The Awesome Devotional Heritage of Devi Bhagavati of Kerala

Tracing the origins of the dateless and profound tradition of Devi Bhagavati worship in Kerala. In many parts of South India, the Goddess is also known as the Malayala Bhagavati. This is Her story.
The Awesome Devotional Heritage of Devi Bhagavati of Kerala

Editor’s Note

THE FOLLOWING ARE EXCERPTS from a 1936 article written by Prof. C.A. Menon tracing the history of the Bhagavati or Kali tradition of Kerala. In the present age of large-scale erosion of Sanatana traditions in the state and the twin threats of Abrahamic cults tearing apart the Hindus there, this article is of timely relevance.

The Malayala Bhagavati

We often hear of the Malayala Bhagavati in the various streets of Madras wherever there is a small Amman-Koil (Temple) where worshippers congregate to sing songs in praise of Amman. This reference to Bhagavati has almost become mythical so that no one notices it or enquires what the term signifies.

The Malayala Bhagavati deserves special mention because there is something particularly noteworthy in this tradition, which is associated with Bhagavati or more appropriately, called Kali in Kerala. She occupies a distinct place in the culture of Kerala from remote times. One who has contemplated even briefly on this subject will be surprised at the universality of the tradition in the West coast. Kali in one term or other is worshipped by all the Hindus of Kerala from the highest to the lowest.

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In the Namboodiri Illams (or homes) as in the royal families, with few exceptions, Kali is worshipped as a family deity. In the Kalaris or gymnasiums where people were trained in the art of war in ancient times, one corner was set apart for Kali-worship which preceded the daily lessons or exercises. The central room of every Nair house is dedicated to Bhagavati. Coming lower down in the social scale, we find the Thiyyas and others worshipping one form or other of Kali, celebrating periodical festivals to propitiate the goddess in their own household. Among the aboriginal tribes and mountaineers, a goddess generally called Nili, another manifestation of Kali, is looked upon as their sovereign deity that protects them from all dangers and diseases. It is thus seen that Kali in one form or other is worshipped by all sections of the Hindus in Kerala, and a history of this hoary tradition is profound, awesome and inspirational.

Bhagavati Temples in Kerala

Bhagavati temples are generally called Kavu, which literally means a cluster of trees. Even now, there are Kali temples under banyan trees with no roof. Even in temples without roofs there are apertures, in places which are directly above the Murtis which expose them to sun and rain. The name Kavu is also applied to the serpent shrines (Pampum-Kavu), and the temples of Ayyappan and Vettakaran, two other ancient deities of Kerala. Temples dedicated to Siva and Vishnu are not called by the term Kavu.

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Another specialty of the Kali temples is that every shrine has a jurisdiction of its own called Tattakam or Kavuvattam. People living in that particular area are supposed to come under the influence of the presiding mother goddess of the locality, and no other deity can claim power or jurisdiction over them. This feature again is traceable to old village organisations which were self-sufficient isolated entities in regard to the various amenities of life.

There are different types of Kali: for example, Kandemkali and Karimkali are supposed to be more vigorous. Though these words are sometimes used as synonymous with Kali, they are believed to be separate manifestations of the goddess, particularly ferocious in form and power. There are many forms of rituals intended to propitiate Kali.

Kalaripayattu and Kali

We have already referred to the Kalaris in which a corner is dedicated for Kali, which practice gives the deity the position of a war-goddess. This custom conforms to the Sakti-conception of the Mother of other parts of India, and has since given rise to the Sakta form of worship which was practised in secret by members of the royal families and nobles of bygone days in Kerala. Evidence of the popular aspect of worship is seen in Kali temples where, once a year, the village folk assemble and offer worship in a variety of ways.

Kali and Community in Kerala

In every community in ancient times, there used to be the Purohita section. A member from this section would officiate in Kali temples owned by that particular community. In temples owned by the Nairs, the two communities of the Namboodiris or Embrans (Mangalore Brahmanas), which came to be bound together by various ties, gradually took the place of the Nairs. But even now, many well-known Bhagavati temples have Nairs who officiate as Pujaris. There is also the practice in some temples to set apart a few days in the year when the Brahmans can officiate.

In the famous temple of Tiruvalayanattu-Kavu at Kozhikode, which is dedicated to the family deity of the Zamorin Raja, one season is set apart for worship by Brahmanas, when the puja is conducted according to Brahmanical rites, and in the other season the hereditary-pujan—Musad (a Nair)—officiates and uses meat and alcohol for the Puja. Likewise, in the well-known Kodungallur Bhagavathi temple, where the patron goddess of the Kodungallur royal family reigns supreme, one section of Nairs called Adigal performs the Puja.

Kali is supposed to protect people from contagious diseases like smallpox, cholera, etc. In the seasons when these diseases usually appear, the temple authorities are generally busy with various rituals performed at the expense of different devotees and the annual festivals. Kalampattu or Daruka Vadham, in which the traditional song narrating Kali’s victorious encounter with the demon Daruka is sung by a member of the Kurup community, is the most popular and the least expensive. Pana and Mutiyettu also are other important ceremonies.

Major Bhagavati Temples on the West Coast

Bhagavati temples are innumerable in the West Coast, but the following well-known temples in Malabar, Cochin and Travancore deserve mention.

1. Matai-Kavu (North Malabar). The family deity of the Chirakkal Rajas.

2. Lokanar-Kavu (near Badagara). The family deity of the Kadathanad Rajas.

3. Tiruvalayanad-Kavu. The family deity of the Zamorin (Samuri) Rajas.

4. Tirumanthankunnattu-Kavu (South Malabar). The family deity of the Walluvanad Rajas.

5. Pazhayannur-Kavu (Cochin). The family deity of the Cochin Maharajas.

6. Kodungallur-Kavu. The family deity of the Kodungallur Rajas.

7. Chottanikkara-Kavu (near Tiruppunnittura, Cochin).

8. Chertalakkavu (Travancore)

9. Kiliyur-Kavu (Travancore)

10. Attingal (Travancore). The family deity of the ancient Travancore Maharajas.

The Purana of Kerala Bhagavati or Kali

Kali, according to Kerala lore, is the daughter of Siva and not his consort as in other parts of India. Once, the Devasura war ended in the total extinction of the Asura race. Only two women of the line named Danavati and Darumati managed to hide themselves and survive the great calamity. They invoked Brahma by penance, and requested him to bless them with progeny. As a result of the boon Danavati gave birth to Danava and Darumati brought forth Daruka.

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Daruka secured numerous boons from Brahma so that he could not be killed by God or man. As he did not ask for immunity from women, Pitamaha cursed him to meet his death at the hands of a woman, at Sandhya which is neither day or night. He grew to be a formidable menace to the Devas, whose women were forced to be servant-maids to his wife Manodari.

Once he waylaid Narada, who divided his time between the presiding deities of heavenly abodes by singing their praise. Daruka asked him to sing his glory instead of that of Siva and Vishnu. Narada, after leaving Daruka’s presence, went to Kailasa, and reported to his patron-deity the insult offered to both of them by Daruka.

Since the Asura king had not solicited immunity from women, Vishnu, Siva, Brahma, Subrahmanya, Dharmaraja, and Indra, each created out of their immanence a goddess and conferred immense power on these mothers to challenge Daruka and kill him. As these mother deities set out on the mission, they were met en route by Vetalam, the huge ghost, whose thirst for blood was never quenched. With a big army they raided Daruka’s palace, with the result that the Asura king became furious and drove them away.

Siva’s rage at this unexpected turn of events, knew no bounds, and there rushed forth, immediately from his Third Eye of Fire, a prodigious figure of a woman who was called after her colour Kali or Dark. The situation was explained to her, and she, with an enormous force, advanced towards Daruka’s territory A terrible fight ensued, and even Kali was found to be losing. Then Uma, knowing that Daruka’s prowess depended on the two mantras given to him by Brahma, disguised herself as a Brahmana woman and approached Manodari. She was the only other person who knew these mantras. Uma requested her to teach the sacred Mantras so that they might together chant them for the victory of her husband. Believing her, Manodari disclosed the Mantras to Uma who immediately disappeared.

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Brahma had told Daruka that if the Mantras were revealed to any individual except his wife, their efficacy would immediately vanish. And now, Daruka knew by intuition what had happened, returned to his palace, and warned his wife of the consequences of her indiscretion. Now he had no option but to fight against Kali. It was a desperate fight which culminated in his death at the hands of Kali. However, when Kali returned to Kailasa, the fury of her destruction was still raging inside her. Siva immediately asked Ganapati and Nandi to be at the gate as children, so that, at their sight, the motherly instinct of Kali would prevail over her ferocious aspect. After expressing satisfaction at her conduct in the war against Daruka, Siva asked her to go to Malanad (Malabar), where she would receive eternal homage from the people as his daughter. This tradition has happily endured till date.

The aforementioned Kali Purana is derived from the Badrolpathi Kilippattu, considered to be a sacred literary work in Kerala. This Purana with a few variations in detail, is recorded in a number of sacred songs which are generally sung at the various rituals, particularly at Kalampattu in which the figure of Devi Bhagavati is drawn on the floor in beautiful Rangoli. After this, the entire community or family offers Puja to her.

Epilogue

It is rather unfortunate that despite being of the greatest hubs of Sanatana cultural and devotional heritage, these aspects of Kerala have largely been obscured throughout the ages for various historical and other reasons. Better late than never, it’s time to revive and popularize these hidden gems on a massive scale.

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