A week back I was in Chalakudy in Thrissur District of Kerala for a religious visit. The visit was to ‘Pambummekkat Mana’ - one of the most famous serpent worship centres in Kerala, in a place called Mala in Vadama Village in Mukundapuram Taluk in Thrissur District. Chalakudy is the nearest railway station to reach Mala.
Serpent worship is a common practise in Kerala owing to the legends associated with the formation of Kerala and it becoming a habitable place. Parashuram the creator of Kerala had laid down various rules as way of life for the land he had created. One amongst them was that each house and temple in this land would have some special place for the worship and comfort of serpents. There are many legends associated with the snake gods and Pambummekat Mana is one of the most revered amongst them. It is in reality not a temple but a family house and was earlier called Mekkattu Mana (Mekkattu is the family name and Mana means ‘a place where Brahmins live’). As soon as we reach the road leading to Mekkattu Mana you will see walls with pictures of serpents on them, which leads us to an arched doorway with statues of two huge hooded serpents guarding a shiv ling. Decades old tall trees, long creepers, thick vegetation line the two sides of the pathway that leads us to the main area of adoration – the sarpa Kavu (the snake grove).
As we walk in, on the left is the illam (house) where the Mekkattu family lives and through a half closed doorway we can see a seated old lady who is the reining priestess (amma) at the illam. We do meet her standing at the doorway. She blesses us and tells us what is to be done to solve the problems that we have come to the Mana with. Thereafter we proceed to pray to the deities – The Nagarajav (the serpent god) and the Nagayakshi amma (the serpent goddess). There are only two deities to be prayed here and there after we proceed to take the prasadam (temple offering, considered equivalent to blessings). Legend has it that nothing can be taken out of the Sarpa Kavu, not even the prasadam so we have to eat it completely before leaving the premises. The prasadam in the last of the rituals here, after having the prasadam you cannot pray to the deities or meet amma.
There are 5 Kavu’s (groves) around the mana but you cannot enter them always. Only after taking bath in the pond in the premises and with wet clothes on can you enter the Kavu and pray to the serpent gods. There are some cast restrictions also on entering the kavu but on special occasions people from all castes are allowed inside after the ritual bath. There is a serene, not to be messed around feel about the place and that feeling led me to dig into the legend of how did Mekkattu Mana become Pambummekat Mana?
One of the legends about the place says that the Brahmins at Mekkattu Mana were great scholars and devotees in rituals but were very poor, so rituals along with survival was very difficult for them. In such a situation one Brahmin from the mana went to The Thiruvanchikulam Temple, near present day Kochi (one of Lord Shiva’s oldest temples in South India where he is believed to stay with his whole family) and started praying to god for liberation from poverty. When the Brahmin was nearing completion of his 12 years of devotion at the temple, one night he had an experience that led to his home Mekkattu Mana becoming Pambummekat Mana.
That night the Brahmin went to the sacred pond in the premises of the temple to collect water and he saw a saint near the pond. He enquired with the saint, what was his name but was questioned back as to what the Brahmin has to do with his name. The saint asked the Brahmin to do what he had come to do and go away. The Brahmin was spell bound by the aura of the saint and stood rooted there and that is when he saw something shiny in the hands of the saint. He asked the saint what it was. The saint again questioned the Brahmin, if he had ever seen a ruby? When the Brahmin replied in the negative, the saint asked him if he would like to see a ruby. The Brahmin said ‘yes’ and the saint passed on a sparkling ruby to the Brahmin. The Brahmin was very impressed by the stone and wanted to show it to a friend who had kingly status. He asked the saint if he could do so. The saint agreed on the condition that the Brahmin brings it back soon.
The Brahmin showed it to his friend, who was also very impressed by the stone, and retuned it the saint by the pond. As soon as the stone was returned, the saint disappeared. The Brahmin returned back to his cottage, after fetching water, but the identity of the saint haunted him and sleep stayed away from him. He regretted not pressing the saint to reveal his identity. He was convinced that the saint was some godly appearance. The Brahmin did fall asleep sometime during the night but was awoken soon and on seeing the light outside (because of the moon) thought that it was dawn and he was late for his morning bath. He ran to the pond but found a person standing there. He asked the person his name and received the same reply as before. The Brahmin recognised the voice as the saint’s and begged him to reveal his identity for Lord Shiva’s sake. Bound by Lord Shiva’s name the saint said that he was Vasuki – The King of Serpents. The Brahmin expressed his wish to witness Vasuki in his real form but Vasuki was sure that the Brahmin would be terrified by his real form so he did reveal his true form but in a very miniature size.
After revealing his form, Vasuki asked the Brahmin what boon he wanted from him and the Brahmin requested Vasuki to dwell in his illam always and to put an end to his family’s poverty. Vasuki asked the Brahmin to complete his 12 years of devotion and go back to his illam and in the meanwhile he will take consent from Lord Shiva and come to his illam. The Brahmin did as told and kept doing the rituals as per traditions. One day when he came back after his rituals he saw on his olakkuda (an umbrella made of palm leaves that was used back then) a snake, which took the form of the saint. The saint told the Brahmin that he was Vasuki and he was here on Lord Shiva’s will. He gave him the ruby, that he had shown the Brahmin near the pond, and told him to keep it at the illam safely. Vasuki told him that till the ruby remains in the illam poverty will never enter the place.
About the same time, the eldest lady of the illam came from outside and keeping her olakkuda went inside. A snake appeared from inside the umbrella and took the form of a lady and went into where the Brahmin and Vasuki were standing. Vasuki told the Brahmin that the lady was Nagayakshi (Serpent Goddess). He told the Brahmin to make idols of both him and the Nagayakshi and establish it in the room that they were standing; he said to consider both of them family gods of Mekkattu family and perform daily rituals. He said that more serpents will come to live in the 5 kavu’s and the house, they should be allowed to live. He gave the Brahmin some more guidelines to be practised at the mana and then disappeared along with the Nagayakshi, promising to comeback whenever the Brahmin wants them to. This whole conversation had taken place in the kizhakkini (the eastern part of the illam) and as per the instructions from Vasuki the Brahmin lit two lamps there – Anaya vilaka (lamps that are to be kept burning always) and all rituals are carried out in the kizhakkini thereafter.
The fame of the mana grew far and wide and belief came about that any problem due to the wrath of the serpent gods would have a solution in Mekkattu Mana and so Mekkattu Mana became Pambummekat Mana with time.
Though date details on when was the mana was built or when were the two lamps established is not available, the belief is that nothing can be taken away from the mana and the nearby premises are rife with stories claiming how the serpents gods have never allowed anything to be taken away, even when repeated attempts were made to do so!!