It must be in the social science book of 7th standard that one must have come across the empires of Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas for the first time. The many instances of the empire-widening wars between these powers aside, the period was marked by prosperity and abundance, noted these text books. Rich villages, vast paddy fields, shrines doubling as cultural hubs, artefacts of everlasting charm…each child imagined such a world through their textbooks, sitting in the classroom through the thatch roof of which the afternoon sun percolated. If you wish to revisit that nostalgic world, come to the temple at Mannarkovil, near Ambasamudram.
Ancient temple-streets host flock of migratory birds- mainly the black and white Pelicans- from across the oceans. They keep flying about over the paddy fields, reminding one of the black and white films. Rare sights await the visitors to this place.
There will not be any temple anywhere where at least one small stem lamp is not lit. But there will be only one temple where these stem lamps are made. That is at Mannarkovil, 30km from Tenkasi in Tirunalveli district.
It is believed that the Mannarkovil was built during the period of Azhvars. Not just that, it is believed that Kulasekhara Azhvar, the last of the poet-saints lived in Mannarkovil for thirty years and died there. There is an Azhvar cremation ground in the temple as the evidence pointing to this belief. Rituals are conducted here even today for appeasing Azhvars.
The devotees say that the tradition of making stem lamps started here after the kings of those times decreed that the temple should be self-reliant on whatever articles it needed. There was a time when from gardens providing all the flowers required for the rituals to residential complexes for those associated with the temple were available in-house. Majority of those who live in the premises of the temple are still 'ambalavasis' – those attached to the temple.
When the production of stem lamps reached a surplus, the craftsmen were left unemployed. To overcome this problem, initially the stem lamps were made and given to the nearby temples. Later, permission was granted for selling the stem lamps to the temples of other regions. With that, the stem lamp business grew like a cottage industry. Over the generations, the streets here were lined with outlets making and selling stem lamps.
The temple must be about 1000 years old. The rituals are conducted by traditional families. The kind of structural design the temple has is rarely seen these days, says Narasimhagopalan the temple’s current chief priest. The temple rises to three tiers. The shikhara thus could be seen closely. The Mannarkovil temple, also known as the Vedanarayana Swami temple has the deity in three different moods. This centuries old Anantha temple continues to stand tall as the abode of knowledge and a beacon of enlightenment.
The sprawling temple complex has many deities such as Sreekrishna, Sreerama with his consort Seetha, Lakshmana, Bharata, Shatrughna etc.
Though rituals are conducted for Azhvar, the presiding deity is Lord Vishnu. Lord Vishnu is in three moods. One of them is in the reclining posture much like it is in the Sree Padmanabha temple associated with the Travancore Royalty. 'Avani Avittam' is the most auspicious time in which festivities are conducted. 'Avani-Avittam' is auspicious for Sree Padmanabha temple too. At Mannarkovil temple, chariot processions similar to that at Sree Mookambika temple and the Kalpathy temple are conducted. The chariot for this can be seen in the temple premises.
Onam festivities at Mannarkovil is another pointer to its links with the Kerala culture. Akin to the special offerings made at Kerala temples on the occasion of Onam, Mannarkovil also makes special offerings. During these festivities, members from the Travancore royalty attend the functions on one particular day. Many Keralites flock to Mannarkovil temple on these days. Many of them are regular visitors to the Sree Padmanabha temple. Some visit Mannarkovil after being told of its association with Sree Padmanabha temple, says Ananthagopalan, the deputy priest. The temple is currently under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India.
Varieties of stem lamps
Small streets strewn around the temple complex make and sell varieties of stem lamps. These streets are named 'South Street,' 'North Street,' 'Western Corner' and more. They remind one of the 'Agraharams' of the Brahmins of Kerala. Sparkling like gold, stem lamps are kept on the forecourt of each house. Most of these will be ready for sale. The sound of polishing and tightening of these lamps reverberate on the streets.
There are subtle differences in the design of the stem lamps made at Mannarkovil. While the Keralites generally use stem lamps for five wicks, the Mannarkovil lamps are usually for four wicks. This style is typical of Tirunelveli. Most of the lamps made here are sold in Tirunelveli and adjacent regions. Mannarkovil also makes stem lamps for five wicks these days to avoid the stagnation of business.
"We consider lamp-making as a devotional activity. So we make only stem lamps. The artisans here could make any other thing with bronze or bell-metal. But no one does that. That is because only the lamp-making is believed to be devotional in nature," says Velayudhan, a temple administrator.
Earlier, from the preparations of the furnace onwards, all works were undertaken by the traditional workers. Later when manpower reduced, machines were introduced. Machines are installed in most houses these days for threading, polishing and other critical works.
As per Kailasan, his family has been undertaking lamp-work for the past five generations. That is, for about 200 years, Kailasan’s household had been making furnaces, casting and forging metals for stem lamps. Each generation grows here seeing the glow of the stem lamps emerging from the furnace. Yet, Kailasan sees a waning interest for the lamp-making activities among the younger generation. The hardships involved and low returns are cited as the reason for this. Even though this is a pursuit devotional in nature, lamp-making becomes less attractive for the new generation as other jobs giving better returns are available.
The stem lamps of Mannarkovil
Is there a connection between Kerala and the lamp-making Mannarkovil? Mannar in Alappuzha district of Kerala is renowned as the village for bronze utensils. Historians have opined that the craftsmen brought from Tamil Nadu by the Chempakassery King centuries ago were the pioneers of the bronze making in Kerala who were then gradually phased out by the locals. If this is true, it must have been the craftsmen from Mannarkovil who started the bronze-making in Mannar.
The still existing relations between Mannarkovil and the Travancore royalty can be an indicator for the stronger ties they had in the past. There still exists a palace belonging to the Travancore royal family in Kuttalam. Based on these circumstantial evidences, a link, illuminated by the glow of stem lamps and bronze utensils, is clearly visible.
When we follow the trail of the lamp-making exploits, we reach Silappatikaram. Ilango Adigal in Silappatikaram mentions the Koombukar Street. The Brahmadesham temple is on the Koombukar Street. This temple is also quite ancient like the Mannarkovil temple. Structurally, the Brahmadesham temple is different from the traditional style of Tamil Nadu temples.
The Brahmadesham temple is in the Ambasamudram taluk. This region was once home to Vedic Brahmins brought in from different parts of the country by the Chola king Rajaraja. That is why this place is still called Chaturvedamangalam. The temple is by the Tamraparni River. The temple pond linked to the river is very large. The entrance itself declares the ancientness of the temple. The temple has a long history behind it, matching it with the history of many other temples of Tamil Nadu.
There were many astrologers at Brahmadesham long ago. They were itinerant astrologers reaching various parts of Tamil Nadu to forecast the future of people. Some of them frequented the temple festivals in Kerala. Many of them have since switched over to farming.
Brahmadesham was the home to Vedic scholars. “Is it still so?” I asked Senthil, a native. “These are all folklores. Now everyone is a farmer here. See the greenery around” said Senthil looking around him. The Vedic scholarship has been lost. However, the people here live in harmony with the nature. River Tamraparni flows amidst them like a life-giver.
Washing off sins
Papanasam is beyond Brahmadesham. Great actor Kamalahasan walked these streets as the embodiment of the character of Swayambhulingam of the film 'Papanasam.' It is while sitting in a small rented room here that Swayambhulingam, as the character of a cable television operator, watched films and weaved his strategies. It was this holy place which came to the mind of writer Jayamohan when he took up the task of writing for the Tamil version of the hit Malayalam film ‘Drushyam’. Swayambhulingam is seen washing off his sins in the Papanasam River here after successfully countering the waves of destruction that threatened to ruin his family.
Papanasam houses the Kaalabhairava temple where the deity is Lord Shiva with his destructive third eye closed. There are sixty-four steps leading up to the temple. At the base is a Ganga-like river which is a tributary to the River Tamraparni. Devotees cover huge distances to take the ablutions in this river.
This river does not dry out even in summer. The speciality of Papanasam River is that it reminds one of the ancient Tamil villages. The smell of withering Jasmine flowers, the aroma of sweets made of sugar syrup and of Ponkal, a temple offering; and of the inviting smell of Idlis all are ruined by the large swathes of houseflies. Yet, Papanasam is holy and pious. Like the all-purifying Ganga, Tamraparni flows by serenely.
Though the name suggests the presence of ocean nearby, there is no ocean in Ambasamudram. It is a small place with the River Tamraparni as the only landmark. The Manjolai Hills which is an adventure-tourism destination is some considerable height from sea level. Like the name suggests, there are plenty of mango orchards here. Ambasamudram is a place with small streets, farmlands and shrines.
Manimuthar dam can be viewed from above the Manjolai Heights. There is a big mountain on one edge of the dam. The clouds move like the waves of ocean above this mountain which is under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India. Manimuthar dam has other attractive sights too. The cloud-clad Western Ghats could be seen on the western side of the dam. These are the Agasthya peaks. Rare herbs, flora and fauna abound the Western Ghats. Beyond these peaks lie the city of Thiruvananthapuram.
Vast paddy fields stretch along the way. This ‘green ocean’ under a blue sky sometimes look more beautiful than the paddy fields of Kuttanad. The Yellow of the Marigolds line the Red carpet of Bandi flowers.
Sunflower farms are also encountered. Onion farms are also seen here. Onions piled in red heaps is a rare sight. Fruits and vegetables are farmed extensively along the sides of the road. Some banana farms look like a disciplined school assembly. Centuries old Pottalpudur Dargah, one of the most ancient and famous mosques in South India is on the way from Manimutthar to Tenkasi.
On the way back, one can choose the Tenkasi-Tirunelveli route. Connections to other pilgrimage centres around are easier from Tirunelveli. Madurai, Tiruchendur, Pillaiyarpatti etc. are around Tirunelveli. The largest concentration of wind farms of South India are also in Tirunelveli. Snow and windswept mountain ranges fringe the region. Like tops in the hands of children, the wind mills turn on the endless chain of these blue hills. Temples large and small marking the core of the Tamil heart pass by, all chanting the same Mantra,'God is great! God is great!'
Can anyone listen to these calls without lighting a stem lamp in his/her mind?
How to reach
From Thiruvananthapuram, the distance to Mannarkovil is 147km. The nearest town is Ambasamudram in Tirunelveli district. From Thiruvananthapuram, one can take the route via Nedumangad, Palode, Kulathupuzha, Thenmala, Aryankavu and Tenkasi. For those from North Kerala, the ideal route is via Kayamkulam, Adoor, Pathanapuram, Punalur and Thenmala. The nearest railway station is at Tenkasi. There is no direct train currently from Kerala to Tenkasi.
The sights mentioned here refer to Ambasamudram and the places of interest within thirty kilometres range. From Tenkasi, Ambasamudram is about 40km.
Mannarkovil, Brahmadesham, Papanasam, Manimuthar dam etc. are all within striking range of Ambasamudram. The varied sceneries around here are quite pleasing to the eyes. The uniquely named Ambasamudram and the temple at Mannarkovil are rich in imagery from an era gone by. Manimuthar Dam gives spectacular views of the nature’s beauty.