Temples under Secular Government: Case study of Tripunithura

The ancient and rich temples of Bharat have been the birthplace of controversies ever since their administration was taken over by the secular government. The common accusation made by the devotees on the secular government is that the practices introduced by the government with the motive of better administration are more focused on turning them into tourist spots, rather than maintaining their sanctity as a place of worship.

Let us have a detailed analysis over this claim by comparing the situation of Sri Poornatrayeesha Temple at Tripunithura, Kochi – a temple earlier under the King of Cochin and now under the secular government.

The Poornathreyeesha temple at Tripunithura in the Ernakulam district of Kerala is one of the most important temples in Kerala. Poornathrayeesha is the patron deity of Cochin royal family who ruled that region and hence the administration of the temple was completely taken care of by the royal family before the takeover of the temple by the secular government. The deity is worshipped as Santana Gopala Murthi, a rare form of Vishnu associated with children.

The legend states that the deity was installed by Arjuna himself in Dvapara Yuga. Since Arjuna was from Kuru dynasty, the Cochin royalty was also known as Kuru Swaroopam or Kuru royalty after their association with the temple. The Cochin rulers were considered as the direct descendants of the last Chera king who ruled unified Kerala, and thus they were the highest ranking Kshatriyas of Kerala.

The name Poornathrayeesha refers to the Lord of 3 complete Vedas and Tripunithura was earlier known as Poornavedapuri or the region of 3 complete Vedas. The 3 Vedas refers to Rig, Sama and Yajur Vedas, excluding the last Atharva Veda. This might hint at an ancient tradition when Tripunithura was center of learning the first 3 Vedas. Some sources suggest that Tripunithura was also known as Vedanadu or the land of Vedas.

The members of the Cochin royal family were patrons of Sanskrit tradition and the royalty has produced many Sanskrit scholars and poets who authored many works.  Among them, Vira Kerala Varma who lived during 18th century must be specially mentioned. He authored works like Poornatrayeeshashataka, Dashavatarashlokamala, various Attakathas (stories composed to suit the art-form of Kathakali) etc. His court was adorned by various other Sanskrit scholars like Arur Atithiri, Muthukurussi Bhaskara, Itavettikattu Narayanan Namboothiri, Cheranallur Krishnan Kartha, Elayitathu Narayanan Namboothiri etc. This Vira Kerala Varma was a follower of Madhva philosophy from Karnataka.

Just like Vira Kerala Varma, a female member of the Cochin royal family named Subhadra or Ikku Amma Thampuran was also a great scholar and poet. She authored works like Poornatrayeeshastotra, Poornatrayeeshakeshadipadavarnana etc. She was also interested in Nyaya school of logic and also Vykarana or study of Sanskrit grammar. Thus both male and female members of the Cochin family were masters of Sanskrit knowledge contradicting the popular claim of many left liberals that Hindu monarchs always denied education to women in their family.

The royalty also supported different traditional artforms. Nangyar koothu, Chakyar Koothu, Chenda Melam, Kudiyattam, Kathakali and various Thullals which were held in the Poornatrayeesha temple during festivals.  Along with these other art forms like Kurattiyattam, Ramayananatakam etc were also held, and these latter ones were performed by so called ‘non Brahmanical’ communities contradicting the liberal myth of Brahminical oppression where they claim that only upper castes were given access to traditional art forms. Most of these art forms have now disappeared without proper patronage after the takeover of the temple by the government.

The King of Cochin always had a friendly approach towards his subjects. This is apparent from the fact that representatives of the scheduled castes were given dignified positions in the procession day of Attachamayam at Tripunithura.  Committed to social welfare, Rajarshi Rama Varma constructed the railway line from Shoranur to Kochi. The King requested the British Government to extend the line for which the British advised him to raise the finances by imposing extra tax on his people to meet the expenses.

But unwilling to burden his subjects with extra tax, on top of the heavy tax they were already paying under the pressure exerted by the British, Rajarshi  found a solution to the problem by deciding to sell 14 out of the 15 nettipattams (golden caparisons) used to adorn the temple elephants during the festivals. This was largely opposed by his family members and the devotees, but the King convinced them by explaining the pressure he was facing from the British and the extreme importance of the railway line which was about to be constructed.

Recently, a controversy arose when the secular state government of Kerala decided to sell the only ancient nettipattam in order to make a new one by stating that it had become difficult for them to adorn the elephant using it due to the large size of the elephants’ forehead. When this theory was quashed by the local devotees, various endowment officers in the temple compared their act of lobbying to sell this priceless heritage, with the above act of Rajarshi. Is the secular state government saying it is under the same pressure faced by Rajarshi from the British, in order to be making such a comparison?

Vrischikolsavam is the most important festival of this temple. Among the eight days of this festival, there are special functions on certain days. The fourth day of this festival is known as Trikettapurappaat (procession on the day of Triketta). Expenses of the festival on different days were divided among different groups of people, and different sub committees were formed for the management of various aspects of the festival like food, stage performances etc. These groups were given all the powers such that one among them even punished Sakthan Tampuran, the famous King of Cochin known for starting the Thrissur Pooram festival, quashing the accusation of the King having all the authorities to indulge in misdeeds without any supervisions, as made by the left liberal sections of society. Now, the arrangements of the festival are done entirely by the organisations currently running the temple, which has witnessed various accusations of less transparency in the past few decades.

During Vrischikolsavam, Seeveli (holy procession) of the deity at noon and night with 15 elephants is a colourful event. Percussion arts, ritual as well as entertainment, all happen during this procession. After the takeover of the temple by the government, the festival of Vrischikolsavam, though still being celebrated in a grand manner, has seen the rise of so many controversies from the disappearance of certain art forms to the lobbying controversy over the ancient nettipattam.

The accusations of corruption and practices unhealthy for democracy, which were cited as the major reasons for the takeover of the temple, have now resurfaced in the light of these controversies as the government authorities taking care of the administration of the temple are not answerable to the community.

The Poornatrayeesha temple, which is slowly losing its heritage and traditional values, is one among the many temples of Bharat which are being converted into tourist spots rather than being maintained as places of worship by the secular government. It is now upto us Hindus to question the unconstitutional acts which are  currently taking place in the temples that connect us with our ancestors through their traditions and cultural heritage.

References: “The Royal Family of Cochin and Sanskrit Studies” (An Anthology in Honour of Ramavarma Pariksit Tampuran)

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Paanchajanya
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