Thirunelli temple lies in a valley on the south of Brahmagiri mountains. It literally means the temple having the sacred nelli or gooseberry tree. According to legends, once upon a time, some Brahmins happened to travel through these dense forests. When they were very hungry and had nothing to eat, they called upon Lord Vishnu to help them. Then they saw a gooseberry tree (called Nelli in Malayalam), which was laden with fruits. All of them satiated their hunger by eating the fruits of this tree after which they felt a divine presence. Thereupon, they decided to call the place as â€œThiru Nelli (sacred Gooseberry).â€
Even the very names of the hills and streams of Thirunelli bear a divine charm – Brahmagiri, the hills of Brahma; Papanasini, the destroyer of sins and so on. Considered a destination of immense beauty and drawn by the divine power of its deity, visitors stream to Thirunelli throughout the year.
There are numerous legends about the origin of the temple. The most interesting one is that Lord Brahma while traversing the world on his swan got attracted by the bewitching beauty of the area. Then he landed on a hill which is later known as Brahmagiri. Lord Brahma while walking through the hills enjoying the tranquility and serenity of the surrounding hills, saw an idol of Lord Vishnu resting on an amla tree. Brahma realized that this abode of peace is nothing but Vishnuloka. This was confirmed by a disembodied voice. Soon he installed the deity with a request to Lord Vishnu that he should remain in this area to give peace to the human souls hounded by the thought of their sins. Lord Vishnu assured that the rivers around this temple would wash away the sins of human beings during their mortal life and life after death. Brahma entrusted two pious Brahmins of the Amalaka village, its keeping. He also instructed them that everyday he himself visit the place and do service to Vishnu. The puja (worship) in every shrine closes ordinarily at about 9 to 10 P.M. But in this shrine, where the ordinary puja is done five times, from morning till 10 P.M. the priest prepares for a sixth puja before leaving the place. On opening the doors next morning he finds that all the materials for the puja have been utilised during the night. It was Lord Brahma who performed the sixth puja when the animate and inanimate objects are in deep slumber. This has been going on every day and will go on for ever. The priest before entering the temple in the morning swears thrice that he will not divulge what he sees there on opening the door, and no priest dares to give out the secret at the risk of being bitten by cobras emanating from the shrine.
Lord Brahma ordained that visits and prayers at the temple would remove the sins and secure paradise. He also ordained that the performance of prayers and ceremonies would lead to the perpetual salvation of the spirits of the departed, to the world of â€œPithurlokaâ€ (region of blissful spirits). It is to attain this blessing, pronounced by Brahma, pilgrimages are undertaken to the shrine.
The temple is a very simple structure constructed with granite stone. The idol consecrated here is that of Lord Vishnu with four arms. The walls of this temple are made of granite. On these walls there are very beautiful etchings. The story goes that once the King of Coorg, tried to renovate this temple. When he was half way through, the Vellattiri King who owned the temple objected to the same. Thus renovation was discontinued. Even today we can see proof of the half finished renovation work.
Rituals and offerings in Thirunelli Temple
The flow of the pilgrims to Thirunelli Temple is not only to offer prayers but also to perform the ancestral rites called Bali. Those who do the rites have to observe penance. In Kerala it is in Thirunelli Temple, the largest number of â€˜bali tharpanaâ€™ is being performed everyday.
It is desirable that those who come for ancestral rites may reach the temple on the eve itself, so that they can conveniently pay the fee at the Devaswam Counter and get the receipt. The fee is to be paid in the name of the performer and not in the name of the deceased.
When one person alone is performing the rites, it is called â€œoraalpindamâ€. But one who has remitted the fee for â€œoraalpindamâ€ can do the obsequies for all the dead ancestors of the â€˜tharavaadâ€™ whom he knows and not knows. The fee for â€œoraalpindamâ€ includes the shares of both Thirunelli Temple and Thrissilery Temple (for vilakkumaala). There is facility for the related family members also to sit together and do the rites along with the main performer. This is called â€œkoottupindamâ€. For this the main performer (the Kaaranavar of the tharavaad) and each member have to pay the fee.
After getting the receipt, the performers have to stand at the temple step, taking bath. Immediately after â€œdeepaaraadhanaâ€™ the â€œVaadhayaarâ€ (the Priest) will dictate the prayer for all those who have assembled on the step. The performers have to recite this prayer. After the prayer, they have to do â€œdandanamaskaaraâ€(to prostrate, by falling down at full length) before Thirunelli Perumaal and pay the â€œkaanikkaâ€ (offering). With the above, the rituals to be done on the eve of ancestral rites, come to a close.
Next day without taking bath, between 6 am and 11 am, the performers have to reach the temple and collect the â€œbali materialsâ€ and â€œdharbha grassâ€ from the special counter arranged on the northern side of the temple, showing the receipt.
After this, they head to the pond, in the sacred stream called Papanashini, located about half a kilometer away, in the forest. There, it will be waist deep water. Now take the first dip in the water, before the actual ritual starts.
On the bank of the pond stands the â€œVaadhyaarâ€ (the priest) who administers the ritual. Pilgrims line in the stream with almost ankle-deep flowing water. The ritual material collected from the temple is placed on the boulder in front, and the priest directs and administers the rituals in sequence.
Then they have to return to main temple after praying to Lord Shiva in the â€œGunnika Templeâ€. The rituals come to a close with the reverential circumlocution around the main Temple, worship of the â€œPerumaalâ€ there and receipt of the â€œthirmadhura Nivedyamâ€ â€œtheerthamâ€ and â€œPrasaadamâ€. Those who have the statues with them have to return the same in the counter. Even if one fails to reach the temple on the eve, can perform the rites, the same day, provided they arrive the temple before 11 am.
Thirunelli and Thrissilery temples are closely connected. The traditional ritual is that those who perform the ancestral rites at Thirunelli Temple have to worship Lord Shiva in Thrissilery Temple and make the â€œVilakkumaala Vazhipaadâ€ there. But to everybody it is not possible. So there is facility to pay in Thirunelli Temple itself, the fee required for the above â€œVazhipaadâ€ at Thrissilery.
Entry to the temple with the ashes of the dead is forbidden. Those who come with the ashes have to proceed to Papanasini through the path along the western side of the temple. There they have to immerse the ashes at the stipulated place where a sign board is installed.
During early times, water for temple use was brought from Papanasini stream. During a draught period, the wife of Chirackal Raja, came with her attendants to temple to worship. She asked the Priest some water to dissolve the sandal, which he was not able to give. Being enlightened about the water scarcity in the temple she asked her attendants to solve the problem. They found out the water source called Varaham in the thick forest. From there the water was brought, using bamboo halves for immediate use. Subsequent to her return home, she sent men and materials to construct the present stone aqueduct for permanent use. This aqueduct is a witness to hundreds of years of history.
There are two copper plate inscriptions pertaining to the history of Thirunelli Temple. They date back to the period of Bhaskara Ravivarma, a ruler of the Chera kingdom who lived in the 10th century. First inscription is written in 999 A.D and the second inscription in 1008 A.D. The first one is regarding the allotment of the royal land in Thirunelli to the temple, to meet its expenses.The second inscription deals with the procedures to be observed during the temple visit of the ruler of the Puraikeezhar Kingdom.
â€œUnniyachi Charithamâ€ and “Kokila Sandesham”
â€œUnniyachi Charithamâ€ is a work written by Thevan Chirikumaran (Devan Sreekumaran) during the 13th century. There is an elaborate description of Thirunelli and Papanasini in that work. “Kokila Sandesham” is a book written by Udhanda Sashthrikal of Kanchipuram during the 15th century. The 40th stanza of this poem describes the visit of the Cuckoo in Thirunelli Temple.
It is a wild stream that originates from the Brahmagiri Hills which later joins River Kalindi. It is almost 400mtrs away from the temple, on its western side. Literally it means, extinguisher of sins. It is believed that River Ganga and River Saraswathi join in Papanasini. Therefore Papanasini is called the Southern Kashi. A ritual dip in Papanasini is believed to wash one away, of all worldly sins. If we immerse the ashes of the dead in Papanasini, it is equivalent to that of doing Karmas(Rituals ) in Gaya. At Papanasini there is a sacred rock called Pinnappara where ritual offerings to the spirits of the departed are made (known as bali). People believe that both Lord Rama and Lord Parasurama did the Pithru Karmas here. The ashes of Rajiv Gandhi was immersed in Papanasini in 1991.
This rock is supposed to be the bone of an asuran (demon) named Pazhana-bhedi, who was killed by Vishnu. At the time of his death he prayed to Vishnu that his body be converted into a rock extending from Thirunelli to Gaya and divided into three parts fit for the performance of offerings for the departed, at (1)Thiurnelli representing his foot, (2)Godavari representing the middle part, and (3)Gaya representing the head. Ritual offerings to the spirits are made at Pinnappara, on the New Moon days of the Malayalam months Karkkidakom, Thulam and Kumbham. Besides the rituals, during the two-day festival, art forms like Kathakali and Ottanthullal are also performed