The Chengannur Mahadeva Temple, a historic remnant from the 8th century, hinges among Kerala’s verdant embrace. Its ages-old Kerala architecture graces the pilgrim’s path, forming an intricate pattern of timeless elegance.
However, something unusual is taking place within these sacred grounds—an age-old rite shrouded in mystery and controversy: the reverence of menstruation! Devotees believe that Bhadrakali, a manifestation of pure feminine energy known as Shakti, has her monthly menstruation here. More significantly, they attribute a tremendous and magical healing power to her menstrual blood.
Chengannur Temple’s rituals are an ensemble of devotion and symbolism. During the goddess Bhadrakali’s monthly cycle, temple priests combine her menstrual blood with turmeric and lime juice. This combination is smeared on the faithful’s foreheads as a cure for diseases and a ward against evil spirits. However, like many age-old traditions, this custom has not been without controversy, with critics claiming that it reinforces falsehoods and stigmatizes menstruation.
Surprisingly, the roots of this ritual are entwined with myth and folklore and connect beyond the temple’s history. It’s a story that dates back to the heavenly gathering of Devas in the Himalayas for Shiva and Parvathi’s wedding. In the heart of this sacred assembly, the famous Lord Brahma feared an imbalanced world skewed by the lack of Devas in the south. He sent Agasthya Muni, an esteemed sage, to the southern lands to restore equilibrium.
The visit of Parvathi and Shiva to Agasthya’s home on the southern bank of the Pamba River is significant. It is believed that Parvathi got her first menstruation during this visit, marking the onset of her menarche. The fundamental foundations of the temple are thus anchored in this divine event, raising the celebration of a girl’s journey into womanhood to a key celebration.
Intriguingly, the temple’s annual celebration, “Thriputharattu,” centres upon Goddess Parvathi Devi’s menstruation. The famous Uliyannoor Perumthachan is said to have been built about 1,500 years ago. This festival begins when the goddess’s vestment, the “enapudava,” exhibits indications of menstruation. Once the temple priests spot these telltale symptoms, they carry the precious robes to the wise matriarchs of Thazhamon Madom, Sabarimala’s spiritual leaders’ residence.
In this scenario, the matriarch’s sharp awareness is crucial in establishing the menstrual flow. Upon confirmation, the temple authorities close the goddess’s sanctuary sanctorum, signalling the start of the Thriputharattu celebration. Goddess Devi is moved from her sacred chamber to the “thriputhu room,” nestled quietly in the nalambalam’s corner.
The celebration unfolds like a religious story, a coordinated symphony of devotion and tradition. During these four days, the temple’s head priest addresses his prayers to Lord Shiva, while a Sabarimala-appointed priest performs rituals honouring the goddess. During the festival, two women, regarded as “thozhi” or assistants, stand vigil before the goddess’s room, symbolizing women’s significant role in this sacred dance.
Women from the Pattaru community present the exquisite dance form of “thiruvathira” within the naalambalam on the festival’s third day, seeking the goddess’ divine blessings. The grand finale takes place in the early morning hours of the fourth day. Goddess Devi’s statue goes on a sacred journey, carried aloft by an elephant and escorted by elephants, hordes of women, priests, and devoted men, leading to Mithrapuzha Kadavu, a sacred location one kilometre away on the banks of the Pamba River. The “aarattu,” or purifying ceremony, will take place here. After the ceremony, Goddess Devi returns to the temple, and a procession unlike any other begins. Lord Shiva emerges from the temple on an elephant to meet Devi. They encircle the temple three times, signifying the sacred union. As the magnificent procession concludes, Shiva enters the shrine through the eastern portal, followed by Devi through the western portal.
The temple’s chief priest, Devanarayanan Nampoothiri, adds to the patchwork of this fascinating story by throwing light on the crucial role of women in the temple. Notably, the women’s head of Thazhamon Madom is 89-year-old Devaki Devi, wife of the venerable senior tantri Kandararu Maheswararu. She states that women, with their intrinsic wisdom, can easily detect Thriputhu’s traits. She says that temple officials mistaking it for ‘Thriputhu, brought red-coloured robes of the devi numerous times. They were not, however, traits typical of thriputhu. Devaki Devi provides continuity by adding that at least two Thriputhu celebrations are held in the temple yearly, emphasizing the central significance of menstruation in this sacred dance of worship.
The temple caretakers made a critical choice during the Thriputharattu festival on October 3rd. Until 2012, believers could take home the vesture with the clear marks of Thriputhu, believing it would bring them prosperity. However, astrologers’ judgment won and urged the swift destruction of these sacred robes after the madom’s matriarch verified menstruation. The menstrual rituals at Chengannur Temple remain a curious amalgam of the ages, customs, and mysticism. While raising controversy and debate, these traditions are an ongoing witness to the temple’s rich past, challenging assumptions and inspiring research into the nexus of faith, tradition, and the divine feminine.