Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Thirunelly Temple

The Thirunelly Bhagavathy's abode is on top of a hill in the middle of a thick jungle. Tall stone steps lead up to the temple. Surrounding it on all sides are high mountains covered in green. The devout have to undertake a pilgrimage deep into the unspoilt jungle and up the hill in order to get a glimpse of the goddess.

Of course, the blue metallic road and the spanking new rest-house right in front of the temple makes everything that much easier. The Bhagavathy has become quite popular, apparently. Tourist buses and shiny white SUVs line the route up the hill. Our driver, having confidently started up the road, is forced to give up half-way because of the traffic jam in the middle of the jungle.

When my parents last came here ten years ago, the road was full of potholes, and the rest-house was some poor architecture student's third-year project. Nor was the goddess so sought after. They parked right in front of the temple - hard to imagine now. Of course, there were very few SUVs in India back then.

The number of visitors might have multiplied in the last decade, but when we climb up the stone steps, we discover that the temple itself is much as it has always been. Facing us is a low white washed building with a moss-covered tiled roof. Inside it resides the Bhagavathy in all her silk-clad splendour. The rolling green slopes of the surrounding mountains draw the eye upwards in awe. The stone floor is cool and comforting underfoot. A new gopuram is under construction, but that is almost the only change.

Apart from the people, of course. Somehow, we have managed to get there early enough to escape the rush hour. When we come out of the inner building, there is a huge queue outside, waiting to go in. Having paid for our archanas and pushpabhishekams and Bhagavathy-alone-knows-what-else, we leave the Bhagavathy to her masses.

My parents now want to visit the Papanasham, where my grandfather bali ceremony was done. The path to it leads off the main temple complex through thick jungle, down another bunch of stone steps. Green trees line the path, and birds call constantly in the gloom of the woods. Unfortunately, the poor traveller, having devoutly left her footwear at the temple entrance, has only rocks to step on most of the time.

And when the Papanasham is reached - oh, what a sight! The once-gushing stream has been reduced to a few pools of dirty water. Groups of recently bereaved people sit amidst the rocks on the stream bed and try to rescue the souls of their beloveds . A Brahmin priest with a big potbelly presides over each group. Depressing. Apparently, the water shortage is only partly because of the summer - people higher up the slopes draw water from the stream for domestic use.

We return along the same metallic road down the hill and towards our guest house. Signboards by the roadside speak of many 'resorts' on either side - for the spoilt city-people to experience the unspoilt jungle, perhaps. All along the way, tall bamboo groves sigh in the wind like lonely giants. I look out at the greenery with unseeing eyes and think about how nice places always get lost to modernity.

Tirunelli Temple, Wayanad, Northern Kerala. About 5 hours from Bangalore.
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