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Temple Reclamation Movement in Kerala

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Temple Reclamation Movement in Kerala
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“Great civilisations die from suicide, not by murder.”

So concluded Arnold Toynbee, the great historian who chartered the rise and fall of civilisations he identified on earth. He stated that the response to the challenges faced by a culture determines their fate. He adequately explains that when a civilisation successfully responds to challenges, it grows. The story of Hindus or the Indic civilisation is pretty much a story of resilience. The inherent capacity to respond to the challenges, adapt and rebuild, makes the Hindu civilisation the most ancient and continuous civilisation. Preservation is our core. Throughout history, various destructive and degenerative forces posed severe challenges for the civilisational existence of India. Centuries-long pillage by the Islamic raiders and western colonialism enormously wrecked the cultural and social fabric of the land. Toynbee’s observation in his story of civilisations stands true for India. With every occasion of cultural decay, a spiritually motivated minority used to emerge, offering new creative leadership, bringing the society to a new level of consciousness and development. Today, this talk is going to narrate such a cultural resurgence tale from Kerala, God’s own country.

I will be beginning with setting the background by elucidating how the temples of Malabar faced ill fate. I will then tell the tale of a great hero, who in my opinion is the father of modern Kerala, and his role in heralding a temple reclamation movement. A brief illustration of various temples renovated in Malappuram and Kannur will follow.

Kerala is known as Parashurama kshetra, since the great Parashurama reclaimed it from the sea. He merged the reclaimed land with Bharata-varsha by consecrating the vigour of mantra through the nyasa of Shaiva and Shakta. Bhargava-rama then installed 108 Shiva-alayas and 108 Durgaalayas. Historical records mention the existence of Kerala as early as the ancient Tamil Sangam period and Asokan edicts in 3rd century BCE. Since time immemorial, traders from the western and middle-eastern countries reached the Malabar coast yearning fortune. There has been a long legacy of interactions with the Romans, Persians, Jews, Syrians, and Arabs. Europeans aspired to find a sea route to India only for buying pepper from Malabar coast. Since then, the region of Malabar has been turbulent. The Samuthiris, rulers of Kozhikode, could at least prevent the attempts of the Portuguese to grab control of Malabar. However, the incursions of the Mysorian troops led by Hyder Ali and his son Tipu sultan transmuted the dharmic nature of Kerala, weakening it both economically and spiritually. The majestic temples of Malabar were ransacked and plundered by the merciless army of the tyrants.

Malabar fell into the reign of the British after Tipu. Historians have noted several sporadic outbreaks of communal violence in Malappuram area during their rule. Sreedhara Menon says that twenty-two such riots were reported from 1836 through 1856. A characteristic feature of such disturbances was that a crowd of Mappilas would murder Hindu landlords and defile their temple. British administration tried to appease the rioters by giving tax reforms, but violent riots followed the Khilafat agitation in 1921. Rampant desecration of temples and cow-slaughter in temple premises took place across Malappuram. They hanged entrails and skulls as garlands around the idols of Hindu gods. The Hindus of Malabar still bear the wounds of the savagery deep in their hearts.

K. Kelappan and Malabar Kshetra Samrakshana Samiti

Malabar produced quite a gang of leadership who joined the national movement and the socio-political churning in the first half of the 20th century as any other part of British India. The horrors of the Moplah riots of 1921 convinced many of them to work for the upliftment of the Hindu community. The most notable leader among them was K. Kelappan, who fearlessly confronted a band of Moplah rioters who were moving towards Ponnani. He started his public life by speaking up for his community and continued till his end.

Koyapalli Kelappan Nair aka Kelappaji was born on August 24th, 1889 in Muchukunnu, near Kozhikode. As a trained Kalaripayattu practitioner hailing from a rich legacy of Shakteya sadhaka family, he was always in action for the betterment of the society. With the launch of Nair Sabha (later known as Nair Service Society) in 1914, Kelappan began to work for the upliftment of the Nair community actively and later became its President. In 1920, as a law student in Bombay, young Kelappan was attracted to Gandhiji’s ideas and joined the Independence movement. The political journey of Kelappaji from Khilafat, Non-Cooperation movements through the Temple entry movements, Salt satyagraha, and Sarvodaya campaign was quite eventful. Through years and experiences, he was evolving as a Hindu leader.

Soon after the formation of the secular democracy, he realized that political activism and Gandhian Sarvodaya movement were inept for the upliftment of the Hindu population. He realised that refurbishment of the temples demolished by the invaders was essential for the enrichment of the Hindu community. He formed ‘Malabar Kshetra Samrakshana Samiti’ to renovate and restore numerous small and magnificent temples of Malabar which had been demolished during Tipu Sultan’s invasions. The renovation activities of Angadipuram Thali temple in 1968 commenced the massive re-consecration drive in Malabar. Kelappaji himself once confessed that this was the most complex struggle he had ever participated in. Both the Muslim community and the Government under the Communists – who repealed the British ban on mosque building in Malappuram post-Moplah riots – opposed the Hindu Temple restoration pursuit.

Angadippuram Thali Mahadeva Temple

All these years, the Shivalinga of the Thali temple was lying on the streets. Kelappaji requested the government under Chief Minister EMS Nambuthiripadu to let them build the temple on the land where the holy Linga laid. But, EMS denied the request and asked to take the Shivalinga somewhere else. The government even fenced that land, declaring it as an Archaeological site, and restricted entry to the public. The disillusioned public, including women led by Srimati Yashoda Madhavan, broke into the temple land chanting Namah Shivaya. The lathi-charge by the police injured many people. Although the government tried to persuade Kelappaji to stop the agitation, he emphatically declared that there would not be any negotiation or compromise without the land. Knowing Kelappaji’s perseverance, EMS issued the land for temple construction. This event is one of the historical moments of modern Kerala, but we hardly learn about it from any mainstream discussions. Mothers started a mass campaign ‘Pidiyari Prasthanam’ (a Fistful of Rice movement) to fund the temple construction activities. Chinmayanada Swamiji also donated Seventeen Thousand rupees. Before the temple work completed on 7th October 1971, Kelappaji left our world. Still, Angadippuram Thali Mahadeva Kshetra stands tall near Perinthalmanna as a testimony of Hindu resilience.

Malabar Kshetra Samrakshana Samiti later evolved into Kerala Kshetra Samrakshana Samiti and played a vital role in rebuilding numerous temples demolished and ruined across Kerala. Several ruins across Kerala are now majestic temples with the performance of daily rituals.

Ramasimhan and Mattummal Narasimha murthi temple

Unnian Saheb, a wealthy Muslim, and his family, embraced the Hindu dharma and started to take care of the temple near their home. What awaited them was the vengeance of the Moplahs of their neighborhood, including his father-in-law. After learning Hindu philosophy, Unnian Saheb, along with his sons and brother, embraced the Vedic fold from Arya Samaj, Calicut, in 1946. His two sons changed their names to Fateh Singh and Jorwar Singh, names of Guru Gobind Singh’s two valiant sons killed by Aurangzeb. “I did no mistake. I’m re-converting to rectify the fault of my grandmother who, on being captured, converted to Islam” said Ramasimhan. His brother, Alippu aka Dayasimhan, later became Narasimhan Namboothiri. Learned brahmins arranged his marriage to Kamala, a Namboothiri girl. Every Hindu must remember this spirited action of Namboothiri brahmins of Kerala, a precedent of Gharwapsi to Brahmin Varna.

Mattummal Narasimha-murthi Temple

Ramasimhan took the initiative to rebuild Angadipuram Malaaparamba Maattumal Narasimhamoorthi temple destroyed by Tipu Sultan and later by Moplah rioters. He restored regular worship there. Gharwapsi of Ramasimhan made the fundamentalist Moplah Muslims of Malabar furious. They feared an exodus from Islam. They slaughtered Ramasimhan, his brother Narasimhan, the wife of Narasimhan, and Raju Iyer, a Brahmin cook of Ramasimhan, in the midnight of August 2nd, 1947. Apostates got punished under the Sharia law. Moplahs pillaged and desecrated Mattummal Shri Narasimha temple two weeks after murdering Ramasimhan and his family. Bloodstains of the slain Ramasimhan and his family were seen on the walls of the Rubber Estate bungalow over a long period. The culprits, including the father-in-law of Ramasimhan, were sentenced to death by the lower court but were later acquitted by the Madras High Court.

“The failure of the prosecution to prove the offence against the appellants was not due to any defect in the investigation, which seems to have been most carefully and certainly very honestly conducted. No attempt was made to make evidence, where none was naturally forthcoming; and if the police were unable to obtain more evidence, it was because the Moplah community largely succeeded in maintaining secrecy. It was almost impossible for the police to obtain any more evidence relating to the crime without their cooperation.” the court observed.

Later in 1992, efforts for temple reconstruction began. After thirteen years of protracted legal struggle, the Sri Narasimhamoorthy Temple Trust received the lands on which the Temple once stood. This event marked the commencement of the sacred effort to reconstruct the Temple physically. The six hundred acres of land that belonged to the temple in Ramasimhan’s estate is now occupied by various individuals of the Moplah community. Temple trust got sixty-seven cents of property following a court order in 2005. Kerala Kshetra Samrakshana Samiti leader, V.K Balachandran Master, became a patron, along with C. P. Janardhanan, the Chairman of the Malaparamba Narasimhamoorthy Charitable Trust registered in 2003. The Kanchi Acharya conferred his blessings and presented a cheque of Rs. 10 lakhs for the re-construction of the Malaparamba Mattummal Sri Narasimhamoorthy Temple. Karnataka Chief Minister Sri Yeddyurappa donated a handsome amount for the temple’s renovation.

Nalambalam – four temples of Sri Rama and brothers

Vadakkedathu and Thekkedathu Mana in Ramapuram near Mankada in Malappuram were famous for the dharma-karyas conducted by the families. The Salagrama murti of Rama is believed to be brought from Nepal to the Vadakkedathu Mana by a brahmin a millennium ago. Tipu’s troops had ambushed and killed a large number of Hindus of this town and ravaged all the four temples. They razed down the Lakshmana Swami temple, the Bharata and Shatrughna temples, and the Rama temple was also in a vandalised state. As the Rama temple was the most important and famous temple among the four, it was restored immediately in the early 19th century. Now, despite various difficulties in accumulating funds, the remaining three temples are also being reclaimed and rebuilt.

Lakshmana Swami Temple

The restoration of the Lakshmana temple is complete and is managed by a locally formed committee. Since the Hindu demography around the temple is very low, a brahmin from Kanpur serves as the archaka here. This is an example of the incredible strength of solidarity among Hindus which, when ignited, can overcome regionalism and other internal divisions, no matter in which form they subsist. Worship has also restarted in Bharata temple at Chirammal and Shatrughna temple at Naraanath. Donations from devotees were a significant source of finance for the renovation works. The administration of Shatrughna temple is under Thekkedathu Mana, while a committee of devotees is administering Bharata temple just like the Lakshmana temple. Malabar Devaswom board took over the Rama temple from the Vadakkedath Mana recently. It is the most famous and important income-generating temple in the town. The Devaswom board, controlled by the secular state, seizes wealthy temples once the devotees reconstruct, renovate and flourish a temple which had been lying in ruins. This has been a regular menace for the Hindus of Kerala. Devaswom Board or State has never shown any interest or support in rebuilding any of the ancient temples demolished by Tipu or the Moplahs.

Kalad Vamana Temple

Kalad is a village near Tirur, one of the notable towns in Malappuram district. Sri Vilvamangalattu Swamiyaar consecrated the deity of Kaladu Vamanamoorthi temple. The temple is built on an area of 1.80 acres, with a further 1.56 acres ground in front allotted as the utsava ground. The main deity is Vishnu as Vamana Avatar. There are shrines for Bhagavati (Devi) and Ayyappan (Dharma Shasta) also. The village also had a Shiva temple in the past.

Tipu’s troops vandalised all the temples in the 18th century. Locals had rebuilt the main Vishnu temple along with the sub-shrines in the early 19th century, and the temple continued to function well. It was a well-endowed institution which used to receive 12,000 paras (112 tons) of paddy as annual rental revenue from the lands endowed. The annual festival of 28 days was around the Thiruvonam day (Shravana nakshatra) of Tula month (Sep-Oct) in Malayalam calendar. Daily Annadaanam also used to happen in the temple.

This famous temple was looted and desecrated again during the 1921 Moplah riots – the murtis broken and temple vandalised in general. The temple was partially restored within a decade, but the collection of rent from Muslim tenants of temple lands became a colossal exercise. They had to be legally forced to pay the rent. In spite of this, the temple sustained itself in a functional form until the Land reforms legislation in post-independent India took away the source of the temple’s income.

Although the Kerala Land Reforms Act requires that a perpetual annuity shall be paid as compensation to the religious institutions, no annuity is paid by the Kerala government as compensation. Lack of income and inadequate financial as well as the demographic status of local Hindus, led to the abandonment of the already ruined temple. A local Muslim family occupied the utsava grounds of 1.56 acres. When a few local Hindus earned well due to immigration to the Gulf as well as becoming entrepreneurs in the 1980s, they changed the fate of the wrecked temple. A few local Hindus who were observing the vrata to visit the Sabarimala temple decided to visit the old temple ruins for their daily worship. They cleared the weeds and lighted lamps before the shrines of the deities. The Hindus reclaimed the temple land and utilised a portion of the property to build a new temple for the three deities. The devotees also initiated a legal action against the occupier of temple utsava grounds and thus put an end to the illegal occupation.

Kalad Vamana Temple

Today, a smaller but well-functioning temple stands at this place of Vamanamoorthi in Kalad. One portion of the original 1.80 acres has been converted into a Hindu middle school (named Saravasti Vidya Mandir) under the control of the temple. Local Hindu students from nearby areas attend the school. The school also provides dharmic education, which has helped the next generation of Hindus in growing up with more dharmic awareness.

The newly built temple has a small shrine dedicated to Shiva whose temple was entirely destroyed by the Islamic extremists. Since the original Shiva-lingam was lost, the deity has been invoked on an empty platform. Lord Shiva is worshipped as arupi (without a form) in this temple. This acts as a reminder of the past and tells that the gods exist even though marauders destroy their abodes. Although the financial difficulties restrict the temple festival to just one day, and annadanam is not happening as it was in the past, the Hindus of the locality are running the temple efficiently. The temple serves as a bonding place and a place of spiritual solace for the beleaguered community.

Temples of Tavanur

Vasudevapuram Krishna

One of the great Hindu saints of medieval Kerala, Vilwamangalath Swamiyar, who wrote Krishna Karnamruta, was born in the Namboodiri Brahmin family of Vella Mana in Tavanur (near Kuttipuram). The remains of the house’s foundations can be seen there even today, along the southern banks of River Nila, within the campus of Kelappaji College of Agricultural Engineering and Technology (KCAET), Tavanur. Swamiyar built a Krishna temple for his mother. This temple came to be known as Vasudevapuram temple. Tipu’s marauders razed this temple and the Vella illam, the ancestral home of Vilwamangalathu Swamiyar. Only the balipitha and a few other remains of the temple existed in the place where a grand temple once stood. For about 170 years, the temple remains lied abandoned as Hindus became a minuscule minority in the village after Tipu’s pillage. Post-independence, under the leadership of K. Kelappan, renovation process started by collecting funds from the Malayali Hindus. Today, a beautiful temple housing the murtis of Krishna, Ganesha and a Shivalinga stands amidst 40 cents of land.

Brahma Temple

Brahma Temple

Tavanur has three maha kshetras (magnificent temples) – one each of Krishna, Brahma and Shiva. The Brahma and Shiva temples are more than 1300 years old. The Brahma temple of Tavanur houses a beautiful murti of Brahma holding sruk, sruva, Vedas and the kamandala. The sruk and sruva are ladles used to do yajna. Prajapati Brahma is closely associated with yajna. Perhaps this is the only single temple dedicated to Lord Brahma in the entire state of Kerala. There are no other murtis in this temple. After desecration by Tipu, the temple remained dilapidated till the previous decade. The locals claim that they suffered from sudden outbursts of diseases every few years probably due to the anger of Brahma whose temple remained in ruins.

About a decade ago, the locals started rebuilding the temple, and  puja to Brahma is conducted uninterruptedly. The reconstruction of the temple is almost finished. Hindu students of the locality have also taken to worshipping Brahma sincerely, as he is the husband of Sarasvati and thus seen as the Lord of knowledge.

Shiva Temple

Tavanur got its name after the Shiva temple here. Lord Shiva is performing tapasya here. Tapasya is known as ‘tavam’ in Malayalam. Thus, the place where Lord Shiva does tapasya has come to be known as Tavanur (site of tapasya). Unlike the previous two temples, worship in the Shiva temple had been continued quite soon after the destruction by Tipu. At the end of the 18th century, the Hindus rebuilt the vandalised temple. This temple of Shiva houses a small Shivalingam that sits in a serene neighborhood right on the banks of the river.  Devotees can access the river from the temple. The nearby presence of the famous Rig Veda centre, the Thirunavaya Veda pathshala, enhances the serenity of the location.

The organisation named KBSV Bharat has been actively working for the restoration of temples and lands which were ravaged by the invaders in Malappuram.

Temples of Kannur

Vadeshwaram Maha Shiva kshetra

Built in the 4th century CE by the Mushika king, or Kolaswaroopam vaanavar Vatukavarma, in the Ashtadala (eight-petalled) style of architecture, the Vadeshwaram Shiva temple is perhaps the only temple to be built in this style. The great poet Atula mentions this temple in his chronicles of the Mushika dynasty. The majestic temple was demolished during the raids of Tipu.

In the 1970s, the local people found the ruins of the basement and parts of Garbha sree kovil. Slowly, the Hindus in Kannur planned for rebuilding the magnificent temple, recognising the importance of the blessings of the grama-devata for the prosperity of their kith and kin. A renovation committee was formed and work began in the eighties. The whole reconstruction is carried out according to the traditional Vastu-Shastra principles under the guidance of Kanippayyur Krishnan Namboothiri and Shilpi Rajeevan Payyanat. Locally available laterite stones and lime mortar are used.

Mahadeva is Aghora murthi here. Besides, the temple complex houses Shiva in four different bhavas as the four main upadevatas – Umamaheswara, Sastha, Dakshinamoorthy and Kirathamoorthy. There are Sree Krishna and Ganapathy temples as well. Recently, a hoard of ancient coins and artefacts was excavated from the temple premises. Whatever has remained of the original temple is still a rich mine of ancient Vattezhuthu and Kolezhuth inscriptions. Regular akhanda Nama-japa is conducted in the temple on pradosham by the Matru Samiti. This temple used to hold the annual congregation of scholars known as Aswathi Pattathanam, similar to the Revathi Pattathanam by Zamorin’s court. After 400 years, Aswathi Pattathanam was restarted in 2019. The temple also hosts annadanam every Saturday and Sunday.

Even after decades of work, the Ashtadala sree kovil is not yet finished. However, the reconstruction committee is ambitious about rebuilding the massive temple exactly how it was before the marauders destroyed it. The apparent economic weakness of the local Hindus makes the reconstruction process slower. It takes many generations to rebuild old royal temples. With no support from the government and Archeological authorities of India which spends crores for beautifying Mughal tombs, whatever the Hindus of Kerala are doing to preserve every heritage of the ancestors is admirable.

Vayalapra Nambiar Family and Mukkunnil Kottamparambil Vettakkorumakan temple

The more than 400 years old Vayalapra Nambiar family in Pariyaram, Kannur, had to flee, abandoning their family temple and properties, during the jihad of Hyder Ali and his son Tipu. The later generations had no idea about the ancient family temple. A few years ago, a routine astrological consultation revealed the seat of the family deity in the old family land. They searched for the property in the foretold place and found the remains of the temple. But, the area was now occupied by Muslims. After lengthy negotiations by the local Hindus, the Vayalapra Nambiar family could repurchase 80 cents of land for the restoration of their kuladharma.

While clearing the undergrowth on the land, an ancient well, a pond and many other remains of the temple as described by the astrologer were unveiled. In April 2017, Perumkaliyattam (traditional grand theyyam festival) was conducted for the first time after 250 years. After that, arrangements have been started for the renovation of the temple, pond, well, and the Vayalapra Nambiar’s Tharavadu (family home).

Through devaprashnam, the presiding deities of the temple have been identified as Vettakkoru Makan (son of Lord Shiva and Parvathi worshipped mainly in Kerala), Urpazhassi (deity worshipped as the protector of the region), Bhagavathi and Ancestor-Guru. Peelikkode Neelakantan Mootha Asari began the reconstruction works. Balalaya pratishtha was done in September 2018.

The Temple reclamation movement in Kerala so far has rebuilt thousands of temples ravaged by the Islamic invasion. Several families who completely drifted away from the worship of the Kula-devata due to communism and progressive zeal have been reverting to dharma due to personal ill effects and the general weakness of the Hindu community in a particular area. Astrological techniques such as devaprashnam help to retrace the ruined temples and re-establish dharma in the region. Most of the re-consecration activities are executed at local or family levels. In many cases, when a family member gathers wealth, he inducts the family temple reconstruction plan. Mostly, a single individual’s initiative leads to a massive dharmic rejuvenation in the community. The re-consecrated temples across Kerala are an excellent example of how the young generation is ready to go back to their roots to upkeep the honour of their illustrious ancestors.

These stories of reconstructing the temples stand as testimony to the resilience of Hindus in adhering to their dharma against high odds. Most temples destroyed by Tipu were in ruins. A large segment of temple properties was encroached by Muslims who were settled by Tipu during his raid. Almost all of these temples are now being reclaimed and rebuilt. Even though land reforms and social engineering activities by the secular democracy has pushed the Hindus into the margins economically and politically, the Hindus of Malabar have pooled their earnings to reconstruct the ancient temples. They expect that the installation and worship of their native deities will result in the restoration of the lost glory of the region. They are a model in reviving the temples of a locality, cherishing the past grandeur and propagating dharma to the next generation. Such examples give us a heart that not all is lost until we have people who are committed. If Tavanur-Thirunavaya can protect one of the rarest Rg Vedic traditions, if Hindus from Kannur can aspire to rebuild a magnificent ancient temple, Hindus from other parts of India can achieve much more, if only they have the heart for that.

All images used in this article were captured by Ravilochanan G. and have been used with permission.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

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Anjali George

Anjali George is an activist, writer and a reformer who is extremely passionate and ardent about the preservation of Indic and indigenous cultures. She is one of the pioneers behind the ‘Ready To Wait’ movement, that was launched to ascertain the rights of the indigenous women in opposition to a politically motivated attack on the tradition of Sabarimala temple. She serves on the Board of Frankfurt City's Council of religions, Indic Collective, and Shaktitva foundation. She is also the chairperson of People for Dharma.