At Udayamperoor village in Ernakulam district, I am guided to the famous Ameda temple easily. A huge ‘Ootupura’ where people are fed every day welcomes me and a temple stands right at the centre of the property.
So what is unique about this temple? Apart from the idol at the Sanctum Sanctorum, there are hundreds of thousands of idols lined up through the temple. I can spot them everywhere - on the walls, on the ground, alongside the pathways, under trees and wherever I turn.
Most of the idols are not visible at a glance, as surrounding shrubs and entwining plants cover them. But a closer look reveals that there are idols in every nook and corner
The Ameda temple, owned by Ameda Mana comprising of four Brahmin families on the banks of Vembanadu Lake, now serves as the last ray of hope for thousands of “Naga” (snake or “sarppa”) God idols.
These idols have been discarded after people who originally owned them in their properties couldn't take care of them anymore due to various reasons.
Why only Nagas idols? The “Sarppa Kaavu” (Places of snake-worship in wooded areas) has always been part of the traditional Hindu landscape in Kerala. It is very natural for a sarppa kaavu to come up in a slightly forested area and can usually been seen at the farther rarely-frequented end of vast courtyards of traditional Hindu families. Legends say that’s where the snake-gods reside.
But over the years, the space for such kaavu has shrunk, leaving people with no option other than taking the idols to this ‘old age’ home.
“There is no other option but to reclaim the kaavu area, especially when people sell to a non-Hindu or when land gets partitioned among relatives. The deities should be transmitted according to ‘tantric’ rules,” explains Vasudeva Namboodiri, a priest of the Ameda temple while speaking to The News Minute.
When an appropriate place for transfer is not available near the original kaavu, the deities are brought to the Ameda temple.
“All this involves a long procedure. A few priests from Ameda will first go the place where the kaavu has to be transformed or relocated. If the owner wants the deity to be placed elsewhere, we will do it for them. If they want the deity be taken away then we conduct poojas to assess whether the god is willing to move, and if so, we then relocate them to our temple,” elaborates Namboodiri.
Though none of the priests in the temple are aware of the exact number of such abandoned idols, they believe there are more than ten thousand idols in the Ameda temple. They however don’t approve of such a practice.
“Is it right to abandon your parents when they are old? The gods are now facing the same situation. We have no option but to bring them here. Where else would they go?” sighs,” Namboodiri.
According to him only certain Brahmin families in the state are entitled to indulge in this transfer procedure.
“I think Ameda is the biggest one. There is one in Mannarassala, but now they don’t do it anymore. We too are running out of space for all of them,” rues the priest.
Another reason why they do not encourage such a custom is because it involves the destruction of a forested area.
“The presence of a kaavu naturally protects the forested area around it. People were scared to clear the area due to the association,” he says.