Mridanga Shaileshwari TempleThe history of Kerala goes back to thousands of years to Parasurama, the 6th Avatara of Vishnu. His father was the great sage Jamadagni and his mother was Renuka Devi who was a most virtuous and chaste woman. At that time the ruler of the land was Kartavirarjuna who was a lecherous and base ruler. All he did was to regale himself with wine and women. Once when she went to get Ganga water for her husband’s yajna (fire ceremony) Renuka noticed the king reveling in the river along with many damsels. Never having seen anything like this she was enraptured by the scene and completely forgot her errand. When she returned with the water, her husband questioned her and she truthfully related the whole story. He decreed that death was the penalty for a woman who fell from her chastity even though she had only enjoyed the sexual orgy vicariously and not participated in it. He ordered his son Parasurama to behead her. Parasurama begged his mother to forgive him for the dreadful deed he was going to commit since he could not disobey his father’s command. After using his fatal axe on her, he fell at his father’s feet and begged for the boon of his mother’s life. Jamadagni agreed and brought her to life but he declared that his son had committed the sin of having killed a Brahmin and he should do penance. He told him to go to the sea shore and reclaim some land and donate it to 108 Brahmins families. Only then would he be free of this terrible sin.
Parasurama did tapas to the Lord of the Sea and begged him to give him some land. The sea god was pleased with his penance and told him that he could have as much land as he could get by throwing his axe into the sea. Parasurama threw his axe far out to the sea.The land that came up, stretched from Gokarna up to Kanyakumari and came to be known as Kerala. He invited noble Brahmins from all over India to come and settle there and thus he rid himself of the hateful crime of having killed his mother. The Brahmins now requested him to give them temples in which they could do devotional services (puja). Thus it is said that Parasurama created 108 Durga temples and 108 Shiva temples in the land of Kerala and told them to take up their abodes in the sixty-four villages he had made for them. He also set up sixty-four places in which the famous Kerala martial art known as Kalari Payattu could be taught. This art is actually the forerunner of the Japanese martial art known as Karate. The word is a distortion of the word “Kalari”.
The famous temple of Mridanga Shaileshwari is one of the temples consecrated by Parashurama. It is situated on the hill called Muzhakunnu. Parasurama prayed to the Goddess Durga to come and reside in this temple. She is supposed to have fallen from Heaven in the shape of a huge Mridangam. The mridangam is a very important percussion instrument used in South Indian classical music and is a must in all musical performances. It fell with a resounding thud on the hill which thereafter got the name “Muzhakunnu” which means to reverberate in Malayalam, the language of Kerala. Another meaning will be given later on in this article. Parasurama consecrated the Mridangam on this hill. Hence she was known as Mridanga Shaileshwari or the one who has took the form of a Mridanga on a hill.
Centuries passed, and the temple was totally neglected during the time of the Muslims and devastated when Tipu Sultan started destroying all Hindu temples. The forest crept over it and no one knew of the existence of this remarkable place. The next chapter of the story takes place with the advent of the great sage called “Sri Mutthappan” who arrived at this spot and discovered the divine Mridangam which had been consecrated by Parasurama and was lying in the ruined temple. He recognized its divinity immediately and without any loss of time he pushed it with his foot so that it rolled to the bottom of the hill. The place where the Mridangam came to rest was known as the Great Mridangam and the slope over which it rolled is known as the Small Mridangam. Many years passed and the forest crept round it. Once again a herdsman came across this strange musical instrument and told the king about it. The king verified the truth of this and immediately called the court astrologer and asked him to clarify this mysterious event. The astrologer told him that this was the form taken by the divine mother and he should build a temple for her since the one on the hill had been destroyed and this drum should be kept on the N.Eastern side of the temple. Since the drum had rolled all the way down the hill, the hill came to be known as Mizhavu kunu (drum hill) which during the course of time became distorted into “Muzhakunnu”.(Mridangam is known as “mizhavu” in Malayalam). Even today this mridangam can be seen on the North eastern side of the sanctum sanctorum.
The next historical incident took place in the time of the Raja of Kottyam. He is the creator of the famous dance form of Kerala known as Kathakali. Kathakali dances have stories from the Puranas which were put into verse by the Raja of Kottayam. He composed songs for six of the most famous dance dramas in Kathakali which are sung to this day. He was a great devotee of Mridanga Shaileswari and before the start of any Kathakali dance he insisted on the chanting of one sloka (verse) which he had composed in praise of his favorite goddess.
He was the one who designed the method of dressing and make up and everything connected with this unique dance form called Kathakali. However the story goes that try as he might he could not mentally conceive of how the female form should be dressed. He prayed to his favorite deity and to his delight, she herself rose out of the tank in front of the temple, clad in the full Kathakali raiment and ornaments and head style of the female form. To this day the precedent set by the goddess is followed. Ever since this incident, no one has been allowed to bathe in the temple tank since it had been sanctified by her presence. The water is considered to be holy and everyone has to go to the tank and wash their feet before proceeding to the temple.
The next personage of import that looms through the veil of time is the famous king known as Pazhassi Raja who was also born in the Kottayam royal house. Mridanga Sahileshwari was his family deity. All the great kings of that hierarchy always paid homage to her before setting out for war. They normally offered some sort of animal sacrifice. This was done in the cave temple situated to the west of the main shrine. “Por” means warfare and thus she was also called “Porkaali” or the Kaali of war. Unfortunately this cave is no more to be seen. Only the remnants and a small platform is there on which the sacrifices were supposed to have been made. Pazhasshi Raja is one of the few kings of Kerala who made a stand against the British. Unfortunately he was betrayed and killed.
Having heard of her greatness I was literally propelled to go and get her darshan (divine vision). Of course we went first to the temple tank and washed our feet. I could well imagine her beauteous form rising from the middle of the lake in full Kathakali regalia. She was like a robust young girl in her teens. At least that was how she appeared to me. After this awe inspiring spectacle I was surprised to find as we climbed up the steps to the temple, that the temple itself was extremely small. It was the typical Kerala style temple with no frills or frescoes or carvings like the temples of Tamil Nadu. Kerala temples look like houses with rows of oil lamps round the walls. Normally there is a small paved path going round the temple to circumambulate (go round) the temple. The outer door was closed and a small queue was waiting outside for the doors to open for the first puja. By her grace we had gone there on the first Friday of the Malayalam month which is supposed to be a most auspicious day for the goddess. It was a pleasant surprise to see how orderly the crowd was. I followed the queue and peered eagerly into the poorly lit sanctum and was delighted to see the exquisite image of the goddess made in panchaloham which is an alloy composed of five metals – gold, silver, copper, iron and lead. Many idols are made of this alloy which is cast in a special way with specific details about the proportion of each metal. This special mixture is supposed to have a lot of spiritual benefits.
In most temples the guards who stand in front of the deity are noted for their rudeness and uncouth behaviour. They shove people around and shout at them to give way to those coming behind. It was a pleasant change to see the old man who stood in this temple. He was so sweet and polite that I really felt like hugging him. I felt sure the Devi loved him for his charming ways. After doing the round of the inner temple we went to the outer where there is a shrine to Ayyappa. After that I noticed the path leading to the original cave where the sacrifices were made. The path was filled with sharp stones guaranteed to take away the sins of all those who trod on them. However I managed to scramble down and go to the place but was sorry to see that the cave did not exist any more but I did see the granite platform on which sacrifices used to be made by the kings before going for war.
After we finished praying I was delighted to see that all the devotees were being given breakfast in a make shift hall. Some beaten rice flakes and herbal coffee was served to all.
The earlier idol had been replaced by a “panchaloha” (5 metals including gold, silver, copper, iron and lead.) idol which is valued at 2 crores. There are no security guards in this temple and three attempts were made by thieves to steal this exquisite figure. All of these attempts were total failures. In the first theft a search was made the next morning and the idol was discovered on the road with a note “this idol belongs to the temple”. Another attempt ended in the same fate. The thieves could only carry the idol for a distance of about 300 meters after which they dumped it. In the third attempt the thieves carried it as far as the town of Kalpetta. They abandoned it in a hotel room and gave themselves up at the nearest police station and gave instructions to the police where the idol could be found! The police officer in charge was a Christian called Alexander Jacob. He was deeply puzzled by the fact that the thieves did not carry away the idol they had stolen with such great effort and strain. At last he managed to catch the thieves and interrogate them about their repeated failure. All the three sets of thieves gave the same story. Soon after they took the idol from the temple they seemed to lose all sense of direction and started to feel very dizzy. There had a sense of bewilderment and confusion. If despite this they continued to run, they found that they had an irresistible urge to go to the toilet. This feeling was so uncontrollable that they were forced to abandon the idol and run to the nearest bush to relieve themselves, in the absence of a toilet! Intrigued by this the officer asked the priest to explain this phenomenon. The priest of course said that it was the original power of the goddess which had been enhanced by the tantric mantras and pujas which had been done to her at the time of installation. These pujas normally lasted for a week. Of course this news which appeared in the papers drew large crowds to the temple. Already many donations are pouring in to give the temple a face lift. I was really happy to have seen it in the original condition since I always dislike old temples to be modernised beyond recognition. I think there should be a law against this
Mridanga Shaileswari is renowned for showering her blessings on all devotees and granting all their wishes. May she grant he wishes of all those who read this article even though they may not be able to go to her remote abode and have a darshan.
Mataji coming up the steps from the tank