The Vadakkunathan Temple is arguably the most important Hindu temple in Kerala. It is certainly among the oldest, largest and most popular for pilgrims. Architecturally it is significant as it is one of India’s few major temples that include significant elements constructed from wood, as well as its magnificent murals. Although believed by locals to have been founded by none other than Vishnu himself, the temple is in fact dedicated to Shiva.
There are many legends concerning the establishment of the Vadakkunathan Temple. The most common regards Parashurama, one of the incarnations of Vishnu. According to this story, Parashurama had fought a number of brutal wars in which many were slain. He decided to erect a temple here as part of his efforts to expiate his sins.
In order to get untainted spot for the temple, land was raised up from under the sea by the deity Varuna. Shiva, along with Parvati and his sons, travelled to the new land and personally hallowed it. The legend further goes that Shiva rested here, leaving one of his Lingas behind. A slightly different version of the story tells that it was here that Shiva’s bull Nandi rested while traveling across India (the two stories are not necessarily mutually exclusive).
A great banyan tree stood on the spot where Shiva rested, and it was near here that the Linga was kept for many years. Eventually, however, it was decided that the Linga needed to be removed and placed in a more appropriate temple setting. While the banyan tree was being trimmed so that the Linga could be removed, a local holy man placed himself over the sacred relic in order to protect it from possible damage. Miraculously, neither the Linga nor the holy man were hurt.
The first temple on the site is believed to have been constructed some time in the 7th century. In the 8th century the temple was tied to an early prophecy regarding the saint Adi Shankara. During the Muslim invasions of Kerala in the 18th century the Vadakkunathan Temple was one of the few major Hindu shrines to be spared destruction. It stands today as one of Kerala’s most important religious and architectural treasures.
The Vadakkunnathan Temple is an enormous enclosed complex that includes several shrines as well as a massive theater where ritual performances take place. The complex stands out among India’s great temples due to the fact that much of it is built from wood. Because of this and because of its lush green surroundings, it looks as though it could have been lifted out of some island in the South Pacific. The surviving portion of the banyan tree where the Linga was left can still be found here.
The main shrine is built of stone, but with tiered wooden roofs that are reminiscent of Japanese pagoda construction. Inside is the Linga, as well as a wealth of phenomenal murals that date back nearly four hundred years. Other shrines in the complex are dedicated to various forms of Shiva, his bull Nandi, and Vishnu. There is also a museum on the temple grounds with exhibits on local culture.
The Vadakkunnathan Temple crowns a hill in the center of a large park in the heart of Trichur, approximately 1200 miles south of New Delhi. As of this writing visitor information was not available. The main shrine and other parts of the complex are off limits to non-Hindus. Web: www.vaikhari.org/vadakkunatha (official website).
Most of Trichur’s ancient temples did not survive the fortunes of history. However, there are a few other worthwhile Hindu sites here, notably the Guruvayur Temple, which some believe to have once been a dwelling place of Krishna.