Thrissur Sri Vadakkunnathan Temple

This work is a compilation of relevant information found in multiple independent works on both history and myth. Most of these stories have multiple versions, that contradict one another. The Cowherd has tried its best to bring forth in simple English, the stories together with the relevant contradictions, so that readers are free to assimilate information in their own ways. Multiple versions and commentaries of Shankara Vijayam, Brahmanda Purana, Kerala Mahatmya, Mahabharata and many more have been relied upon for producing this article.

History of Kerala

There are two narratives, slightly different from each other, in the Itihasa-Purāṇas, about the origin of Kerala.

The version from Brahmāṇḍa Purāṇa, Chapters 98 and 99

For performing the funeral ceremony of the sons of Sagara whose ashes were lying in Pātāla, Bhagīratha performed penance and brought the heavenly river Gaṅgā to the earth. The river fell in Northern India and flowed in torrents to the sea and the surrounding regions were submerged in water. Among the places submerged, there was the important holy place and Bath of Gokarṇa also, lying on the west coast of India. Those hermits who lived in the vicinity of the temple at Gokarṇa, escaped from the flood and went to Mahendragiri and informed Paraśurāma of the calamity of the flood. Paraśurāma went with them to the sea-shore. However, Varuṇa did not appear. The angry Paraśurāma stood in deep meditation for a little while. The weapons came to his hands. Varuṇa was filled with fear and he instantly appeared before Paraśurāma, who asked him to release the land swallowed by the sea. Varuṇa agreed. Paraśurāma sent his bow and arrow back to the sky. Then he took a winnowing basket (Śūrpa) and threw it at the sea. The sea retreated from the place up to the spot where the winnowing basket fell, and the portion of land including Gokarṇa which had been swallowed by sea was recovered. This land is called Kerala, which is known by the name ‘Śūrpāraka’ also.

Mahābhārata Droṇa Parva, Chapter 70

Paraśurāma went round the world eighteen times and killed all the Kṣatriya Kings. After that he performed the sacrifice of Aśvamedha. In the sacrifice he gave all the lands as alms to Brahmins, which was received by Kaśyapa. After that he requested Paraśurāma to vacate the land. Accordingly Paraśurāma created new land by shooting an arrow at the sea, for his own use. At the words of Kaśyapa, he made the sea retreat by shooting an arrow, thereby creating dry land. This land was Kerala.

According to some other accounts, Varuna asked Parashurama to hurl his axe into the sea. Parashurama now wanted to consecrate this new land. So, he went to Mount Kailasa to his guru, Lord Shiva and requested him to take abode in Kerala and thereby bless the region. Shri Shiva accompanied by his wife Parvati, his sons Ganesha and Subrahmanya and his parashadas went along with Parashurama, to oblige his disciple. Shiva stopped at a certain spot, which is now Thrissur, for his seat. Later he and his party disappeared and Parashurama saw a bright and radiant Shiva lingam (non-anthropomorphic icon of Shiva) at the foot of a huge banyan tree. This place where Shiva manifested his presence as a lingam, which is known in Sanskrit as the Sri Moola Sthana.

As compared with older Purānas, this legend of Paraśurāma brings in many new elements. The sources of these new extra episodes are obscure. But the legend of Paraśurāma as amplified in the Brahmanda  Purana becomes the source of newer versions in later Purānic works like the Sahyādri Khania, Datta Purāna, Kerala-Māhātmya and the likes.

Birth of Adi Shankaracharya

The Madhava-Vidyaranya Shankara Digvijayam says that, God Shiva, the self-created and merciful Being, the destroyer of Kama, manifested himself in His holy form, usually called Siva linga, on a hillock called as Vrishachala (or Vrishabhachala, identified with Sri Vadakkunnathan temple) situated near the course of Purna river (which is identified with modern Periyar river in Kerala), that currently flows through Kaladi, Sri Sankaracharya’s birthplace, which is about thirty miles away from Trichur. In this text the diversion of the river via Kaladi is a miracle attributed to Sri Sankaracharya, which is described elsewhere in this chapter. Coming to know of the divinity and greatness of that Sivalingam through a dream, it’s said that a king called Rajasekhara built a fine temple to house the Lingam and made arrangements for its worship.

Tying the two stories together, we would assume that king Rajashekhara would have constructed a temple around the linga that appeared in the Parashurama episode narrated above.

Cheraman Perumal Nayanar, one of the two Nayanars from Kerala, has been popularly identified with Rajasekhara Varman (820-844 A.D.), the second of the kings who ruled over the Kulasekhara empire sang Tirukkailaya Jnana Ula in praise of Vadakkunnathan of Trichur or Southern Kailasa and it became the model for a new style of poetic composition in Tamil.

This However he does not reconcile with the dates of Adi Shankara. Adi Shankara was born in BC 509 whereas king Rajasekhara Varman lived between 820 and 844 AD. So, this story doesn’t sit well. We could assume that king Rajashekara perhaps constructed a temple around a pre existing Lingam or he renovated the shrine, if at all one exsited. One thing we’re sure of is that the Lingam’s manifestation dates back several millennia from the time of Rajashekhara Varman.

Adi Shankaracharya Samadhi

The Keraliya Shankaravijayama says that Shankara, in his last days, traveled to Kerala and sat in meditation on the form of Vishnu in front of the Vadakkunnathan temple and attained videha mukti. He also established four Mutts at Thrissur, famously known as Edayil Madhom, Naduvil Madhom, Thekke Madhom and Vadakke Madhom. On the other hand, some versions of Shankaravijayam attribute Shankara’s samadhi to Kanchi and Kedarnath respectively.

Swami Gnanananda Giri, is reported to have once commented that, Adi Shankara teleported himself from Kedarnath to Kaladi, to serve his ailing mother who was about to die. The place he left his body in Kedarnath, is mistook to be his samadhi site whereas in reality, Adi Shankara’s actual samadhi site is Kanchi. We’re unsure whether Thrissur witnessed a similar mystic incident which led way to the local lore of Shankara attaining his samadhi here. Realized sages like Swami Gnanananda Giri alone can have the last word on such disputed matters. Adi Shankara’s birth date is also widely debated, but Kanchi Mahaperiyava is said to have ordered a carbon-dating experiment via one of his disciples who was a geologist, which conclusively proved that the river Purna changed its course around BC 500, thus effectively corroborating the scriptures on Shankara’s birth date.

Sri Vadakkunnathan Temple Structure

The temple is located on a small hill in the center of Thrissur city and has a large stone wall covering an area of several acres. No other temple in Kerala has such a large wall. Inside the fort, the four towers face four cardinal directions. Of these, the south and north towers are not open to the public. The public enters through the east or west or through the tower. The inner temple is separated from the outer temple by a wide circular granite wall around the wide corridor called Chuttambalam.

The main deity of the temple is Lord Shiva who is worshiped in the form of a lingam, which is covered in a mountain of ghee that has accumulated over years of abhishekam. A devotee looking at the shrine can now see only 16 feet high (4.9 m) ghee mountain adorned with thirteen gold crescents with three serpentines on top. According to traditional belief, it represents the snow-capped mountain Kailasa, the abode of Lord Shiva. This is the only temple where Shiva-lingam is not seen by devotees. This ghee is distributed as prasadam to devotees and has medicinal properties.

In the outer temple, Goshala Krishna, Nandikeswara, Parasurama, Simhodara, Ayyappa, Vettekaran (Shiva as Kiraathamurthy), and Adi Shankara shrines are present. There are shrines to Lord Subrahmanya and Lord Ganesha as well outside the main temple. The main sanctuary has Shiva facing west and Parvati facing east, with a circular structure representing their joint form Ardhanareeswara.

When you enter through the west tower, the first thing you see is a rock. It is believed that this rock, also known as Kalishila, is getting bigger every day and if it rises to the height of a tower (Gopuram), then the world will end. After that you can see the Koothambalam on the north side. It is the largest and most symptomatic Koothampalam in Kerala today. Koothu and Koodiyattam are held here during the holidays. The sculptures in Koothambalam are very beautifully constructed. The copper-plated theater is 23.5 meters long and 17.5 meters wide. Famous Koodiyattam experts from Kerala have performed Koothu and Koodiyattam here many times.

The size of the quadrilateral-shrine (Naalambalam) is also a very interesting feature. It is one of the largest in Kerala. The outer walls of Naalambalam are mounted with lamps. Once inside, you will see three large shrines. Among them, Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati face each other in the north shrine, Lord Sankaranarayana in the middle shrine and Lord Rama in the south shrine. All the three shrines are adorned with exquisite murals and wood carvings. But many of them are not in good condition due to lack of effective maintenance and conservation. The largest shrine belongs to Lord Shiva. There are prayer halls in front of the three shrines. Thidappally, the temple kitchen, is located southeast of the shrine of Lord Shiva.

There is a narrow gap through which one enters the compond inside Naalambalam. In the passage, is a huge crystal idol of Nandi. There are two murals on either side of the Nandi idol. One is Lord Shiva in the form of Nruttanatha and other that of Lord Shiva lying on the snake god Vasuki. Lord Shiva lying on the serpent king Vasuki is a marvelous mural found nowhere else in the world. Although there are many images of Lord Vishnu in the pose of Anantashayana, the image of Lord Shiva in the form of Vasukisahyana is found nowhere else. Nataraja is the dancing form of Lord Shiva. Hindus see Lord Shiva as a great dancer. The universe itself is considered to be the dance floor of Lord Shiva. In this extraordinary mural which depicts Lord Shiva with 20 hands, the Lord is dancing while stepping on an epileptic yaksha. The whole universe is depicted as a sphere. Special poojas and lighting of lamps are conducted at both the places.

There is a large pit on the northeast side, in the outer compound. The legend goes that, during the time of Mahabharata, the Pandavas appealed to their Guru Dronacharya to provide water to quench the thirst of both Pandavas and Kauravas who were tired while conducting weapons training. Vilkuzhi (arrow-pit) is a theertham (waterbody) built by Arjuna with an arrow on the instructions of Dronacharya. There will always be water here. The wonder is that it does not dry out even in summer. It is customary to wash one’s feet here to visit the temple.

There are two ponds in the north-eastern corner outside the temple walls. One is known as Suryapushkarini and the other as Chandrapushkarini.

Lord Vadakkunnatha does not have any special festivals. Legend has it that once Indra and other devas had a grand festival and Lord Shiva said that there was no need for such a thing later on as it was extravagant. Shivratri, however, is an important festival celebrated on the fourth day of the black month of Kumbha. On that day, deities of temples participating in Thrissur Pooram issue from their respective temples to come and greet Sri Vadakkunnatha. They are from temples of Paramekkavu, Thiruvambadi, Chembukkavu, Kanimangalam, Laloor, Ayyanthol, Naithalakkavu, Churakode, Karamukku, Panamukkampilly and Ashokeswaram. On the occasion of Shivratri, 1001 firecrackers are burst in the morning and evening and Neyyabhishekam is performed throughout the day. Moreover, there will be special art events conducted in connection with Shivratri.

Sri Vadakkunnathan temple is called the southern Kailasa (Thenkailayam or Dakshinakailasa) and is a UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage site. It’ll be one’s good fortune to be able to visit this temple.

Sri Vadakkunnathan Song – Vrishabhachala Stuti

॥वृषभाचलस्तुति:॥

वृषभाचलम् गच्छेन्नित्यम्
परमेश्वरम् भजेद्वारं वारम् ॥

घृतगिरिणाऽवृतलिङ्गेशम्
धृतढमरूङ्कृतसंहारम्
वृतकण्ठोरगहलाहलम्
स्थितदाक्षायणीदक्षिणम् ॥

आदिरामेण स्थापितम्
आदिशङ्करेणार्चितम्
आदित्यकोटिभास्करम्
अनादिमध्यान्तमन्तकम् ॥

अहमहमिति मयि नृत्यन्तम्
स्तुतमुनिसुरनरशङ्करम्
भजन्तेभ्य: पञ्चाक्षरम्
इदानीमिह सुलभम् शिवम् ॥

(It’s a ragamalika and follows Punnagavarali, Ahiri and Nadanamakriya for the 3 stanzas respectively.)

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