By Susheela Nair
Sprawling atop a hillock (Thekkinkadu Maidan) in the heart of Thrissur town, the more than 1200-year old Vadakkunnathan temple is surrounded by a lofty stone wall and four imposing gateways. The temple contains the sacred shrines of Paramashiva, Parvathy, Sankaranarayana, Ganapathy, Krishna, Rama and its cover of sacred and medicinal trees. Lord Shiva, the presiding deity, is worshipped as Vadakkunathan. This ancient temple is a classical example of Kerala architecture, featuring low, tiled roofs and a profusion of woodwork. The temple, a treasure trove of a large number of decorative mural paintings, wood carvings chronicling scenes from the Mahabharatha and pieces of art, never ceases to amaze me.
Incidentally, the temple has proved that it is not just a place of worship but a repository of culture and heritage unmatched in Kerala’s history, by bagging the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award of Excellence’ 2015 for its remarkable conservation efforts. This coveted award can be attributed to the commendable conservation efforts of the Archaeological Survey of India and the temple authorities for the past 13 years, to preserve the temple's cultural heritage in a pristine form using jaggery, lime, natural herbs and special Ayurvedic oil sans any cement. The Award recognizes the remarkable conservation efforts undertaken at the sacred site, which employed age-old rituals and techniques drawn from vaastu shastra, an Indian traditional science focusing on architecture and construction.
Samadhi of Adi Sankara in the perambulatory of the temple.
A striking feature of the temple is the exquisite architecture of the Koothambalam, which one sees on the left side as one enters the temple through the western gopuram. This is the traditional temple theatre hall for staging Chakyarkoothu and Krishnaattam, ancient dramatic forms of art famous in Kerala. The circular shaped main shrine is highly typical of Kerala architecture, with no signs of outside influence. The construction has all been done using locally available wood, granite, laterite and the like, varying according to accessibility. Sree Sankaracharya had visited the shrine, as has been chronicled in history. The Vadakunnathan Temple is considered to have been consecrated personally by Lord Parasurama of Hindu mythology.
Ayyappa temple in the Vadakkunathan temple premises
A unique feature of the temple is that many shrines inside and outside the Chuttambalam have to be visited in a customary manner, which the uninitiated may not find easy to observe. Legend has it that to be blessed with good fortune, one has to write Hari Shri Ganapathaye Namah on the Vyasashila stone under an Ashwattha tree. The idol of Vadakkunnathan is perpetually covered in a mound of ghee, which is the main offering to the deity. Pure ghee and kadali bananas are the traditional offerings. Ghee is poured over the shivalinga for abhishekam every day. Amazingly, the ghee mound does not melt over time. It is only taken out once a year to distribute as prasadam, which is believed to cure many diseases.
Koothambalam, the traditional temple theatre hall for staging ancient form of art
The temple plays host to the world famous Thrissur Pooram - a spectacular festival of colour, light and sound, flags and festoons, caparisoned elephants and captivating beats of the panchavadyam, illuminated temples and the breathtaking display of pyrotechnics. It also plays host to the annual Anayoottu festival, the ritualistic feeding ceremony of elephants, in its premises.
Susheela Nair is a Bangalore-based Food, Travel Writer & Photographer contributing articles, content and photos to several national publications, websites, and travel guide books.