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).
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).
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.
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.
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.