The Exorcist, Chottanikkara
It was a thick, dark forest. So dark was it inside that a person couldn’t see two feet in front of him. The sound of a flowing river eternally echoed through the trees and shrubs, an eerie noise of gurgling and gentle swooshing. Beasts freely roamed the place adding to the strange spooky sounds. And within the forest, far flung from civilization lived a band of tribal people.
Kannappan was one such tribal inhabiting the dense jungle of Parasurama Kshetra. However, unlike his peace loving neighbours, Kannappan was a notorious dacoit. He made his daily living by hiding in the bushes and jumping at unwary travelers and smuggling them of their precious belongings. Though a rough man by nature, he was a very loving father. He doted on his only beautiful daughter and showered his love on her. Days passed by with him robbing the travelers and taking care of his necessities.
One day, a lone man happened to fall on the prying eyes of Kannappan. He was walking through the forest with a heavenly looking, healthy cow. The cow’s neck was strung with a beautiful chain of bells that clanged through the forest with their jingles. Kannapan’s eyes shined with lust the moment he set his eyes on the cow. With a nasty shout he sprung from the bushes and stood in front of the traveler, his dagger drawn out.
“Hey you, leave the cow behind and run back.” growled Kannappan.
The man hesitated, but one look at Kannappan’s glistening dagger was sufficient for him to turn around and run from the spot, without a word of refusal.
‘Ah, that was easy.’ Kannappan thought to himself. Taking the cow by its tether, he pulled it towards his house. “I will slaughter this cow and sell the meat for a fortune. And with its hide, I will make the best clothes of leather and sell them too. What a lucky day.” He murmured to himself all along his way home.
All of a sudden the cow gave an almighty lurch and freed itself from Kannappan. And it ran into the forest, its bells jingling aloud.
“Ah, you wretched beast. Come back here.” shouted Kannappan and started running behind the cow. But all of a sudden, the bells stopped their jingles and the cow could not be seen ahead. Kannappan was startled at the sudden silence. He looked around the bushes, under the trees and even by the river banks, but only in vain. He was not able to trace the cow. Dejected at having let such a golden opportunity to slip out of his hands, he returned home.
And what did he see? Wonder of wonders. There in their courtyard was the very cow which had made him roam over half the forests that day in search of her. The cow was being fondled by his daughter, her face alight with laughter and happiness. Ashamed at his ignoble intentions, he decided against killing the cow and beamed back at his daughter and her new pet.
Unfortunately, the very same night, Kannappan’s daughter fell victim to a sudden bout of illness and attained the thresholds of heaven. Kannappan was deeply distraught at losing his only precious daughter. He suddenly lost interest in everything around him. He had done everything for the welfare of his daughter, and now that she was gone, he didn’t even feel like living anymore.
Feeling shattered, he restlessly turned in his bed, hardly able to get a wink of sleep. In the wee hours of the morning, having slept somehow, Kannappan had a dream. A very strange one. In the dream, a woman, divine and shining with an unearthly glow, summoned him towards her. She was richly dressed and had a number of hands, each bearing a different weapon or symbol. It was Bhagavathi herself, the patron goddess of Parashurama Kshetra. Kannappan fell at her feet, shedding tears of joy.
“Kannappa, do not grieve. Your daughter is in safe hands. It was all a play staged for universal good. It was I who came as the cow that you intended to butcher. I was the cow which brought about the transformation in you. I will always be present in this forest, blessing the people who come to me with all health and prosperity. Live life to the fullest and reach me in the end.”
Kannappan, woke up from his dream, sweat glistening on his face. He could just make out the sky turning pink on the east. Jumping out of his bed, he ran to the cowshed in his courtyard to check on the cow, but the cow was gone again. However, in its place glimmered something tall and wide. Kannappan strained to see through the pre-dawn darkness. Suddenly, the sun came up and in the light he could just make out what it was. “Oh”, he gasped, his mouth open wide at the shock
Right where the cow had been tied up, on a sacred pedestal stood a laterite idol of Bhagavathi and right next to her, on the same peetha, a smaller statue of Mahavishnu. Stunned at the sight and overwhelmed with ecstasy, Kannappan prostrated before the statues. Tears ran down his cheeks at the thought of his good fortune. Time and again he fell at the feet of the pedestal
Deciding to house the idols in a proper place, he built a tiny hut around the pedestal and worshipped the Goddess with all due formalities. However, with the passing of Kannappan, the shrine fell into gradual disrepair with no one to take care.
Years later, a Pulaya(outcaste) woman was roaming in the area, cutting grass to eke out her daily living. Finding a particular bunch of green grass, she reached out and sharpened her scythe on a nearby stone. Suddenly, the stone started bleeding. Red, thick blood. Horrified at the very sight, she screamed and soon a crowd of Pulayas were at her side calming her down and looking at the strange sight.
A bunch of the men went to Edathu Namboothri, a visiting priest, with the strange news. Namboothri immediately rushed to the place and feeling the strong vibrations of energy field, he realized that the stone was Parashakthi herself. He immediately dug up the stone and offered his prayers.
Soon, other Namboothris gathered and performed a Deva Prasannam. The Prasannam threw everything to light. It was revealed that the stones were idols of Shakthi and Vishnu and that they were to be worshipped together as Lakshmi Narayana. Edathu Namboothri installed the idols with all pomp and grandeur and built the initial shrine for the idols, and looked after the temple until his final breath.
Around this humble shrine grew the famous pilgrim spot of Chottanikkara. Located near Ernakulam and coming under the administration of the Cochin Devaswom Board, the Bhagavathi Temple at Chottanikkara is perhaps one of the most important of the temples that are spread all over Kerala and surely a highly celebrated one.
The Goddess is worshipped as Rajarajeshwari, the Ruler of all kings. The laterite idol is irregular in shape, red hued and untouched by human hands, a Swayambu. The true form of Mother can be seen only at the wee hours of the morning, when the doors open for Nirmalyam. Usually, the idol is covered with a golden kavasam, decked with flower garlands and precious jewels. Her upper hands hold the Conch and the Discus while her lower hands are in the Varadha and Abhaya mudra. Interestingly, the idol is not fixed to the pedestal with Ashtabandhana but rather stands in loose sand. As a result, all the abhisheka waters percolate through the sand and it is believed that they join the thirtha of Onakku Bhagavathi further down the way.
The goddess is worshipped as Saraswathi in the morning dressed in white, as Badrakali at noon draped in crimson and as Laksmi in the evenings swathed in blue. It is indeed believed that the Goddess was brought here by Shankara himself. However, the Goddess decided to stay at Kollur in Karnataka but agreed to accept her morning worship here first and then only at Kollur. Even to this day, the Mookambika temple at Kollur opens only after the first prayers of the day have been done at Chottanikkara (See Kollur Mookambika).
The temple complex also houses shrines to Sastha, Shiva, Ganapathy, Subramanya, Naga devatha etc. The place where the Goddess was first unearthed by Edathu Namboothri is today known as ‘Pavizhamallithara’ and lies to the south of the temple.
The shrine of DharmaSastha has its own story to tell. Once when the Goddess was out on a procession for the ceremonial offering of paddy to Meppazhur, the people accompanying the procession were attacked by a few rogues. Therefore, to have a safe return trip, Meppazhur Namboothri sent his family deity Sastha with them for safeguarding the goddess. Sastha, however, decided to stay back at Chottanikkara and it is he who we see at the shrine today.
An equally celebrated shrine is that of Badrakali at Kizhakavu. This is situated slightly below the main complex towards the east. It is believed that the statue of Badrakali was installed by Vilwamangalam Swamiyar. And it is by the shadows of this very temple does the most sought after service of the temple take place- Exorcism.
The temple at Chottanikkara is said to be the ultimate healing center for people suffering from various mental illnesses, be it epilepsy, neuralgia, psychological ailment or the influence of evil spirits and wicked forces. From times immemorial, people from all over the country have headed to this temple to relive their near and dear ones from spirits and ghosts which have possessed them.
Every night, after the Athazha pooja in the evening, the Priests of the temple go to the Kizhakkavu to perform what is known as the Valiya Guruthi, or the Great Sacrifice. Twelve humungous pots are filled a blood colored liquid known as Guruthi. This is prepared from a concoction of lime water and turmeric and is made to have the appearance and color of blood. The Melsanthi offers this Guruthi to Badrakali, sprinkles it around the temple and pours down some of the liquid creating a very gory re-enactment of a sacrifice.
At the time of the Guruthi pooja, the people who are thought to be under the influence of an evil spirit are brought to the Kizhakkavu temple. It is believed that the goddess, envigorated by her offering of blood (Guruthi) forces the spirit out of the person’s body. It is a sight to behold, with women and men, their bodies shaking violently, hair flying around, as the spirits try to resist the Goddess but finally succumb to her repeated warnings and leave the person in peace. The possessed are made to hit a nail into a tree with their heads and this act totally cures them from any sign of mental sickness. The astounding number of nails that populate the Paala tree near the Kizhakkavu temple is proof enough of the miraculous powers of the goddess.
People also perform the Guruthi pooja to relieve themselves from great burdens and anxieties, and pray for a peaceful and prosperous life. The Guruthi is partaken after the pooja and a part of it is taken home and buried in the four corners of the dwelling to protect the house and its dwellers from any evil undertakings.
Bhajanam is yet another important worship undertaking in the temple. This requires a person to stay on the temple premises for two days, take part in all the poojas and eat only the temple prasadam. This involves a lot of self-control and sacrifice. People who follow the whole ritual correctly are believed to be blessed with great good fortune and health. Their every wish is answered for.
Mandapathil Pattu is perhaps the greatest observance at Chottanikkara. Claimed to be equivalent to the Uddhayasthamana Pooja at Guruvayoor, this worship requires a lot of planning and execution. On the day of the worship, the temple is decked with auspicious mango and coconut leaves. A mandapam in front of the sanctum is decorated and filled with tender coconut leaves, silk and satin clothes, fragrant flowers and yellow spikes of coconut and arecanut trees, several Niraparas (huge wooden measuring units filled with raw rice, fried paddy, and paddy) and other ceremonial materials associated with bringing good luck and prosperity. Huge brass lamps are hung in the mandapam to shower light on the proceedings. Throughout the day classical devotional songs are sung at the mandapam accompanied by suitable instruments. All poojas done to the main deity are performed at the mandapam too. It requires a thousand eyes to witness the grandeur of the event.
It is said that long ago, one Guptan Namboodri was going from Tripunithra to Chottanikkara to watch a Kathakali performance. While he was walking on the lonely, dark road, singing to himself, he suddenly saw a beautiful maiden standing on the roadside looking totally lost. The maiden, announcing herself to be a member of the Varrier household, requested him to accompany her till Chottanikkara. Guptan was overjoyed at the unexpected company and readily agreed to do so. And off they went, chatting lightly, until Guptan reached the house of his Guru Kosapalli Namboodri, where he had to deliver a copy of the Devi Mahatmya. It was only when Kosapalli came out to meet Guptan did he realize that the damsel was indeed a terrible Yakshi who was following his student to kill him. He called Guptan aside and gave him a sacred towel to keep with him. When Guptan obtained the towel he too was able to see through the disguise of the Yakshi. He also realized that it was the power of the Devi mahatmya which had protected him this long. Horrified beyond wits he ran towards the temple at Chottanikkara, waving the towel. The Yakshi, realizing that her game was up, gave up her disguise and chased Guptan. After a long chase, Guptan reached the temple doors, threw the towel and jumped inside. At that second, the Yakshi caught him by his leg and dragged him out. Having lost all hope, Guptan sent up a prayer to Bhagavathi entreating her protection. The merciful goddess immediately appeared on the spot, beheaded Yakshi and threw her head into the southern tank. The tank until this day retains the red color of the Yakshi’s blood and is referred to as the Yakshikulam or Rakthakulam. There is also a shrine for the Yakshi in the temple complex.
Though the temple sees crowd all throughout the year, it is the Makam Thozhal which draws people in large number. On this day, it is believed that a darshan of the goddess grants immense Mangalya Bhagyam for women besides other uncountable benefits. Apart from this, the 9 days of Navarathri, Thirukarthika, Vidhyarambam on Vijayadasami,Onam, Vishu, the Goddess’s birthday etc are also grandly celebrated with special poojas, elephant processions, fireworks and music. Daily poojas like Poomoodal, Rudrabhishekam, Seeveli etc are also observed with traditional methods and styles. The Lakshadeepam festival during which the entire temple glows with a thousands of oil lamps is yet another highlight of the festival calendar.
A visit to the temple is believed to take great burdens off your back and vanquish all difficulties in your life. Immensely powerful and just as gracious, the Mother Goddess at Chottanikkara is a wish granter, a protector nonpareil and a divine healer.
The temple is located at a short drive from Cochin, on a small hillock surrounded by lush green woods and golden farms. I promise you, that once you go there, you will be tempted to go again and again. Such is the charm, the pull and the power of the place. Such is Chottanikkara, one of the most powerful Shakthi Kshetras in all of India.
Amme Narayana, Devi Narayana.
Lakshmi Narayana, Badra Narayana.