To highlight the natural beauty of the region, the promotional campaigns of Kerala Tourism call the state “God’s own country”. Another reason can be, though not realised by the strategists of the tourism campaign, the sheer number of temples, churches, mosques and even synagogues in the state that would qualify Kerala as “Gods’ own country”.
Almost all villages and towns in Kerala do have religious structures from the medieval period to contemporary times, of different religious and cultic affiliations and sizes depending on the economic and political importance of the village/town.
In Kerala, one can see the cave temples at Vizhinjam, carved out by the Pandyan rulers in the 8th century, one of the earliest mosques in India at Kodungallur and the church at Niranam that is considered to be established by the Apostle St. Thomas himself. Kerala was the destination for many indigenous and foreign religions including Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism along with Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all travelling through the well-established trade routes thanks to the monopoly of pepper, cardamom and ginger. Kalidasa writes in his Raghuvamsa Mahakavya about the pepper plants and the rising smell of cardamom as Raghu’s horses trampled through the Kerala forest.
I have been travelling through the length and breadth of Kerala since my childhood and have noticed something unique about the region: the fact that standing anywhere in Kerala, you are never far away from a temple, mosque or a church. Kerala can actually boast about 10 times a greater number of religious structures than the number of villages. According to the 2011 Census, there are 1,018 villages (1,364 in the 2001 Census) in Kerala along with 87 municipalities and six municipal corporations sharing 1,01,140 places of worship along with 29,565 hospitals and 70,435 educational institutions. This is not the number of places of worship used by the Hindus alone but includes mosques and churches belonging to various Christian sects. The number of places of worship in Kerala is almost 3.5 times higher than the hospitals.
An interesting aspect revealed through the analysis of the data provided by the 2001 Census is that Kerala is in the fifth position as far as density of religious structures is concerned, coming after Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Goa and Assam. In Kerala, 1,000 people share 3.1 religious structures while in Himachal Pradesh, it is the highest at 4.3; Delhi has the least with 0.5. The neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu is much below Kerala when it comes to this ratio. Every 315 people in Kerala have one religious structure, much higher than in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. The balance achieved in the health and education sector is manifested only in the 20th century due to Western influence and the resultant social and education movements. In other words, in the pre-modern period, the ratio between the religious structures and health and education buildings in Kerala would have been much more contrasting.
In Kerala, the village economy and social fabric was woven in and around the places of worship, the majority among them temples, quite akin to the case in Tamil Nadu. Even legends like Kerala Mahatmyam and Keralolpatti attempt to build the social structure keeping the temple as the centre. The Chola and Vijayanagara models too successfully put the same structure into practice. Development of cities around temples like Kumbakonam, Thanjavur, and Gangaikonda Cholapuram under the Cholas and Hampi and Tirumala under Vijayanagara rule are excellent illustrations of this theory.
The best example from Kerala is Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city, which developed around the temple of Padmanabhaswami after Martanda Varma dedicated the land of Tiruvitankur to its cardinal deity through his Trippadi Danam in 1749. Through this ritual, Martanda Varma, the raja of Tiruvitankur, surrendered the whole region to Lord Sri Padmanabha (Vishnu) of Thiruvananthapuram. Ever since Trippadi Danam, the Travancore kings ruled the country as a servant/representative of Sri Padmanabha and their records always mentioned the king as Sri Padmanabha dasa.
A similar example can be seen at Thrissur (or Thrisshivaperoor), the city that is literally built around the Vadakkumnatha temple. The circular road around the temple maidan constitutes the prime market street of Thrissur town. Developed during the rule of Saktan Tampuran in the early 19th century, Thrissur became the centre for the Pooram festival, where all the Gods of the neighbouring shrines would congregate to pay respect to Shiva, the cardinal deity of Vadakkumnatha temple. It is worth mentioning that the Pooram at Thrissur was introduced by Saktan Tampuran, ruler of Perumpadappu Svaroopam of Kochi, to assert his authority amongst the small Naduvazhis around.
At Payyanur in North Kerala, the cardinal deity Subramanya/Kartikeya is considered as the ruler of the region. He is addressed as ‘Perumal’, which is the common name for the rulers used in Kerala (for example Kulasekhara Perumal for Ravi Varma Kulasekhara). Local myths state that some of the Gods and Goddesses had to seek permission of Payyanur Perumal (Subramanya of Payyanur temple) for ‘residing’ in the region. In Talipparamba (Kannur District), the presiding deity, Shiva, is considered as the raja (king of kings). Devotees are expected to behave in the precinct of the temple as if they are in front of the emperor.
There are many such interesting myths and fascinating legends along with fantastically carved wooden sculptures and architecture attached to these religious structures through which the political, social and cultural life of a region can be comprehended. In this monthly series, titled A Country of Many Gods, we will travel through the pre-modern visual culture of Kerala.
Head, Department of Art History,
The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda