Not very long ago, I saw a public appeal on display at Marine Drive, Kochi.
It was shocking that these little birds, so ubiquitous in my childhood (and even as recently as a decade ago), have all but disappeared from our surroundings. Back home, I read in Induchoodan's masterpiece (written in the 1960s) 'Keralathile Pakshikal'(Birds of Kerala) a very affectionately detailed piece on the kuruvi - how this species of sparrows seems utterly dependent on human presence, how they enliven our markets with their incessant chirping and vigorous aerobatics and also how they seem to be under attack from some mysterious parasite that kills huge numbers of fledglings. A generation after the book was published, has the parasite begun to seriously endanger these birds? Or is it some other factor that has almost wiped them out? I have no idea yet(*).
But last week, while waiting for 'darshan' at the Kollur Mookambika temple, I was thrilled to see nearly a dozen kuruvis chattering happily and flitting around with gusto under a canopy right in front of the inner sanctum. The temple authorities have hung up a network of wires for the birds to perch and hang and generally to have all the fun in the world.
Hopefully, the goddess is watching over them. Not quite a vain hope that; did she not, as this curious (Tibetanish?) picture (it hangs in the Temple enclosure) relates, come to the aid of Sankaracharya as the Master wandered, hopelessly lost, in the nearby Kodachadri forests?
A bright wedding sari being devoured by a sacrificial fire (I sense faint echoes of descriptions of the practice of Sati read long ago!) - part of the Chandika Homam ceremony at the Mukambika temple:
A (very modern) Goddess image incorporating attributes of Vishnu(conch and discus) and Virabhadra (staff/trident and sword) from near the Mookambika temple:
A very Keralan-looking 'Sarpakkavu' (serpent shrine) from near the temple:
Fishing boats on the Murudeswar beach:
An elephant+fowl/peacock composite creature on the spanking new columns supporting the facade of a Matha at Udupi:
VISHNU, THE MAJESTIC
The Anantapadmanabha temple is at Ananthapura, just inside Tulunad proper from Kolathunad. In more modern terms, it is in the far north of Kerala - very close to the border with Karnataka. The temple has an 'enthroned Vishnu' (the snake Anantha physically provides both seat and royal parasol) idol, molded in a material called 'kadu sharkara'. Here is a pic:
Ananthapura is where Vishnu first appeared before Vilwamangalathu Swamiyar, Kerala's principal patron saint (some webpages say Swamiyar was no Malayalai but a Tulu speaking brahmin; and some sources say there were three gentlemen, separated by centuries, who went by that same name) in the guise of a mischievous child; as per legend they had a tiff and the lord disappeared and granted his devotee another 'darshan' only much later at the site where the Trivandrum Padmanabha temple now stands. So, the Ananthapura temple is said to be the 'Srimoolasthanam' of the Trivandrum temple.
Let me place on record that I have serious reservations about this myth. Despite its name, the Ananthapura idol does not show Vishnu in the Padmanabha form at all - there is no 'navel lotus'. Indeed, as far as I can make out, the rather tenuous Vilwamangalam connection apart, the Vishnu temple here and at Trivandrum, separated by a distance of nearly 600 kilometers have very little in common.
The Poornathrayeesa temple in Tripunithura, Cochin can claim a much stronger connect with Ananthapura in particular and with Tulunad in general. The principal idol in Tripunithura is of an enthroned Vishnu (its differences with the Ananthapura idol are relatively minor) and is flanked by smaller images of his consorts Bhudevi and Laxmi (just as is the case at Ananthapura). And for several centuries, the Tripunithura temple has been recruiting its priests from Tulunad (the reasons for this practice seem lost in deep antiquity). Further, the local tradition of Tripunithura relates how Vilwamangalam himself visited the temple during the annual festival and saw the lord, in the guise of child Krishna, prancing about among the caparisoned elephants. This 'Krishna child' vision is a lot closer to the original vision the saint is said to have had at Ananthapura than the sleeping Vishnu of Trivandrum. And even geographically, Tripunithura is considerably closer to Ananthapura than Trivandrum.
Legends such as the Vilwamangalam story connecting two far off places could indicate migrations. While there was a gradual percolation from Tulunad into Kerala of Brahmins starting perhaps a millennium and a half ago(the earlier waves of migrants are believed to have adopted Malayalam as their mother tongue and become Nambuthiris; subsequent waves retained their Tulu identiry and came to be called Embranthiris), Trivandrum, lying in the far south seems to have been almost untouched. So, one suspects that the putative connection between Ananthapura and Trivandrum (and perhaps the Padmanabha name of the deity at the former site and at a stretch, even the place name 'Thiru Ananthapuram') might have been conceived relatively recently. A possible time is the 18th century when the royal family of Travancore is known to have adopted children from noble families hailing from far North Kerala (hailing from Kanyakumari, a heavily Tamil-influenced region, the Travancore royals appear to have slowly migrated north towards Trivandrum and made a conscious effort to forge a more Malayali identity for themselves; these adoptions and accompanying myth-making could be part of this process which played out over the entire 18th century) .
On the other hand, the very founding of the Tripunithura temple as a center of Vishnu worship (an event dating back more than half a millennium; apparently, the site was earlier a sanctuary for Mother Goddess worship) might have been due to Tulu immigrants.
In the heart of Udupi, the principal seat of Brahminism in Tulunad, are several temples built around a Nepal-style Darbar Square-ish plaza.
What is most remarkable about the place is a curious confluence of Saiva and Vaishnava streams of devotion. The Krishna temple is preeminent but there is a Siva (Chandramouleeswara) temple right across and then there is the temple dedicated to Ananteswara, a deity claimed to be both Siva and Vishnu. The inner sanctum of the temple has a Sivalinga but above the doorway is a metal enthroned Vishnu image - sitting on the serpent throne with two of his quartet of arms holding a bow and arrow. The very name Ananteswara is an interesting compound - it could mean "the infinite Iswara" (Siva) or the "lord of (the serpent named) Anantha"(Vishnu).
The Siva-Vishnu bonhomie at Udupi is quite a surprise considering how vitriolic and nasty, doctrinal disputes between followers of Madhva and Sankara used to be - and occasionally still are.
Note: The Krishna temple at Udupi sometimes arranges the idol in the serpent throne form as in this online picture:
Aside: That the sleeping Vishnu image might owe something to the sleeping Buddha is conceivable. But even the snake-throned Vishnu probably had Buddhist precedents.
From Kolathunad, the part of Malabar adjacent to Tulunad: the Subrahmanya temple at Payyannur has fresh-looking laterite walls. A deep perspective from there (going so deep it could be captioned "Payyannoooooor!"):
From Payyannur again, a metal peacock bearing the weight of a lamp pillar (deepastambham). In every other temple I have examined the task falls to a tortoise:
And finally, here is the gopuram of the Taliparamba Rajarajeswara temple - lying unfinished for many hundred years (?):
(*) - The Mal film song translation of a Biblical saying goes: "behold the kuruvis, they neither sow nor reap nor horde in granaries but ...". Going by Induchoodan's observations, the translator should have found a better word for ravens (as per the King James version) than 'kuruvi' - indeed, while the sparrows don't do any of those tasks, they appear totally dependent on us humans carrying them out.
And while on that little bird, I recall the surprise mixed with a touch of horror I felt half a life ago when I saw a bright young Mallu kid from our capital Trivandrum learning his school lesson: "kuruvi means sparrow, kuruvi means sparrow...!" And I remember with great fondness the story of how a smart little kuruvi won a flying contest among birds.