Families mill around the big lamp in the Sree Poornathrayesa temple of Tripunithura, pouring their share of oil and ghee into it. They do their part to keep the fire of the temple burning. Isn’t that what we are all doing? Going to temples is our way of keeping our belief in God alive and burning.  When these temples also hold memories, they also become a part of you, a place that holds comfort.

Pilgrimage is a word misunderstood by many. Some think that visiting many temples is essential. Popular opinion is that the temples itself are the most important part of a pilgrimage. In my opinion, neither is true. Neither is a prerequisite of belief in God. Visiting temples doesn’t necessarily have to be about poetic self-discovery. I have never had that particular experience. And it is not a necessity for a pilgrimage to have many temples. It is entirely possible for a pilgrimage to contain just one single temple. And it can just be about appreciating the culture and the architecture about these places of worship. My undertaking was one of these.

I visited some temples in the vicinity of the house I used to live in, in my time in Kerala. These are temples my family used to frequent when I was a child. They hold a lot of memories. In some of these temples, important familial rituals were held.

The temple I first visited was the one nearest my home in Kerala, called Sree Poornathrayeesa, in a town called Tripunithura. It is a short walk to the temple, and it is a route I have worn down with my feet for many years. As I start the walk to the temple, I am joined by my friend of many years. I am ecstatic to see him as we were meeting after many years. We spent a lot of time with each other, catching up. He holds a special place in my heart as we grew up together and are still as close as we could be.

The town is an old one and its age can be seen in its buildings. The path to the temple is surrounded by palaces that are now houses. They all have names and their own stories. After one turn, it is a straight path to the temple. That one stretch of road looks like a painting. There are trees and old palaces on both sides. The trees bloom with flowers which sometimes fall onto the road, making a carpet of flowers.

There are two entrances to the temple, on facing the west and the other east. The east one is the back of the temple. The back of the temple leads out into the main road. There are many shops and miscellaneous stalls lining the sides of the grounds. The main road has many shops, including a restaurant, a frequently visited ice-cream shop and a puja shop.

A lot of families visit the temple, and they sometimes perform a ceremony called the archana. It is also popular for carrying out certain essential rituals, like the thulabharam, which is the offering of oneself to God, by giving something equal in weight. It is performed when they are children. Other rituals, like the choroonu, among others are also performed. The choroonu is a ritual performed for 6 month olds, wherein they have their first taste of rice. The local temple visitors know each other well and always smile and acknowledge each other. They seem to have an arrangement wherein they don’t disturb the other person when inside the sanctum. There are always a lot more people in the evenings, especially for the shiveli. Many of them are decked out in their finest, dressed in the Kerala blouse and skirt. The environment is one of companionship and happiness.

The temple is famous for its yearly Utsavams or festivals. The main one is the Vrishchikoltsawam. It is conducted every year in the month of Vrishchikam (November-December). There are 15 elephants every year. It is one of the biggest temple festivals in Kerala. It starts every year in between November and December. It lasts for 8 days, with events running all day. Events feature traditional folk art forms such as Ottanthullal, Kathakali, Thayambaka, Chendamelam, and Kacheri. Ottanthullal and Kathakali are traditional art forms of Kerala. A Chenda is a musical instrument and a Chendamelam involves music produced form a Chenda. It happened on a large scale. A Kacheri is a musical performance. Stalls are set up in front of and behind the temple selling food and various articles.

Earlier, it was not a very well-known temple, but over the years, it has become so. It is well known for its events, like Kathkali and classical concerts by renowned artists of the field.  It is home to many festivals. One of its many celebrations includes one which commemorates the temple’s resurrection after it was burnt down in 1920. The fire completely destroyed the sanctum sanctorum, which was built in wood. This led to it being redesigned in concrete, for the first time in Kerala, by the erstwhile architect, Sir Eachara Warrier. The concrete structure was covered in wooden panels and copper plates and granite tiles, to provide the old feel. The temple is thought to be among the greatest temples in Kerala. It was first among eight royal temples of Kochi.

Its deity, Lord Vishnu in the form of Santhanagopala Murthy, is considered to be the guardian of the town. Legends say that Sree Poornathrayeesa is the older sibling of the Goddesses of the Chottanikkara and Pishari temples. The visiting of the deities form the Perumthrikovil (Lord Shiva) temple and the Pishari temple (Lakshmi) is locally called as Sankara Narayana Vilakku (Shiva and Vishnu) and Lakshmi Narayana Vilakku (Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Vishnu).

It is well believed that childless couples will be blessed with children on praying to him. This deity is also one of the biggest metal statues in Asia. Standing in front of Him fills me with certain happiness, because this place is like a second home. I knew it before it became as famous as it is now. Whatever my views on God, I will always visit the temple. There have been times, when I was younger, where being in the temple itself has changes my mind about God. The ambience of the temple did completely turn my views around.

Every evening and morning, there is a ceremony carried out, called the shiveli, which involves the deity carried three times around the house on an elephant’s back. The temple is designed with accordance to the architecture of Kerala. It has an open courtyard running around the house of the deity. The sanctum sanctorum is housed within another building. Along the sanctum sanctorum’s external walls, there are three other smaller deities. The walls of the temple are beautifully carved with figures and stories of myth. They depict some of the important tales from the Mahabharata and Ramayana and the Dashavatara. One can identify the stories all along the temple walls. This is a favourite pastime of temple visitors, to guess what story the engraving depicts. One of my favourite things about the temple is its elephant, Sriram. For me, personally, this is one of the most important places in the world. During my time as a child in Kerala, we visited it frequently and it has become a treasure trove of memories for me.

The second temple I visited is in the Ernakulam, called the Ernakulathappan. The temple is contained in the grounds of Durbar Hall. Many other temples are contained in its grounds, including a Hanuman temple. My family and I drove to Durbar Hall. Throughout the journey, all I could think about was the fact that I had not been there in a long time. There are countless families spread out on picnic blankets, their children running around.

When I lived in Kerala, Durbar Hall was a favourite haunt. It has a gigantic playground, where tons of children play football, cricket or simply run. I used to be one of those children. Durbar Hall has four marble structures in its corners. We used to play in there, pretending we were the royal family. Children still do. Durbar hall also has a magnificent stage, where performances are routinely held. Famous singers and dancers are known to have held many a concert here. When there are no performances, the stage is filled with children running around. Durbar Hall also houses stalls, all selling food- ice-creams, fried peanuts, chips and cakes. It is the ideal location for a picnic. Our family itself has been on countless picnics to Durbar Hall.

I feel quite sentimental about the area itself. Last year, my elder cousin’s wedding took place here. It was after some months that my whole family had congregated. We used to be a joint family till I moved. But for a short time, we were once again a joint family.

Ernakulam Shiva Temple, also known as Ernakulathappan Temple is one of Kerala’s most important temples. It is located in Kochi, an area of Ernakulam. The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is considered to be the city temple. The presiding deity is considered to be the protector of the city. As per practice, the deity is reverently called Ernakulathappan, which means Lord of Ernakulam.

The temple history itself is associated with the history of the city. It was one of the 7 royal temples of Kochi Maharajas. The temple in its current form was built under the benefaction of Diwan Sri Edakkunni Sankara Warrier in 1846. He brought it up to a Royal temple in the Kochi Kingdom. The temple is built on 1-acre (4,000 m2) land. The temple is one of the major Shiva temples in Kerala

The deity of the temple is Lord Shiva in the form of Gourisankara. It is located in the main sanctum sanctorum. It faces west towards the Arabian Sea. The Lingam is thought to be ‘divinely derived’ or Swayambhoo. On the northern side of the main sanctum sanctorum, there is a shrine devoted to Kirthamoorthy. The Lingam is said to have been worshipped by Arjuna himself. It is still sacred and an object of worship. On the southern side, a small shrine for Lord Ganesha can be seen. There is a small area behind the sanctum sanctorum. It is considered to be the abode of Goddess Parvathi, who is the consort of Lord Shiva. The east gate is known as the Devi Gate for this very reason. Outside the inner circle of the temple, shrines for Lord Ayyappa and Nagaraja are worshiped.

The Utsavam (temple festival) of the Shiva temple is one of the grandest festivals in the Kochi city. It is normally celebrated between the months of December and January. The festivities start with Kodiyettam (hoisting of the temple flag) on the evening of the first day. On the last day of the week, there is a Pakalpooram, when the deity is being taken out in procession with elephants accompanied by a Panchavadyam. Pakalpooram translates to throughout the day. The procession continuously happens. It involves the priests on elephant back, holding the traditional umbrellas. This procession used to be an annual ritual of sorts for my family. Panchavadyam literally means an orchestra of five instruments. The five instruments most commonly used in a Panchavadyam are the timila, maddalam, ilathalam, idakka and the kombu. The former four are percussion instruments while the latter is a wind instrument. It terminates at Durbar Hall Ground after the famous Pandimelam and colourful fireworks. On the final day, around evening, the flag is lowered in a solemn ceremony and the deity is then taken for the Arattu (holy bath) in the nearby temple tank. The procession terminates at Durbar Hall Ground. The grand fireworks then bring the curtain down to this weeklong festival. During these days the shiveli is arranged inside the temple and the best available Chendamelam artists are arranged for this. Special pujas connected with the festival are conducted every day by famous priests from Chennose and Puliyannur Mana.

During this time, temple arts like classical dances, music and bhajans are promoted. Thousands of people gather to watch these programmes. Annadanam, which is the giving of food to the less fortunate, is arranged. Watching the Pakalpooram and Arattu processions is unforgettable to me.

The festival is a time of joy and companionship. The temple itself has a soft and accepting ambience, which makes anyone there comfortable and peaceful.

The sun sets down on the same temple I started with, the Sree Poornathrayesa temple in Ernakulam. Families and well-dressed girls and boys slowly exit the temple, prasad clutched in their hands. They all leave with a smile on their faces, happy to have been here. And this is what pilgrimage is really about. It doesn’t matter if it’s only a visit to the temple around the corner of your house. If you go there, and it makes you happy, and you achieved what you came here for, it’s a pilgrimage nonetheless.

– Anjana Mohan