Even by Kerala standards, Pazhoor is picturesque - the east-bound river bifurcates and rejoins, forming an islet that is partially sand bed, partially verdant grove; the banks are densely green; the southern bank is hilly and on a stretch of level ground right at the edge stands the Perunthrikovil Siva temple.
My first visit to Pazhoor happened on an afternoon. The weather was sporadically drizzly after a few days of persistently heavy rains. The river was a turbulent torrent and near its banks, whirlspools and eddies spiralled like galaxies. An elderly and frail-looking boatman sat idle in a small boat at the ghat near the temple. I thought of a trip across and asked him the fare. "Whatever!" he said vaguely. I hopped on and sat at the bow.
"Want to row?" asked the boatman, pointing at a spare oar. I was excited at this first ever opportunity. "Should one row on both sides alternately or...".
He had a crisp answer: "Do whatever you want. The control will be with me!". And it was. Despite the vigorous current, despite my haphazard beginner's efforts, the boat unerringly reached the ghat on the other bank and having picked up a couple more passengers, dropped me back near the temple.
Today I was there again. The river had swollen further and was almost brimful and the islet lay mostly submerged. The ferry was not operational. I sat for a while at the ghat, contemplating the coffee brown waters and rafts of plastic junk swimming by. The temple was quiet, except for some gentle Ashtapadi music being played on its public address system. Even as the day faded, the western sky cleared up briefly; a flash of evening sunshine burst forth and ignited the copper-plated temple kodimaram (flagpost) in a crimson flare.
The Perunthrikovil temple is legendary - the 'Aitihyamala' devotes two separate articles to it, one more than to any other temple it describes. The foundation myth: funding its construction won for a wealthy young Brahmin, faced with imminent death as per his horoscope, a full reprieve and a long life. The temple apart, there are legends about many local worthies - and especially a blessed family of Kaniyars (astrologers) who still live nearby.
A fraction of the Pazhoor legends are enumerated in the list: "Pazhooril Pathu Bhagyam" (Ten ways in which Fortune favored Pazhoor). I will mention only one here: "Lucky, the Pazhoor Thachan was not a Nambuthiri Brahmin!". The story goes thus:
The Thachan (architect) who built the temple gained great appreciation for his work and contracts came from far and wide. As per the caste practices of the times, while working on a temple, a Thachan had to wear the Brahminical sacred thread. Since this particular Thachan was busy with work on some temple or the other, he had a thread on almost always.
Once, he was traveling by boat near Aleppey on some assignment when the king of Ambalapuzha, a Nambuthiri (Keralan History records at least a few Brahmin royal families), came by in another boat. On seeing the elegant and threaded Thachan, the king mistook him for an eminent Brahmin and saluting him, asked his name. A fateful detail here: the king was a stammerer.
The Thachan recognized the king. He reverentially stood up and answered: "M-m-me, th-th-thachan from P-p-pazhoor!" (for the thachan too suffered from stammering).
The king felt doubly insulted. On the one hand he had mistakenly saluted a man of lower caste and on top of that, the same low caste man had made fun of his speech defect. Kim bahuna? A fell stroke of the regal sword killed the poor architect.
In those days, Brahmahatya, the murder of a Brahmin was said to be the worst possible crime. Even worse, the murdered Brahmin would become a ghost of the nastiest sort and haunt the place for generations. So, since the Thachan was only a Thachan, the king of Ambalapuzha did not commit brahmahatya and the local people did not have to suffer from a Brahmarakshasa; ergo, it was a big piece of good fortune that the Thachan was not a Nambuthiri.
Of course, the story is absurd: The king killed the Thachan knowing fully well he was not a Nambuthiri; if he were one, no killing would have happened. Either way, Brahmahatya was not even a possibility and so the village of Pazhoor had no need for any exceptional luck. Needless to say, what the hapless Thachan's family felt about the whole business has gone unrecorded.
But God saw the truth - and did not wait: just as the Thachan fell lifeless, an incorporeal voice rang out from the inner sanctum of Perunthrikovil: "My Thachan's death pains me; as a mark of my love for him, I want the number of circumambulations done during the Siveli rituals reduced from three (the norm) to one!". This practice is apparently still followed at the temple. Of course, one wants to ask: "Is that all?!"; but myths - and gods - are like that only!
Aside: The Aitihyamala traces the history of the Ambalapuzha royal family to a Nambuthiri youth who hired a troop of Nair mercenaries to kill off other Brahmin families in his village and seize their property. Then why the fuss over the possibility of a single Brahmahatya?
On the outer walls of the circular inner sanctum are sculptural figures (each a little over a meter tall) including a couple of Yakshis (one holding on to a tree, the other with a looking glass), Parasurama, Rama, Krishna and so forth. The highlight among the lot are two emaciated ascetics in extravagantly contorted, dance-like poses. Their veins are prominent like those of Gandharan 'Fasting Buddha' statues; their skinny faces with pointy beards look vaguely Tao(?); and they wear skimpy cloth girdles that are not tightly secured and hang slack - and are explicitly shown to have failed in their primary function.
The walls between the sculptures are filled with murals. Most of them are badly faded but even among the handful that have survived are some curious specimens: (1) Ardhanariswara playing a little Kaliveena, a humble folk-fiddle( a bit like the Yeti playing a bagpipe, that!); a tiny devotee is shown worhipping the divine musician and the latter frowns back quizzically. (2) Vishnu sits on the snake-sofa (his 'Purnathrayeesa' pose from Tripunithura) and (surprise!) plays the flute. (3) Some more of Vishnu's adventures - Narasimha, Trivikrama,... (4) A divinity that I could not identify sits crosslegged on a lotus with a small idol in his lap (5)Four young fellows, three with blue skin, perform Ayudha puja to a bow and quiver (6) A glaring Ganapati, of the sort that is supposed to ward off the evil eye (7) Siva in his six-armed Mrityunjaya form sits on a lotus and pours potfulls of Amrit on his own head (Aside: I find the whole concept weird. Siva has already conquered Death. Then why does he need to selfishly keep bathing himself with the nectar of immortality? Is it a "Heal thyself!" message to the devotee?).
And there are trick carvings galore on the wooden ceiling of the passage leading into the inner enclosure - an elephant-buffalo double image, a group of monkeys in a complex knot, the challenge to the onlooker being to count the monkeys,.... A superbly executed wooden Garuda with an elephant and a tortoise in his talons hangs from the ceiling of the Balikalpura. One of the celestial eagle's wings is missing. Legend has it that when it was just finished, the statue tried to fly off and the sculptor quickly grabbed his chisel and slashed off a wing.
Not everything about the temple is great art - or even art. Adjacent to the plain and neat main Nadappura (a portico leading into the inner enclosure) of the temple, a new concrete nadappura has been built for no readily visible reason except that folks sponsored its construction (the pillars show several names prominently). To put it very mildly, this new object is an eyesore.