Text: Bindu Suraj Photographs: R. Gopinath Nair In an explosion of colour and frenzied worship, devotees of the goddess Bhagavathi invoke her power, energy and strength at the Bharani Mahotsav held in Kerala’s renowned Kodungalloor Bhagavathi temple
Kodungalloor, the ancient capital of Kerala lying about 20 miles northwest of Ernakulam, has had a hoary past. Here is situated the Kodungalloor Bhagavathi temple, one of the wealthiest temples in Kerala. Every year, in the Malayali month of Meenam (March/April) the temple gears up to host the famous Bharani Mahotsav in a grand way.
It is believed that once upon a time, the world was filled with destruction. A powerful demon, Darika, had terrorized the universe. All of creation prayed fervently for sanctuary, but to no avail. The good forces of the world united to fight Darika’s evil, but the demon was just too powerful.
When destruction peaked enough to shake the gods, Lord Shiva, in intense rage, spewed some of the poisonous venom, Kalakutom, from his throat. The force assumed the form of a woman, a dark figure clad in roaring echoes, who emerged from Shiva’s third eye. Thus was born Bhadrakali, the absolute power, nursing fury in her heart.
Kali went in search of Darika and challenged the demon. A terrible war ensued. Darika had the power to produce thousands of demons like him from a single drop of his blood. During this prolonged and vicious war, Kali struggled long and hard to kill Darika. Soon, her power began to wane; she began to tire.
Seeing her plight, Umadevi, disguised as a Brahmin lady, went to Darika’s wife and sought the secret of his life source. This crucial information was conveyed to Kali who then, with renewed strength, began to chase the demon. Darika, on sensing that Kali knew his secret, hid himself under the earth. But Kali hunted him down and by eventide, had his corpse on her lap.
The legend goes on to say that Bhadrakali, exhausted and injured, went in search of a place to rest. Kodungalloor was where she came. Even today, the energy of the place echoes the intensity of her absolute power.
A trichandana chartu ceremony, the application of sandalwood paste to soothe the devi’s wounds is done during Aswathy pooja, on the eve of Bharani Mahotsava. It’s a long procedure conducted over seven days in the secrecy of the inner sanctum. On those days, crowding outside the temple are thousands of devotees belonging to all castes, crying for the devi, their longing ascending to a feverish pitch.
Unlike at other temple festivals, Bharani Mahotsava attracts the largest congregation of Valichappadu or oracles, mostly women from different parts of the state. During the Aswathy pooja these oracles clad in red robes, with jingle stripes and scimitars with crescent-shaped tops, assemble in the temple premises. As per the norm the Adikal, the main priest, conveys the completion of the pooja to the Valia tampuran, the royal patron, and then grandly declares this to the oracles.
The aftermath of this declaration is the event that reverberates in the whole of Kodungalloor. The crowds take up the chanting of the devi’s name in a frenzy. Now the Goddess Bhagavathi, in her absolute power, is ready to bestow blessings. The oracles perform a frenzied dance repeatedly slashing their foreheads with the swords. They feel the power, the spirit of the devi descending upon them and they enter a frenzy. They appear to be in the grip of divine ecstasy and lose all inhibitions and all sense of their surroundings. Guided by the Vaidya palakavelan, they throng the temple.
“This period is auspicious to experience immense grace. It allows those gathered to identify with the bhakti (devotion), jnana (knowledge), dhyana (meditation) or karma (action) flowing forth from the devi,” observes Dr Lakshmi Kumari, Director at the Vivekananda Vedic Vision, Kodungalloor. “It enlightens the devotees’ inner self by transforming their personality, orienting them towards love, sacrifice and service.”
Tantric scholar and Director of Tantra Vidya Peedom, G. Gireesh says: “The moment of supreme transformation from raging emotions, validates the belief that love, devotion, compassion and anger all have their abode in one being.” Folk legend also supposes the deity could be the outrageous Kannaki who had transformed herself into this manifestation of absolute power out of intense love and devotion to Kovilan, and had come to this place to recuperate. As for historical evidence, the temple records hark back nearly 1200 years, to a visit by Shri Adi Shankaracharya. Through his divine intuition he felt the unique power gracing this place and then and there he manifested that power in his shreechakra. The shreechakra contains the essence of paramananda (supreme bliss), and is said to be the cause and reason for the existence of this universe.
Born of wrath, the goddess Bhagavathi embodies the principle of divine retribution and justice. For her devotees, she is power manifest, and in worshiping her, they draw this power into their own selves and lives. And so the goddess continues to live, dispensing justice and vanquishing evil.
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