The Sri Kurumba Bhagavati also known as Kodungallur Devi temple is one of the most powerful Shakti peethas in Kerala. The archives of the temple prove that it is also one of the most ancient temples in Kerala. The history of the town of Kodungalloor belongs to the hazy past. The story starts 3,000 years ago when the Babylonians, Assyrians and Egyptians came to the Malabar Coast in search of spices and especially pepper. Later the Arabs and Phoenicians also started to come. The town was called Muziris by the Phoenicians and was a very important city on the ancient trade route. In fact it was the earliest port of its kind. It is even mentioned in the Ramayana where it is called Murachipattanam and is one of the places mentioned by the monkey hoards which were sent by Sugriva to search for Sita.


Temple from outside

The temple stands in middle of an area that is spread across ten acres and is surrounded by banyan and peepul trees. The sanctum sanctorum of the temple is facing north. There is a chamber to the west of the main shrine which houses the saptamatrikas or the seven divine mothers, (Brahmi, Maaheswari, Vaishnavi, Indrani,Kaumari, Varahi and Nrisimhi.) which also faces the north. It is very dark inside since it is lit by just one small oil lamp, but as you go round the temple it is worthwhile to stop and peer inside and you will have the vision of these huge figures carved in stone. Inside the chamber there is also an idol of Ganesha and one of Veerabhadra which is a fierce form of Shiva.

Kshetrapalan (guardian of the gate)

The huge form of the Badrakali (Kali the fierce one) which confronts you inside the sanctum has eight hands holding various things. This figure is supposed to be carved out of the wood of a jack fruit tree. But since she is always decorated we can’t make out the details. One hand is holding the head of the demon king Daruka, another a sword, next an anklet, which is probably the one which Kovalan was supposed to have stolen, and another, a bell and so on. After Parasurama (6th incarnation of Vishnu) created the land of Kerala, he was harassed by the demon king Daruka. He prayed to Lord Shiva to help him. Shiva agreed and opened his third eye. This figure of Kodungallur Devi is supposed to have been born from his third eye in order to kill Daruka.

As you stand in front of this huge figure which dominates the sanctum you will notice that the pujari (priest) is sitting facing the east and not facing her. He is doing puja to the three Sree Chakras or yantras of the Devi which had been installed by Adi Shankaracharya. The Sree Chakra is the most powerful yantra (mystic design) of the divine mother. All the power in the temple emanates from these three chakras. Actually there is a door directly opposite to these chakras which is opened only on special occasions or when the Raja of Kodungallor comes for worship in the early morning. We cannot see these yantras which are covered with a gold topping but if we stand slightly to the right of the sanctum we can see the gold lid covering the yantras.


Stone face near which the cocks are killed

During the time of the Kulashekara dynasty, Kodungallur was the capital of Kerala. The temple history actually dates from the Chera period and is intimately connected with the famous Tamil classic called Silappadikaram. Kannaki was the heroine of this book which was a true story which took place during the reign of the famous Chera king, Cheran Chenguttuvan. Kannaki’s husband Kovalan was falsely implicated in the theft of the queen’s anklets and put to death. In her grief and anguish Kannaki plucked out her left breast and invoking her divine strength, she reduced the city of Madurai to ashes. She was considered to be a manifestation of Durga or Kaali. The temple of Kodungallur is said to have been built to commemorate her martyrdom, by the Chera King, on the site of an ancient Shiva temple which still exists on the eastern side of the sanctum. It has no Nandi in front as is usual in all Shiva temples, but you will notice that the platform which is normally kept in front of the main deity is kept in front of the Shiva temple. The instructions for the puja here is said to have been given directly  by the goddess herself and puja is done first to Shiva and then to her. The pujas here are not conducted by Namboodiris (Brahmins of Kerala) but by Konkan priests from Mangalore. At different times of the day, she is worshipped as Maha Saraswati, Maha Lakshmi and as Durga who had incarnated as Kannaki. The temple opens at 3 am and closes at 9 pm.

Shrine to the west of the temple in which devotees offer turmeric powder

An aura of mystery surrounds this temple. The sprawling grounds are filled with strange figures and spooky trees. The most mysterious place here is the secret chamber to the east of the sanctum. The wall of this chamber is made of granite and is right behind the three yantras. The ceiling of the chamber is also covered with granite slabs. No one knows when it was made and it has never been opened to date. Of course it is suspected that it contains many precious articles which had been donated to the goddess by the ancient kings of Kerala. There is also a saying that there is a secret passage which leads to the Shiva temple of Thiruvanchikulam which was the original sea port in which there is a shrine to Kovalan apart from the main temple.

Kodungalloor was the first temple in Kerala to allow the entry of all castes into the temple long before the temple entry bill was passed by the government. In olden days when small pox used to claim countless lives, Kodungalloor Bhagavati was the only recourse for hundreds of people. Even today on the left side of the temple, on the outer courtyard you will find a small idol known as “vasuri mala.” “Vasuri” in Malayalam means small pox and the idol here wears a garland made of small pox pustules. A woman normally stands there and invites us to put a pinch of rice bran over the idol. This is meant to ward off the dreaded disease. On the right side of the of the outer courtyard you will another small shrine again dedicated to the goddess who wards off all types of skin diseases including chicken pox, measles, herpes and of course small pox. This place is literally covered with a thick layer of turmeric powder which is a great disinfectant and which was used in olden days to ward off all infectious diseases. Even today a number of women hang around the place selling packets of turmeric powder which we can buy and offer to the goddess inside.

As you enter the temple precincts on the eastern side there is a shrine which houses a huge “Kshetra Palan” or guardian of the gate. He is a very unusual figure to be seen in any temple since his figure is massive. Normally the figures of “Kshetrapalans” are much smaller.  So this is another strange aspect of this temple. On the right side I also noticed a huge face which I could not place. Since both these were on the outside I was able to photograph them. Of course no one is allowed to photograph anything inside the temple.

The temple is famous for a strange festival known as Bharani which is held in the Kerala month of Meenam (March/April). Bharani is the second asterism of the Sanskrit lunar month and the festival takes place on that day. This festival is mainly observed by the lower castes and has a lot of quaint ceremonies connected with it. A large congregation of human oracles known as Velichapads, of both sexes come to participate in this interesting festival. The velichapad is a common feature of all Devi temples but normally they are all male. This temple is unique in as much as a lot of these velichapads who come to participate in this ritual are females. Normally they get into states of ecstasy and are able to foretell the future of the devotees who approach them. That is why they are called oracles.

 Female velichapad holding scimitar

The festival officially opens with the ritual 'Kozhikkallu moodal' on the Thiruvonam day of the month of Meenam. (Thiruvonam, like Bharani is another asterism found in all months.) The ritual involves sacrificing a cock on a red silk cloth placed near two stones that stand covered with sand outside the path on which devotees go round the temple. The members of the Kodungallur Bhagavathy family have the right to perform this ritual. The first cock is offered by the Thacholi clan, the ancestors of the popular hero Thacholi Othenan from Vadakara in North Kerala. The ceremony symbolizes the beginning of the fight between the goddess and the demon Daruka. The Goddess, Kali and her dependants are supposed to revel in blood. Hence the sacrifice of the cocks form an important part of this festival.

Oracles (velichapads) going round temple

After this, flags belonging to the Venad family are hoisted on a peepul tree in the north- eastern corner of the temple by Edamukku Moopan (the chieftain of this clan) thus establishing the rights of his family over the temple.

Pilgrims flock to Kodungallur from all parts of Kerala bringing with them offerings of rice, salt, dried red chillies, betel leaves and nuts, turmeric, pepper and a number of cocks. It is believed that pilgrimages undertaken to the temple on this occasion safeguard the devotees and their friends and relatives from the devastating attacks of cholera and small-pox for the rest of the year.  Most of them make their offerings and return home before the Bharani day when huge crowds start to congregate.

On the first day of Meenam, starting with Ashwathi, (the first asterism of every month) the goddess is supposed to be having her monthly period. This is known as “Kavu Theendal", and is the most important event of the Bharani festival. It is overseen by the King of Kodungallur. A red ceremonial umbrella is unfolded over the king's head. This is the signal to begin the ritual.

Blood streaming from broken head of oracle

On the Bharani day it is said that many Garudas, (the white-throated eagle vehicle of Lord Vishnu) start circling above the secret chamber. In the story of Kannaki, a goldsmith plays a crucial role, since he is the one who actually stole the queen’s anklet and incriminated Kovalan. When the eagles start circling, a goldsmith is made to come and ring a bell. This is the signal for men wearing white dhoties to appear from all round and start to chase the goldsmith around the temple three times. They are followed by the oracles (velichapads). The men beat the ground with sticks and others hurl sticks and stones and even cocks on the temple roof so as to reach the inner courtyard.

Velichapads dancing in ecstasy before the Devi

Imagine the premises of the temple bathed in a sea of red as a flurry of oracles draped in vermilion scurry around the temple brandishing their swords which are shaped like sickles. They also wear huge bronze anklets and their clothes are held up by belts studded with bells, all of which make an incredible sound of crashing and tinkling as they rush around in a trance with long hair flying in wild abandon. The noise made by their anklets and the songs are supposed to purify the environment. The highlight of the affair is when these hordes of women dance in divine ecstasy along with their male counterparts. They go up and down brandishing their scimitars and running their fingers through their long locks, muttering all sorts of imprecations. The devotees who come to watch the event are also inspired to chase after the oracles as they run around the temple. Their cries of “nada- nada” is mixed with songs containing abusive language leveled at the goddess. This is a peculiar part of this festival. These abuses are supposed to be appreciated by her. Perhaps this was a psychological method to bring out all the suppressed and depressed negativity in the minds of the devotees into the open in a way which was socially acceptable. This incredible event called kaavu theendal forms the main part of the annual Bharani festival. In fact the most abusive and abrasive song is supposed to get a prize from the king!

Female velichapad with face covered with turmeric

The offerings by devotees include turmeric powder, kumkum (vermilion powder), pepper etc and of course the cocks. A particular spot inside the temple is set apart for the distribution of Manjal Prasadam (turmeric powder on which divine blessings has been invoked). Some of the devotees anoint themselves with turmeric, others dance and sing lewd songs while some of the oracles go into a frenzy and break open their heads with their swords. The uncontrollable bleeding is stopped by the application of turmeric into the wound. This not only stops the bleeding but closes the wound so well that no trace of it is left. The velichappads and their followers display all their talent until they are totally exhausted and at last they fall before the king for his blessing.

Following the custom which was prevalent in Kerala of cleansing the house after the menstruation period of the women, the temple remains closed to the public for a week. Its doors reopen after the 'purificatory' rituals are conducted to cleanse the shrine of the 'stain' of Kavu Theendal. The purification ceremony is conducted on Kartika day, the next day after the Bharani. The premises of the temple and its vicinity are swept clean and the wells purified. In the evening, the eastern door is opened and the inner precincts are swept clear. This is the only time when Nampoodiri (Kerala Brahmins) priests are allowed to go in and perform the 'punnyaham' or purification ceremony. They also give away Pasu Dhanam or gift of cows as an adjunct of the purification ceremony. The usual daily poojas are resumed from the next day onwards. People flock to attend this puja since you are supposed to get extra merit by doing so. The pilgrims take home the 'prasada' consisting of sandal paste mixed with turmeric and a black paint of burnt rice known as 'chantu'. From the beginning of the killing of the cocks to the end when the vellichapads dance around, red, the colour of blood dominates the scene. The shedding of blood denotes the death of the ego.

The next important festival here in known as Thalappoli. It is celebrated in the month of Makaram (January/February) and corresponds with the festival of Pongol in Tamil Nadu. The four day festival begins on Makara Sankranti when the sun enters the astrological configuration known as “Makara”. This is a far more dignified festival with music and elephant processions carrying the figure of the goddess. The finale is a procession by women dressed in traditional Kerala costume each carrying a plate containing rice on which is placed a half coconut which is made into a lamp with oil and a lighted wick. This is called Talappoli. A caparisoned elephant walks in the middle of this procession. The procession starts at a spot away from the temple and slowly winds its way to the temple where a grand reception is arranged. May the blessings of the divine mother fall on all who listen to this description of her divine and unpredictable lilas (play).

                                                               Amme Narayana!