Thousands of devotees reach Thiruvilawamala on the border of Thrissur and Palakkad districts to take part in Punarjani, a ritual crawling through a cave which is believed to absolve one of all sins. The route to Thiruvilwamala lies along pristine Kerala rural landscape. There are wide expanse of paddy fields, houses with tiled roofs, and several tea shops. Nearing the destination, typical village paths come into view. Time seems to stand still right up to Vilwadrinatha Temple. The temple, the ‘eighteen-and-a-half hills,’ and the Bharathapuzha River provide divinity to Thiruvilwamala.
The cave of atonement
The Bhoothamala hill stretches East-West beside the Bharathapuzha. Thiruvilawamala comprises the area around this hill along with the nearby Vilwamala and Moorikunnu. The Punarjani cave is located at boundary of the Bhoothamala and Vilwamala hills.It is believed Sage Parasurama reached here to atone for his sin of massacring Kshatriyas. Since Parasurama’s time, Punarjani is a symbol of freeing oneself of all sins. The ritual crawling through the cave takes place on the full moon Ekadesi day in the Malayalam month of Vrischikam. It coincides with Guruvayur Ekadesi.
To reach the Punarjani devotees have to travel 2 km from Thiruvilwamala along Palakkad road where they find a peepul tree with a platform built around it. The ritual starts from this spot. According to manager of Vilwadrinatha temple Sunil Kartha, “The Gods created Punarjani following the request of Parasurama to give salvation to the souls.”
“The cave is a 30-minute walk through the forest from the temple. A stream flowing down the hill is called Ganapathy Theertham. Water flows around the year in this stream and devotees wash their feet here before proceeding to Papanasini Theertham, another stream. It is believed that this stream has the presence of the waters of the Ganges. Iron hand rails have been fixed here for the benefit of devotees who take a bath and walk a short distance to the mouth of the cave,” says Kartha.
A person can easily enter the cave as the mouth has the height of an average man. However, the space gradually shrinks and one may have to bend to proceed. A little further the devotees taking part in the ritual will have to sit and move. A little more further one can only crawl by lying flat down in the cave. It is dark inside and each devotee has to find his way forward by touching the feet of the person in front of him. The only streak of light comes from the mouth of the cave at the other end. This light guides the devotees, who crawl towards it.
The spot where the devotees start crawling is the halfway mark of the cave. From there till the end is the most difficult part. The path to the end of the cave is barely wide enough for a person to squeeze through. This section is known as the ‘Boon of Punarjani’. It takes about 45 minutes to crawl through the cave, says Kartha.
At 3.30 am on the auspicious day, the priest accompanied by his aides and ritual music heads to the Punarjani. After the rituals at the mouth, the priest drops a gooseberry into the cave. The sight of the gooseberry emerging from the other end of the cave is amazing, says Kartha. People are allowed near Punarjani only on the day of the ritual. The forest department is in charge of the place and imposes severe restrictions on the remaining days.
Thiruvilawamala is located in Thalappally taluk in Thrissur district. The three ponds on the three sides of the temples are known as Ramanchira, Bhagavathychira and Vaikkattychira. In olden times, devotees used to conduct circumambulation of the hills near Thiruvilawamala. This ritual is known as Giripradakshinam. The 16- km walk around Bhoothamala, Vilwamala and Moorikunnu took a devotee through the rustic parts of Thiruvilawamala and touching the Nila River. It is believed that Adisankara had conducted Giripradakshinam.
Surprises in store
Legend has it that Narada was the first pilgrim to reach Thiruvilawamala. Narada said that there is a cave under the temple and it has a golden-coloured bael (vilwam or bhel) tree. The temple which has Maha Vishnu and Lakshmana as deities began to be seen as a place with surprises. The 30 days in the Malayalam month of Karkidakam are ideal for offering prayers.
The temple is situated on top of a rock. Another surprise is the presence of a peepal (sacred fig) tree on the rock. This peepal is known as ‘Guruvayurappan aal’. According to legend, the famous Sree Krishna temple at Guruvayur can be reached if one travels exactly to the west from this tree. An Ayyappa temple is situated below the steps on the southern side of the main shrine.
Another amazing event at the temple at Thiruvilawamala is that sunlight falls directly on the idols during the Malayalam months of Kanni and Meenam. The sight of rays of rising sun falling on the idol on the eastern side is astounding. During sunset, the idol on the western side glitters like gold.
The wooden architecture of temple is striking. Wooden sculptures representing the penance of Naranarayana and a wooden chain are the attractions on the path around the shrines. There is a platform where lamps are lit near the path. There are two shrines facing east and west. The east-facing idol was installed by Parasurama, says the local myth.
The Hanuman shrine at Thiruvilawamala is also among the most popular attractions. It is on the eastern side. Devotees offer garlands of betel leaves, crushed rice and garlands with the name of Rama written on them to the deity. Maidens offering prayers to Hanuman will soon enter matrimony, says legend. Such beliefs make the pilgrimage to Thiruvilawamala unique. Each and every devotee realises that all his or her experiences in life are only memories now. This sums up the legend Punarjani, which translates as ‘rebirth’.
How to reach
Thiruvilawamala is on the border of Thrissur and Palakkad districts. It is 32 km from Palakkad. The Punarjani cave is 2 km from the Vilwadrinatha temple.