Thoothapuzha, one of the main tributaries of Bharathapuzha, has stayed remarkably pure – unsullied by the bane of pollution that has affected most of Kerala's rivers. Enriched by Kunthipuzha that originates from the Attappadi hills, Nellipuzha from the Kalladikkodan hills, Kanjirapuzha, and Thuppanad puzha, the river flows in all glory to the north of Vellinezhi village in Palakkad. On the banks of Thoothapuzha, also refered to as Kunthipuzha by locals, stands the Narayana Mangalathu Mana, the home that sheltered Naranath Bhranthan, the illustrious rebel of Malayalam folklore.
Narayana Mangalam Mana
According to the lore, the Brahmin scholar Vararuchi and his paraya (low caste) wife Panchami had been travelling on foot through valleys of the Western Ghats when she gave birth to her fifth child. The baby was laid down on the banks of Kunthipuzha – Panchami had agreed to Vararuchi’s condition that they will abandon their babies where they were born. The logic he offered to his wife was that 'the God that had given the child a mouth will feed it too.' The children, all twelve of them, did survive and excelled in twelve different professions according the lore of 'Parayi petta panthiru kulam.'
The 'antharjanam' (women in Namboori families) of Narayana Mangalathu mana found the abandoned infant the next morning when she went to take her bath in the river. She took the baby home and the family decided to bring him up as their own. The boy proved to be extraordinary from a very young age; his unique sensibilities were perhaps heightened by the time spent under the care of the Namboodiri family which had a tantric background. Known as the ‘manayil patteri’ namboodiris, the family is believed to have consecrated a number of temples all over Kerala.
As he grew up, the young boy picked up a strange hobby – rolling huge boulders up the hill near his home. A rock he is believed to have rolled up to the top of the hill in one such feverish episode can be seen perched on the peak. The hill has come to be known as 'Bhranthan kunnu' (madman's hill). Standing on the banks of Kunthipuzha, one can see the boulder through the tall trees, looming in the distance like a memory that refuses to wane.
A few years ago, the locals got together to form the Naranath Bhranthan Memorial Council which endeavoured to restart the old practice of lighting a lamp on the hill top. A team led by poet Akkitham Narayanan Namboodiri, Communist leader E P Gopalan and other advocates of the literacy movement had initiated the practice. The lamp was given the sobriquet 'lamp of literacy.' A project to turn the site into a spot for cultural tourism was also drawn up.
The project did not take off and the trekking to the hill to light the lamp waned too in due course. More recently, the efforts of cultural activist K R Chethalloor and the Naranath Bhranthan Memorial Council secretary Ayiroor Gopi to revive the ritual have met with success. The trekking is conducted on the day observed as Naranath Bhranthan's 'samadhi' day which falls on Moolam star in the month of Meenam (April). The Distrcit Tourism Promotion Council (DTPC) had managed to include the 'Panthirukulam Tourism Circuit' in the 'Swadeshi Darshan’ programme of the central government. Efforts are on to include the hill within the circuit.
Chethalloor is about 7 km off Karinkallathani which is on the Palakkad-Kozhikkode highway. One cannot miss the Naranath Bhranthan road which forks off from here. Walk for about one-and-a-half kilometers and you will find the ruins of the once prosperous Narayana Mangalathu mana. The surroundings and the pond nearby are all shrouded in thick overgrowth. The steep hill nearby is where you should start the trek to reach the 'Bhranthan Kunnu.'
Kumaraswamy Bhattathirippad, the most well known tantric in the Narayana Mangalam lineage, lives near the Chethalloor school. The family's traditional healing methods are known to cure skin diseases effectively.
Lore has it that Naranath Bhranthan left his haunt one fine day and vanished without a trace. As per the Malayalam calendar, the day falls on the Moolam star in the month of Meenam, and is observed as his 'samadhi day.' It is said that, for a long time, the Narayana Mangalam family used to place a torch atop the Bhranthan kunnu to show him the way home, in case he got lost while wandering. But he never returned.
Since the family considers Naranath Bhranthan as an enlightened soul, the 'shradha' rituals conventionally performed on the death anniversary of family members are not done on his samadhi day. Instead, the day was marked with an elaborate ritual called ‘vachu namaskaram’, which includes various poojas, homam, annadanam etc. For years, the ritual was performed by the namboodiris of Peruvanam, one of the three Agnihothri villages in Kerala. These days, the 'dakshina' meant for the Agnihothris is submitted at the Guruvayur temple as 'dwadashi panam', the custom of offering a token amount at the temple which goes towards the welfare of the Agnihotri families.
Recently, the practice of lighting a lamp atop the Bhranthan kunnu on the 'samadhi day' was revived by the leaders of the literacy movement in Kerala.
To get to Bhranthachalam, one has to take the Cherpulassery-Pattambi road from Chethalloor and stop about 3 kms off on the Koppam-Valanchery route. Alternatively, you can hire an autoriksaw from Rayiranelloor junction and travel for just over 2 kms to reach the spot.
The huge rock that welcomes you is most likely the remains of a cave temple. The 69 steps that start from the bottom of the rock lead up to two small shrines on the hilltop. The climb is tedious. The water-filled cavities on the rock do not dry up even in the peak of summer, say the locals.
The most intriguing sight atop the rock is a Kanjiram tree (Nux-vomica), which has devoured much of a thick iron chain. But for a few links dangling out of the trunk, the chain has been almost entirely swallowed up by the trunk of the ancient tree. But then, every link in the story of Naranath Bhranthan has its element of mystery.
The rock is believed to have been a favourite haunt of the eccentric seer. His famed rendezvous with 'Bhadrakali,' one of the oft-repeated episodes in the legend of Naranath Bhranthan, is supposed to have taken place here. Kali, in her fury over the non-chalance displayed by the mere mortal in her presence, had tied him to the tree with the heavy iron chain. But such was his mental and physical powers that he managed to free himself, says the lore.
Stories apart, the cave temples are attributed to the Jain culture that once thrived in Kerala. Later, when Jainism fell out of favour, the practitioners were labeled as lunatics and their temples were declared as asylums of madmen. There is an argument that Naranath Bhranthan may have been inaccurately labeled as a lunatic for spending time alone in the cave temple. Historian M G Sasibhooshan has said that the sculptures in the cave temple resemble Pallava architectural style. The cave has been declared as a heritage site, under the protection of Thiruvegappura panchayat.
An upcoming pilgrim spot, the Rayiranellur hill is a crucial element in the story of Naranath Bhranthan. Thousands of pilgrims now climb the hill every year to offer prayers on the ‘samadhi’ day. The hill is much taller than both the ‘Bhranthan kunnu’ at Chethalloor and the Bhranthachalam. If his hobby at Chethalloor was rolling boulders up the hill, he would also send them tumbling down from the Rayiranellur hills. The picture of Naranath Bhranthan roaring with laughter at the sight of the rock tumbling down the hill is one of the most vividly portrayed images in Kerala's folklore.
Like many of his seemingly indecipherable antics, this exercise has also been interpreted as one that carries metaphorical significance. The effort of rolling the boulder uphill is likened to the worldly quest to attain material pleasures. The act of pushing it down is equated to the unexpected loss of such achievements due to no apparent reason. It is said that by laughing at the sight of his effort coming to naught, he was seeking to put forward the idea of detachment.
The hill has a Devi temple which is believed to have come into existence when the Goddess appeared before Naranath Bhranthan. When the seer asked the Goddess to abide on the hills, she relented and left her footprints on the rocks. Of the nine footprints that are said to have appeared, seven are visible. An eighth one is seen as a small pool which has water in all seasons. Naranath Bhranthan had asked the members of Narayana Mangalam family to perform pooja at the shrine and to live at the foot of the hills. This branch of the family is now known as Narayana Mangalath Amayoor mana.
Statue of Naranath Bhranthan
The huge statue of Naranath Bhranthan that stands on top of the Rayiranellur hill greets visitors. The seer is portrayed as offering a helping hand. Sculptor Surendra Krishnan, who made the life size statue, says that he was inspired to recreate the image of the seer when he felt there was more history than myth in the legend of Naranath Bhranthan. Though the work started in 1994, there were several occasions when it seemed that the project would have to be stalled due to lack of funds. The heavy rains that year also made it difficult to carry out the work.
But something stopped him from giving up, says Krishnan. With the help of several people who offered moral and financial support, the statue was erected before the annual pilgrimage of 1995. The original plan was to build a 14 ft tall statue. Past setbacks of all kinds, the finished statue stands 19 ft high – another twist in the intriguing story of Naranath Bhranthan.