(This post grew out of an email exchange with old colleague and friend Anil Kumar and is dedicated to our old B.Sc (Physics) batch from Christ College, Irinjalakuda)"'Iringaalakkuda', 'Koodalmaanikyam', 'Tachchudayakkaimal' - beautiful words, so full of music!"
- that was 'Changampuzha', famous early 20th Century Malayalam poet.
The words above, definied: Iringaalakkuda, spelt in English as 'Irinjalakuda' is a small town in central Kerala - about 15 km from my home-town of Chalakudi. 'Koodalmaanikyam' is the name of the presiding deity of an ancient temple of the same name which still flourishes there. 'Tachchudayakkaimal' appears to have been an honorific title borne by the chief of the board of trustees of the above temple.
I spent most of my teenage years as a student at Christ College, Irinjalakuda - once upon a time, according to urban legend (one that I tend to agree with), "one of the best EIGHT colleges in India".
The place name used to puzzle me quite a bit. In Malayalam, 'kuda' alone means 'parasol' or 'umbrella', but 'Iringala' does not seem to make any obvious sense. And why would a place be called an umbrella of any kind? For self, the compound name used to evoke vague pictures of an old and hunched man with an olakkuda
(an umbrella formed from palm-leaves).
In our time, Irinjalakuda was a sleepy backwater (unlike Chalakudi, which bustled with plenty of trade and traffic). At 'Thana(vu)', the central road junction, there stood a traffic island, usually unmanned; there was a metallic, umbrella-shaped structure to shield the (non-existent) constable from the elements. This structure was badly rusted and near collapse. Once a newspaper article, criticizing the local civic administration, showed a photograph of it with a caption: "Is this THE Iringaalakuda?" - an obvious pun on the place-name (*)
Our college stood serenely amidst a sprawl of gardens, atop a hill to the north of the town (this hillock, called 'Mangadikkunnu' was said to be a place where, in the 'good old days', those unfortunate folks who died in epidemics were hastily buried). The plan of the building was said to be in the shape of an 'X', short for 'Christ'. It looked more like a distorted 'H' though; and I have a lingering suspicion that the at least the front elevation was conceived to be a scaled-down copy of the Moscow University Main Building - yes, that show-piece of Stalinist architecture.
The serenity of the place was disrupted only by occasional student 'strikes', which seemed to generally fall on Fridays when new movies would be released. Memories of the college tend to cluster around the 'Mandaram' tree, under which students from Chalakudi used to congregate, the canteen (which served rock-solid 'undamporis' and hefty 'pazham roasts' among other delicacies) and the 'Toddy shop', a small building in an obscure corner of the campus where some of the Mathematics and Latin classes used to be held; and yes, the clock atop the main building which never used to run (for several years, getting it back to running condition was a promise made by candidates in College Union Elections). And from the top of this building, one could take in sweeping panoramas of the countryside all around. Once, after a 'second show' at 'Prabhat', we had spent a whole night up there; it was winter - and a full moon. Everything looked ethereal - dense stands of coconut palms with a strange glitter on the fringes of their swaying fronds, the distant 'kol' fields fading into the light fog... and there was a subtle aroma of coconut oil in the air - rising from a 'country mill' not very far away.
In those days, there were no girls on campus - Christ turned co-ed only recently - and they were safely concentrated in St. Joseph's college (must be one of the very few women-only colleges named after a man) which stood at the opposite corner of the town.
'Koodalmaanikyam' is another mysterious name. Here is a story I have heard: The material with which the main idol of this temple (a Vishnu-like figure, it is said to represent Bharata, Rama's brother) was moulded allegedly had some special properties which enabled it to be (potentially) used as some kind of touchstone for gems. A certain bigwig had a ruby ('manikyam') which he wanted to evaluate; he forced the priests to rub the jewel against the sacred idol and lo, the precious ruby suddenly merged with the idol and was lost in it. So, the idol and the temple came to have the name 'koodalmanikyam', the one into which a manikyam merged....
The temple is vast and atmospheric and and very rich in legends (one of them relates how the lord is prone to stomach trouble and has to be kept in good health with offerings of an Ayurvedic medicine based on eggplants). The temple tank is among the largest I have seen and is a sanctuary for a huge population of fishes, believed to represent the 33 crore Gods - bathing is prohibited. Within the inner enclosure, one of the walls used to have a cosmogonic chart - showing the Earth (with its concentric arrangement of 7 islands and the 7 oceans) and the six heavens above and the seven netherworlds below, leading all the way to the depths of the Vaitarani river in hell. There was also a declaration written (in English) on the inner sanctum walls - 'My devotee shall never perish' (Pop remarked on seeing it: " It would have been much better to say ' My devotee shall always flourish!'". But it seems the temple has scriptural backing - from the Gita).
And this is ALL I know about 'Tachchudayakkaimal': the post traditionally used to have great powers vested in it so (it appears) it used to be deliberately kept vacant by the local Kings!
The major festival (apart from the annual festival at the temple) of Irinjalakuda is 'Pindi Perunaal' , 'the Feast of the banana stalks', a grand celebration at the local Catholic Cathedral. In front of every house, a banana stem is planted - and decorated with colorful flags sticking into it - and there are fireworks displays, processions,... I don't know anything about the legend behind this festival. And come to think of it, I know precious little about even the 'Feast of Arrows' celebrated at the Cathedral in my own Chalakudi. Arrows symbolize the martyrdom of St. Sebastian - and indeed effigies and statues of the saint, showing him riddled with arrows are erected and venerated all over the place. But how Sebastian acquired such a strong relevance to Chalakudi is mysterious (**).
Yes, I remember attending 'Kootiyattam' performances at the 'Ammannur Gurukulam'. There would be frequent power outages ('load shedding'); but the actors, in their resplendent costumes and faces strinkingly painted, would continue to perform well into the night - in the pulsating glow of flickering oil-lamps to the rhythms of the 'mizhavu'...
(*)Recently, I heard that 'Iringaalakkuda' is a trimming down of 'Iru Chaal Koodal', which meant 'confluence of two streams or two canals'. The deity of the Koodalmanikyam' temple is also called 'Sangameswara' in Sanskrit - which translates to 'lord of the confluence'.
Problem: there are no rivers of streams of any kind anywhere near the place. Explanation: The rivers of Kerala are fast flowing and perennial and were prone to floods and frequent course-diversions, so the two streams which gave the place its name would have moved away somewhere. And yes, the Malayalam name of the temple could mean "The jewel of the confluence...", a pure figure of speech.
And, if one were to stretch this confluence argument a bit further, even 'Chalakudi' might be a confluence of 'chaal' and koodal', and might end up meaning the same as Irinjalakuda! At least Chalakudi has a river flowing past it, although there is no confluence there at present.
Centuries ago, there used to be a great Mathematician called 'Madhava of Sangamagrama', one of the leading exponents of the (then) famous Kerala School of Mathematics. The precise location of Sangamagrama is not known but from the literal meaning of the word ("village at the confluence (of rivers)"), claims have been made on him on behalf of Irinjalakuda.
(**) Perhaps, the Pindi Perunaal is also in memory of St. Sebastian. The banana stems pierced by those small flags might symbolize the saint and the arrows that killed him. Sebastian was greatly venerated in Europe (especially Italy) as a protector from epidemics (especially plague). His popularity in Kerala might be for the same reason - with smallpox and cholera the most dreaded mass-killers here. It is also possible that the rituals surrounding the banana stalks hark back to some old local fertility rites - am vaguely reminded of the cult of Jokumaraswamy (Karnataka).