Mannarshala - Kerala Temple of (Refuge for snakes)

Kerala has many esoteric secrets of which many of them are hidden in the annals of its temples. One of the strangest of the temples to be found in Kerala is known as Mannarshala, which is a refuge for snakes of every type and description. It’s hoary past intrudes into the 21st century but it continues to retain the mystic magic of another age. It still clings to its ancient customs, which are as old as life itself. These traditions are centred round the belief in the power of serpents – their ability to protect as well as to destroy.

Hinduism is a unique way of life. What it feared or could not understand, it enfolded into its capacious bosom and revered and loved so that it became tame and domesticated. It was the power of love that could transform a wild creature into a tame one. The more you fear a thing, the more power it has to harm you. This fact was a well-known aspect of Hindu thought.

Snakes are things which all human beings have dreaded and shunned yet the ancient civilizations always gave respect to them. They were said to possess the power to curse you if not in this life then in another. Their curse would follow you life after life, until you atoned for it by some means or other. All skin diseases as well as leprosy as said to be due to the curse of the snakes (sarpa dosha). Many other misfortunes are also accounted for by their curse. Therefore all over India it is considered most inauspicious to kill snakes. It is only the moderns who kill what they fear! The Hindus knew that death was not the end of the story of life. By killing a snake they might be able to save this life but it would result in untold suffering in another life. Thus we find that many of the old houses of Kerala had a little copse exclusively reserved for the use of snakes. They lived there in comfort and the family used to worship them and give them milk to drink and they left the family alone and never bothered any of the members. With the breakdown of the ancient joint family system and the compulsion to move into concrete flats instead of houses surrounded by land, these habitats for the snakes became a big problem. Unless they were housed properly the family was sure to incur their curse. Luckily in Kerala there are three big temples totally dedicated to snake worship. Most families transferred their snake families to these temples and thus got rid of their burdens. In ancient days snakes were not considered a burden but were a part of the family just like the cows and goats and birds,  but now the word “family” has narrowed down to mean only a father, mother and their human children, and in this there is certainly no place for a snake or for any other creature for that matter!
The king of snakes is known as Nagaraja and the temple of Mannarshala is dedicated to him. It has a unique history even in a place like Kerala, where fact and fiction, myth and miracle mingle together. The town of Haripad lies twenty miles north of Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala. The Nagaraja temple of Mannarshala is three kilometres to the north of Haripad. The history of this temple is a fascinating blend of fact, legends and events that have been handed down through the generations. In fact it is said to have existed at the very start of this present epoch known as Kali Yuga. 

Parashurama was the 6th incarnation of Lord Vishnu and he is closely connected with the formation as well as the history of the land known as Kerala. He is said to have propitiated Varuna, the god of the sea who allowed him to carve out a land for himself out of the seabed. Parashurama threw his axe far out to the sea and the land mass known as Kerala rose up. Unfortunately the ground was totally saline and unfit for cultivation. He then did tapasya to Lord Shiva who told him that the land could be made habitable only by spreading the poison of snakes all over it. For this he would have to worship Nagaraja, the king of snakes.

Undaunted by this, Parashurama chose a fitting spot for his tapasya and proceeded to worship Nagaraja who eventually appeared to him in all his splendour. He spread his deadly venom all over the land until it was completely desalinated and Kerala emerged as an emerald paradise, rich in natural vegetation and resources. Parashurama now begged Nagaraja to take up his permanent abode in this beautiful spot, to which he agreed. Parashurama then struck the earth with his axe so that water spouted out of it. He bathed himself in this water and took the same for the installation of the temple of Nagaraja. This is the spot where the present temple of Nagaraja is located in Mannarshala and even today this water has to be used in all the rituals. The idol of Nagaraja, which was consecrated here by Parashurama, is supposed to contain the spiritual essence of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Its original name was Mandarashala due to the fact that the region was covered with Mandara bushes containing white flowers. In the course of time this was shortened to Mannarshala.

As in many other famous temples of Kerala, Parashurama himself performed the first worship of the deity and then taught the method to the priests appointed by him. They were warned of the dire consequences, which would accrue to them if they went against his mandates so it is that this is one of the few temples, which has escaped the invasive modern culture and sticks faithfully to its ancient principles of worship. He also advised every home in Kerala to reserve the southeast or southwest corner of their compound for snakes who were the true guardians of this land.

Many years passed until a time came when the family of priests was threatened with extinction since they had no male heir to carry on the sacred trust of the worship of Nagaraja. In fact just one couple was left of the erstwhile large family. They didn’t know what to do and prayed to their family deity to help them. Just then another disaster struck. A raging forest fire consumed all the surroundings but miraculously, left the temple untouched. All the snakes in the vicinity rushed to take shelter at the feet of Nagaraja. Many of them were badly burnt. The couple were most distressed to see their snake children in such a plight and did their best to treat the victims with mantras and herbs. They also made little abodes for them and told them to stay there in peace.

Nagaraja was so pleased by their compassion for his family that he appeared before the lady known as Sri Devi and told her that he would be born as her son in two forms – one in his own form as a five-hooded snake and another as a human child. To the amazement of the couple this vision came to pass within a year. In the Malayalam month of Kumbhom (February\march), on the day when the star known as Ayilyam was in ascendancy, Sri Devi gave birth to two boys. The elder was a snake and the younger a human. The star Ayilyam is supposed to be a very auspicious one for snakes. The children grew up together and were initiated into all the Vedic rites and rituals pertaining to the worship of Nagaraja. After the birth of the children, the couple gave up conjugal life and became recluses, totally engaging themselves in puja and prayer.
The day on which the star Ayilyam falls in the month of Kanni, (September\October) is very important in all snake temples and many special pujas are done on that day. One year due to some unforeseen circumstance the husband was unable to attend to the puja on that day. In fact he was half way through the puja on the previous day when he was told about the occurrence, because of which he was unable to complete even that puja. This is supposed to be a serious crime and one which is sure to incur the wrath of the deity concerned which in this case happened to be Nagaraja himself. There was no male available to continue the puja on that day. The next day, was the all-important festival of snakes that was mandatory for them to perform.  Sri Devi was sunk in despair when she heard this. However she decided to take matters into her own hands. She purified herself in the waters of the holy tank and went into the sanctum sanctorum where she sat in deep meditation. At that time she heard Nagaraja telling her to continue with the puja herself. She was to complete that day’s puja as well as perform the next day’s all-important puja. From that day onwards she was to remain within the temple precincts and forget about her duties in the house and concentrate only on the worship in the temple.

A new chapter was opened in the annals of the temple. In fact it was a new chapter in the annals of Kerala temple history. The eldest female member of the family was accepted as the high priestess. Normally the work of conducting pujas was one which was totally in the hands of males and this was a most unorthodox and unprecedented procedure but such was the devotion and spiritual quality of the female members of this family that they soon rose to a highly respected and revered position in society. To this day the main pujas of this temple are conducted by the eldest female member of the family who is tutored from a young age to accept the mantle of responsibility, which would fall on her. They are to be completely celibate and have to follow a rigid discipline of prayer and meditation.

To get back to our original story. When the boys attained manhood, the human boy got married. The snake son was known as Ananta and due to his presence, the family prospered and devotees started pouring in. The family was the guardian of the sacred lore pertaining to the cure of snake bits, rats bites, skin diseases and so on. Even now they practise this and it is a closely guarded secret of the family, which has been passed down from generation to generation.

The snake Ananta used to roam about freely in the compound. He was perfectly harmless but the pilgrims were not to know this and his form was enough to terrify most of them.  On one Shivaratri day (festival of Shiva), there was a big crowd and Ananta went around scaring people in a playful way, until at last his mother got a bit annoyed and told him, “Why don’t you stop startling people and go and sit in a corner in the cellar?” Hardly were the words out of her mouth when she realised her mistake and apologised for her words. But by then he had slithered into the cellar and only his voice could be heard.

“In future if you wish to see me, you can come to the cellar but see to it that no one except my family members are allowed entry”. With these words the door banged shut. The mother was heart broken. Next day she took his favourite food and went in but she could not see him anywhere. She broke down and wept. Ananta’s voice was heard once again. “Mother leave the food and go away but you may return on the 5th day. If there are any leftovers it can be distributed among the family members. Once a year on this day (the day after Shivaratri) you may offer food to me. The rest of the time I shall remain here in samadhi. On this day the members of the family may come here to get my blessings. The rest of the time no one should disturb me.”.

This custom is followed to this day and the family members assemble in the cellar on this day to get the blessings of Ananta who is endearingly referred to as Mutthassan or grandfather.

Mannarshala is an exceptional place since the senior most female member of the family is the final authority on all matters pertaining to the puja at this temple. She is known as Valliamma (big mother), and is installed before the cremation of the previous Valliamma. There are many unique facets about the mode of worship in this temple. The Valliamma has to be a celibate and she is not allowed to go out of the temple compound for long. If she is forced to go she has to return before nightfall. She is not allowed to communicate directly with non-family members.  Her time is to be spent exclusively in puja, prayer and meditation.

The Valliamma who became a living legend was known as Savitri Antharjanam. . She stepped into the honourable position of Valliamma at the tender age of fourteen and for the next seventy-five years she lived the life of a yogi. Many are the miracles and cures, which are attributed to her.

As one passes the ornamental gate into the compound it appears as if we have entered another age where nature and man lived in an amicable relationship with each other. There is a mysterious aura about the place, which is covered with medicinal trees, creepers and plants all favoured by snakes. We know that we have entered another world that belongs to another species. Rows upon rows of snake figures carved on granite sit on the walls and line the grounds. There are also many snake pits made of sand in which numerous snakes live happily. These include snake families that have been brought here from other houses in Kerala, which have no facilities to keep the snakes in their own abodes. It is a common occurrence to see snakes slithering away into the bushes. We are brought to a realisation that this is their ground and we are the trespassers. They are totally unafraid and in turn they generate a feeling of awe and respect rather than fear and disgust.

The little temple of Nagaraja is supposed to be six thousand years old and is the one, which had been consecrated by Parashurama. Nagaraja’s idol made of granite stands surrounded by serpents on all sides. His two hands depict the symbols of protection and boon giving. He is believed to be a combination of the potency of Ananta ( the snake on which Vishnu lies) and Vasuki (the snake round Shiva’s neck). Part of the worship offered to him is supposed to reach Ananta who resides in the cellar.

Sarpayakshi is his consort and has a separate shrine of her own. Her idol is made of a quartz like, transparent white stone. These two idols are hoary in antiquity and have defied the growth of centuries.
A group of granite idols representing serpent divinities are to be seen in front of the temple. They are mainly offerings by devotees. The cellar is another of the most sanctified areas of this temple. An idol of her serpent son, Ananta has been installed on the porch of the cellar and here the Valliamma offers food to her beloved son on the day after Shivaratri. Close by is a clump of trees called Appupan Kavu, the grandfather’s grove, which is supposed to be his favourite haunt. Some fierce looking yellow snakes, supposed to be his attendants, inhabit this place. They move about freely here as well as in the house without fearing or harming anyone. The family can know what situation is in store for them by observing their stance. If they sway gently with upraised hood, they are happy and everything is well. If the hood is put down misfortune is indicated. Many of the family members mention seeing a golden snake that entered the room of the senior family member and lay there with lowered head, refusing to budge. Within a short time, Savitri Antharjanam, the great Valliamma, breathed her last.

Traditional music sung by the caste known as Pulluvas accompanied by their simple hand-made stringed instruments, is highly beloved by snakes. Many of these people are given sanctuary by the family and live in the compound, as their presence is compulsory for all, important festivals. They are supposed to be the descendents of the original family who had sung for Nagaraja’s delectation.

Once in forty-one years, the festival known as “Sarpa Pattu”, (Serpent Song) is conducted here. This is one of the fabled festivals connected with snake worship in Kerala. Records reveal that it has been performed in this temple, one hundred and seventy-four times with only one break. This is a very elaborate ritual and includes the performance of tantric rites based on highly scientific principles. The expenditure is astronomical. Many traditional art forms of music and dance are encouraged during this festival.

Stories of cures of snakebites and other miracles are often to be heard in this temple. It also conducts pujas for the removal of “sarpa dosha” or the curse of the snakes. Barren women make an offering of a round pot known as an “uruli” to Ananta and are blessed with a child. Mannarshala is really a place of mystery where the supernatural holds hands with the natural, where time seems to have stood still and nature and man live in harmony and peace.

Hari Aum Tat Sat.

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