The auspicious season is upon us again, with festivals and holy days lined up on the calender. Priests , who are needed to officiate the various rituals, are in much demand. Advance booking is necessary. Looks like there are less and lesser men opting for that profession now; while the experienced ones are quietly sailing off to greener western pastures. With such scarcity prevailing, some concerned voices are sometimes heard about the desirability of training ladies for priesthood. And there are an equal number of energetic voices opposing this idea as a sacrilege.
This latter stand seems rather foolish to me, considering that both the worshipped God and worshipping Soul are Gender-less.
That debate may never be settled, but it was a nice to know that there are certain institutes in Maharashtra that have been training women to be priests, since a few years now.
When we visited Allappey ( Alapuzhai) in Kerala State a couple of months ago, we were pleasantly surprised by a coincidence. All three temples we visited had traditions which put Woman on top, in some way.
1. Mannarsala Nagaraja Temple is completely "manned" by women priests.
2. Chakkulathukavu Vana Durga temple has a unique tradition called Naari Pooja : i.e. offering regular worship to women, seen as the embodiment of the presiding goddess for a day.
3. Chenganoor Mahadevar temple, which is considered a Shakthi Peetam, consults a High Priestess , for her approval and sanction to carry out a unique and important ritual.
Chakkulaththukaavu , near Thiruvalla in Alapuzha, is a clean and bright temple with newly built shrines and a huge gold covered Dwajasthambham. It is situated within a grove, between the rivers Pampa and Manimala. Beautiful setting. Every year during Dhanurmasa ( December-January), women devotees observe month long austerities and end up as The Godesses of The Day when the temple priests do pooja to them exactly as they would to the idol of Durga enshrined there. The credo is : " Where Women are respected, There reigns Prosperity, Where Women are dishonoured , There spreads Ruin "
Chenganoor Mahadevar Temple is a very beautiful shrine , with an unusual circular building. Shiva's sanctum faces east, Devi's faces west, but it cannot be said that the one is in front and the other at the back, because of the circular structure. This itself is significant, balancing the Male and the Female aspects of the One superpower.
There's a belief that the Devi idol here menstruates periodically and it is during this event that the High Priestess takes precedence over the everday priests in determining the details of the purificatory rituals.
MANNARSALA NAGARAJA TEMPLE is the most unique of all temples i have seen anywhere.
What is it like to be in the midst of 30,000 snakes ? - well, they are stone snakes, no doubt. But still, there's an involuntary shudder as one walks into the dense jungle patch, silent and over grown with creepy looking vines and stragglers clutching on to huge, ancient trees. Strewn about are hundreds of stone images of snakes. As natural likeness, as artistic representations, as the Naga-stones related to fertility rites. Coiled, dancing, entwined, draped, all kinds. Had there been a real speciman lurking underfoot, one would not even have known !
On either side of the path leading to the temple are fences keeping the jungle from invading the temple. Just beyond the fence are visible rows upon rows of Naga-stones ( sculpted votive offerings) arranged in battalions like an eerie army of Snakemen emerging from waves of dried leaves and twigs.
Inside the thicket, it is dark even at midday. Temple proper is like a keralite mansion with tiled roof. There are only oil lamps in the sanctum, so the main images of the deities in the three niches are unclear - just some vague forms with loads of jewels and garlands and vermillion smears. We are told they are Nagaraja - who is both the Anantha Serpent of Vishnu and The Vasuki serpent of Siva - and his consorts, Nagayakshi and Sarpayakshi.
The most uncommon aspect of this temple is that it was founded by a holy woman , born in the lineage of the favourite deciple of Parasurama . Since its establishment, the temple has been presided over only by women priests . They are well versed in Vedas , Sanskrit and traditions. It is believed they can communicate with snakes too.
The Temple's Priestess is revered by all as Valiamma or The Great Mother. And she lives in the sacred grove itself, in the traditional home of the clan. With 30,000 stone snakes around her. And an equal number of live ones in the jungly yard for company. Yeeew ! Only unswerving Faith can make people follow such life patterns.
Snakes have, since time immemorial, been connected with fertlity rites. The bane of childlessness is sought to be cured by propitiating the snake gods . Beautiful images of entwined snakes with the chosen deity within the umbrella of the hoods can be seen in most hindu temples. In Mannarsala there's a surfeit. In addition to these votive images, there's a custom here of leaving a small bronze bowl , face down, in the premises. As soon as the desired wish is granted, the person comes back to turn the bowl up, now presumably brimming with nagaraja's blessings.
What could be the connection between snakes and reproduction, i wonder ? But the Double Helix of the DNA and the entwined snakes of the Naga-stones do look similar !!!