Guruvayur – A peep into its history

Most people have only a vague concept of the temple’s history. I thought it would be a good idea to provide a brief overview based on the perusal of historic records, primarily the many papers and books authored by an early Malabar chronicler, KV Krishna Ayyar. Some years ago, I had written about the involvement of the Dutch and Hydrose Kutty Moplah, in the temple’s history. This will overlap and cover earlier aspects and take you through a few of the changes after Malabar came under the British administration. So, this article will take you through some early surmises, the Dutch and Mysore periods, and eventually the golden days under the Zamorins of Calicut, who incidentally are still the main trustees. We will also quickly check out what Ayyar termed the Guruvayur Cult.

The older temples

In the old Sangam times, the biggest of the temple sankethams in the region was Thrikannamathilakam (the Kunavayilkottam of the ancient Tamil writers, the Gunaka of the medieval Sandesas, and the Trkkunamatilakam or Matilakam of the English and Dutch records) near Tiruvanchikulam, the capital of the Cheras. Mathilakam as it was popularly known, was supposedly a Jain center of learning, but later morphed into housing a Siva shrine of great importance. Located near today's Irinjalakkuda, it was also the place where a Jain scribe composed the epic Silappadikaram (Tamil epic dating to around the 9th Century). Kunavayilkottam (Thirukkana vayil kottam) is according to MGS Narayanan a pseudonym for Mathilakam, a place which in antiquity hosted some 6-7 Jain temples (Sreedhara Menon in the Trichur Gazetteer mentions that Kunavayil is situated to the north of Tiruvanchikulam and on the eastern side of the old capital shoring the Arabian Sea).

Trikkana Mathilakam thus became home to the large Siva temple, to which many other local temples such as the Guruvayur and Koodalmanikam temples are supposed to have become subordinates. As the story goes, the uralers or temple custodians, the Tekkedath and Vadakedath Nairs, were responsible for the building of many walls at Mathilakam which however served to alienate the various occupants of the principality. The main dissenters were the Nambuthiris who left the temple area after a tiff, and the temple town fell into disuse. By the end of the 14th century, Mathilakam had come into the possession of the Zamorin of Calicut with whom it remained for some centuries till the Dutch came along and battled over the Cranganore and Cochin areas in the 17th century.

Historic references - Guruvayur

In ancient texts, the reference to the temple goes by the terms Kuruveyur or Kuruvayur, (a Tamil  invocation, mentions kuruvayurampumumparperumale, the 16th century Chakravakasandesa mentions a place beyond Mamiyur as kuruvayuren ruperam pradesam, and in temple records as late as 1637 as Kuruveyur Tevar) and Ayyar guesses that it could be connected to Kuruvai (meaning Sea) signifying its proximity to the sea and also believes that the Koreoura of Ptolemy is Guruvayur. The prosperity of the region, especially the temple is owed to the Zamorin’s arrival in the area and his assumption of overlordship over the area.

He then explains that the association of the temple with Guru and Vayu could perhaps be attributed to the Melpathur who authored Narayaneeyam and the trend to Sanskritize place names, who for some reason, by lengthening the short vowel in Va to Vaa, associated the temple to Guru and Vaayu. Ayyar explains that it was not an ancient shrine, since Nammalavar and Tirumangaialawar had praised Tirunavaya but never mentioned Guruvayur.  Per the legend or myth– It starts with the death of King Parikshit who because of a curse, meets his death from a snake bite. His son Janamejaya performs a sarpa Yajna to avenge his father’s death, but because of this sin, gets afflicted by leprosy. He was advised to seek the blessings of Lord Krishna. Going on, he finds the lord’s idol submerged in Dwaraka, which he understands must be reinstalled in a suitable place. The King prays to Guru, the preceptor of the devas, and to Vayu, the lord of wind. They decide to help the king and flying on, he sees the charming land of Kerala and the lovely lake of lotuses, fringed by coconut trees. Lord Shiva who had his abode at Mammiyur, invites them to install and consecrate the idol at a location close to Mammiyur and this thus becomes Guru-Vaayur. The king stays long, prays to the lord, and bathes at the holy waters in the pond nearby called Rudratheertham, to get cured of his leprosy affliction. The legend grows, and the temple becomes a popular one for devotees and pilgrims. I must mention here that there is another legend as well, of the idol being consecrated Vasudeva, being brought by Uddhava and Brihaspati from Dwaraka to the present location, upon Parasurama’s advice, after Lord Krishna’s ascent to Vaikunta. Supposedly, Viswakarma provided the architectural plans.

That said, others attribute the construction of the temple itself to the Pandyas (by a king who was cured of leprosy after praying there), and was maintained by the Nambuthiris of the region. It is said that the idol with antiquity of over 5,000 years is made of Pathala-anjana-sila (black bismuth), rarely used for making idols.

According to tradition, there were seventy-two Nambuthiri illams in the vicinity in the past. Though the exact details are unclear they were quite many and required four Otikkans (Vedic priests), to minister to their religious needs. The old temple records mention Guruvayur Sanketam comprising five Desams – namely Guruvayur, Tiruvenkatam, Mammiyur, Tamarayur, and Anjiyur. Guruvayur over time became a subordinate to the powerful Trikkukkunavayi.

The Talapilli kingdom & the Zamorin

The kur matsara (see linked article) and the war between the Zamorin and the Valluvanda Raja would go on to popularize Guruvayur and hastened the decline in popularity of the famous Tirunavaya temple. The war for Tirunavaya dragged on for years, and the devotees on the southern side of the river started going to Guruvayur. After the Zamorin expelled the Vellatri from Tirunavayi, he marched on southwards as far as Cochin and became the Melkoyma or sovereign protector of both Trkkunavayi and Guruvayur. Over time, he also became a devotee of Guruvayur, and his subjects also started visiting Guruvayur in large numbers.

As his accessions grew, the Zamorin became the suzerain of Kakkad or Talappilli now within the Cochin state. The chieftain, originally a Nambutiri had been degraded to a Nambiti for committing manslaughter (the slaying of the Bhutaraya Perumal). The Brahmans in their gratitude conferred upon him the lordship of the lands in Talapilli with the title of Kakkad Karanavappad (another legend states that he had killed Choy, the general of the Chola king, who invaded the country). Over time, this family split into four tavazhis - Kakkad, Punnathur, Ayinikur, and Manakulam. While the Kakkad, Ayinkur, and Manakulam factions moved to the side of the Cochin Raja, the Punnathur side aligned itself with the Zamorin as early as the 15th century. Initially at loggerheads with them, Punnatur signed a peace treaty with the Dutch in 1717, but things went awry and he collaborated again with the Zamorin and the British, resulting in the Dutch attack at Guruvayur. The major portion of Chavakkad, Kunnamkulam, Kakkad, and Chittilappilli formed part of the domain of Punnathur (Kottappadi near Guruvayur was the seat of the Punnathur family, today home to the elephants of Guruvayur). After some centuries the Ayinikur and Manakulam factions too defected and joined the powerful Zamorin.

The Zamorin rewarded the Punnathur branch for its services by giving its members large areas of territory that he had conquered from Cochin. The Punnathur enjoyed the unique privilege of taking part in the Zamorin’s Ariyittuvazcha and dining with him. Guruvayur which became the Zamorin’s favorite temple from then on, rose in esteem after he took over the urayma rights over it from the Punnathur chief.

Cochin claims (translation by VKR Menon)

After the treaty of Seringapatam in 1792, Tippu Sultan ceded Malabar to the English East India Company. The Duncan Commission was appointed to study and settle the rival claims of the many Rajas and Chiefs of Malabar. The Cochin Raja laid claims on Guruvayur, stating thus - Cavakkat Desom-This Desom had been gifted away to Kanippayyur Nambutiripad, the hereditary preceptor of the Cochin ruling family. This also has been overrun by the Zamorin and the Nambutiripad was compelled to surrender his rights to the former. The famous temple of Guruvayur in that Desom originally belonged to me…It did not impress Duncan and the British verdict favored the Zamorin.

Rice for the devotees and the increase in fame

The connection between Kunisseri near Pallavur and Guruvayur is quite interesting. It deals with the rice requirements at Guruvayur. As Guruvayur was in a rice-deficit region, it became a huge issue to feed the thousands of pilgrims who started to visit the now-popular temple. Ayyar explains that the chief priest, Cennamangalam Namputiri, was also the domestic chaplain of the Zamorin. In the course of his conquests, the Zamorin had driven a wedge through the center of the fertile Palghat District as far as Pollachi, namely Naduvattom. At the instance of Cennamangalam, the Zamorin secured the Vermamlr (Perumanur) Devasvam in the present Parakkulam near Kunisseri and the Cerikkal of Vallappanad sometime in the fifteenth century. The temple records show that every year some 300 to 500 Potis of paddy were taken to Guruvayur from Kunissery at the astoundingly low transportation cost of one Fanam or 28 nya paisa per Poti as head load.

By the end of the sixteenth century, Guruvayur had become the most famous pilgrimage center in Kerala. The 16th century witnessed the five foremost devotees of Guruvayurappan - Puntanam (1547-1640), Melputtur (1559-1625), Vilvamangalam II (1575-1660), Kururamma (1570-1640), and Prince (afterward the Zamorin) Manavedan (1595-1658).

The Dutch debacles

The Zamorin after his march into Valluvanad and Naduvattom, continued to the Guruvayur area and supposedly constructed the Sreekovil, the gold-covered flag mast, and the North and West gates of the temple. The Dutch meanwhile obtained sovereignty over Pappinivattom (Paponnetty) in 1715 and built Fort Williams. This was later seized by the Zamorin and the British, and they held it through 1716. In 1716, during the war with the Zamorin, the Dutch raided Guruvayur. The friction between the Dutch and Punnathur-Zamorin combo must have resulted in the plunder of Guruvayur around 1717. The temple was plundered by wayward Javanese mercenary forces of the Dutch, who in 1716-17, attacked the temple, stripping off the gold from the main flag mast. They then took away some of the treasures from the underground vaults and set fire to the western gateway (Padinjare Gopuram). Interestingly while the Javanese soldiers plundered the temple and took away silver, gold, and gems, Rev Visscher admits to pocketing many idols, which he kept as relics! 18 ½ villages around Guruvayur were granted to the Dutch after the war, as compensation, by the Zamorin.

But thanks to the robust devotee donations and collections, the losses were soon recouped, and the Patinjare Gopuram was rebuilt in 1747 by Panikka Veettil lttiraricca Menon. In the 1730’s there used to be a Dutch customs station at Guruvayur, a busy trade traffic junction.

Mysorean invasion

After a new Zamorin came into power in 1746, the situation changed again and the Zamorin supported by his Moplah and Nair troops, reestablished control over most of these areas during the 1755-58 period. Again, the Dutch, reinforced with Javanese support from Batavia defeated him in 1758 and ransacked the Mathilakam area where the Zamorin’s forces were headquartered. The Zamorin who was involved in the Dutch wars, passed away in 1758. Trouble was looming, for the Mysore forces which had made three sporadic forays into Malabar previously were now poised to attack again and a new Zamorin was viewing all this pensively. Haider was soon at the fore, Calicut was invaded and the Zamorin perished in the palace fire and attack of 1766, apparently immolating himself, a subject which we had covered earlier. Haider’s first task was to make sure that his primary objective – i.e., organized, and unorganized collection of revenues for his other war efforts- was quickly put into effect. For the role of Hydrose Kutty, the tax collector, please refer to the linked article, where I have gone into his story in detail.

In 1766 after Haider Ali occupied Calicut, his forces established their camps at Chavakkad. Guruvayur as a rich temple was in Hyder’s sights for a looting mission, but thanks to the intervention of Venkata Narayana Ayyar his military Governor of Tiruvannamalai, the temple was spared. It was not as straightforward as it sounds and a large ransom of 10,000 fanams had to be paid to Haider on the Zamorin’s behalf by the Vadakkepat Warrier. Nevertheless, the arrival of pilgrims and collections at the temple rapidly declined and it was only after Srinivasa Rao’s (another administrator of Haider Ali) Devadaya or Brahmodayam, i.e., gift of lands for the temple’s upkeep (354 acres) that the temple administrators got some respite.

Later, due to monetary deficits, Tipu first stopped the Devadaya granted by Srinivasa Rao and later ordered the plunder of the temple. Assuming that Venkata Narayana Rao might not promptly execute his order, he also sent the order to his Muslim Governor at Calicut, but both of them delayed the order execution. Meanwhile, the Malliserri Namboothiri and the Kakad Othikan managed to conceal the main image in a well full of water and escape with the Utsava vigraha and all valuables to Ambalapuzha in Travancore. Tipu’s soldiers meanwhile, destroyed the smaller shrines all around (1789-90) and set fire to the temple according to KV K Ayyar’s notes, but a timely rain saved the shrine from destruction.

You may have noted a comment about the underground cellar and the purported shift of the Guruvayur treasures to Travancore, upon Tipu’s arrival. Tipu was convinced (per Dutch records) that a large amount of treasure was moved by the Zamorin family (from Guruvayur and Calicut) to Travancore and this was one of the main reasons he was desperate to cross the Travancore lines and subdue the ruler of Travancore (perhaps they were then stored at Padmanabhapuram vaults), something he failed to achieve.

The British period

After Tipu ceded Malabar to the British, the idol was reinstated at Guruvayur. Subsequently, the British authorities accepted this (devadaya) obligation, exempting certain temple lands from assessment and authorizing the use of the proceeds from them for the affairs of the temple, but only in principle.

Though worship in the temple was resumed in A.D. 1792, it was difficult to manage. The tenants (many of the old landowners had fled), most of whom were now Muslims, would not pay rent. The Devadaya stopped by Tipu could not be easily reinstated by the English. The Zamorin’s position also remained uncertain till A.D. 1805, for he too had lost authority after the Mysorean turmoil.

The Ulanad Panikkars became the unofficial advisers of the Zamorin and looked after his interests in the temple between 1825 to 1900 (They began their management with a small-scale Astabandha kalasa or refixing of the image). The Dipastambha or pillar of lights, under the flagstaff, was erected and in 1841 the Government of Madras restored the Devadaya formally. The Kizhakke Gopuram, or eastern gateway, was rebuilt in 1842.

The temple authorities embarked upon an extensive building program by 1859, the central shrine and the Mantapam, facing it, were covered with copper sheets, and a permanent flagstaff with a bell-metal covering, was erected. The Chuttampalam or the colonnaded hall all around the central shrine, the Vilakkumuttam, or the gallery of lights, and the Koottampalam, or the dancing hall, were all completed. The Sastha shrine was roofed with copper sheets, and the eastern courtyard was covered with a tiled roof around 1892.

Sri Konthi Menon, who became Manager in A.D. 1900, divided the work of the Devasvam into several departments to increase efficiency and evicted many land usurpers. The Kizh Santis, or subordinate priests, had to give up their right to a perpetual service tenure. He reconstructed the Pattayapura or granary and set up the big bell to ring the hour as the clock strikes. In 1911 a grand Astabandha kalasa or refixing of the loose image was performed.

Court of Wards, Ettan Thampuran

Following the British takeover, the Zamorins were reduced to the level of mere landlords and were at the mercy of the British. The Swarupams and royal houses had declined, and the vast estate was beset with maladministration. Claimants walked away with property, and there was hardly any collection to beset expenses.  The pension grant to the family by the British was temporarily stopped on the grounds of the Zamorin having failed to assist the British troops who were employed in quelling an early Moplah outbreak. Meanwhile, the Dharma Rakshana Sabha sought to oust the reigning Zamorin from his trusteeship of the Guruvayur temple, on grounds of gross mismanagement of the temple funds. That Zamorin passed away in 1912.

His successor, Manavikrama Ettan Raja, (Ettan Thampuran, my great grandfather) was thrust into this mighty and disastrous mess but realized quickly that estate management was not his forte. More at home with Sanskrit grammar and Sanskrit poetry than with rent rolls and account books, he realized the futility of his efforts and wisely decided to abdicate. UB Nair writes that in taking this unusual step, which was beset with many difficulties, Ettan Thampuran showed rare prudence and moral courage if only to ensure professional management of these lands. In a final desperate effort, the ruler freed himself from the shackles imposed by custom and prejudice. The Madras Government, at his urgent request, agreed to take over, with effect from Oct 1915, the Zamorin’s estates, to be managed for the family by the Court of Wards for the following 12 years.

The despair of losing Guruvayur is said to have weighed on his mind, hastening his death the following year. The estates were wisely administered by Mr. JA Thorne. Ayyar, who knew Thorne well, explains - Uniformly courteous and considerate, its representative J. A. Throne, I.C.S., continued and completed the work of Konthi Menon. With the rendition of the Estate in A.D. 1928, the Zamorin once again became responsible for Guruvayur. Two years afterwards the High Court of Madras framed a scheme for the temple and the rights of the Zamorin were more clearly defined.

Punnathur Kotta & the Zamorin’s palace.

The many elephants gracing Guruvayur ceremonies are housed in the grounds surrounding Punnathur Kotta, a small palace about two kilometers away from the temple, where the Punnathur Raja once resided. The area around the Nalukettu is now the 'Palace for Elephants’. In addition, there used to be a small kovilakom built by the Zamorin a little distance away from the temple, sometime around 1351, a place to stop on his way to Kodungallur. The Krishnattam troupe used to reside and perform here as well as at the temple, facing the stone slab to the South, the spot which is believed (and often disputed) to be the place where Manaveda was cremated.

Temple entry movement

Commotion on temple entry for all devotees started in the 30’s. The Avarnas or low castes were admitted into the temple to make their obeisance directly in front of the Lord's image, only once a year. After the last worship at night of the Ekadasi festival, generally in December, the temple was thrown open to them. In Nov 1931, Kelappan started a Satyagraha to secure this privilege for them on all days for all worship. After 12 days and Gandhiji’s intervention, he broke the fast, but the temple had been closed down though the required ceremonies continued at the Otikkan Matam. The High Court upheld the rights of the temple; the Satyagrahis withdrew; and worship was resumed in the temple on January 28, 1932. On June 1st, 1947, all Avarnas were allowed free entry which till then the Savarnas or caste Hindus alone had enjoyed.

The Guruvayur Cult

Prevalent in Kerala, it is defined as an offshoot of the Vaishnava Bhakti cult, originally founded by Puntanam and Melpathur Bhattathiri. While the former composed the Jnanapana in Malayalam, the latter wrote the Narayaneeyam in Sanskrit, basing it on Patanjali yoga and the Bhagavatham. As Mathur explains - A quintessential expression of this history, the Sri Krishna cult of the Zamorin of Calicut found its lasting manifestation in the monumental Sri Krishna temple at Guruvayur. The Guruvayur cult has been hailed for visvapapahatya, removal of earthly sufferings, and the bestowal of saukhyam and avesam, earthly well-being and pleasure, leading to anandam, or heavenly bliss.

Sacred Complex of the Guruvayur Temple - PRG Mathur
The Guruvayur Cult – JOKS Vol 6, 1979 KV Krishna Ayyar
The Voice of Guruvayur – Historical background - CN Menokki
Guruvayur – JOIH 1962 KV Krishna Ayyar
The History of Guruvayoor – KV Krishan Ayyar
Heaven on Earth - The Universe of Kerala's Guruvayur Temple - Pepita Seth
Zamorins of Calicut – UB Nair

Pics - Wkimedia, thanks