Varanapally Temple, Puthupally. Kayankulam


Stories behind the Ornate Locks of Varanapally Temple. Part 1

Most people go to places of worship to pray. But a good number of them, come to listen to stories. Try this the next time if you haven't already. Ask the priests, mullah or even one of the friendly looking locals about the temple and out come tumbling stories, real and imagined that will make your day.

The Varanapally temple, near Kayankulam, Alleppey District, is no different. The temple's name comes from the family that erected this temple - the Varanapally Thravadu. The Panikars of this family were chieftains of the local Maharaja who lived in Krishnapuram, a few kilometers away.

The residents of what remains of the original house next to the temple are more than willing to tell you the history of the place. Speak to the woman who is sweeping the temple's sandy courtyard and she will give you her version of the temple's recent history, the current politics of the governing council and the menu of the lunch she's preparing the next day when the members meet to elect a new person to a post that recently became vacant.

The ground opposite the temple and the house is one of the rare open space in these parts because it is a densely green region, close to the backwaters. Most of the land around has been filled in to grow coconut palms and build concrete gulf houses, but once upon a time, boats could come close to the North gate of the temple during peak summer. The well in the temple, would stay sweet even in the worst of summers and people from shores far away could fill boats with sweet water. (Note: Kerala backwaters are brackish)

The Panikars of Varanapally are different from the other chieftains of Kerala. They belonged to the Ezhava caste, a caste that is not traditionally associated with warfare. They were very good warriors and leaders to have earned the title. However, it was not just for their bravery, hard-earned titles, or land they owned and distributed among the poor that they were famous for, it was also for a school that was attached to their military school.

One of the students who studied in his Sanskrit school went on to become much more important than the school and the family that ran it. The student was the reformer now known as Sri Narayana Guru.

Sri Narayana Guru

The School Story.

When Narayana came to the Sanskrit school at Varanapalli to study, he discovered that students were seated in class according to their castes. From special mats to the highest caste, flat wooden stools for some and the bare floor for the lowest castes. The legend is that the boy Narayana when showed his seat, asked, which air should he breathe in class?

I'm surprised that they were all in one class, breathing the same air. In how many places in India was that possible in the 1860s?

In India today, people from different class and castes don't even breathe the same air. The poor breathe the air from toilet-less, blackboard-less, teacher-less classrooms. The state will move mountains for nuclear bombs but we are too poor to educate our children.

Going back to Narayana Guru, Varanapally was where he came after his elementary education and spent his formative years here. The years where he grew acutely aware of the social structure of Kerala and started thinking of a solution.

Today, a photograph of Sri Narayana Guru sits alongside the galaxy of Hindu gods in his former school. This photograph is in the main house next to the temple where the head of the family lived in a veranda facing the cowshed. The cowshed looks like a work of art and not one of the usual cowsheds that was common across Central Travancore until a decade or two back.

Why the cows of Varanapally got a beautiful home.

The Panikars of Varanapally were powerful in this part of Travancore state. They were the court of appeal for local cases. They were respected. And yes, they ruled in style. But when one of the Panikars went to a friend's house, who belonged to a higher caste, a Nair, he was treated as a friend, except that when he went to the cow-shed during a puja, he was denied entry or was asked to stay out.

He came back and ensured that he would build the most elaborate and beautiful cowshed in his courtyard. It's built right outside the family head's door so that it is the first thing he sees when he wakes up in the morning.

The caste system may not be as suffocating in Kerala anymore but it was for many centuries. Across India, Swami Vivekananda's is famous for his Chicago speech but in Kerala he is most popular for calling Travancore a madhouse. It was the caste system that existed in the state that made his say that.

But it was not just the caste system that Sri Narayana Guru was trying to bust, it was all kinds of divisions. Especially religion. And he distilled his thoughts down to one single line.

"One Caste. One Religion. One God - Human"

The colour of his belief is yellow.

The only problem, in India, the followers of any such statement will be painted with a new colour and classified under a new caste, of a new religion and under a new god or godman. Buddha, Basavanna, Sri Narayana Guru... and more to come.

The main deity here is Bhadrakali, the Grama Devata. The there is Shiva and his family, shrines for the bravest of the Panikars sharing space with inscriptions from the Quran, Bible, Guru Granth Sahib and quote by the atheist Buddha. Overall, the main inspiration seems to be mix of Shivite and Buddhist thoughts.

It's a pleasure to visit a temple which makes you reflect and think and not watch fat elephants gifted by Chief Ministers who hate to pay tax but will gladly open their purses in front of a Hundi.



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