This post is part of a series on the Kokila Sandeśa of Uddaṇḍa Ṥāstri, to read the introduction click here. An edition of the poem with an English translation will be released shortly by Rasāla, a kāvya imprint I have just set up. Please click here for more details or get in touch: email@example.com
The koel’s first sighting of Kerala is at Thirunelly, an ancient temple at the point where the deciduous forests that lead up to the Western Ghats from the plains begin to turn into the betel nut and plantain that cover their western flank. Today Thirunelly is in Kerala, just – the Karnataka-Kerala border falls at Bavali, about 20km before Thirunelly – but in the poem the koel must first cross the temple and presumably ascend the Brahmagiri hills which sit in magnificence behind it before he will see the fertile land of Kerala.
The Western Ghats or Sahya mountains are, explains the hero, home to winged jungle sprites and Paraśurāma:
क्रीडन्तीनां मुखरितलतामन्दिरं खेचरीणां
भूषानादैर्भुवनविदितं सह्यशैलं श्रयेथाः।
क्षत्रध्वंसात् स्वयमुपरतो विप्रसात्कृत्य कृत्स्नम्
पृथ्वीचक्रं भृगुकुलपतिर्यत्तटे सन्निधत्ते॥1.39
Wing your way to the world-famous Sahya mountains, a mass of creepered enclaves alive with the jingling of the bejewelled sky-roamers that play there. Paraśurāma, lord of the Bhṛgu clan, who has finally given up his massacre of kṣatriyas and dedicated the entire orb of the earth to Brahmins, dwells on those slopes.
Paraśurāma is the axe-wielding (paraśu means ‘axe’) sixth incarnation of Viṣṇu born to a kṣatriya mother and Brahmin father. He is said to have created the land of Kerala by hurling his axe into the sea and thus reclaiming from the ocean the stretch of coast from Kanyakumari – India’s southernmost tip – to Gokarna – which is just below Goa. Today’s Kerala is of course now much reduced, its southern extremities lost to Tamil Nadu and its northern to Karnataka when the states were created on a linguistic basis. Kunjunni Raja in his book The Contribution of Kerala to Sanskrit Literature notes that similar stories are told by other communities further up the West Coast which suggests this was a legend that entered Kerala with the Brahmins who immigrated here from these areas. At any rate Paraśurāma looms very large in Kerala and surfaces in many of the temples the koel visits on his journey.
Paraśurāma’s father was killed by a kṣatriya and it was to avenge this death that he went on a kṣatriya-killing spree. The story goes that he came to Thirunelly temple, after trying many others first, to perform the pitṛkārman (rites prescribed for ancestors, including relatives that may have recently died) for his father as well as to wash away the pāpa of the blood he had spilled, as in the verse above. The other famous visitors to this temple – as to so many temples – are Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa who came here to perform the pitṛkarman for their father Daśaratha. The Viṣṇupadam (Viṣṇu’s footprint) at the Pancatīrtha, where five streams once met, marks the spot where they performed the rites.
Thirunelly today draws people from all over Kerala and elsewhere for these same ancestral rites, although its popularity may be more to do with the fact that this was apparently the spot chosen in Kerala for depositing the ashes of the president Rajiv Gandhi after he was assassinated. The temple is all set up for the ritual, with a suggested programme for devotees – the whole process requires about 24 hours – a demarcated spot in the nearby Pāpanāśinī (sin-destroying) stream for depositing the ashes and readily available pitṛkarman materials.
The name Thirunelly is Sanskritised by Uddaṇḍa to become Āmalakadharaṇī. Nelly and āmalaka are the Malayalam and Sanskrit words respectively for the Indian gooseberry, which is much larger than the English fruit of the same name. The spot is so rich in amala (as shown below) that the small shops abutting the temple sell jars of preserved whole fruits. There are several legends behind the amala association, chief of which is related to the temple’s founding.
Brahma once, while cruising atop the swan that serves as his vehicle, decided to stop off at this beautiful spot – thus lending his name to the large hill that dominates this area, Brahmagiri (Brahma’s hill) – and chanced upon Viṣṇu sitting in an amala tree. He concluded that this place was none other than Vaikuṇṭha, the heaven established by Viṣṇu for his followers. He asked Viṣṇu to remain here to help people get rid of the pāpa they and their relatives and ancestors have accummulated – which is how the Pāpanāśinī stream acquired its name and power – and established the temple. Entrusting the temple’s maintenance and rituals to some Brahmins, he told them he would come every day to worship Viṣṇu here himself. Thus the priests set out the materials for a sixth puja every night and by the time they return in the morning Brahma has come and performed his worship.
That was 5,000 years ago. More recently, one of the Kulaśekhara kings of Mahodayapuram (the koel’s penultimate stop), Kulaśekhara Āḷwār, who after gaining power over all of southern India turned to Vaishnavism in a big way and is said to have died en route to Tirupati, is also supposed to have founded the temple. There is no consensus on his dates but he was probably pre-10th century AD. Two copper plate inscriptions – which seem to link the temple to the rulers of northern Koṭṭayam, the koel’s next but one stop – and various other archaeological evidence suggests that the temple was indeed well established by the 10th century.
Just to the side of the temple is a Ṥiva cave shrine, barely big enough for a man on all fours to enter, which houses a small, garlanded lingam. One version of another amala myth connected to Thirunelly has this lingam formed of a fruit that God granted to a hungry devotee. Part of the river, which seems to be split into several small rivulets that spill all over the hill, runs past the rocks that form the cave and a huge plumeria tree – called śvetacampaka (white Champak) or kṣīracampaka (milk Champak) in Sanskrit – hangs over the temple, dropping white and yellow flowers onto the Nandī that guards Ṥiva. All around the temple, devotees have created small piles of stones, presumably in connection with a request made to God. A local devotee, who has written a leaflet about the temple, says that Thirunelly was originally a Shaivite and Dravidian place of worship which succumbed to the later wave of Vaishnavite influence. He explains the Brahma myth in terms of a Brahmarṣi, the name given to a leader of a yāga (Vedic sacrifice), who perfomed a yāga here.
Ṥiva is said to have gone from here to Kottiyur to destroy Dakṣa’s sacrifice (more on this in the next post, Kottiyur) and there is still an important link between the two temples. Devotees are supposed to visit both temples plus a third, Thrissilery, together. To travel to Kottiyur by road you have to go back on yourself through Mananthavady – the road in Thirunelly fizzles out about two kilometres past the temple – which is about 30km but there is apparently a path of 7-10km through the hills which devotees used to walk. If so it is a short flight for the koel to his next destination, Kottiyur.