in Kerala). After the Cheras, Kerala split in to several small principalities constantly at war with each other, for more and more land.


    Of course this is a very brief introduction about Kerala. The first temples of Kerala were called Kavu (places of security/protection). Most of them were temples under some forest tree with no buildings and no roof. Similar temples exist all throughout Tamil Nadu. There are a very high percentage of cases; the gods consecrated were Guardian deity of the village (In some cases a hero who defended the village) or Mariamma (the goddess of Pox) and Lord Ganesa. But some how in Kerala most of these Kavus housed the temple of Goddess Parvathi or Kali .Slowly these Kavus became small temples. Side by side large number of Temples mushroomed up for Lord Shiva, and Lord Vishnu and his Avatharas. Unlike Tamil

Nadu, though it was a mountainous country, temples devoted to Lord Subrahmanya

were extremely few. There are large number of temples for Lord Ayyappa who was a

prince of a small princely state called Pandalam and he was considered as an incarnation of Dharma Sastha (The son of Lord Shiva and Vishnu) whose temples were popular in the Thirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu.


      Unlike temples in Tamil Nadu, most of the temples were not granite structures nor were they gigantic .In fact brick and cut laterite stones were used in building these temples. They were very small. The sanctum sanctorum called the “Sree Kovil” was either square or round. Mostly the roofs were of copper sheets or unbaked clay tiles. They were of the shape of pyramid in case of square temples and cone in case of round temples. Some temples have Kalasam at the end of the roof.  A very high majority of temples did not have entrance

gopurams or Vimanams over the deity like Tamil Nadu. Such temples are also found

in the coastal Karnataka districts. Our building experts are of the opinion that these structures closely resemble the Himalayan temples. The Sree kovil was surrounded by a Prakaram (an enclosed space, sometimes with a small corridor). Just outside the Sree Kovil was the Namaskara Mandapam, which was used by the learned Brahmin males for reciting slokas and Vedas. In most of the cases, there was only one outlet from this enclosed space. On the south western corner normally a kitchen was housed, some temples have sub temples in this first Prakaram itself.  Inside the prakaram there are several Bali peedams which represent deities like the Nava Grahas. Out side this Prakaram, there normally is a Dwaja Sthambham (flag pole) and a big Bali peetam (stone for sacrifice), and big temples will have several small sub temples out side the Prakaram. Some temples have a Koothambalam, where religious dramas used to be enacted .The outside walls of the Prakaram are normally fitted with several lamps called Vilakku Madam. The structure with the prakaram and the Sree kovil is called Nalambalam in Kerala. Very few temples have any sculptures. Some temples do have

murals and small sculptures carved in wood.


      The temple idol is normally made either of stone or wood, though in a very few cases idols are made of Panch aloha also. Unlike Tamil Nadu temples, there is no Uthsava Vigrahams which are taken out of the temples during festivals. Instead of that a Thidambu is taken out. Chariots or floats etc are rarely seen in Kerala. In most of the Kerala temples only One God is there inside the sanctum. For example it is either a KrishnaTemple, or Parvathi temple or a Shiva temple.


        Abhishekams (anointment) are performed only to the stone or metal statue.In case of wooden statues, the preferred wood was jack tree wood. Abhishekam is not performed for such statues but the statue is coated with saffron mixed in oil, (Chandattam). This ensures a very long life for the wooden statues. The preferred form of worship in Kerala temples is based on Thanthra. The priests who do worship are either Namboodiris (Kerala Brahmins) OR Embranthiris (Kannada Brahmins belonging to coastal Karnataka. They are also called Pothis). Since the worship is centered round Thanthra, and is very much different from the Agama of Tamil Nadu. A thanthri if he comes out of the sanctum has to take bath if he is to re enter it. Tamil iyers are not recruited as priests in Kerala temples. Ofcourse Tamil Iyers have built their own temples in Agraharams where they worship and live. In such temples Tamil iyers are priests. Uthralikkavu near Wadakkancheri is the only Kerala temple where Tamil Iyer is a Thanthri. 


     Most of the temple were owned by kings or noble families. With the coming of democracy, most of them are under the management of autonomous organizations called Devaswams which are part of the government. Most of these temples had huge landed property but with the enactment of Land Reforms act, most of them became very poor. It is strange but true that only a very, very small percentage of temples are dilapidated or neglected. This is because every temple is visited by the local populance in the morning after bath. The local people consider it their temple and wherever they are, they make it a point to attend the festivals of the temple and contribute to its upkeep. This fact is little strange because the major politicians of Kerala are a party which professedly does not believe

in God. 


    Unlike other states of India, while the worship in the sanctum is done by Namboodiris and Embrandiris, the management is done by a rich land lord assisted by few Hindu castes called Ambalavasis. (People who live in the temples). They are normally strict vegetarians and have different roles to play in the upkeep of a temple. For example, the poduval is in charge of management, The Warrier in charge of looking after the garden of the temple and providing garlands for worship in the temple, the kurukkal in charge of supply of milk to the temple,

the Marar is in charge of playing instruments in the temple, the Poduval and Nambeesan in charge of singing in front of the deity and Chakyar in charge of propagating the ancient stories about the temple. Castes with such delineation of responsibilities in temple affairs are not found outside Kerala.


     Apart from Agama differences based on the thanthra several aspects of the temple activities are very much different in Kerala. In most of the temples Sribali (Seeveli) is the customary taking out of the Lord round the temple. In poor temples this is done on the head of the priest but in rich temples, this is done on the top of the elephant. Chariots are almost not present in Kerala temples except in those managed by Tamil Brahmins. However the God is taken out of the temple on the top of the elephant to the nearest river. There the deity

has the ritual bath (called Arattu in Malayalam). Apart from this, most of the temples have festivals called Poorams and Vela. Both these are festivals held in honour of the deity by the local people. The population is normally divided on the basis of the locality they live and each locality takes a pooram or Vela to the temple. There is virtual competition of each locality to excel other localities. Most of them have seeveli on the top of elephants accompanied by an

instrumental group called Pancha Vadhyam. It is not to be noted that the long pipe like Nadaswaram of Tamil Nadu or the Shenai of the other parts are absent from Kerala. In many temples tin the night there is a huge festival of bursting the crackers is one of the rituals done to please the God. In most of the temples of the Goddess, An oracle called Velichappadu exist. During festivals they get occupied by the Goddess and tell prophecy to people.


     Another strange practice in Kerala temples is that all males are allowed entry in to the temple only if they do not wear a shirt or a vest .Most of them enter bare chested but those who want are allowed to cover the upper part of the body by a towel. Women have to wear sari, Mundu or Pavadai (petticoat). They are not allowed in side the temple with Chudidhar or jeans. Most of the temples do not allow non Hindus  and  photography of the idol in the sanctum is strictly prohibited.


     Apart from the regular Hindu Gods there are very strange temples in Kerala.For example, there is temple for Snakes, Para Brahmam , the individual Pandavas . There is a temple near Kottayam where the Goddess is considered to have periods. In Kodungallor , people believe that the Goddess would only be pleased by singing of very vulgar sexually explicit songs during the Kodungallore Bharani (a major festival).


     Yet another interesting aspect of Kerala temple is the Ashta Mangalya Prasnam. This is done whenever the people want to find out the opinion of the God. For example suppose the temple wants to find out whether a new idol can be consecrated or have one more elephant than the usual or want to find out why there was a calamity in the temple, they call a group of very capable astrologers and Ashta Mangalya Prasnam is carried out. Both the people as well as the Devaswoms strictly follow the recommendation of the astrologers.


     The temples of Kerala are different and I might have missed many important points. You may find the write up about nearly  64 temples in Kerala by me and my friends in my web site


      I once again request all of you to contribute a write up about the temple of your village so that others outside Kerala would know about this diversity of spiritual approach of Hindus of Kerala.


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