"And here is the 'kulam' - seems the sleepy temple compound has released a huge yawn"
- from a poem by Malayalam poet 'P'
Koothattukulam is an urbanized village in a far corner of Ernakulam district. It lies among foothills of the Ghats and is part of Kerala's 'rubber belt'. In recent weeks, I have been there several times (thanks to my hosts!).
Visit one was mostly about a beer-soaked ramble in the environs of the village. Even in the placidly vague haze that one's perceptions and thoughts had dissolved into, surprise was solid when an old and almost deserted temple suddenly materialized. We approached and inspected the exterior (we did not want to get caught tipsy on sacred ground and so did not enter); the temple was in such spectacularly poor repair it appeared to be slowly falling apart right in front of our eyes. But its wide inner space and some ornate woodwork on the Gopuram (although much of it had worn to smooth featurelessness) pointed to a certain eminence in olden times. We could figure out that Siva was the presiding deity. And that was that.
A senior resident of the place told us later: "What you guys saw is the Mahadeva (another name for Siva) temple. In there, the whole of Ramayana is carved in a long running frieze on the wooden ceiling. You should have taken a look!". I remember saying: "It would be nice if the temple just stays the way it is, neither collapsing nor someone funding its renovation - what is renovation these days but just replacing an ancient structure with some soulless concrete monstrosity?!"
I was back in Koothattukulam for Easter and was told: "That temple might soon get renovated. Some notice to that effect has been going around". On the day, there was no time left for a dekko.
Within a week, I heard from another independent source that "work has begun". I took the same afternoon off and headed for Koothattukulam.
Work had indeed begun but (whew!) it was not on the temple itself. A big square pit has been dug in a corner of the temple compound - it will become a sacred 'kulam' (tank). Contributions were invited from devotees at the hefty rate of 100 rupees for removal of a cubic foot of laterite. In temples elsewhere, I have seen pillars, walls etc bearing inscriptions "sponsored by ..."; perhaps, in some higher realm, the names of each kulam contributor must be getting subtly recorded on a cubic foot of pure space.
I entered the temple. Above the main 'balikkallu'( a sort of sacrificial altar at the entrance to the interior) is a square wooden canopy of side about 15 foot. Its central part is divided into 9 equal square panels but if these panels ever held something (I am told they might have had carvings of the Navagrahas) they are gone. Around this central portion is a border about 10 inches wide and here, in a running frieze, is the Ramayana - only on 3 sides; the fourth side is mostly filled by a reclining Vishnu and another Tripunithura-style 'Enthroned Vishnu'(the presence here of the latter a bit of a surprise).
The Ramayana episodes are only from the 'Balakandam' - the first of the 7 books that form the epic. Dasharatha's sacrifice, the birth of Rama and his brothers, Rama guarding some sages engaged in yagas, killing the demoness Tataka, then breaking Siva's bow and marrying Sita. So no Ravana, no monkeys, ... Even whatever is there is obscured by dense cobwebs and dust and grime and takes a good amount of staring at (aided by a good torch) to figure out.
Ramayana friezes appear to be a common feature of Kerala temples, irrespective of who the main deity is. And there is a pretty widespread tradition of representing Rama's 'nativity' in graphic detail. To my knowledge, among the many possible divine births, only those of Rama and his brothers get this treatment. The most (in)famous among several such cringe-worthy labor scenes are among the Mattancheri Palace murals (aside: recently, some commentators appealed to these murals to explicate certain stunning (or cunning?) stunts performed by one of our leading actresses). The Koothattukulam friezes are more demure with the newborns shown safe in the hands of ladies attending on their mothers.
Embedded in the wall of the inner sactum are about a dozen carved wooden panels - each a foot or so high and somewhat less than that wide. A particularly attractive one of them shows a meditating Vishnu (as at Badrinath, say). The 'Namaskara mandapam' in the gloomy interior has a carved wooden ceiling but I could not make out much of the details. (Aside: all over India, first rate works of art sit in dark spaces in temples, seldom seen by anyone let alone appreciated; why they were designed to be placed there is a mystery).
The inner sanctum of the temple lacks a 'tazhikakkudam'( a consecrated finial pot that sits at the pinnacle). I am told several Kerala temples have had these pots stolen in recent times, thanks to a belief that they have pellets of precious metals like radium and iridium hidden within; and some say these pots 'rice-pullers', endowed with magical powers to attract wealth.
I just discovered that the very name 'koothattukulam' means 'kulam (sacred lake) of the dancer (koothadi)' and derives from Siva (the cosmic dancer) enshrined in this very temple. It is a bit odd though that this several-centuries-old temple is only just beginning to have a proper 'kulam'of its own.
Conclusion: Kerala temple murals have received extensive coverage from experts; it is about time our equally rich tradition of wood carving did. The Ramayana at Koothattukulam is done at far too modest a scale to qualify as a truly outstanding work of art - the inner sanctum panels are more impressive to my eyes.
Note added on April 14th 2013: It has been a full eight years since this blog started. This is post number 276. These days I don't write as often as I used to but the effort remains pretty much at a constant level. Thanks to my Readers.
Note added on May 3rd 2013: I am told the temple renovation scheme has had a windfall of a rupee 2.5 crore grant. My fears have revived.