Visiting Guruvayoor 

Sheila Kumar goes back home 

Architecturally, this is a stunning temple. Guruvayoor has two entrances —
 the kizhekke nada or eastern entrance and the patinjare nada, the western 
entrance. The walls of the nalambalam, the quadrangular building that surrounds
 the sanctum sanctorum, house niches for an array of chuttuvilakku (small oil lamps) 
that glow brilliantly when lit in the evenings. The walls of the sreekovil, the sanctum
 sanctorum, are decorated with murals chronicling the life of the Lord and the roof is
 covered with gold. The idol of Guruvayoorappan is carved out of pathalanjana sila 
(black bismuth), and decorated with jewels and golden ornaments. Everything here
 calls for fascinated scrutiny: the 7-m pillar of lamps (deepasthambam); the huge
 black pillars; the red-tiled koothambalam (where the Koothu folk dance is performed
 on festival days); the shrines of minor deities like Ganapati and Lord Ayyappa; the
 large and elaborately worked bell metal vilakku (lamps); and the huge copper vessels
 where payasam (rice pudding) is prepared daily.

Guruvayoor temple is renowned for its healing powers. Several offerings are made 
to the deity, from the simple archana (worship) to the expensive and elaborate 
udayastamana puja or thulabharam where a devotee is weighed and an offering
 in kind (bananas, sugar, jaggery, coconuts or even silver for the very rich) of the
 same weight is made to the Lord. Elaborate puja take place all through the day 
and there is always a long queue leading to the innards of the temple. Elders and
 the physically challenged, though, are allowed access through a special door.

Three times a day, elephants are dressed for the seeveli ceremony where they carry 
the idol around the inner compound on their caparisoned backs. I stop to watch a young
 pachyderm perform the ritual. Near the entrance to the sanctum sanctorum is a huge 
urli (vessel made of bell metal) filled with bright redmanjadikuru seeds seen on roadside
 hedges all over Kerala. As Lord Krishna was a naughty child in his infancy, devotees pray
 for the Lord’s favour in controlling their wayward children or curing them of skin ailments 
by taking a handful of the seeds and ploughing them back into the urli three times, 
accompanied by money. Today, there are three children scrabbling in the urli with glee.
 Meanwhile in the inner precincts, two men perform the shayanapradikshanam
circumambulating the sanctum sanctorum by rolling on the ground — it could be an 
act of atonement, the fulfilment of a vow or a gesture of thanksgiving.

Just outside the entrance to the sanctum sanctorum, sunlight filters through to the 
two mandap (canopy). Guruvayoor is a very popular place for Malayalis to get married. 
In peak season — November to December — a remarkable 100 marriages are conducted 
per day. The whole streamlined process, where families queue patiently for their 20 to 
30 minute turn in the mandap, is astounding for non-Malayalis to witness. It’s not uncommon
 to see members of wedding parties briefly peel away from the queue to check out the stalls
 on the periphery where luridly coloured slabs of halva, pictures of Guruvayoorappan and 
gold-edged sari and mundusets jostle for space.

Despite Guruvayoor’s phenomenal popularity, in recent years the temple management
 has come in for criticism owing to its stringent regulations. Only Hindus are permitted
 inside — this rule came in for flak when famed Malayali singer Jesudas, who has sung
 many paeans to Guruvayoorappan, was not allowed to enter the temple. There’s also 
a strict dress code — male devotees have to wear a dhoti and leave their torso bare 
while female devotees, until recently, had to wear a sari; now a salwar-kameez is 
allowed. Shirts, vests, footwear, video cameras, cell phones, radios, children still in
 the incontinent stage are all banned. However, still cameras are permitted in the 
outer periphery of the temple, where the thulabharam is performed. After taking some
 pictures here, I head to Sri Krishna Inn, where I gorge on a wholesome vegetarian
 thali for lunch. Then, I head home for an afternoon nap, before bathing and heading
 back to the temple for the evening puja. My agenda for the next day includes an early
 darshan of Lord Shiva at the Mamiyoor temple, 2 km away.

Riding on the highway to Guruvayoor, 30 km west of Thrissur, 
signboard after signboard reminds me just how far away I am from
 the Lord — strictly in terms of physical distance. As I belong to a 
large clan that has its roots in this temple town, it is with some 
amount of ownership that I write about the fourth most visited 
shrine in India after Badrinath, Puri and Tirupati. For the Malayali 
Hindu, this is the holiest-of-holies, the abode of Lord 
Guruvayoorappan; the Vatican, Harmandar Sahib and Mecca 
rolled into one. For me this is a homecoming after a decade
 away. Comfortingly, nothing essential has changed. The temple
 stands, solid as a rock; the town trundles to its own beat; and 
my great-aunts are still stout and devout — indeed, God is in 
His heaven and all is well. In this fast-changing world, it is 
wonderful to return to something that waits just as it is, patiently, for you.

I catch a fleeting glimpse of the dwajasthambam, the 33-m golden 
flag post made of a single piece of teakwood and covered by bell 
metal plated with gold. As I enter the precincts of the temple, bells 
chime, loudspeakers relay the tale of the Lord told simply and succinctly
 in Malayalam, and just about every gold-edged-mundu clad person
 I pass on the road is chanting under their breath. The sun
 glints on the emerald rudratheertham (temple pond) where worshippers
 take a holy dip, their lips moving in prayer, totally oblivious to 
anything around them. Something about the bustling atmosphere,
 the little tea shops lining the pathway to the temple entrance, 
the air of purpose that permeates the place, finds deep resonance
 within me. I catch the eye of a young girl clad in a pavadai
 (long skirt) and we exchange smiles.

The deity at the temple, which dates back to the 16th century,
 is a representation of Mahavishnu with four arms though devotees 
worship him as Lord Krishna. As the story goes, when Krishna left this
 world, his city Dwarka was submerged in the ocean. He entrusted his 
disciple Udhava with an idol and asked him to meet Brihaspathi, the 
guru of gods. With the help of Vayu (the god of air), Brihaspathi 
found a sanctified place recommended by Lord Shiva. There, they 
installed the deity and Shiva named the site Guruvayoor. After
 installing the idol, Lord Shiva moved to the nearby Mamiyoor 
temple from where, according to mythology, he keeps a vigilant 
eye on both the temple and its devotees.

There’s more to Guruvayoor than puja and darshan though. From the 
Mamiyoor temple, I head to the Punathoorkota Elephant Sanctuary, 3 km away
 from the Guruvayoor temple. This visit to arguably the largest elephant sanctuary 
in the world is the highlight of my trip. Aeons ago, the land belonged to my family
. Whenever any of us visit, we light a lamp at the Bhagvathi shrine inside the
 grounds. I take a walk around the 11-acre compound that is home to 63 elephants.
 I meet Nandini, tethered to a solid stump, Unnikuttan who is eating heartily, and
 Mahadevan, being scrubbed down with coconut husk. The elephant handlers are
 talking animatedly to their charges — it almost seems as if the elephants u
nderstand every word being said!

I wind down my day with a visit to Palayur Church, 3 km away. Believed to have been 
founded by St Thomas the Apostle, the church is about two millennia old; an austere 
building with a silvered statue of St Thomas on the roof and indigenous touches like 
stone lamps and the uniquely Indian practice of removing your footwear before entering. 
The thaliyurkulam, a pond at the rear of the church, is the spot where St Thomas
 is said to have come upon locals offering water to their deities. As the water fell
 back into the pond, the saint averred that their gods weren’t accepting their offering.
 He then made an offering of water to his god, which disappeared in the air. All the locals
 are said to have immediately accepted the faith.

On my last day, I decide to visit Chavakad beach, 10 km away from Guruvayoor.
 I traverse what is known in these parts as ‘mini Dubai’, marked by cement monstrosities
 that serve as dwellings and an air of wealth that stands out sharply in a state known 
for its simplicity. The little strip of beach is a welcome haven without any shacks or stalls.
 I climb atop the Chetwai lighthouse, 30 m high with 145 steps, and enjoy a view of the
 gleaming sea in front and emerald coconut plantations to the rear. 

If you’re in a self-indulgent frame of mind, you can round off your trip with a visit to Rajah
 Island, a swank Ayurvedic spa just an hour’s drive from Chavakad on the Ernakulam NH17,
, 30 km from Guruvayoor. Visitors are taken to the island by boat. On offer are Ayurvedic doctors, 
masseurs, charming cottages, houseboats in the Kashmiri and Kerala style, swimming pool, 
fishing points, and delicious food that strictly follows Ayurvedic dietary guidelines. I spent three
 days there once and returned home energised and lighter — both my weight and my wallet.

The weather is good from August to March. The temple is crowded all year round but 
wintertime is particularly bad, while mid-May to mid-June is relatively leaner. The best time 
for Ayurveda therapy, though, is June to September.

By air: The nearest airport is Nedumbassery Airport at Kochi (87 km).

By rail: The nearest railhead is Thrissur Junction (30 km).

Guruvayoor temple: Opens at 3 am, closes between 12.30 pm and 4.30 pm, and reopens
 at 4.30 pm to close at 9.15 pm.

Mamiyoor temple: Open from 6 am to 11.30 am in the mornings and from 4.30 pm to 
7 pm in the evenings.

Punathoorkota Elephant Sanctuary: Open from 10 am to 5 pm. There is an entry fee of 
Rs 10 and a camera fee of Rs 25.

Chetwai Lighthouse, Chavakad beach: Open from 10 am to 1 pm, 3 pm to 5 pm. There
 is an entry fee of Rs 5.

Rajah Island: Ayurvedic treatment available from three to 28 days; rates range from Rs 
5,000 to Rs 47,000. For more details, contact Rajah Healthy Acres, Perumanoor, Palakkad. 
Tel: 0466-2256305/405. Visitwww.ayurvedichospital.com 

This bustling temple town has plenty of hotels for visitors and worshippers offering
 spotlessly clean rooms, running hot water, 24-hour room service and excellent local 
food (rice, rasamsambhar, vegetables).

These include:
Hotel Elite; Tariff: Rs 500-1,600; Tel: 0487-2556216, 2555218

Hotel Sopanam Heritage; Tariff: Rs 700-1,850; Tel: 0487-2555244, 2555336;

Sri Krishna Inn; Tariff: Rs 1,200-1,600; Tel: 0487-2550777; www.krishnainn.com

For more information, contact the District Tourism Promotion Council, Palace Road, Chembakavvu, Thrissur; Tel: 0487-23208000; www.keralatourism.com

Featured in Harmony Magazine
February 2008

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