The Thiruvallam Parashurama Temple

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    Legend goes that the sliver of land hugging the coast - the state of Kerala was created by Lord Parashurama, who threw an axe and reclaimed the land from the sea. It is believed that many of the ancient Shiva temples in the state were set up by Parashurama himself.

    The following narrative is an excerpt from the book – The Throw of an Axe by Rohini Satyan, which explores the aura and mysticism that enshrine Shiva temple traditions in Kerala against the backdrop of the Parashurama legend. The chapter selected below takes you on a journey through a unique shrine dedicated to the famous warrior sage, bringing alive a rich tapestry of mythological and cultural hues amid an ancient architectural legacy.

    Meandering through the city of Trivandrum the River Karamana and its tributary Killiyar meet the Parvathy Puthanar, a man-made river channel. Near the confluence of the trio stands a sacred spot — the quaint and ancient temple of Thiruvallam. The picturesque backdrop for this two-thousand -year old temple provides a befitting tribute to the great warrior sage, Lord Parashurama, whose fascinating tale continues to enthral. And uniquely, this is the only temple of its kind in Kerala dedicated to the god, who is considered to be the sixth reincarnation of Lord Vishnu.

    As the story goes, Parashurama, an ardent devotee of Shiva, had been compelled to kill his mother for her supposed infidelity, at the behest of his father, the legendary sage Jamadagni. Completely shattered by what he had been forced to do, and in extreme remorse, he spent long years in meditation and penance until Lord Shiva appeared. Impressed by the young Brahmin’s devotion and steadfastness, he gifted him the famous ‘axe’ or parashu. It was this weapon that not only got him his name, but is also believed to have later helped him create Kerala when the sea god Varuna offered him as much land as his axe could fetch. Thus the parashu flung by him from Gokarna landed at KanyaKumari, and the sea withdrew to create the land Parashurama asked for.

    Further, following Lord Shiva’s advice, Parashurama had offered balitharpan or homage to his mother’s soul on the banks of the river Karamana. Thiruvallam thus became hallowed ground.

    Legends claim the original shrine was consecrated by Vilwamangalam Swamiyar, a brahmin saint of the eighth century, who was the first among many Indian saints known by the same name. Swamiyar, during his long pilgrimage had come to this sacred spot and felt the magnetic presence of Lord Parashurama here. Historical sources however accrue the construction of the present black granite structure to the late Pandyan kings, around the twelfth to thirteenth centuries.

    Among the illustrious devotees who have visited the temple was the famed Adi Sankara, the Hindu theologian of the eighth century, who performed bali, or homage, for his mother’s soul here. He is also believed to have installed the statue of Lord Brahma at the temple.

    As we reach the entrance to the temple we see the statue of Parashurama above the gateway. He appears seated on a rock holding his parashu, a benign and serene figure, despite all the fierceness and power he is associated with.

    Inside the temple, we notice the beautiful black granite structures, with intricate carvings decorating the top. The Nalambalam here, a typical rectangular double- walled structure enclosing the shrine, is unique with its thick stone walls, and within it, holding centre stage are three shrines. One of them is circular in shape, the second a square, while the one that we stand before is a combination of the two, part square and circular at the back. The circular shrine to our extreme left has a pyramidal tiled roof while the others boast beautifully sculpted figures adorning their tops. The structures look quaint, age-old creations, very unusual and far different from the SriKovil or sanctum sanctorum seen at other Kerala temples.

    As we perambulate around the shrines we understand the reason for the uniqueness. For, though a Parashurama temple, it is one of a kind enshrining the Hindu trinity of Gods comprising Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer). Together the three Gods symbolise the cyclical nature of all life through birth, preservation, destruction and subsequent regeneration.

    Looking into the main sanctum, we see the idol of Parashurama with his axe. He stands facing north, apparently looking towards the shrine of Sree Padmanabha Swami Kshetram, the world-famous Vishnu temple in Thiruvananthapuram. The temple is in fact intrinsically linked to the patron deity of the city. Its very name Thiruvallam depicts this, as Vallam actually stands for the head of Lord Padmanabha Swami!

    As the belief goes, in the nearby temples of Ananthankadu and Thrippapur are the body and the feet of the Lord respectively. Legends narrate how Lord Vishnu tested the Sage Vilwamangalam, by coming in the guise of a young boy and offering him his services on the condition that the sage would never admonish him. But the sage forgot his promise when he caught the boy eating the Naivedyam or food offering that was meant for Lord Vishnu, and angrily raised his hand at him. Immediately the boy turned into a divine halo and disappeared, telling the sage he would find him at Ananthankadu, a vast forest area of the time, that is today’s Thiruvananthapuram. The sage immediately realised the true identity of the boy, and set out looking for him.

    As he reached Ananthankadu, a large Iluppa tree, a deciduous tree commonly known as the Mahua in Hindi, came crashing down and voila, in its place stood a gigantic statue of Lord Vishnu in the Ananthasayana, or supine pose. His head was in Thiruvallam, torso in Ananthankadu and feet at Trippapur. The sage was mortified and beseeched for mercy, requesting him to contract. Finally, the Lord acquiesced and came into his present form, as seen at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple at Thiruvananthapuram. So it is believed that visiting the three temples on the same day is auspicious.

    Next, we come to the square shrine where we see three deities- Subrahmanya, Matsyamurthy, and Vedavyasa. While Subrahmanya, the son of Lord Shiva, is believed to be the god of war, the latter two are considered reincarnations of Vishnu, namely as a Matsya or fish, and then as the saint Vyasa who classified the Vedas, respectively.

    The last of the three, the circular SriKovil, interestingly has its entrance to the left.

    As we turn towards the entrance of the shrine, we see the Namaskara Mandapa (a square shaped pavilion on a raised platform facing the sanctum), with the statue of a seated Nandi. Then within the sanctum sanctorum, we catch a glimpse of Lord Shiva, who sits facing east. Notably, he shares the same stature as Parashurama, as his patron lord, and is worshipped with equal rigour and devotion. The statue was supposedly installed here by Parashurama himself. The separate Kodimarams or flag posts and exclusive rituals followed for each, establish the Parashurama shrine also as a Shiva temple.

    The other deities or sub-deities we see at the temple include Brahma, Ganapati, Krishna, the Nagas or serpent gods, and Bhadrakali considered the protector of Bhadra the good. She is a fierce form of the great Goddess Shakti or Parvati and is known by various names — Durga, Bhagavathy, Mahakali and so on.

    The quiet and serenity that we see today is not always the scenario here, for the temple comes alive on many occasions. Balitharpan is an important ritual at the temple which takes place several times a month, with devotees completing the last rites for the departed souls of their loved ones.

    Other important events at the temple include Parashurama Jayanti, the birth anniversary of the warrior sage, celebrated in the month of May, and the Thiruvonam Arattu, the annual temple festival held between October and November. The festival commences with the hoisting of the temple flag and the twenty- day-long event culminates on the day of the Malayalam star of Thiruvonam, with an Arattu or Holy Bath in the Karamana river.

    The Karkidaka Vavu Bali, the most important ritual at the temple, is performed on the eve of the new moon day in the Malayalam month of Karkidakam, sometime in July-August. Thousands of devotees come together at the temple to venerate the departed.

    During the ritual, a ring made of the darbha grass, considered auspicious, is worn on the ring finger, and sesame seeds, flowers, darbha, sandalwood and raw rice are placed on a plantain leaf. As the ceremony ends these are left on the long sacrificial stones. The crows that feed on them are believed to be the dead coming alive. The emptied leaves are finally floated down the river marking the liberation of the soul. Devotees end the ritual with a dip in the holy river to purify their bodies.

    Thus, within the Hindu belief system of the transmigration of souls, the temple at Thiruvallam represents a haven for all, for the departed as well as the living. The sensation of awe and reverence that the thought evokes remains with us as we step out and move towards the river. The calm flowing waters provide an ideal setting for our thoughts as we ponder upon the enormity of our existence, our eternal quest for truth and our unsatiated desire for peace and harmony.

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