Sri Aadi Shankara is easily among the most famous of Indian philosopher saints. His contribution to literature is stupendous, especially if you take into consideration that he left his physical abode in his early 30s. Avanamcode Saraswathi temple is the place where he was initiated into the world of learning.
We are all living our lives in contemporary styles. The dining table with easy access to dishes has replaced the ladies of the house seemingly effortlessly bending and serving more than a dozen members in a joint family, patiently waiting by their banana leaf plates. Back pain was unheard of despite the heft of the food containers. Ninety-year-olds happily squatted on the floor, carrying neatly rolled balls of curry-drenched rice, with not a grain falling on the ground. Used to frequent oil baths and dollops of ghee, from the cows grazing in the homestead, knees bent easily and stayed with nary a twinge of pain. TV serials have replaced the mellifluous chanting of the name of the Almighty, besides the sandhyaa deepam, or the lamp which is lit in homes as the day softens and softens into the night.
Slowly, but inexorably the vast treasures of ancient knowledge are being covered over by the sands of indifference and apathy, as well as genuinely by changing circumstances. So too are rituals in temples being reduced to an often unsuitable common denominator. The Pongala at Attukal Devi temple is unique in that more than three million ladies light a wood fire, cook the jaggery “payasam” at around 10 o’clock in the morning and then wait patiently in the hot Kumbha Maasa (Malayalam month between the middle of February and March) heat. The priests then come and consecrate their culinary devotion by sprinkling holy water into each earthenware pot.
By seven in the evening, the Thiruvananthapuram city authorities (irrespective of political hue) would have made the roads around which this great cooking devotion had taken place, spick and span and normal looking. A faint fragrance of cooked ghee would linger in the air, along with the quiet joy of having fed their beloved Attukal Ammachchi, for yet one more year!
Seeing the tremendous appeal of the Pongala, various temples of different Deities have started incorporating this into the list of their annual festivities, sadly often at the cost of their ancient, indigenous rituals. The sad truth is that those who are supposed to keep updating their knowledge of what is best for the particular Deity in a particular temple often give in to their management with ears always cocked to strident voices or sponsors with heavy purses. Both the priests and the traditional guardians of the temples keep more and more silent at such alterations, to the detriment of the temples and their inhabitants, the various Gods, and Goddesses of Hinduism. This is a faith that believes that Divinity is ubiquitous, yet consecrated in various spots through different rituals.
Sri Aadi Shankara is easily among the most famous of Indian philosopher saints. His contribution to literature is stupendous, especially if you take into consideration that he left his physical abode in his early thirties. Avanamcode Saraswathi temple is the place where Sri Aadi Shankara was initiated into the world of learning.
It was one of our contemporary scholars and an ardent practitioner of Bhagavathi devotion, Suvarna Nalapat, who first told me of this temple. Since September, my fervent prayer was to be able to get Darshan of this temple was there. With the help of the ever-ready Google map, one travelled unerringly through narrow winding roads to reach an unpretentious gateway.
The grass is chest high. One can feel the peace of centuries in the (thankfully) unmodernised structure. One has to clamber over a “stile” style of a doorway. Inside the Sanctum Sanctorum is the Devi.
The original Vigraham was a swayambhu or one that has risen out of the Earth. It could be considered to be in the shape of a Shivalingam. The poojari, Suresh, waxed lyrical about his Idol. There was no Peedham or platform for the Deity in the olden days. The Peedham was made and slipped over the Vigraham. Suresh insists that the Vigraham has grown broader and taller by a half, ever since he was working there. Scientists would put it down to movements of the soil. Atheists would put it down to myth-building. Devotees would put it down to another wondrous act of the Divine.
The original Vigraham has been covered by a Golakam (thin carved metal sheet). The four-armed Devi holds a conch, a discus, an ear of rice, and a vessel in each hand. The poojas and the flag hoisting Ulsavams are for Durga. Yet, in the pre-dawn Brahma Muhurtham, She is resplendent as Saraswathi, the pure, scholarly Goddess of Learning and aesthetic Presentation of what is learned.
Opposite the Sanctum Sanctorum is the platform where the poojari prostrates himself after Naivedyam, when food for the Deity is served. In a unique architectural style, one finds Ganapathi, Shiva and the Lion mount of the Goddess UNDER this namaskara mandapam! This is on the level with the feet of the Goddess in the Shri Kovil. One is reminded of an aspect of Shiva as Dakshinamoorthi or the South-facing God of Learning, considered to be Aadi Guru or the very first teacher ever. There are the Sapthamaathas with Ganapathi and Shri Veerabhadra Swamy represented as undefined stone images on the left-hand side of the temple.
Just outside the temple, there is a shrine for Sri Bhadrakali. In Kerala, She is considered to be the daughter of Shiva, or She who was born from the opened in fury Third Eye of Shankara, “Shambhor Nayana Sambhootha”. Next to it is a Shastha shrine. Both the Bhagavathis (Divinities) overlook the temple tank, which is said to be a perennial water body and mercifully free of the debris temple tank dustbins contemporarily contain. Deities who face water are supposed to be extra powerful.
During the October/ November Navarathri, the Avanamcode Saraswathi temple is a hive of activity. Barring Mahanavami, when all learning takes a break, it is possible to initiate children into education every day of the year. Children are given tiny plates with miniature bells on them. These bells give them clarity of thought as well as speech. Saraswathi is also the Goddess of “Vak” or speech.
Cochin’s Nedumbassery International airport shares a boundary wall with the temple. A railway track runs close by. Many who used to live in the vicinity have moved elsewhere. It is the sibilant puffing of trains and the screech of planes that fill the temple yard now. The tasteless “renovation” which many temples have fallen prey to has thankfully not touched this ancient shrine. There is no ghastly amalgam of centuries-old granite with ceramic tiles and concrete pillars. Despite the constant noise of modernity, perennial Knowledge and its handmaiden, endless Peace, abound in this place which gave to us Aadi Shankara Acharya.
Thiruvathira Tirunal Lakshmi Bayi is XII Princess of the erstwhile State of Travancore