Dr Vaidehi Nathan
Sacred Complex of the Guruvayur Temple, PRG Mathur, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, and Aryan Books International, Pp xxvi+246 (129 colour illustrations), Rs 2000
The Guruvayur temple in Kerala is one of the most sacred sites of the Hindus. The idol of the presiding deity, Vishnu, is believed to have been reached there by Vayu under the guidance of Guru, at the beginning of Kaliyug. It was taken from Dwarka, just before the sea devoured the city.
Sacred Complex of the Guruvayur Temple written by PRG Mathur, an ardent devotee hailing from a family of dedicated followers of the temple, gives a complete account of the location and physical structure of the temple, the myths and beliefs about the temple, the daily rituals, the festivals associated with the temple, great literary works done on the deity, the interior of the temple, rich in murals and wood work and the various offerings and puja at the temple conducted by the devotees.
“Guruvayur is believed to have become divine because of the prolonged penance of Shiva in the Rudratirtha (temple tank). During this time, the Prachetas, the ten sons of Prachina Barhis, also started a penance for the birth of a son. Shiva emerged out of the tank and taught them the Rudra Gita. As a result Daksha Prajapati was born to the Prachetas. The tank is the venue for the aarattu (immersion ceremony) of Guruvayurappan’s processional idol at the annual festival of the temple in March.” The idol in the temple (mulavigraha) is believed to be made of the rare mineral Patalajanam. According to sage Dattatreya, the idol was worshipped by Narayana in Vaikuntha and came into the possession of his eighth avatara Sri Krishna in Dwaraka.
Mathur describes the selection of the place for the temple and the basic structure, both being guided by the shastras, and the geographic condition of the region. Then he moves on to give a detailed account of the temple complex, starting with the gopuram, the temple towers. In front of the eastern tower is the 33-feet high lamp pillar (deepasthambham), cast in bell metal. Its counterpart in the western side is 27 feet high. These are lit on special occasions or whenever a devotee contributes to lighting on the granting of a wish. The entrances lead to the perambulatory path (pradakshina viidhi). Several shrines and store rooms are located on this.
Like in most Hindu temples, the opening of the doors of the sanctum sanctorum in the morning is the most majestic and sacred daily ritual. The bells are rung at 3.00 a.m. the senior priest enters the temple, brightens the single wick, and removes the previous days’ flowers to be distributed among the devotees. This is followed by the sacred bathing, dressing the devotee and sacred offering of food.
Several literary works dedicated to Guruvayurappan have been written over the centuries. Prominent among them are Narayaneeyam by Melppathur Narayana Bhattatiri, who is believed to have received the manifestation of Krishna during the course of the Sanskrit composition of the 1000 verse song. Poonthanam composed the Jnaanapaana in Malayalam. It is said that he was once attacked by robbers and was saved by a warrior on horseback. The grateful poet game him his signet ring and told the warrior to come to his house to receive more. The next day, when Poonthanam went to the temple, the priest gave him the ring and informed that he had been instructed by the deity to do so. Both belonged to the sixteenth century. Vilwamangalam, Kurur Amma, Manavedan, the Zamorin king of Calicut are some of the others who have written works on Guruvayurappan.
Mathur gives an elaborate account of the various puja done in the temple, the ensemble of musical instruments used in rites and rituals, the structure of the temple administration, and the worship offered by the devotees. Unique among the offerings is the thulabharam in which the devotees are weighed against various things, as per their capacity and desire, which are surrendered to the temple. Banana, gur and sugar are among the most offered.
The book has several colour plates and drawings, making it heavy. But they are very well reproduced. There are three rich appendices on the Miracles of Guruvayurappan, Guruvayur Devaswam Act and Judicial interference and Ecology of the Guruvayur Temple. A glossary, bibliography and detailed index add weight to the book. PRG Mathur, an applied anthropologist, has rich experience in community studies and has received several awards and recognitions. He lives in his native village Mathur, in Palakkad, Kerala.
(Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, 11 Mansingh Road, New Delhi, 110 001)