Amid the controversy of restricting the entry of women of certain age group in Sabarimala Temple, here is an example of centuries-old temple in Kerala where the chief priest is a woman
Mannarasala Serpent Temple is unique among other temples in Kerala. The reason is obvious: It enjoys the rare honour of having a woman as the chief priestess. Dr Sheshanag, a member of the Mannarasala family, the owners of the temple, spoke to Organiser in details about the legend and rituals of the several centuries old temple. The presiding deity of Mannarasala Naga Temple is Nagaraja, the king of serpents, having spirit of Vasuki. Legend of the temple goes like this. After the Kshathriya nigraham (killing of Kshtriyas, the warriors) Parashuram went for penance and remorse. So, after reclaiming Kerala from the sea by wielding his axe, he gifted land to Brahmins. But, unfortunately the soil was saline hence infertile. Parashuram wanted to desalinate the soil. So he meditated for the blessings of Lord Shiva. Shiva asked him to meditate for the blessings of Vasuki, the Nagaraja (King of serpents). Vasuki was pleased with the meditation of Parashuram and he ensured the presence of serpents for the successful fertilisation of the soil. At this juncture, he consecrated the idol of Nagaraja at the present serpent temple site and gifted the land to a Brahmin family hailed from Irinjalakkuda, a place in the present Thrissur district.
Years passed and several generations came and disappeared. Once upon a time a couple called Vasudevan and Sreedevi became the heirs of the Brahmin family who looked after the serpent temple. They were issueless, hence were very sad and they craved for a child. They performed lot of special poojas for a child and always prayed for the fruition of their wish. During those days a very big and devastating wild fire spreaded in a wide area surrounding the temple premises. Naturally serpents came out to escape from the fire. Lots of them were injured in the fire. Sreedevi looked after them with great love, affection and devotion. She nurtured them with medicine and gave them tender coconut water to drink. Nagaraja was pleased with this rare gesture of the housewife. He informed her that he would take birth as her child. Within a few months Sreedevi gave birth to two children: One serpent baby with 5 heads and another one was a human baby girl. Sreedevi looked after both the babies. She showered love and affection on two babies equally. After a few years, the serpent baby disappeared to the underneath of the nilavara, a room dedicated for divine presence. Before going off, the serpent baby told Amma (mother) that he would be there; he asked the mother to do the needful for him the next day after Maha Shivaratri of every year. That is how the concept of Amma as the de facto chief priestess was established in Mannarasala. Once anointed an Amma has to observe the life of a strict brahmacharini, a celibate. She has to sleep alone in the nilavara until her samadhi (leaving for the heavenly abode). It is believed that the serpent baby was the embodiment of the spirit of Sheshanaga (Ananta), another serpent king hence that spirit is still present there.
Wife of the eldest one in the family takes over as Amma. The present Amma is revered Remadevi (85) who took over in 1993 from revered Savithri who attained samadhi at the age of 91. Savithri Amma took over at the age of 14 from Devaki Antharjanam, her predecessor. Savithri Amma came to Mannarasala as the family bride at the age of 13; her married life lasted for hardly one year; obviously she did not have any child. Amma’s regime lasted for 75 years. Sons and grandchildren of Remadevi Amma know about the predecessor of Devaki Antharjanam. They do not have much information or records about the further predecessors. If an Amma attains samadhi, her feet are washed with the holy water. The washing water of this ritual will be poured on the body of the Amma-designate when she is anointed to succeed the Amma in samadhi.
Dr Sheshanag, the grandson of Remadevi Amma, told Organiser that preparations will start four days before Maha Shivaratri Day. On normal days poojas for the presiding deity and other associate deities like Sarppayakshi, Nagayakshi and Nagachamundi are performed by priests belonging to the four families under Mannarasala umbrella family. The priesthood is on rotation. One month for one priest. But, Amma performs the poojas on Ayillyam and Pooyyam stars of every Malayalam calendar month. On Ayillyam star of Kanni and Thulaam months of the Malayalam calendar, pooja includes ezhunnellippu, the ceremonial procession like ritual. Amma performs poojas in the sanctum sanctorum for 12 days prior to Ayillyam star of Karkkidakam month. Amma performs poojas in all the associate temples within the Nagaraj temple premises. A temple has been dedicated for the 5 headed serpent baby. It is called Appooppan Kavu meaning the abode of the grandfather. Since he was the son of the great great grandmother Sreedevi, he is considered as the grandfather of all family members.
Amma gives darshan to the devotees every evening from the nilavara. She sits near the door, devotees queue up to have her darshan and vent their mental agonies and grievances. Amma consoles them and advises solutions and also gives them vibhooti, the sacred ash.
Most important offerings in Mannarasala Serpent Temple are Noorum Paalum and Uruli Kamazhthal. While former is quite common in all serpent temples in Kerala, the latter is the speciality in Mannarasala. Uruli is the big round bell metal vessel used for preparing payasam or sambar for big feasts of Kerala tradition. Issueless couples place such a vessel upside down before the Nagaraja deity. At the end of the day they are taken to Amma and kept near nilavara. It is believed that the women will conceive soon; the uruli will be lifted and placed properly once six months are over after the birth of the child. There is a story behind this offering. Centuries back a childless woman brought an uruli and placed before the deity. Amma used it for noorum paalum. The woman became pregnant soon.
The 16 acres land of the temple is known for its dense, green sacred grove like other serpent temples. Mannanrsala Temple family extends several charity activities to the society. Daily annadanam, free feast for the poor people, is one among them. The family trust formed to run the temple and rituals, runs a government aided upper primary school.
Mannarasala Serpent Temple is a golden example of eco-friendly life as well as the sweetness of motherhood. It once again underlines the Bharateeya system which has been upholding the bottom line of environment protection and the significance of motherhood. Here we see the practical application of the all time valid verse of Manusmriti: “Yatra naryastu pujyante ramante tatra Devata.” (Wherever women are honoured, divinity blossoms there.) —T Satisan, Kerala