Temples and Traditions of Kerala

Karimpuzha Sri Ramaswami Temple, Palakkad (Source: TemplePurohit

Kerala is renowned for its distinct temple culture that traces back to centuries. The elegant architecture, intricate artwork and the unique, as well as diverse ritual traditions, lend a distinctive character to the temples of Kerala.

A typical day of an average Malayali Hindu starts with lavation and a visit to the nearest temple for darśana. The deities and temples are still intricately interwoven with the fabric of life of ordinary Malayalis despite the influence of Marxism which has had a preponderance in the polity. It is tremendously enriching to get acquainted with the wisdom behind the temples and rituals.


Temples, big or small, are the symbol of īśwara (divinity) inside and outside each being. They are built and established as the abode of devatās (divine beings) with the intention of infusing positivity in the immediate environs, a sanctified premises for the connected community to reenergise and align with their spiritual element. From the early deification of local heroes and spirits to the construction of spectacular architectural edifices that act as the physical identifiers of Indic civilisation, the vast network of Hindu temples vary in form as well as conceptualisation. Temples also served as hubs of art and culture that provided a favourable ground for evolution of art, architecture, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry and various other fields of knowledge.

Hindu temples are not just a space to interact with a devatā who is projected outside oneself. The deity of any temple represents the animate as well as the inanimate on the Earth. The architecture of the mahā kśetras (pilgrimage centres of great significance) of Kerala do not permit collective worship. Excluding family thara (ritual worship area of family deity), and family kalari, the ancient structure of the temples in Kerala consists of garbhagrham (sanctum sanctorum), mukhamandapam (community hall), nalambalam (courtyard surrounding the sanctum), fortification, gateway, etc. One might not see any ancient temples from Kanyakumari to Gokarna (the stretch of land reclaimed by Sage Parasurama) that permits space for more than four or five people to stand before the deity at a time. The Space between the śree kovil and the mukhamandapam is not meant for the devotees to stay longer than just making a darśana.

Typical Kerala Temple Layout (Source: Wikipedia)


‘Parayeduppu’ (Source: Wiki)

Driśyate anena iti darśanam – the opportunity to see the murţi is most important here. Till the 1930s, only those who were affiliated or approved by the ruler and state were allowed to enter the temple. Consequently, the devotees do not have much role in the rituals and practices inside the sanctum. But once in a year, devatās came out of their sanctum to the people of utsavam (festival), parayeduppu (procession of temple oracle), pallivetta (enactment of puranic parable), etc. The community celebrated the joy as festivals. Also, each family/jāti had their kula devatā (family deity) whom they worshipped daily. So, till Colonel Munro attached the temples to the land revenue department, nobody wanted to enter the sanctum of ancient temples where Brahmin archakas (priests) had the ritual rights.


Anantapura Lake Temple (Source: Wiki)

The temple worship system has undergone a lot of changes in the past century.  Our ancestors considered a temple as deśa devatā (deity of a kingdom/country) or grāma devatā (local/community deity). They did not treat the deity as a figure made of stone or wood, but the Lord of the village, region, or country. The deity of a temple was regarded legally a perpetual minor. There was no concept of private property before the British in India. Even the kings used to run the administration as servants of the devatā. Since the devatā is perpetual minor, it is hard to take away the rights of the deity even in the modern secular democracy.

In the time when the society and culture of Bhārat was rooted in knowledge, the erudite installed grāma devatā, with all royal dignity to ensure that taxes were paid to the deity, and with the idea that all land belongs to the devatā. The prevalent belief of society was that stealing the wealth of the devatā is a sin. Until the time the British took over the administration, the land was not regarded strictly as property. It belonged to the bhandāram (temple treasury), which meant, the land was part of the temple treasury and devatā was a perpetual minor. Hindu society did secure a splendid, self-sustaining model of socialism before the Western vitiation.


‘Pallivetta’ at Sabarimala Temple (Source: sabarimala.tdb.org.in)

Every desam (State) had a devatā. The devatā comes out of the abode (temple) for collecting taxes – the ritual parayeduppu (processional rounds of the village to accept a measure of paddy from households on behalf of the deity) from the homes. Once in a year, the devatā comes out for pallivetta (royal hunt) – hunting down the kāma (lust), krōdha (anger), lōbha (avarice), mōha (attachment) in the people’s minds. The ritual is performed to increase the grandeur and energy of the devatā.  The system somewhat continues even today. Most of the temples conduct pallivetta during the annual festival. Parayeduppu provided a smooth collection of taxes without causing displeasure to the people. Since offering paddy to the devatā who visited one’s house was considered as a blessing, everyone gave their share with pleasure. This ruled out the possibility of tax evasion. The laws of the Land were executed on behalf of the devatā. The ruler was just a representative.

When the devatā joins with the desam (country), (s)he is Deśa Lakshmi (prosperity of the land), for the scholars (s)he is Vidyā Devatā (god of learning), for the arts (s)he is Kalā Devatā (god of arts), for the ordinary men (s)he is Anna Devatā (lord of food-grains and bounteous harvest). Devatā acted in multifaceted roles depending on the activities and vocation of connected community the temple was attached to.

Annadānam (offering of food), kalasam (ceremonial worship), āćarya tāpas (the priests’ austerities and penances), and utsavam comprise the various procedures of enhancing the power of the temple. Only a person who can recognise the presence of divinity in all can see the sacredness in stone or wood. Hence murţi pūja is superior.

(Source: Pinterest)

According to the ancient scriptures or agamas, the temple is a body. Hence a temple cannot be constructed as we wish. It has to follow certain rules based on Tantra, Agama and Shilpa Śastra. Kśetra (area of the temple) is our sthūla śarīra (gross body), deity the sūkshma śarīra (subtle body), and its prāña our kāraña śarīra (causal body). The prāña of the deity is same as ours. The structure of a temple from feet to head consists of six ćakras. So each part of the temple such as garbhagriham, dhwajasthambham, etc. possesses its significance in Tantra Śastra.

Regarding the process of worship in its true light, one has to recognise that pūja is done between equals. It is the process of the bhagavān (worshipped) and the bhakta (worshipper) becoming one. The fundamental difference between the worship in a Hindu temple and semitic places of worship is this idea of unity of the murţi (ideal) and the upāsaka (devotee). The archaka defeat the mānava śarīra (that is to say, transcend the corporeal form) using mantra and assume mantra sharīra (energy or vibration conveyed by the specific incantation) according to the mantra ādi devatā (characteristics or representation of the ideal invoked by the incantation) and does the pūja. The pūja will produce desired effects only if due process is observed. Even the flowers used in the temples have medicinal properties. Prasāda (offering blessed by the deity) from the temples is believed to have the power to cure illnesses, and all classes of people served a portion of it for the desired effect. The construction and preservation of the temples was intended for the welfare of humanity.

Coming to the structure of a temple building, depending on the expanse of the temple from the sanctum sanctorum where the deity is established (prāña pratiśthā), there can be up to seven doors. The sanctum sanctorum is surrounded by a nalambalam and then the fortification.  The size of the citadel varies according to the scale and significance of the temple. Defensive fortification surrounded the temples while the palaces of the royals remained unfortified like any of the other houses. The kings and members of the ruling class did not live in fortified precincts. The Travancore Royals had many palaces, but none had massive walls and fortifications. However, Sri Padmanabha Swami temple is encircled by a protective bastion. In Shuchindram, the fort walls are surrounded by deep moats.  Temples served as the repositories or the treasury of the ancient times. Interestingly, no such wealth has been found in the Palace or living quarters of any royalty. The Ruling Class did not maintain any reserve for themselves. Hence, they lost all material wealth once they lost power to the modern democracy.


Theyyam (Source: KeralaTourism)

It is this civilisation that nurtured the culture in which the entire society including the king, the layman, as well as the priest prostrated before a person from the so-called ‘lower caste’ who performed the divine rituals of theyyam (propitiation of the deity with dance) and padayani (ritual dance with masks performed in mother goddess temples), velićappadu (ritual enactment of mythology by oracles accompanied by auguries), etc. They believed the oracle and blindly followed him to manage the calamities that may have affected the land, ruler and the people.  The Brahmins who do the pūja in these temples wearing a single loin cloth, who eat the simpler naivedyam (offering to deity) have been the keepers of the valuable treasure in the temple. They lived in piety without touching the riches. We must learn to recognise this richness of traditions of our civilisation. Not even the members of the royal family of Travancore were fully aware of the enormous amount of the wealth kept in the temple.

‘Padayani’ (Source: TheHindu)

That is why the news about the reserve at Sri Padmanabha Swami temple came as a big surprise for the modern world.

Sri Padmanabha Swami temple beautifully displays the thought that sustains the continuity of Hindu temples. The treasure is testimony to fact that it was the administrative, financial, and spiritual centre that fostered the culture of our ancient civilisation.  Several ancient temples were demolished and looted in Kerala. Most of them were treasure houses. Nobody knows who all got the wealth. The episodes of iconoclasm happened due to various invasions with terrible consequences. It is the protectors of the land who have been ravaged. Lives devoid of mythos and faith end up in chaos. The temples, tantra, mantra, agama, etc. formed the beauty of the mystical devatās’ own country.

Padmanabha Swami Temple (Source: TourismOfIndia)

It wasn’t a lack of materialistic treasure that worried the generations in the days of yore, but ignorance. Our ancestors gave priority to knowledge and learning.

Murţi at Mridanga Śaileshwari Temple

Sri Padmanabha Swamy temple remained untouched since it was protected by the caretakers until recently. If the authorities of the modern state were genuinely concerned about the temples and the riches, they would have pursued an exploration into the details of the lost property of the other temples. When we talk about the temple loot and idol theft, we must not forget the recent controversy about the gold caparison of Sree Poornathrayeesha temple. The deity of the Mridangashaileshwari temple, in Muzhakkunnu near Kannur, has survived several attempts of theft according to a police officer. The murţi is said to cause delusions for a thief. Such is the power of the murţi in the temple. Temple, the temple deity and the temple property carry the energy charged by the transference of force in nature. The rituals and traditions were devised for the prosperity of humanity embodying the positive energy.  The traditional society has been well aware of the ‘kśetrarahasyam‘, the wisdom conveyed in the legends associated with the temples. Thus the ruler and the priests could protect the wealth.

Hindu temples are not places of collective worship as against the concept of worship in semitic religions that

Rameshwaram Temple, Keladi (Source: Pinterest)

emphasise the idea of a public place of prayer where people congregate to perform ritualistic prayers to their god. Under the influence of the ideas of their organised methods and out of ignorance, modern Hindus tried to mould their religion too into a universalist monotheistic set of dogmas. It results in the erection of cash counters for payment of tickets and libations in temples and regarding the temple as a prayer hall. The education system based on western ideas and the utter disregard of the learnings in the original sources can be blamed for this state of affairs. The taking over of the temples by the British colonials and the secular government post-independence has changed the nature of the custodians of the temples. In the Post-independence period, the secular teaching designed by the Marx’s ‘historical materialism’ fed a contrived narrative to disconnect us from our roots. Subsequently, controversies surrounding the temples and its wealth has been pervading the public psyche leaving aside the real meaning of a kśetra. Lack of knowledge about the wisdom behind the founding principles of temples caused more damage than the devastation by barbaric invaders.

Cover Picture: Temple Procession at Vadakkunnathan Temple (Source: TheNattikaBeach.com)

Author: Anjali George

Published: July 27, 2018


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‘Kshetra Rahasyavum Devatakalum’, by Swamy Nirmalanandagiri Maharaj