South India's unique Navaratri tradition: when gods travel to Kerala

Two states, three gods and a lot of faith

Each and every festival has its own unique customs, rituals and traditions. The Navarathri celebrations in Thiruvananthapuram are unique not just because it crosses the state borders, but because it is all about deep-rooted faith. The festivities officially begin with three deities – Saraswathi, Kumaraswami and Munnuttinanka setting out on a three-day journey across 60km to Thiruvananthapuram from Padmanabhapuram palace, near Thuckalay, now in Tamil Nadu. **Where the king is** Long, long ago, parts of the present Kanyakumari district belonged to the princely state of Travancore. Padmanabhapuram used to be its headquarters. Later, the kings shifted their base to Thiruvananthapuram. The tradition of bringing these deities to where the king resided during Navrathri began. **The deities** Each of these three deities have their own little stories. **Goddess Munnuttinanka** comes from Sthanumalaya temple, Sucheendram. She has to travel the longest way. She starts a day in advance and teams up with Kumaraswami and together they travel to Padmanabhapuram. Munnuttinanka is a goddess on a mission. She is supposed to play mediator and inform lord Padmanabha about how lord Kumaraswami is in love with Valli, a village lass. She is carried on a palanquin. **Kumaraswami**, sets out from Kumarakovil in Velimala. He is the supreme commander and the caretaker of the goddesses. He meets Munnuttinanka on the way. He is carried on a palanquin till he reaches Thiruvananthapuram and then he mounts a silver horse. The story of **Saraswathi** goes back to saint Kambar. He is said to have worshipped this idol and used to take her along with him on his many journeys. When he sensed that his end was near, he handed the idol over to the then Chera ruler and requested him to conduct special Navrathri puja. This idol changed hands and eventually reached the Travancore kings. They set her up in the 'Thevarakettu' or the place of worship in the Padmanabhapuram palace. Till 1834, Navarathri celebrations were held at the Navarathri Mandapam at the palace. Now, every year since the kings shifted their residence, goddess Saraswathi makes her trip to where the king is, now in Thiruvananthapuram. She rides out of the Padmanabhapuram palace on a caparisoned elephant. **The stopovers** The three gods rendezvous at Padmanabhapuram palace. The journey is on foot. And thousands gather to see them off. The first stop is at Keraleeswaram. While Munnuttinanka and Kumaraswami take rest at the Siva temple, Saraswathi goes on to the Krishna temple. And then they proceed to Kuzhithurai for the night rest. They cross over the state border on the second day. They are welcomed by the police and representatives of the government. The rest on day two is at Neyyattinkara Krishnaswami temple. The lunch break on day three is at Dhanuvachapuram. At the Aavadayamman temple in Karamana, Kumaraswami gets on the horse. Mounted police escort them. They proceed to Padmanabhaswami temple where the representatives of the royal family welcome them. Full state honours are given to this procession on the way. Saraswathi is installed at the Saraswathi Mandapam near the Padmanabhaswami temple. Munnuttinanka goes to Chenthitta Devi temple and Kumaraswami is installed at the Aryasala temple. These deities stay in Thiruvananthapuram for the Navarathri festivities and then after a day's rest go back to their respective temples. **The customs and the festivities** This year has not been different. The sword of the Travancore kings that is kept at the 'Uppirakku Malika' at Padmanabhapuram palace was handed over to Kerala Governor P Sathasivam and the representatives of the king marking the beginning of the festivities. This sword will be kept by the goddess Saraswathi till the end of Navarathri. The Navarathri Mandapam is where the major festivities take place. There are fixed times when the general public can visit the mandapam. Books are kept for 'puja' here. Every evening will see music performances by famous people. On Vijayadasami day, tiny tots will be initiated into the world of letters. And then, a day after, the goddess will return along with her commander in cheif and friend - Kumaraswami and Munnuttinanka to their temples.