There are promises to keep: History behind Madhathil Varavu in Thrissur Pooram

It is a rather hot afternoon in Thrissur. Pandhals are being erected around the usual spots in preparation for the Thrissur Pooram. A few feet away from the iconic Naduvilal and tucked away behind a few shopping complexes on the MG Road is the ancient Brahmaswam Madham, an institution that traces its roots to the time of Adi Shankaracharya.

Thrissur has a special connection with Adi Shankaracharya. After all, Sankara’s parents Shivaguru and Aryamba are said to have observed austerities at the Vadakkunathan temple for days together and were blessed with a child. After the Samadhi of Sankara, his four principal students established four Madhams in Thrissur near the temple to keep the Vedic tradition and the teachings of Sankara alive. Thus, the Thekke Madham was set up by Padmapada, the Idayil Madham by Thodaka, the Naduvil Madham by Sureshwara and the Vadakke Madham was set up by Hasthamalaka. Over time, Idayil Madham was moved to Tirur. In local parlance, the three Madhams are referred to as Brahmaswam Madham, though for Thrissur Pooram, the Vadakke Madham holds a lot of significance.

From the principal’s office of the Veda Pathasala at the Vadakke Madham, one can faintly hear the chanting of Vedas from an adjacent room. The principal, Vadakampattu Pasupathy Namboothiri, takes us back to the time when Sakthan Thampuran got the different temples to join under the two broad umbrellas of Thiruvambady and Paramekkavu and gave geneis to the festival of Thrissur Pooram. But the temples were still figuring out a way to conduct the festival.

“The temples were not rich then. That is when the authorities at the Thiruvambady Krishna temple decided to approach the Naduvil Madham for support. They needed a Nettipattam for the main elephant but did not have enough gold for it. The head of the Madham agreed to donate the needed resources but sought an assurance in return that every year, they would bring the elephants from the Thiruvambady side to the Madham and perform the Erakki Puja here within the Naalukettu of the madham. This laid the foundation for the grand ceremony that came to be known as Madhathil Varavu,” says Pasupathy Namboothiri, who began teaching at the Madham in 1985.

The tradition remains unbroken to this day. Every year, on the day of Thrissur Pooram, around 7:30 am, three elephants leave the premises of Thiruvambady and start walking towards the Brahmaswam Madham to keep a word that was given during the genesis of the festival. “The Kota or the Naalukettu of the Naduvil Madham was once the residence of the Yogyathithis or the administrators of the Vadakkunathan temple. Today, students reside there and it also houses the library. At around 9:30am, the elephants from the Thiruvambady group arrive at the Madham and the Thidambu of the main elephant is kept at the Vadakkini (the northern side of the Naalukettu) and a puja is performed. Everyone has something to eat and then around 11:00am, the Madhathil Varavu ceremony begins, explains Mullamangalam Narayanan Namboothiri, secretary, Brahmaswam Madham.

Students chant various Vedic mantras on this occasion. The temple authorities make the necessary arrangements for the ceremony. To the accompaniment of Panchavadyam, three caprisoned elephants gather at the premises and welcome the Pooram lovers. “They slowly begin moving towards the Naduvilal, where they are joined by two more elephants. By the time they reach the Naickanal junction, they reach a final count of 15. Then they proceed towards Vadakkunathan temple and circumambulate the deity there. On the other end of the Thrissur Round, the ceremonies begin in Paramekkavu at 10am. Once the Pandi Melam is over there, they also move towards Vadakkunathan for the Ilanjitharamelam. Both the groups of elephants exit the temple premises via the southern gate in the evening for the Kudamattom,” says Narayanan, who has fond memories of participating in the Pooram festivities right from the time he arrived at the Madham as a student 35 years ago.

“Back then, we would not be allowed to go out since we were kids. We would wait for senior students at the Madham to take us out to see the Pooram. Also, one can have a wonderful experience of the fireworks from the Madham during the Ratri Pooram. Being in Thrissur also gave me ample opportunities to participate in similar festivities of the temples through the year.”

The apogee of the festival is the Kudamattom and once it is over, the Thiruvambady side returns to the Madham with the Thidambu of the elephant. The town does not sleep that night. “After a brief rest, at 11pm the elephants gather again at the Vadakke Madham to the accompaniment of Panchavadyam. The grand fireworks happen at 3am and then the elephants roam around the Thekkinkad Maidan till the morning, after which they gather at the Moolasthanam of Vadakkunathan at 8:30am,” says Narayanan. After close to one-and-a-half days, the festival comes to a close with the Upcharam Chollal by afternoon. The next year, the elephants will arrive with the Thidambu of Thiruvambady Bhagavathi yet again at the Madham in order to keep an old promise.

This article was published in The Times of India on April 30, 2023

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