Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Travel: Guruvayoor, Kerala

Visiting Guruvayoor

Riding on the highway to Guruvayoor, 30 km west of Thrissur, signboard after signboard reminds me just how far away I am from the Lord — strictly in terms of physical distance.

As I belong to a large clan that has its roots in this temple town, it is with some amount of ownership that I write about the fourth most visited shrine in India after Badrinath, Puri and Tirupati.

 

For the Malayali Hindu, this is the holiest-of-holies, the abode of Lord Guruvayoorappan; the Vatican, Harmandar Sahib and Mecca rolled into one.

 

For me this is a homecoming after a decade  away. Comfortingly, nothing essential has changed.

 

Holy of holies

The temple  stands, solid as a rock; the town trundles to its own beat; and  my great-aunts are still stout and devout — indeed, God is in His heaven and all is well. In this fast-changing world, it is wonderful to return to something that waits just as it is, patiently, for you.

 

Architecturally, this is a stunning temple. Guruvayoor has two entrances —  the kizhekke nada or eastern entrance and the patinjare nada, the western  entrance. The walls of the nalambalam, the quadrangular building that surrounds  the sanctum sanctorum, house niches for an array of chuttuvilakku (small oil lamps)  that glow brilliantly when lit in the evenings.

 

The walls of the sreekovil, the sanctum  sanctorum, are decorated with murals chronicling the life of the Lord and the roof is  covered with gold.

 

The idol of Guruvayoorappan is carved out of pathalanjana sila  (black bismuth), and decorated with jewels and golden ornaments.

 

Everything here  calls for fascinated scrutiny: the 7-m pillar of lamps (deepasthambam); the huge black pillars; the red-tiled koothambalam (where the Koothu folk dance is performed  on festival days); the shrines of minor deities like Ganapati and Lord Ayyappa; the  large and elaborately worked bell metal vilakku (lamps); and the huge copper vessels  where payasam (rice pudding) is prepared daily.

 

Healing powers

Guruvayoor temple is renowned for its healing powers. Several offerings are made to the deity, from the simple archana (worship) to the expensive and elaborate udayastamana puja or thulabharam where a devotee is weighed and an offering  in kind (bananas, sugar, jaggery, coconuts or even silver for the very rich) of the  same weight is made to the Lord.

 

Elaborate pujas take place all through the day and there is always a long queue leading to the innards of the temple. Elders and the physically challenged, though, are allowed access through a special door.

 

 

Three times a day, elephants are dressed for the seeveli ceremony where they carry the idol around the inner compound on their caparisoned backs. I stop to watch a young pachyderm perform the ritual.

Near the entrance to the sanctum sanctorum is a huge urli (vessel made of bell metal) filled with bright red manjadikuru seeds seen on roadside hedges all over Kerala.

As Lord Krishna was a naughty child in his infancy, devotees pray for the Lord’s favour in controlling their wayward children or curing them of skin ailments by taking a handful of the seeds and ploughing them back into the urli three times, accompanied by money. Today, there are three children scrabbling in the urli with glee.

 

Inner precincts 

Meanwhile in the inner precincts, two men perform the shayanapradikshanam, circumambulating the sanctum sanctorum by rolling on the ground — it could be an act of atonement, the fulfilment of a vow or a gesture of thanksgiving.

Just outside the entrance to the sanctum sanctorum, sunlight filters through to the mandap (canopy).

I catch a fleeting glimpse of the dwajasthambam, the 33-m golden flagpost made of a single piece of teakwood and covered by bell metal plated with gold.

 

As I enter the precincts of the temple, bells chime, loudspeakers relay the tale of the Lord told simply and succinctly in Malayalam, and just about every gold-edged-mundu clad person I pass on the road is chanting under their breath.

The sun glints on the emerald rudratheertham (temple pond) where worshippers  take a holy dip, their lips moving in prayer, totally oblivious to anything around them.

Something about the bustling atmosphere, the little tea shops lining the pathway to the temple entrance, the air of purpose that permeates the place, finds deep resonance within me. I catch the eye of a young girl clad in a pavadai (long skirt) and we exchange smiles.

The deity at the temple, which dates back to the 16th century, is a representation of Mahavishnu with four arms though devotees worship him as Lord Krishna. As the story goes, when Krishna left this world, his city Dwarka was submerged in the ocean. He entrusted his disciple Udhava with an idol and asked him to meet Brihaspathi, the guru of gods. With the help of Vayu (the god of air), Brihaspathi found a sanctified place recommended by Lord Shiva. There, they installed the deity and Shiva named the site Guruvayoor.

After installing the idol, Lord Shiva moved to the nearby Mamiyoor temple from where, according to mythology, he keeps a vigilant eye on both the temple and its devotees.

Wedding Central

Guruvayoor is a very popular place for Malayalis to get married. In peak season — November to December — a remarkable 100 marriages are conducted per day.

The whole streamlined process, where families queue patiently for their 20 to 30 minute turn in the mandap, is astounding for non-Malayalis to witness. It’s not uncommon to see members of wedding parties briefly peel away from the queue to check out the stalls on the periphery where luridly coloured slabs of halva, pictures of Guruvayoorappan and gold-edged sari and mundusets jostle for space.

Despite Guruvayoor’s phenomenal popularity, in recent years the temple management  has come in for criticism owing to its stringent regulations.

Only Hindus are permitted inside — this rule came in for flak when famed Malayali singer Jesudas, who has sung many paeans to Guruvayoorappan, was not allowed to enter the temple. There’s also a strict dress code — male devotees have to wear a dhoti and leave their torso bare while female devotees, until recently, had to wear a sari; now a salwar-kameez is allowed. Shirts, vests, footwear, video cameras, cell phones, radios, children still in the incontinent stage are all banned.

However, still cameras are permitted in the outer periphery of the temple, where the thulabharam is performed.

After taking some pictures here, I head to Sri Krishna Inn, where I gorge on a wholesome vegetarian thali for lunch. Then, I head home for an afternoon nap, before bathing and heading back to the temple for the evening puja. My agenda for the next day includes an early darshan of Lord Shiva at the Mamiyoor temple, 2 km away.

 

 

There’s more to Guruvayoor than puja and darshan though. From the Mammiyoor temple, I head to the Punathoorkota Elephant Sanctuary, 3 km away from the Guruvayoor temple. This visit to arguably the largest elephant sanctuary in the world is the highlight of my trip. Aeons ago, the land belonged to my family. Whenever any of us visit, we light a lamp at the Bhagvathi shrine inside the grounds. I take a walk around the 11-acre compound that is home to 63 elephants.

I meet Nandini, tethered to a solid stump, Unnikuttan who is eating heartily, and Mahadevan, being scrubbed down with coconut husk. The elephant handlers are talking animatedly to their charges —it almost seems as if the elephants understand every word being said!

 

I wind down my day with a visit to Palayur Church, 3 km away. Believed to have been founded by St Thomas the Apostle, the church is about two millennia old; an austere building with a silvered statue of St Thomas on the roof and indigenous touches like stone lamps and the uniquely Indian practice of removing your footwear before entering.

The thaliyurkulam, a pond at the rear of the church, is the spot where St Thomas is said to have come upon locals offering water to their deities. As the water fell back into the pond, the saint averred that their gods weren’t accepting their offering.

He then made an offering of water to his god, which disappeared in the air. All the locals are said to have immediately accepted the faith.

 

On my last day, I decide to visit Chavakad beach, 10 km away from Guruvayoor. I traverse what is known in these parts as ‘mini Dubai’, marked by cement monstrosities that serve as dwellings and an air of wealth that stands out sharply in a state known for its simplicity. The little strip of beach is a welcome haven without any shacks or stalls.

I climb atop the Chetwai lighthouse, 30 m high with 145 steps, and enjoy a view of the gleaming sea in front and emerald coconut plantations to the rear.

If you’re in a self-indulgent frame of mind, you can round off your trip with a visit to Rajah Island, a swank Ayurvedic spa just an hour’s drive from Chavakad on the Ernakulam NH17, 30 km from Guruvayoor. Visitors are taken to the island by boat. On offer are Ayurvedic doctors, masseurs, charming cottages, houseboats in the Kashmiri and Kerala style, swimming pool, fishing points, and delicious food that strictly follows Ayurvedic dietary guidelines.

I spent three days there once and returned home energised and lighter — both my weight and my wallet.

 

FACT FILE

WHEN TO GO

The weather is good from August to March. The temple is crowded all year round but wintertime is particularly bad, while mid-May to mid-June is relatively leaner. The best time for Ayurveda therapy, though, is June to September.

GETTING THERE

By air: The nearest airport is Nedumbassery Airport at Kochi (87 km).

By rail: The nearest railhead is Thrissur Junction (30 km).

MAJOR ATTRACTIONS

Guruvayoor temple: Opens at 3 am, closes between 12.30 pm and 4.30 pm, and reopens at 4.30 pm to close at 9.15 pm.

Mamiyoor temple: Open from 6 am to 11.30 am in the mornings and from 4.30 pm to 7 pm in the evenings.

Punathoorkota Elephant Sanctuary: Open from 10 am to 5 pm. There is an entry fee of Rs 10 and a camera fee of Rs 25.

Chetwai Lighthouse, Chavakad beach: Open from 10 am to 1 pm, 3 pm to 5 pm. There is an entry fee of Rs 5.

Rajah Island: Ayurvedic treatment available from three to 28 days; rates range from Rs 5,000 to Rs 47,000. For more details, contact Rajah Healthy Acres, Perumanoor, Palakkad. Tel: 0466-2256305/405. Visitwww.ayurvedichospital.com

WHERE TO STAY

This bustling temple town has plenty of hotels for visitors and worshippers offering spotlessly clean rooms, running hot water, 24-hour room service and excellent local food (rice, rasam, sambhar, vegetables). These include:

Hotel Elite; Tariff: Rs 500-1,600; Tel: 0487-2556216, 2555218

Hotel Sopanam Heritage; Tariff: Rs 700-1,850; Tel: 0487-2555244, 2555336;

www.sopanamguruvayoor.com

Sri Krishna Inn; Tariff: Rs 1,200-1,600; Tel: 0487-2550777; www.krishnainn.com

For more information, contact the District Tourism Promotion Council, Palace Road, Chembakavvu, Thrissur; Tel: 0487-23208000; www.keralatourism.com

 

Featured in Harmony Magazine February 2008

Links to other Palghat pieces:

 

Travel: Tipu`s Fort, Palakkad

Travel: Nelliyampathy, Kerala

Feature: Palakkad`s Ayurvedic Spas

Travel: A journey home

Feature: My Own Time Capsule

Feature: The tea times of childhood

 

 

 

Chavakad beachGuruvayoorGuruvayoorappanKeralaKrishna templeMammiyoor templePalayur ChurchPunathoorkota Elephant SanctuaryRajah Islandtemple

Sheila Kumar • February 1, 2008


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