It will be hyperbole to say that the Kattil Mekkathil Bhagavathy temple is a gift of the 2004 Tsunami. The small shrine, located by the sea near Sankaramangalam in Kollam district, was miraculously spared by the giant waves of Tsunami that tore through the whole of southern Kerala's coastal line.
Now, the temple seated in a small isle locked between the backwaters and the sea, draws a huge number of devotees who pour in from various parts of Kerala.
The narrow road going westwards from Sankaramangalam on the Kollam - Alappuzha stretch of the National Highway gets crowded even before day break every day with the devotees heading towards the Kattil Mekkathil Bhagavathy Temple. In the 15 years after the Tsunami, the fame of the temple has spread far and wide, attracting devotees who offer bells tied upon the banyan tree at the temple for fulfilling their wishes.
The road leading to the seashore from Sankaramangalam ends at Kottarakkadavu. There was in fact a palace ('kottaram') at that 'kadavu' (ghats). This 'kadavu' is located in the canal now called as T S Canal. To reach the Kattil Mekkathil Temple, you have to cross this kadavu. Across the canal, within the white sanded beach, you can find the humble abode of Kattil Mekkathil Bhagavathy that draws thousands of devotees.
"This temple has pongala (a special offering made by cooking rice and jaggery in clay pot) every day, the goddess is draped with new sacred clothes every day, and the temple conducts 'annadana' (distribution of food) to the devotees every day… Which other temple in Kerala has all these specialities?" exclaims one of the devotees who were crossing over to the temple from Kottarakkadavu by jankar service. Most of the devotees come from southern parts of Kerala. Many people also arrive from different parts of Tamil Nadu including Kanyakumari, Thirunelveli, or Nagarcoil. These days, the fame of the temple has started to spread to other parts of India as well, drawing devotees from more distant lands.
The temple is just ten meters away from the sea. Yet, the Tsunami waves left this temple and the surrounding areas alone, giving devotees another reason to rejoice and pray. The temple that was saved from Tsunami stole headlines.
Panmana in Kollam district is known as the land of legends from times immemorial. Ponmana, the village in Kollam district, where the temple is located lies towards western direction from Panmana, between the backwaters and the sea. It is one of the few Bhadrakali temples located between the backwaters and the sea.
"More than any hearsay or legends, it's the proofs that draw the devotees here," says Gopalakrishnan, a member of the family connected with the temple, pointing at the wells located within the temple premises. The legends point out five wells, and all the five wells can be found here. These wells defy the logic of science, according to the local people. Though these wells are located close to the sea, the water in them has no trace of salinity at all. All of them contain fresh water. It looks so clear that a bottle full of the water from these wells can be mistaken for bottled mineral water. The same water is being used for all the necessities of the thousands of devotees thronging this temple every day.
Three Palmyra palm trees are also mentioned in the legends associated with this temple. And one of these trees still survives here, near the temple. Another of them had fallen recently. According to the legends it was those palm trees that manifested the presence of the goddess to the forefathers of the local people who set up the shrine.
"There is a belief that the goddess arrived here riding a crocodile from Champakkulam," said Unnikrishnan Santhi, the Thantri of the temple. "There was a family by the name of 'Kattil Pateetta.' According to the legends, it was that family which carried the presence of the goddess here. It is believed that the goddess, on arriving here for the first time, paid obeisance before the light of a lamp, and that the lamp was a 'kedavilakku' (lamp that never goes out) kept by a family by the name of 'Malayil.' Whatever be the belief, the 'kedavilakku' of the Malayil family is still kept lit. The devotees arriving at the temple have to pay obeisance to this 'kedavilakku' before reaching the temple. Moreover, any special occasion at the temple is started only after going around this 'kedavilakku.'
Another fact that supports the legends is the connection maintained with Champakkulam. Every year, the festival at the temple begins only with the ritualistic flag ('kodikkoora') that is brought from Champakkulam.
The legends associated with the temple connects to, Marthanda Varma, the great king who formed the principality of Travancore. According to old manuscripts, King Marthanda Varma had felt the presence of the goddess as he was travelling by boat to Thiruvananthapuram after visiting the ruler of Odanadu. He had got down from the boat and meditated here, and prophesied that a temple will come up at this place. Later, Marthanda Varma had built a palace at this location. The remains of the palace can still be found here. The local Primary Health Centre now functions in the remains of that palace. The remains of the palace also give the place its name, Kottarakkadavu.
Whatever be the legends, the journey of Marthanda Varma to Thirunanathapuram must be true. Because, T S Canal, or Thiruvananthapuram - Shoranur Canal, was a major waterway in those days, connecting the different principalities and villages of Kerala. However, the waterway beginning from Thiruvananthapuram had not ended at Shoranur, but had continued further northernwards, branching off into many smaller waterways and canals. This route was used not just for passengers, but it was also a major route for commodities.
"The great poet Kumaran Asan had also travelled along the same waterway that was used by the king. Thus, Ponmana became a favourite place of his. The library that was started in his memory decades ago is still working actively," said Santhosh Kumar, president of the Temple Managing Committee.
The offering of bells
Very few temples in India have the offering of tying brass bells. There are many opinions about the beginning of this offering at Kattil Mekkathil Temple. Some people say that tying the bells had started from the very beginning of worship at the temple. And some others say that the offering started to gain fame just under three decades. The story cited by them is as follows.
Once, during the Kodiyettam, hoisting of sacred flag, at the temple for the festival in Vrischikam, a bell fell down from the flag post. One of the priests took the bell and tied it upon the banyan tree that stood close by. Soon, there were a lot of blessings happened in the life of the priest. Thus, it was believed that tying the bells on the banyan tree was an offering preferred by the goddess, and more and more devotees started to make this offering. "Who must've told the priest to tie the bell on this banyan tree? It must've been none but Kattilamma," says Vinod Santhi, the chief priest of the temple.
More than half of the branches of the banyan tree are full of bells. An average of 4 lakhs bells are tied on the tree every month. Whenever the temple is open, there will be a crowd of devotees circumambulating the banyan tree. "Each devotee can tie any number of bells. There are people who tie just one bell, and there are people who tie 1000 bells. There are people who tie golden bells also. All that depends on the devotee's faith."
The devotees go around the tree seven times with the bells that are offered prayers at the sanctum sanctorum. The bells are tied after that. The bells are not untied ever. Only those bells that fall down when the strings are rotten will be collected. Because, each bell represents wishes of people, each bell is a prayer, says Biju T secretary of the managing committee.
Another offering for Kattilamma is making a hut in front of the temple and staying in it for 12 days. This 'Bhajanam Parkkal' is conducted from the 1st of the Malayalam month of Vrischikam to the 12th of the same month. Earlier, the huts were made using coconut fronts. But, with the government implementing stringent security measures considering the increasing number of devotees, the coconut leaves are avoided. Once the 'Bhajanam' is started on the 1st of Vrischikam, the devotees should leave the temple premises only after 12 days. The devotees have to take part in the offering with their families. Praying three times at the temple is mandatory. The devotees will also be given food by the temple.