Music from the Sacred Grove: An Ancient Fairy in Panachikadu

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


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.

Dharmadam: A Place of Dharma or Ethics

Dharmadam: An anchored island in the sea of cultural history

Dharmadam is a tiny island off the coast of Malabr near Thalassery.  It floats poignantly like a green offshoot or an anchored ship a few hundred meters away from the mainland.   It is situated just south of Muzhupilangad beach, the only drive in beach in Kerala.  The beach sand is darker and binding with scattered laterite formations.  People walk to the island during low tide.  It is part of a laterite projection into the Arabian sea between the two arms of the river Anjarakandy.  The northern arm of the river is also called Dharmadam river by the local population.

Geologically special: Unique laterite formations and dark and rigid beach sand

I visited this historic and enigmatic islet on Sunday, 13 Feb. 2011 with Jaime Chithra at noon.  The laterite rock formations carved out by the waves over thousands of years appear like relics of an ancient civilization.  This reminiscence of natural history points towards the greater legacies of cultural history associated with this unique and strategic geo-political location and geographic formation .

The river mouth of Anjarakandi puzha/Dharmadam puzha

The very name says it all.  Dharmadam means the place of Dharma or ethics in the Buddhist sense.  It was the space and abode of the ethical philosophy and praxis of Buddhism or the extremely pacified religion of Jainism during the Sramana cultural phase of Kerala from BC fourth century to the eighth or tenth century AD when these ethical cultures were devastated by invading Brahmanism that converted dynasties to Hinduism and created its notorious sexual colonies among Sudras that ensured their lasting slavery.  Historians have identified it as Srimoola Vaasam the southern seat of the Buddha in  Indian peninsula.  But places like Thrikkunnapuzha, Thottappally and Thirumullavaram in the south coast are also tentative locations.

Laterite relics resonant with history

Fortunately the linguistic evidences are still surviving in and around Dharmadam and Malabar which abound in place names connected to ‘Pally’ or non Hindu worshiping places.  The Brahmanic Hindu conquest and its hegemonic erasures could not obliterate the linguistic markers and a few place names related to Pali language, the language used by Buddhist missionaries in the south.  It is also important to remember that places like Dharmasthala are still existing a few hundred miles north east in the ancient Tulunadu along with other Jain reminiscences in Moodbidre, Karkala and Sravanabelgola.  The Pali and Prakrit linguistic traces are still surviving in Tulunadu and Kolathunadu as they are in the southern regions of present Kerala.

According to Dr Santhosh Manichery, a researcher and teacher from Govt. Brennen College, Thalassery Dharmadam had been a place of immense importance in relation to the Buddhist past of Malabar.  The place names of Pallykkunnu, Kattampally, Kunjipally, Mullappally etc. in and around Kannur also substantiate this argument with other evidences drawn from linguistic archaeology and local oral narratives of the subaltern. According to M P Kumaran a local historian the place name Dharmadam is a shortened form of Dharma Pathanam a synonym for pepper in Amarakosa as the place was the center of pepper trade from the Sangham ages onwards.  Kumaran master also locates Dharmadam as the eroded port of Tyndis or Tundis as recorded in Roman and western writings on Malabar (Kumaran 1998: 24).

It is also notable that the place was so special for Kolathiris or Nannans of Ezhimala whose original ancestry was Buddhist and non Brahmanic/Hindu as clearly established by Mooshika Vamsa of Athulan written in the 11th century.  It is important to mark here that Sramana traditions sustained well into the 12th century as this vital text proves.  At the wake of the 17th century The Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the English competed to gain control over this strategic point on the Malabar coast.  It was also with Arakal Beevi of Kannur (the only Muslim dynasty of Kerala) and Mysore for a short span in the 18th century.  Soon after the Srirangapatanam treaty of 1792 it again fell into the hands of the British.

Whatever be its colonial legacies it is one of the last surviving sacred spaces historically linked to Buddhism/Jainism in Malabar.  With the increasing Sanskritization and Hinduization of local shrines and Bahujan temples the invaluable traditions and traces of Sramana culture are getting obliterated everyday.  Even the chants of Theyyams have become Sanskritic, Hindu hegemonic and elitist today.  Neo Brahmanism and Savarna elite cultural hegemony colonize the minds through every discourse and mass media in society.

History repeats itself: Saffron flag coming up at Dharmadam

Amidst all these erasures and silences and evasions in our cultural history Dharmadam adorns a significant  and self articulating space and voice that point towards the ethical and egalitarian past of Kerala and the shared historical legacies of South India.  It must be protected for posterity as an invaluable heritage site of immense significances in relation to natural and cultural history by the cultural wings and environmental departments of the Government and international bodies like the UNESCO as it is done in the Cochin-Muziris heritage project.  It was Sahodaran Ayyappan the seminal voice of Kerala renaissance who reminded all Keralites almost a century ago by radically rereading his own teacher in the following re-articulation:

No caste, no religion, no god

But Dharma, Dharma and Dharma …

Yes, Dharmadam is there to welcome the ethically inclined in the past, present and future.


For further Reading:

Kumaran, M P.  Kolathupazhama.  Thrissur: Kerala Sahitya Akademi, 1998.