This is not an ordinary journey. It is a cultural pilgrimage. A quest to decipher the mysteries behind myths that trace their origins from beyond history. This journey is about discovering the markers left behind on the Nila river's banks, that connect us to the legend of the Pantheerukulam (the clan of 12 born to a lower woman) and the times they supposedly lived in. Interestingly, we can connect the dots of the plot without travelling even halfway along the banks of the Nila.
The story goes back to the times of Gupta emperor Vikramaditya. Among the nine gems of his court was Vararuchi, a Brahmin of great spiritual accomplishment. But Vararuchi married a woman from a lower caste. Their 12 children were abandoned at the spots where they were born, for various reasons. But the children survived, and grew up, fulfilling their karma and destiny in various ways, according to the families they ended up in. Their lives were the practical demonstration of the philosophy that one's actions are what that matter, not birth. It was a philosophy that showed up the caste system and pointed out to man the way to progress spiritually. The 12 were: Agnihotri, a Brahmin; Pakkanar, a Paraya, Rajakan, Uppukoottan, Vallon, Vayillakunnilappan, Vaduthala Nair, Karakkal Mathavu, Pananar, Naranathu Branthan, Akavoor Chathan and Perumthachan.
The clan of 12 and their lives
The journey starts where the story ends. Three kilometers from Shoranur is Kavalappara. In this village where history sleeps is an old mansion that has withstood the ravages of time -- the remnants of the Kavalappara palace. The myth is that Kavalappara royals are the descendants of Karakkal Mathavu, one of the 12 born to Vararuchi and the Paraya woman. Kavalappara used to be the capital of the royals who once ruled over 96 deshas. The story goes that the only girl from the 12 somehow ended up in the palace and became known as Karakkal Mathavu.
The god without a mouth
Vararuchi installed his son Vayillakunnilappan, the one without a mouth, on the banks of Thoothapuzha as a god. When each child was born, Vararuchi used to ask his wife, 'does it have a mouth?' On getting the answer, 'yes,' he would tell his wife that the divine who created the mouth would give the child the food it needs, and ask the mother to abandon the newborn. When this child was born, the poor mother lied to Vararuchi that it had no mouth in the hope of keeping it. But those words rang true: the child did not have a mouth. This time Vararuchi was pained that his son couldn't talk. He installed the child as the 'god of the words' here. Even today, the devout perform pujas here for children born mute.
As we go further, we reach Irattingal at Thrithala. This is the land of music. Even today you will hear stories of how Pakkanar did his upasana of 1001 fierce deities. On the banks of the Bharatapuzha stands a strange poison nut tree, one that does not have the trademark bitter taste that the tree is known for; there is also a mandapa at Irattingal in memory of Pakkanar. He is Vararuchi's son who was brought up by a Paraya family. Pakkanar used to make a living by making reed baskets. He would make ten a day: one he would sell to earn his living, and the rest he would give away as charity.
Legend has it that Pakkanar, a Kali devotee, was the one who brought the river Ganga to the Puleri temple pond at Pattithara. Pakkanar gave his walking stick, cut from the poison nut tree, to some Brahmins who had gone to take the bath in the Ganga. He requested them to immerse the stick in the river so that it will lose its bitterness, just like it is believed to wash away one’s sins. But the Brahmins lost the stick in the river. When they returned, Pakkanar dived into the pond nearby and came up with the stick. In doing so, he gave the message: all places are equally holy for the faithful.
It was not as mere satire that Pakkanar said the one who harvests paddy, makes rice from it and eats it is equal to the one who catches the fish from the river and eats it to satisfy his hunger. His message was that divine manifested equally in all living and non-living things.
Varahamurthi of Panniyoor
Next stop in the journey is the Varahamurthi temple at Panniyoor. The temple, the only one with a boar as the deity, is now under renovation. A prominent Malayalam film star plays a major role in the renovation. Wedged between the rock walls of the temple are a chisel and a yardstick. They belong to the one and only Perumthachan. Legend is that Perumthachan left his chisel and yardstick here, saying construction of the temple will never be completed. The structure is a marvel in temple architecture. Perumthachan is the abandoned newborn who was brought up by the master carpenter from Uliyannoor. This master architect, who possessed the rare skill to fit 68 collar beams to a single annular support in the roof, also allegedly killed his own son with a chisel.
The Yajneswaram temple sits on the banks of the Nila at Velliyankal in Trithala. This temple is witness to the 99 yagas performed by Agnihotri. There is an ancient peepul tree here. Even today the 'arani' for Vedic fire rites are made from the wood of this tree.
Agnihotri's Kadamboor Mana is the cradle of the Yajna culture. This baby, the legend goes, was brought up by the Namboodiri family of Vemanchery Mana. The first display of his powers came when he made the Bharatapuzha change its course for the convenience of antharjanam of the family who came there to take her bath. The dried up old bathing ghat stands testimony to this story. Agnihotri made a Shiva linga from sand and installed Trithala Thevar there. One of the beliefs is that the Vaidyamadom family of Mezhathoor are descendants of the Ashwini devas who were in attendance at Agnihotri's yaga pandal.
There are two dakshin Gangas -- Bharatapuzha that flows into the Arabian sea and Kaveri that flows into the Bay of Bengal. The myth of the clan of 12 acts as a bridge between the two rivers. Both rivers dry up during the summer. Agnihotri travelled to the Chola kingdom on being invited by king Karikala Cholan, to help build a dam on the Kaveri. The rare type of stone that he took along from the Nila at Thrithala apparently helped make the dam as strong as steel.
There are also indications that the Vallon of the 12 is none other than the great Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar who authored the Thirukkural.
Naranathu Branthan, or the lunatic of the 12, used to roll boulders up the Rayiranelloor hill, push them down from the top, and clap with joy on seeing them crashing down the hill. The local people still worship him on the day of pilgrimage to the hill. His lesson: rising in life is very difficult but it is very easy to take a fall from that height.
Next to the hill is Branthachalam. Here, footholds can be seen carved into the black basalt. The temple is more like a mandapa carved out of a monolithic rock. Nature here is as weird as the Branthan. The poison nut tree has struck roots deep into the basalt. The holy ponds brim with water even in peak summer heat. The iron chain seen wound around the tree, according to legend, was used to chain Branthan on days his lunacy peaked.
Uppukoottan is mentioned both as a Christian and a Muslim. He used to sell salt, and the place Koottanad is linked to him. Akavoor Chathan grew up as a member of the backward Cheruma caste. Pananar, known for his wakeup songs, was a musician in the Chola court. Vaduthala Nair was a skilled warrior.
The clan, except Vayillakunnilappan who is considered a god, used to come together at Agnihotri Mana on Bheeshmashtami day to offer sraddha for their father Vararuchi.
Myth is not history but, nevertheless, it is intertwined with history. World over, that is the general character of folk tales. But only on the banks of the Nila will you find a great philosophy being proclaimed in such a small geographical area. The historical markers of these tales are so present here. Branthan's chain, Pananar's song and Agnihotri's fire ritual become more than just stories on the Nila's banks.