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Vadakkunnathan Shiva Temple

Near Thekkinkadu Maidan, Kuruppam, Anchuvilakku, Kuruppam, Thekkinkadu Maidan, Thrissur, Kerala 680001, India

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An ancient Shiva Temple and home to the famous Thrissur Pooram festival.

Location of Vadakkunnathan Shiva Temple

More about Vadakkunnathan Shiva Temple

Vadakkunnathan Temple is an ancient Hindu Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. Shiva here is popularly known as Vadakkunnathan, meaning ‘lord of the north’ as he is believed to live in Kailas which is in the northern side of India. 

The temple is located in Thrissur City in Thrissur District of Kerala State in Southern India. The name Thrissur is derived from its old name ‘Thiru-Shiva-Peroor’ which translates to ‘the city of sacred Shiva’.

Legends and stories around the origin of the temple

There are many stories relating to the origin of Vadakkunnathan Temple. They vary a bit from each other but all mention that the main deities of the temple - Shiva, Shankaranarayana, and Rama were installed and worshipped by Parashurama, the sixth avatar of Lord Vishnu.

It is said the Parashurama, after creating Kerala by parting the ocean wished to make a shrine of Shiva in the newly formed land. After numerous prayers asking Shiva to manifest himself, Parashurama found the image of Lord Vishnu. He installed this image as Rama, the seventh incarnation of Vishnu and not satisfied with the manifestation of Vishnu, continued meditation. At its culmination he saw an image of Shiva Lingam on one side and Rama on the other. On further meditation, he saw Shankaranarayana, the combined form of Shiva and Vishnu in the middle of the two images.

The three main modern-day shrines are in the same order that Parashuram saw. Shiva Linga in the North, Rama in the South, and Shankaranarayana in the middle of the two.

Philosopher Adi Shankara and his connection to Vadakkunnathan Temple

Adi Shankara is an 8th century Indian philosopher and theologian who unified and established the main currents of thought in Hinduism. He is believed to be born to Shivaguru and Aryamba of Kalady who prayed for an offspring to Shiva in front of Vadakkunnathan Temple.

The couple observed bhajan (song with religious theme or spiritual ideas)  at the temple after which Shiva appeared to them in their dreams offering them a choice - they could either have a mediocre son who would live a long life or an extraordinary son who would die early. They chose the second option and named their newborn Shankara, another name of Lord Shiva.

According to the legend, Adi Shankara died at the temple and attained Videha mukti (liberation after death). Before his death, he established four Mutts at Thrissur: Edayil Mutt, Naduvil Mutt, Thekke Mutt, and Vadakke Mutt. Worshippers at Vadakkunnathan Temple have to follow a specific route to see all the deities at the temple, this route is known as Thenkailasam and was formatted by Adi Shankara and is still followed without any changes.

Tipu Sultans brush with the temple 

During the invasion of Malabar by the Mysore King Tipu Sultan, the temple was left out by the King. Even though Tipu destroyed many other temples in the region, he never touched Vadakkunnathan Temple. During his short stay at Thrissur in 1789 on his way to Travancore lines (a protection wall built against consistent invasion and threats from northern kingdoms of Kerala), Tipu borrowed cooking vessels from the temple to feed his army. Upon leaving Thrissur, he presented a large bronze lamp to the temple.

The time of Zamorin of Kozhikode and Shakthan Thampuran

During 1750 to 1762, the temple affairs were conducted by Zamorin, the ruler of Kozhikode Kingdom who took control of it and the city. In 1762, the Cochin King regained control of the city with the help of Travancore Kingdom.

When Shakthan Thampuran (1751–1805) of the Cochin Kingdom ascended to the throne in 1790, he changed the capital of the kingdom from Thripunithura to Thrissur City, because he had personal relationships with the city and the temple. He later cleared 60 acres of teak forests surrounding the temple, creating a ground which is known as Thekkinkadu Maidan (Teak forest ground), and introduced the famous Thrissur Pooram.

Temple administration at present

The administration of Vadakkunnathan Temple rests with the Assistant Commissioned under the Cochin Devaswom Board. The temple along with the mural paintings had been declared a national monument by the Indian Government.

Exploring Vadakkunnathan Temple and its premises

The temple is situated in a hillock in the centre of Thrissur town and the 9 acre area of its premises are enclosed by a stone wall. In each side of this wall is a monumental tower (Gopuras) facing the cardinal directions.The towers in the north and south are not open to the public. In the centre of the temple premise is a multi-shrined complex which is protected by a broad corridor called Chuttambalam.

Chuttambalam and it's statues and deities

Located on the verandah of the Chuttambalam is a large white bull statue of Nandikeswara, the gate guarding deity of Kailasa. Apart from the main deities, there are many other shrines in Chuttambalam for Krishna, Parashurama, Simhodara, Ayyappa, Vettekkaran, and Adi Shankara. There is a small triangular opening too at the walls of the Chuttambalam from where the ‘Thazhikakudams’ or finials of the three main shrines can be seen. It is believed that the view is equal to seeing several holy temples of India like Kashi and Rameswaram Temples.

The three main shrines of the temple

There are three main shrines at Vadakkunnathan Temple. The main circular shrine is divided into three compartments out of which in the first one Lord Shiva is worshipped in the form of Shiva Lingam (a phallic representation) which is covered under a mound of ghee formed by the daily ablution over centuries. It is the only temple where the Lingam is not visible. Devotees who pay respect to him can see a 5 meter high mound of ghee with thirteen cascading crescents of gold and three serpent hoods on its top. The structure represents the snow clad mountains of Kailash where Lord Shiva believed to abode.

In the second compartment of the circular shrine, an idol of Shiva, faces west and behind him in the third compartment, his wife Goddess Parvati faces east, denoting their combined form of Ardhanarishvara - an androgynous form of the Shiva and Parvati depicted as half male and half female, split down the middle.

The rectangular shrine of Lord Ram is located at the southern side of the temple. Between the circular and rectangular shrines stands the double storied circular shrine of Shankaranarayana, the combined form of Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu, facing west.

The shrine of Lord Ganesha

The shrine of Lord Ganesha, son of Shiva and Parvati, is positioned facing the temple kitchen. The offering Appam - a sweetened rice cake fried in ghee - is one of the most important offerings in the temple because it is believed to bring prosperity and wealth.

Outside the western tower of the temple is a sacred fig tree. It was at this spot that Parasurama after consecrating deities of the temple met the Brahmins, the traditional priests of Kerala Temples and handed over the charge of the temple to them and disappeared.

Murals and Museum in the temple

The temple is famous for its mural paintings that depict various episodes from the epic Mahabharata. Two of the murals - Vasukishayana and Nrithanatha are worshipped daily. Vasukishayana depicts Shiva resting on the giant snake and Nrithanatha depicts Shiva as a dancer with 20 arms. These two murals are 350 years old. In addition to the murals, the temple also houses a museum of ancient wall paitings, wood carvings and art pieces of ancient times.

Koothambalam- the temple theatre

The temple theatre known as Koothambalam is located outside of Chuttambalam, north of the temple premises. The structure has a well designed sloping roof made of copper tiles and it is decorated with fine wood carvings and bracket figures. The theatre is used for staging ancient ritual art forms of Kerala such as Koothu, Nangyar Koothu, and Koodiyattam. 

Festivals at Vadakkunnathan Temple

Unlike many other Kerala temples, there are no annual festival for the temple itself. Instead it hosts the famous Thrissur Pooram and engages in festivals relating to Lord Shiva and Ganapathi.

Maha Shivaratri- the festival of Lord Shiva

Maha Shivaratri, the festival in honour of Lord Shiva, is the main festival celebrated in the temple. Cultural and musical performances are conducted and hundred thousand lamps are lighted during the night. The southern monumental tower of the temple is lighted up during Maha Shivaratri.

Anayoottu and Gaja Pooja- paying respects to the elephant god Ganapathi

The Anayoottu is a festival of feeding of elephants. The devotees consider elephants the incarnation of Lord Ganesha. It is the second biggest festival held in the temple and falls on the first day of Malayalam month of Karkidakam (typically July-August).

Gaja pooja (Elephant worshipping) is conducted once every four years along with Anayoottu. It is believed that worshipping and feeding delicious food to the elephants will satisfy Lord Ganesha - the god of wealth and fulfilment of wishes.

Thrissur Pooram - the most celebrated temple festival in Kerala

One of the most colourful festivals of Kerala, Thrissur Pooram is conducted on the Thekkinkadu Maidan of Vadakkunnathan Temple and occurs every year on the Malayalam month ‘Medam' (Aril-May). Even though the festival is celebrated in the temple grounds, Vadakkunnathan Temple is a mere spectator at this festival, lending its premises for the event.

The founding of Thrissur Pooram

Before Thrissur Pooram, the largest temple festival in central Kerala was the one day temple festival at Arattupuzha Temple, 12 km south Thrissur Town. Temples in and around Thrissur were regular participants until once they were denied entry as they were a little late to the festival. Sakthan Thampuran, the ruler of Cochin Kingdom invited all these temples to bring their deities to Thrissur every year to pay respects to Lord Shiva at Vadakkunnathan Temple and thus Thrissur Pooram started in the grounds of Thekkinkadu Maidan.

The colourful parade of elephants

Thrissur Pooram attracts large masses of devotees and spectators across religions. It consists of a procession of richly caparisoned elephants from ten neighbouring temples to Vadakkunnathan Temple. The temples are clustered as rivals east and the west with Thiruvambadi Krishna Temple and Paramekkavy Devi Temple taking leads, and temples from Kanimangalam, Karamukku, Choorakkattukara, Laloor, Ayyanthole, Neithilakkavu, Chembukkavu and Panamukkampilly as participants.

Each cluster is allowed to have a maximum of fifteen elephants and both of the groups make the effort to parade the best elephants in Southern India along with the most artistic parasols which are raised on the elephants. Commencing on the early morning, the celebration last till the break of the dawn next day and ends with a mesmerising firework. 

The music of Panchavadyam and the performances

Panchavadyam, an orchestra of five instruments, goes on for the whole day during pooram with the visitors dancing and singing along the music. The thirty caparisoned elephants gather outside the south tower of the temple face to face along with the sound of Panchavadyam in a ceremony called ‘Koodikazcha’. Then the ‘Kudamattom’ (interchanging parasols between elephants) is performed. The ornamental silk parasols of several types and colours are unfurled and changed competitively creating a fascinating scene with sound and colours.

The winding up of the pooram happens with the fireworks at 2.30 AM. The fireworks, conducted in a competitive spirit by the two clusters are arguably one of the largest in the world. 

How to reach Vadakkunnathan Temple

The temple is located in the heart of Thrissur city. There are buses passing by from Thrissur bus station. Nearest major railway station too is in Thrissur, 2.5 km away from where you can take a taxi or rickshaw to reach the palace. Thrissur is well connected with the rest of the districts of Kerala State and other states by means of buses and trains.