The Vadakkumnathan Temple is among the oldest and most pristine structures in God’s Own Country. It was allegedly built by Lord Parasurama who, according to legends, reclaimed Kerala from the sea. The traditional Kerala style of architecture, carvings and murals depicting scenes from the famous epic Mahabharata, along with many other ancient art relics, make it a must visit site for historians and archaeologists alike.
Step in and you are immediately made aware of the rich tradition of the temple, carefully preserved in its walls to this very day. The temple is also the venue for the annual pooram festival, Thrissur Pooram, in April-May is popular for its cultural value, caparisoned elephants and magnificent fireworks display.The temple also has a Koothambalam, the traditional temple theatre of Kerala.
The temple was built at the time of Perumthachan from Parayi petta panthirukulam. It is said that Perumthachan lived during the seventh century; so the Koothambalam may be 1,300 years old. According to Malayalam historian VVK Valath, the temple was a pre-Dravidian Kavu(shrine). Later, the temple was influenced by Buddhism, Jainism and Vaishnavism. In the early days, Paramekkavu Bhagavathi was also inside the Vadakkunnathan temple. But Koodalmanikyam Temple, Kodungallur Bhagavathy Temple and Ammathiruvadi Temple, Urakam is older than Vadakkunnathan temple, according to temple documents. It also had influences from Buddhist temples and Jain temples.
The Nambudiris who were looking after the temple affairs were called as Yogiatiripppads. When Kerala Nambudiris gained control, the temple also fell into their hands. The Yogiatiripppads were elected from Thrissur desam. Prior to Sakthan Thampuran’s reign, the Yogiatiripppad system declined. Later, the Maharaja of Cochin gained presiding authority over the temple.
Adi Shankara is believed to have been born to Shivaguru and Aryamba of Kalady in answer to their prayers before Vadakkunnathan, as amsavatara of Shiva. The couple had observed bhajan for 41 days in the temple. Legend has it that Shiva appeared to both husband and wife in their dreams and offered them a choice. They could have either a mediocre son who would live a long life or an extraordinary son who would die early. Both Shivaguru and Aryamba chose the second option. In honour of Shiva, they named the son Shankara. According to legend, Adi Shankara attained videha mukti (“freedom from embodiment”) in the Vadakkunnathan temple. One tradition, expounded by Keraliya Shankaravijaya, places his place of death as the temple. He also established four Mutts at Thrissur, famously known as Edayil Madhom, Naduvil Madhom, Thekke Madhom and Vadakke Madhom.A rare picture of main entrance of Vadakkunnathan Temple taken in 1913 seen from Swaraj Round from Illustrated Guide to the South Indian Railway, printed by Hoe and Coat the ‘Premier Press’.
Invasion of Tipu Sultan
During the invasion of Tipu Sultan, the temple was not attacked by Tipu’s Army. Even though Tipu Sultan destroyed many temples in Thrissur district at that time, he never touched Vadakkunnathan Temple. B According to historical accounts when Tipu Sultan was marching towards the Travancore lines locally known as Nedumkotta, he had a short stay at Thrissur city from 14 to 29 December 1789. In order to feed his Army, he had borrowed cooking vessels from Vadukanthan Temple. On leaving Thrissur city, he not only returned the vessels to the temple but presented it a large bronze lamp.
Zamorin of Calicut
During 1750 to 1762, the temple affairs were conducted by Zamorin of Calicut who attacked Thrissur city and took control of the temple and the city. In 1762 with the help of Kingdom of Travancore, Maharaja of Cochin regained control over Thrissur city and the temple.
When Sakthan Thampuran (1751–1805), ascended the throne of Kingdom of Cochin, he changed the capital of Kingdom of Cochin from Thripunithura to Thrissur city as the King had a personal relationship with Vadakkunnathan Temple. He later cleared the teak forest around the temple and introduced the famous Thrissur Pooram festival. The King’s personal interest in the temple also changed the fortune of the city.
The temple is situated in an elevated hillock in the centre of Thrissur City and is surrounded by a massive stone wall enclosing an area of nearly 9 acres (36,000 m2). Inside this fortification, there are four gopurams facing four cardinal directions. Between the inner temple and the outer walls, there is a spacious compound, the entrance to which is through gopurams. Of these, the gopurams on the south and north are not open to the public. The public enter either through the east or west gopuram. The inner temple is separated from the outer temple by a broad circular granite wall enclosing a broad corridor called Chuttambalam. Entrance into the inner temple is through a passage through the corridor.
Interior of Vadakkunnathan Temple and in the right side is the world-famous Koothambalam.The main deity of this temple, Lord Shiva, is worshipped in the form of a huge lingam, which is covered under a mound of ghee, formed by the daily abhishekam (ablution) with ghee over the years. A devotee looking into the sanctum can now see only a 16-foot-high (4.9 m) mound of ghee embellished with thirteen cascading crescents of gold and three serpent hoods on top. According to traditional belief, this represents the snow-clad Mount Kailash, the abode of Shiva. This is the only temple where the lingam is not visible. It is said that the ghee offered here for centuries does not have any foul odour and it does not melt even during summer.
In the outer temple, there are shrines for Krishna (Gosala Krishna; or Gopala Krishna ; Krishna as a cowherd), Shiva’s bull vahana(vehicle) Nandikeswara, Parashurama, Simhodara, Ayyappa (Shiva’s son, especially venerated in Kerala), Vettekkaran (Shiva as a hunter), Serpent deities and Adi Shankara. Outside the main temple, there are shrines for Lord Subrahmanya and Lord Ganapathi. Located on the verandah of the Nalambalam is a large white bull Nandikeswara. It is in the northern side that the main sanctum, a circular structure with Shiva facing west and behind him, Parvati facing east, denoting their combined form Ardhanarishvara, is made. The two-storied rectangular shrine of the god Rama facing west is located in the south. Between these two sanctums (srikovils) stands a third one, circular and double-storied in shape, which is dedicated to Shankaranarayana, the combined form of Shiva and Vishnu, facing west. There are mukhamandapams (halls) in front of all the three central shrines. The two important murals in the temple, Vasukisayana and Nrithanatha (Nataraja), are worshipped regularly. Ganesha shrine is positioned facing the temple kitchen. The offering of Appam (sweetened rice cake fried in ghee) to him is one of the most important offerings at the temple. Propitiating him here is believed to be a path to prosperity and wealth.
The temple is famous for the rarity of the temple murals, of which the Vasukishayana and Nrithanatha murals are of great importance and are worshipped daily. The temple also houses a museum of ancient wall paintings, wood carvings and art pieces of ancient times. A study done by Archaeological Survey of India on two paintings in the temple has revealed that it is 350 years old. These two rare paintings were a reclining Shiva and a Nataraja with 20 arms.
The temple theatre, known as Koothambalam, has four magnificent gateways called Gopuramsand the lofty masonry wall around the temple quadrangle are imposing pieces of craftsmanship and skill. The Koothambalam is used for staging Koothu, Nangyar Koothu and Koodiyattam, an ancient ritualistic art forms of Central Kerala. According to folk lore, before the new Koothambalam was built, there used to be an old and dilapidated structure. The then Diwan T. Sankunni Menon ordered to demolish the structure and construct a new Koothambalam. He gave this task to Velanezhy Nambudiri, a famous Thachushasthranjan or master craftsman. He prepared a mental sketch and built a beautiful Koothambalam there. Velanezhy Illom is in Venganellur Gramam, Chelakkara town.
Maha Shivaratri is the main festival which is celebrated in the temple. Cultural and musical programmes are held in the temple premises. Around one lakh temple lamps (hundred thousand)are lighted in the festival. The idol of Vadakkumnatha is not taken out for procession.Vadakkumnathan Temple’s Thekke Gopura Vathil lighted up during the Maha Shivaratri festival
The Aanayoottu of feeding of elephants, is the second biggest festival held in the temple. The devotees refer to elephants as Lord Ganesh’s incarnation. The festival falls on the first day of the month of Karkkidakam (timed against the Malayalam calendar), which coincides with the month of July. It has been the regular annual practice at the temple for the last 20 years to conduct a large-scale Ashta Dravya Maha Ganapathy Havana and Aanayoottu on the first day of the Karkidakom month of the Malayalam calendar. It involves a number of unadorned elephants being positioned amid a multitude of people for being worshipped and fed. A large number of people throng the temple to feed the elephants. Gajapooja also is conducted once every four years.
One of the most colourful temple festivals of Kerala, Thrissur Pooram is conducted in the temple premises but the temple is not a participant in this festival. There is no special pooja or special offering during the pooram day. The main attraction of the Pooram is the Elanjitharamelam, a two-hour Chendavadyam (with five instruments) is held near Koothambalam in the temple, by the top most artists from the state.