Posts Tagged ‘sacred groves in Kerala’

The Sacred Grove in Tozhuvanur: Metamorphosis of Siddha into Durga

// March 26th, 2013 // 1 Comment » // Culture and Ecology

Tozhuvan figure at the base of the stone lamp post before the Tozhuvanur temple, Kavumpuram, Walanchery.  It is similar to the Siddha idol of Kayikara in posture and in attire.

Tozhuvan figure at the base of the stone lamp post before the Tozhuvanur temple, Kavumpuram,Valanchery. It is similar to the Siddha idol of Kayikara in posture and in attire.  Siddha is a saintly figure in Tantra traditions.

Tozhuvanur means the land of the Tozhuvan or the one who is in the Pranama posture.  There are place names in south Kerala after the mysterious Tozhuvan as Tozhuvankod and Tozhuvankonam.  In the Malapuram district in Malabar there is a place called Tozhuvaanur a few miles north of Valanchery.

This ancient sacred grove is situated near Kavumpuram on NH 47 between Valanchery and Kanjipura.  Kavumpuram literally means the periphery of the sacred shrine as Kutipuram is the periphery of the Kuti or Kottam or Vattam (a Jain or Buddhist shrine).

The western gateway of Tozhuvanur Durga temple.  The ancient trees and creepers are still growing in the Kavu or ancient sacred grove in the memory of a nun.

The western gateway of Tozhuvanur Durga temple. The ancient trees and creepers are still growing in the Kavu or the ancient sacred grove in the memory of a nun.

Kavu is a sacred grove in Kerala named after the Kanya Kavu or the Buddhist nun as Buddhist nuns planted and nurtured the culture of Sangharamas or sacred gardens and groves in Kerala through their literacy, healthcare and conservationist missionary work as the ecological and ethical base of their mission or the Sangha.  It was Sangha Mitra the daughter of Asoka and a leading nun who carried the layered cutting of the Boddhi tree from Gaya to Sri Lanka and planted and nurtured it in Anuradhapura.

It is clear from the place name Kavumpuram that the place housed a big Kavu or sacred shrine grove from the ancient times onwards.  Now a Durga temple or Bhagavati temple is situated amidst this ancient grove with numerous old world plants.  This is also counted among the most sacred group of 108 Durga shrines in Kerala.

The southern entrance to the temple and the ancient stone lamp post in the foreground.  The shrine faces south unusually. 25 march 2013.

The southern entrance to the temple and the ancient stone lamp post in the foreground. The shrine faces south unusually. 25 march 2013.

In the stone lamp post or Kalvilaku before the shrine that faces south, there is a bass relief of the Tozhuvan or a human figure in Pranama at its base.  This is very similar to the Tozhuvan or Siddha idol of Kayikara south of Varkala that is associated with the Vajrayana school of Buddhism in Kerala.  It is clear that this place got the name from this Siddha figure in Pranama and this ancient shrine grove was a Tantric Buddhist shrine at some moment in the past, most probably up to the early middle ages.

It is also interesting to note that Tozhuvankod temple near Trivandrum belongs to an Avarna Kalari household.  They were the Kalari Gurukals (martial arts masters) of the infamous Ettuveetars (Ettuveetil Pillais) who were ruthlessly annihilated by Marthanda Varma in the 18th century in Travancore.  Tozhuvankod literally means the cornering land strip of the Tozhuvan.  It is the family temple of an Ezhava Kalari household.  It is also vital to note that there was no caste or religious restriction in the access to the temple from ancient times onwards.  The lack of caste untouchability and inclusion of all and the practice of health care and self defense prove the Buddhist connection and antiquity.  I am thankful to my friends Srilal and Stanley to point out this after reading my early draft.

Tozhuvanur Durga temple, Kavumpuram, Valanchery.  The huge banyan is seen in the back ground in the north eastern corner.  It is a museum of rare plants and a memorial of local history.

Tozhuvanur Durga temple, Kavumpuram, Valanchery. The huge banyan is seen in the back ground in the north eastern corner. It is a little sanctuary of rare plants and a cultural memorial of local history.

There is a banyan on the north eastern corner of the grove above the current temple and a Pipal towards the south beneath.  The idol is said to be self incarnate or Swayam Bhu.  As in Kadampuzha or Chamravattam there is a pit in its place.  It is evident that the original installation or the early Buddhist idol was removed and a subsidiary escorting goddess was substituted later in the middle ages .  There is also a legend about Vilwamangalam Swamiyar checking the power and grace of this grove.  So it is clear that the shrine was originally Sramana and was later appropriated by Brahmanic Hinduism by removing the main idol and raising the sub deity into prominence.

Siddha idol at Kayikara in Pranama posture also called Tozhuvan.  This traditional deity is locally called Chithan a vernacular version of the Siddha.  See the resemblance in the posture, broad shoulders and the loincloth.

Siddha idol at Kayikara in Pranama posture, also called Tozhuvan. This traditional deity is locally called Chithan a vernacular version of the Siddha. See the resemblance in the posture, broad shoulders and the loincloth. The image of the Siddha was central to Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism in Kerala

In Kadampuzha it was Sankara who did the re-installation according to legend.  In Chamravattam it is said to be a Sambara Maharshi and in Tozhuvanur it could be Vilwamangalam.  This kind of metamorphosis or disguise or forced formal transformations have occurred in plenty of ancient sacred places in Kerala including the Andalur Kavu in Talassery, Kallil temple near Perumbavur and Paruvassery Pallyara near Vadakanchery.  The sacred grove at Tozhuvanur still has rare and medicinal plants and shrubs and needs protection from the local people and the temple goers.  This ancient treasure house of natural and cultural history can tell us a lot about our society and its ancient foundations.

Music from the Sacred Grove: An Ancient Fairy in Panachikadu

// December 28th, 2011 // No Comments » // Culture and Ecology

Sacred grove around the shrine

Just a few decades ago it was a dense and impenetrable forest on the north western slopes of a hillock overlooking the paddy fields on the southern banks of river Kodur, south of Kottayam.  This sacred grove enshrined the stone icon of an ancient goddess related to the serpent clan.  She is also worshiped as the spirit of the wood and the virgin spring that comes out of its thickets.  She is revered as Panachi the Naga Yakshi and her protected grove is thus called Panachikadu.  She is now worshiped as Saraswati in a pond covered with wild creepers. But her antiquity is traced back to the pre-Hindu or Sramana cultural phase of south India by historians and scholars (Valath).

Saraswati Nada

Buddhism in South India was open and inclusive towards the local and indigenous traditions like nature worship and tribal sacred practices.  The greater philosophy of conservation and bio-ethics manifested in Buddhist praxis in a variety of ways in the ancient Tamil country as early as BC 3rdcentury (Sugathan).  Conserving protected and sacred groves for endemic flora and fauna was one of the most popular and persistent practices in South Indian Buddhism that lasts even today in Kerala in the form of numerous Kavu and Kadu that sheltered the birds, butterflies, amphibians, reptiles, insects and medicinal shrubs for thousands of years. Serpent and tree worship was also integral to this practice that included the Naga, Negritoid and Dravidian traditions (Gopalakrishnan).

Yakshi Nada, the seat of the fairy above Saraswati Nada

The sacred grove dedicated to the serpent deities in Vaikom temple is called Panachikal, meaning the vicinity of Panachi.  The sacred grove near Niranam is called Panayannar Kavu, meaning the shrine of Panayan.  Panayan means the serpent king and Panachi represents the serpent queen (Valath 313).  In this analogy, Panachikadu means the sacred forest of Panachi the serpent queen or Sarpa Yakshi.  According to experts in local history like V V K Valath, Panchikadu near Chingavanam in Kottayam was originally a Sramana (Buddhist or Jain) sacred grove were this Naga deity was worshiped and after the Hindu-Brahmanic cultural invasion that happened in the eighth or ninth century the old shrine was converted into a Saraswati temple.

Pond of the goddess below the spring

Place names like Chingavanam and Channanikadu nearby also point towards the Chamana or Sramana cultural connection.  Channanikadu could be an adjacent shrine of a sister deity.  It is also important to note that Pakil Dharmasastha temple is closeby.   Anyway the Yakshi or Naga goddess still has a stone abode underneath the intertwined wild vines and creepers here. It is also important that the word Yakshi/Yakshan has a strong Jain linkage in the post Sramana period.

The place is also marked for a spring or Thirtham and a stone or Sila; that are key indicators or Mudras related to Jain or Buddhist shrines.  Vishnu is enshrined in the nearby big temple now. Places having the Pali word Pally in name, like Mariapally, Puthupally, Vazhapally, Mallappally, Pallypurathu Kavu etc. surround the hillocks of Panachikadu that rises from the backwaters and paddy field formations of Kodurar towards the south east of Kottayam town. 

It is also interesting to observe that Saraswati is worshiped as a sub deity of letters and arts by Jains along with Ganesh representing the primal connection with the animal kingdom in the form of an auspicious elephant god.  The Jain temples of Sravanabelgola, Halebidu, Venur and Moodbidri are typical examples of this mode of plural and eclectic worship and spirituality.

Unfortunately the sacred grove and its wild endemic vegetation are shrinking day by day under the pressure of development in the forms of concrete roads and construction all around the shrine.  The forest in the place name may remain in the very name in a few years if the culturally and ecologically aware people ignore this ancient sacred grove that has been an unlimited source of eco-spirituality, oxygen, drinking water and life sustaining knowledge practices for centuries.  I could see rare medicinal plants, insects, butterflies and birds inside this holy wood as I walked around the grove on the morning of Monday, 26 December 2011.  The lonesome long call of an invisible Iora from the darker green depth of the grove was particularly sweet and moving.

Stone representing the goddess covered in wild creepers, enshrined within the spring pond

Reference

Gopalakrishnan, P K.  Keralathinte Samskarika Charithram.  Trivandrum: Kerala Bhasha Institute, 2008.

Sugathan, K.  Buddhamathavum Jati Vyavasthithiyum.  Calicut: Progress, 2011.

Valath,  V V K.  Keralthile Sthalanama Charithrangal: Ernakulam Jilla.  Thrissur, Kerala Sahitya Akademi, 1998.