The best way to travel through Kerala to enjoy the view of its lush green landscape and sunset over the backwaters is to take the early-morning train from Mangaluru to Nagercoil called Parasuram Express. This train seems to be reminding Keralites every day about the celebrated myth of the state’s creation—which says that the divine creator Parasurama, who stood on the mound of Gokarna, which is 230 km north of Mangaluru—threw his parasu (axe) towards the south and behold, the land mass of Kerala emerged from the sea.
The ancient texts like Devi Bhagavata Purana, Vishnu Purana, Vayu Purana, Ramayana and Mahabharata do mention Parasurama. He is considered to be the sixth Avatar of Vishnu. In Ramayana, he appears fuming with rage and confronts Sri Rama while the latter was returning to Ayodhya after his marriage with Sita. In Mahabharata, Parasurama is the teacher of Bhishma, Drona and Karna. Most of these texts do mention his campaign against the Kshatriyas and his land donation to Brahmins but do not really mention the creation of Kerala. This was left to the two authors of the 17th century from Kerala who wrote Kerala Mahatmyam and Keralolpatti in Sanskrit and Malayalam respectively.
Kerala Mahatmyam and Keralolpatti attribute the genesis of Kerala to Parasurama, who is said to have exterminated 21 generations of Kshatriyas. The texts claim that as repentance for the slaughter, Parasurama decided to give some land grants to Brahmins but since he belonged to the priestly caste himself, he did not possess any land. Parasurama then claimed a new land by throwing an axe across the sea. The land that emerged thus, Kerala, was given as dana (alms) to the Brahmins. According to Kerala Mahatmyam, Parasurama also established 12 great temples (dvadasa) and 24,000 minor temples (caturvimsasahasram). The Brahmins from the Godavari region were invited to officiate the worship in these temples. Along with the many temples, Parasurama established as many as 64 Brahmin settlements called gramas of which 32 belonged to Kerala proper. The other 32 are in Tulu Nadu, the present Udupi and Dakshina Kannada districts of Karnataka. William Logan in Malabar Manual quotes from Keralolpatti thus, “To people this land, Parasurama is said to have first brought a poor Brahman from the shores of the Krishna River. This man had eight sons and the eldest was made the head of all Brahmans from Kerala. Other Brahmans are next brought and located in sixty-four gramas or villages. Ships with seeds of plants and animals next came, also came eighteen samantas (sons of Brahmins and Kshatriya women), Vaisya and Sudras.”
These texts and local temple myths are eloquent about the role of Parasurama in creating the land and the establishment of temples on a large scale. There are many temples in Kerala, from north to south, which according to tradition were established by Parasurama, such as the monumental Siva temples in Kottayam District, namely Vaikom, Kaduthuruthy and Ettumanoor. A text written in Malayalam by an unknown author lists 108 Siva temples and 108 Devi temples established by Parasurama in Kerala. Surprisingly, except the Parasurama Temple at Thiruvallam in Thiruvananthapuram district, there are no temples in Kerala which are dedicated to Parasurama.
The Thiruvallam temple is historically one of the oldest in the region having inscriptions dated to 12th and 13th century CE. Built near the confluence of Karamana and Killi, the two major rivers of Thiruvananthapuram, the temple complex presently has shrines dedicated to Siva, Brahma and Parasurama along with other small ones. As the temple has the shrines dedicated to the Trimurtis—Siva, Brahma, and Vishnu (in Parasurama form)—placed on the confluence of the rivers, it is popular for balitharpanam ceremony, which pays homage to departed souls. This ritual has nothing to do with Parasurama but is due to the presence of Brahma as we can observe in other sites in Kerala like Tirunavaya (Malappuram district) and Thirunelly (Wayanad district) or Pushkar in Rajasthan. The Thiruvallam temple is in fact dedicated to the Trimurtis in which Vishnu is worshiped presently in the form of Parasurama. I specifically used the word presently for the reason that the inscription of 1224 CE (399 Kollam Era or Malayalam calendar) mentions the shrines at Thiruvallam belonged to Mahadevar, Tirukkannappan (Krishna) and Ganapati. Another observation by T A Gopinatha Rao, the editor of Travancore Archaeological Series and the pioneer of the study of Hindu iconography, creates further mystery to the search for Parasurama. “The main image has four hands, in two of which the conch and discus are held; the weapons of parasu and hala which the deity is said to have are hardly distinguishable”. So, was the Parasurama aspect of the image attributed later to the Vishnu image? Like the Kerala creation myth that became popular in the 17th century, was there a development of a Parasurama cult in Kerala and thus the attribution? Or did the inscriptions of 12th and 13th centuries forget to mention the shrine of Parasurama? We do not have a definite answer and our search for the divine creator continues.
It is interesting to add here that the reference to Parusurama remains solely as creator of Kerala and not as a guardian deity of the land. Kerala-specific festivals like Onam and Vishu hardly acknowledge Parasurama in any manner. In the modern period, the only organisations that seem to have remembered the Parasurama connection to Kerala are the Kerala Museum in Kochi with an image of Parasurama outside it and the Indian Railways with the Parasuram Express.
Jayaram Poduval, Head, Department of Art History, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda (firstname.lastname@example.org)