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.

Ancient Pallys on the Banks of River Meenachil

Vazhikadavu up on the Vagaman mountains: river Meenachil flows down from this western ghats above MSL 1000 m

The river originates from the lush green grass hills of Vagaman well above 1000 m at the margin of Kottayam and Idukki districts high up in the western ghats.  After embracing various tributaries while flowing westward and nourishing the soils of Theekoy, Iratupetta, Pala and Kidangoor it reaches the fertile planes of Kottayam and splits into various distributaries to merge in to the great Vembanad lake near Kumarakam before meeting the Arabian sea.

Unique grass hills and shola in Vagaman: The origin spring of river Meenachil

The river Meenachil or Meenchilar attracted plenty of early navigators and explorers from far and wide over the ages.  Jews, Muslims, Christians and similar trading groups of Sramanas earlier from BC third century onwards were lured by its inland waterways and market ports abundant with spices. I revisited the sacred bank of Meenachilar near Thazhathangady on Friday 20th May 2011.  Local friend Shajahan helped me to relocate the Pally.

River Meenachil at Thazhathangady, Kottayam. 29 May 2011
Meenachilar at Thazhathangady: Beautiful old houses on the southern bank. early May 2011

Thazhathangady (market situated low) near Kottayam on the banks of Meenachilar retains plenty of Pallys both Christian churches and Islamic mosques today.  It could be well assumed that the region also housed Sramana Pallys and Jewish Pallys (synagogues) in ancient times before the Hindu Brahmanical conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries.  Synagogues have vanished and Buddhist Pallys like the Tali temple were converted to Hindu ones in the fierce conquests of Brahmanism through cheat and disguise.

Juma Masjid Thazhathangady, Kottayam: Founded in the 8th century by Malik Dinar the first Islamic missionary to Kerala/India from West Asia

The Juma Masjid/Jumat Pally or ancient Taj mosque of Thazhathangady is more than 1200 years old and was founded by Malik Ibnu Dinar from West Asia  in the 8th century AD.  This ancient Muslim Pally in Kerala is supposed to be the oldest mosque in India along with Ponnani Juma Msjid, Kodungalloor Cheraman Pally and Kasaragod Malik Dinar Pally at Thalangara.

Northern entrace and facade facing Meenchil river: Thazhathangady Pally is one of the oldest Islamic Pallys in India, more than 1200 years old

It is a marvel in ancient Kerala style of architecture that is a legacy of the Sramana heritage of Kerala having strong connections to Chinese, Japanese, Sri lankan, Tibetan and Nepali architecture.  These ancient surviving structures clearly show Kerala’s historic cultural exchanges with the greater Buddhist Asia and Islamic and Christian West Asia.

Eastern attic casement of Juma Masjid, Thazhathangady, Kottayam

Pally itself is a Pali word and it is Sramana (Buddhist/Jain) in origin.  All the minority religions in India; Jews, Christians, Muslims… in addition to Jains and Buddhists used this Pali Sramana word to refer to their worshiping places even after the annihilation of Buddhism in Kerala around the 10th century by Hindu Brahmanism and its subservient Sudra henchmen.

The ancient granite footbath at the northern entrance in Thzhathangady Pally, Kottayam
The beauty of Thazhathangady landscape, water-scape and culture-scape

These cultural and linguistic shared legacies also show the shared Sramana heritage of all the people in Kerala irrespective of religion and caste.  It is also crucial to remember here that caste is a typical Brahmanical import used to divide and rule the people under the hegemonic Hindu colonialism or Brahmanical internal imperialism.  There is no reference to caste and Varna in the Sangham literature that is Sramana in spirit and philosophy that belongs to the period BC 500 to AD 500 that has produced Tamil epics and classical poetry.

An interior chamber in Thazhathangady Pally, Kottayam

The ancient architects of Kerala have imprinted their mastery and craft in the wooden structure here in Thazhathangady which is imposing and awe inspiring.  The facades, columns and roof structures are amazing and visual treats to the visitors interested in space and form.

Old wooden and roof tiled houses in Thazhathangady on Meenachilar
Pally Kulam or pond in Thazhathangady Pally, Kottayam

The Pally is chiefly done in Teak and other hard wood and old terracotta tiles are used in the roof.  This may be a later addition but the wooden structure and framework belongs to the eighth century itself as per the Pally inscriptions, legends and in looks.  There are gigantic wooden beams and columns on which inscriptions from the holy Qur-an are still visible and readable in calligraphic Arabic alphabets.

Southern gateway of Kottayam Cheriya Pally (1579)
Heritage houses in Thazhathangady on river Meenachil, Kottayam

The ancient pond or Pally Kulam is also intact and well conserved by the community.  The Pally has close architectural semblance with the ones in Ponnani and Kasaragod on the Malabar coast.  The beautiful wooden and roof-tiled houses here in Thazhathangady are also exquisite and deserve to be protected as heritage monuments.

Kottayam Valiya Pally and granite cross (1550)
Wooden roof structure with striking Chinese archetectural influece, Thazhathangady, Kottayam

The 16th century Kottayam Valiya Pally and Cheriya Pally that belongs to Christian churches are also in the proximity.  The government and the cultural wing of the UN must take initiatives to conserve these ancient Pallys and surrounding habitats on the banks of the river Meenachil in central Kerala.  Steps must be take to develop these monuments to a greater cultural circuit like the Muziris Heritage Project in Kodungallur.

Old houses and streets in Thazhathangady, Kottayam