The festival season is set to begin in Thiruvananthapuram with the Navarathri 'puja.' Heralding the celebrations, a procession of Navarathri idols from Nanchinadu in Tamil Nadu will reach the Kerala capital on October 9.
The idols of goddess Saraswathy from Padmanabhapuram Palace at Kalkkulam taluk in Kanyakumari district, Kumaraswami from Kumarakovil in Velimala and goddess Munnootty Nanga from Suchindram Temple will be brought in a grand ritualistic procession to Thiruvananthapuram.
While Saraswathy will travel on an elephant, Kumaraswami will ride on a silver horse, and Munnootty Nanga will be carried on a palanquin. The silver horse carrying Kumaraswami was an offering made by the mother of Velu Thambi Dalawa.
The members of the Travancore royal family will extend a ceremonial welcome to the idol procession in front of the Karuvelippura Malika on the eastern gate of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple. Tens of thousands of people will throng both sides of the streets in the city to watch this procession. The procession will be escorted by the mounted police of Kerala.
The idol of goddess Saraswathy will be installed at the Chokkatta Mandapam (Saraswathy Mandapam) in Karuvelappura Malika. Members of the royal family will place weapons and books before the idol as 'pooja' items.
Meanwhile, Kumaraswami will be taken to Aryasala Temple and Munnootty Nanga to Chenthitta Temple for installation during the Navarathri festival.
This marks the start of the Navarathri celebrations in Thiruvananthapuram. Alongside, the Navarathri music festival will begin. This centuries' old ritual was again put in order by Maharaja Swathi Thirunal, who gave it the present form.
This festival is also a symbol of the close cultural contact and cooperation between Kerala and neighbouring Tamil Nadu. When the Navarathri procession travels from Tamil Nadu to Kerala, it gives an opportunity for the people of erstwhile Travancore kingdom who found themselves part of two Indian states, to feel united again, at least temporarily.
The entire Nanchinadu region of the old Travancore is part of Tamil Nadu's Kanyakumari district now. The Padmanabhapuram Palace there alone is owned by Kerala Government, but the Saraswathy temple on its Eastern side is under the control of the Kanyakumari Devaswom. It is the idol from this temple that is brought in a procession to Thiruvananthapuram.
It is believed that legendary Tamil poet Kambar used to offer prayers to this Saraswathy idol. When the idol is taken for the Navarathri festival, 'salagramas' are installed at the temple in its place for conducting rituals.
Legends related to the Saraswathy idol
Poet Kambar was a member of the royal court of the King of Valliyoor. When he realised his age was advancing, Kambar offered the Saraswathy idol that he worshipped to Kulasekhara Perumal, the king of Venad, with the request that it should be preserved following all rituals. Legend has it that this event took place in ninth century AD. Kulasekhara Perumal chose his palace at Padmanabhapuram as the seat of the idol.
The kings of Venad after Kulasekhara Perumal and the Maharajas of Travancore who followed them continued the tradition of revering the Saraswathy idol. Even when modern Kerala came into being and democratic rule prevailed, the rituals were kept intact.
When Kulasekhara Perumal installed the Saraswathy idol at Padmanabhapuram, the palace there was known as Koyikkal palace. It was Anizham Thirunal Marthandavarma, the founder of Travancore, who rebuilt the palace giving it the present shape. He installed the idol on the eastern side of the palace and the Navarathri celebrations were held here during Marthandavarma's rule.
After Marthandavarma, Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma, better known as Dharma Raja, took over as the maharaja of Travancore, the tradition of celebrating Navarathri at Padmanabhapuram palace continued, though the capital of the kingdom was shifted to Thiruvananthapuram.
However, the idol was taken to Mavelikkara Palace during Navarathri in 1788, 1789, 1791, and 1804. It was in 1838 that the Saraswathy idol was worshipped for the last time during Navarathri at Padmanabhapuram. That year, the celebrations were conducted on a grander scale than earlier.
Numerous tales are prevalent regarding the theft of the idol as well as its recovery.
Swathi Thirunal's initiative
The ritual of ceremonially bringing the Navarathri idols to Thiruvananthapuram was introduced during the time of Maharaja Swathi Thirunal, in 1839. The influence of the art-loving king can be seen in the systematic and aesthetic manner in which the procession is organised.
Swathi Thirunal considered the Saraswathy idol as a symbol of knowledge and art, Kumaraswami of military might, and Munnootty Nanga of power worship.
The nine-day Navarathri music festival was also started by Swathi Thirunal, who framed guidelines regarding the 'ragas' and compositions to be sung on each day. The 'sangeetholsavam' witnesses recital of Swathi Thirunal's works.
The idol is brought to the Kerala capital by Krishnan Vahakkar, a section of people in Nanchinadu who are considered to be the descendants of the Yadavas, the ancient Ay rulers of the area.
The procession carrying the idols crosses three rivers en route. In olden days, the path was a difficult stretch across the Kuzhithura (Kothayar), Neyyar at Neyyattinkara, and Karamana rivers. The reward for bringing the idols comprised three lemons made of gold. However, this custom came to an end along with monarchy.
This mansion is located opposite the Padmatheertham pond on the eastern entrance of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple. It was earlier known as 'karuvalam malika' and served as the state treasury. 'Karuvalam' translates to treasury. It is at Chokkatta Mandapam on the lower floor of the Karuvalam Malika, which is a part of the Puthen Malika palace, that the Saraswathy idol is installed in during Navarathri.
The Chokkatta Mandapam is derived from 'Cholkettu Mandapam,' the place where dance performances were staged. During Navarathri, the mandapam is decked up. Earlier, the decorations were done with red areca nuts, lemons, and bunches of banana. Later, wooden sculptures took their place. Jasmine and 'kozhunnu' flowers came to be used in abundance, along with aromatic substances, spreading a heavenly scent in the mandapam during Navarathri.
It is in this atmosphere that the musical offering is done from 6 pm to 8.30 pm every day. In the past, specially-made earthen pots were hung upside down at various spots in the hall, to amplify the sound. With the arrival of electricity, speakers have replaced these pots.
The divine music can be enjoyed from the steps on the Eastern entrance of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple. Till 1933-34, the Mullamoodu Bhagavathars had the sole right to recite the Swathi Thirunal compositions during Navarathri. That year, Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, the last ruler of Travancore, introduced reforms, inviting noted singers from various parts of the country to hold concerts at the mandapam. This custom still continues.
The Kuthira Malika palace adjacent to the mandapam was built by Swathi Thirunal. It is a fine example of typical Kerala architecture. Now a museum depicting the eventful history of Travancore, Kuthira Malika displays rare weapons, sculptures, and artefacts.
The Levy Hall adjacent to it is also a museum.
On Vijayadasami Day, after the rituals, the idol of Kumaraswami is taken out from Aryasala Temple and ceremonially carried on the silver horse to the Poojappura Mandapam four km away.
During the times of monarchy, Travancore kings used to accompany the idol on a chariot drawn by five white horses. After the rituals, the Maharaja as well as other members of the royal family displayed their martial skills in front of the idol of Kumaraswami.
A large number of city residents thronged both sides of road to watch the procession. Though they no longer travel on chariots, the royal family members still engage in the martial exercise.
A ritual of ceremonially bringing the idol of Saraswathy to Pojappura Mandapan was also started recently.