Serpent shrine of Kerala

Divine tradition

Pathbreaking: Amma Uma Devi Anantharajanam , the priestess of the temple.

From a distance, the twisting serpentine vines hanging from giant trees can be mistaken for snakes. This is the Mannarasala Sree Nagaraja Temple, the foremost centre of serpent worship, located in the middle of a 16-acre dense lush green grove. Off 3 km from NH 47 near Haripad, in Alappuzha district, this unique temple has two sanctum sanctorums and the rituals associated with the temple are different. The presiding deity is Nagaraja, who has the form of Vishnu and the spirit of Shiva. Sarpayakshi and Nagayakshi are his consorts. The custodian of the shrine is an ancient brahmin family of Mannarasala. The striking departure is that the rites are headed by a priestess, popularly called Amma.

Along with hymns, the temple premises reverberate with pulluvan pattu (music rendered by members of the Pulluva community). The soft music offered on the eastern side of the temple in accompaniment of small veenas is meant to earn the blessings of divine serpents. Pulluva women use deftly covered earthen pot connected with strings to produce enchanting music in the verdant environs.

Serpent worship rooted in the pre-Aryan veneration of nature was widely prevalent in Kerala. The belief was that gods and goddesses existed at the feet of trees in open groves (kaavu). Every traditional Hindu family used to have a sarpa kaavu (sacred grove which is the abode of snakes). As the pressure on land increased, it became difficult to set aside land for kaavu. Many of the images in the temple are those brought by families who were unable to maintain the sacred groves. Snakes are considered powerful divine spirits who are not to be trifled with. Those who incur their wrath face the prospect of mental and physical agony. To appease them, expiation ceremonies have to be performed.

The real history of the ancient shrine is lost in a maze of legends, folklore, time and memory. The temple traces its origins to antiquity. But it is linked to mythical Parasurama. It is believed that the land of Kerala rose from the sea when Parasurama hurled his axe into the sea from Gokarna. The land became fertile only after the creator did penance to propitiate Nagaraja, the serpent king. Literally meaning the place where the soil has cooled down, Mannarasala is the deserted jungle chosen by him to do penance.

Parasurama himself installed at the hallowed spot Nagaraja’s idol and assigned a priest to conduct poojas at the shrine.

Once a childless couple of the family, Vasudeva and Sridevi, tended serpents caught in a forest fire. With great care the couple nursed them back to health. Khandava forest fire mentioned in the Mahabharata is believed to be linked to this episode. Immensely pleased with their sacrifice, Nagaraja appeared before the couple and blessed them. He assumed the form of a baby snake and was born as a child of the couple along with a human child. They grew up as brothers. Later he decided to stay in the family. Before vanishing into nilavara (family cellar), Anantha had granted his mother the right to worship him and suggested certain inviolable rituals to preserve the sanctity of the shrine. Since then the senior-most female member of the family has been assuming the role of chief priest. The serpent king is believed to be still in nilavara doing tapas for the welfare of his dependents. Only Amma is allowed to enter nilavara. Members of the household reverentially refer to him as appooppan and muthassan (grandfather). Appooppan kaavu, a dense grove near the temple, is his favourite haunt.

Poojas are conducted only by the family members. Thevaram chamber is a small room to the south-west of the sanctum sanctorum of Nagaraja where Amma offers worship to Nagaraja. Among the offerings at the shrine, the most famous one is Uruli kamazhthal, the ritual of keeping upside down a shallow bell metal vessel. Naga Devathas bless the couples who do the offering with devotion. The ritual is famed as a boon to childless couples. Another popular offering is Noorum paalum (rice powder and turmeric powder mixed in cow’s milk). The offering can be anything according to a devotee’s capacity. The annual Ayilyam festival in September-October draws huge crowds. A procession of serpent deities is taken to the priests’ family. Sivaratri too is celebrated with gusto.

The fascinating legends surrounding the hoary past and experiences of devotees add to the mystique of this shrine. During World War II, when the state was reeling under famine, the Mannarasala family became the target of a dehoarding drive. The local tahsildar seized all the grains stored there, including what was meant for the naivedya.

In a bid to unearth more grains, he entered the nilavara of the family, defying the advice against it. Soon, he lost his eyesight and his family was ruined.

Interactions with senior family members reveal how they scrupulously follow the age-old traditions at the shrine. Patriarch of the family, M V Subrahmanian Namboothiri, the president of the family trust, explains that important decisions concerning the temple are taken by consensus. Astrologers too are consulted.

On the choice of the priestess, the octogenarian says, “Only women married into the family become eligible for priesthood.” Once a person is chosen as Amma, she has to lead an ascetic life and do penance. Only after one year of learning process, can she conduct poojas. In case Amma falls sick, no pooja is conducted during that period. The trust has been striving to extend all possible facilities for the multitude of devotees. Now the trust manages an upper primary school. Sanskrit and ayurveda schools which ran earlier have been closed down due to poor patronage.

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