|Thirunelli, about 30 km from Mananthavady, is a small village situated at the base of the Brahmagiri Hills, which is part of Sahyadri Ranges bordering Karnataka. The village is known as a pilgrim centre, thanks to the presence of an age-old Vishnu temple (Thirunelli temple) and the nearby stream Papanashini. The proximity to the dense forests makes the place more endearing to the visitors. The village is also known as an ornithologists’ and trekkers’ paradise.
How to reach Thirunelli?
A drive from Mananthavady to Thirunelli is worth an experience as it goes through dense forests, elephant sanctuaries and bamboo forests. For miles there will be no signs of habitation except for the stretches of paddy fields.
Take a drive from Mananthavady to Thirunelli on the Mysore road and take a turn from Kattikulam to reach the tiny hamlet of Thirunelli. As the village is located on the Kerala – Karnataka border, it is easy to access from Kutta in Karnataka too.
Population and accommodation facilities
Thirunelli has a very small population and most of them belong to Adivasis. There are only limited accommodation facilities too and the major one among them is the temple owned guest house. A few tiny lodges on the temple premises too provide accommodation facilities for the visitors.
History of Thirunelli
There is only limited historic and archaeological information on the place. It is said that Thirunelli was an important town and pilgrim centre till the16th century. Some earlier Malayalam works of 11th and 12th century like Unniyachi Champu, has references to the place. Archaeologists have also discovered copper plate inscriptions belonging to the period of Bhaskara Ravi Varma I and II (10th and 11th century) from the village. The Malabar Manuel, written by William Logan too has mentions on the place. While laying roads to the place, it is said that, people got coins which dated back to 9th and 10th centuries, indicating the importance of the place during the reign of Kulasekhara. All these facts show that Thirunelli was an important town and pilgrim centre in north Kerala for centuries.
Thirunelli temple, located in the forest region of Brahmagiri, is known as the Kashi of South, owing to its religious significance. The temple is often compared to Gaya in Bihar and is famous for the rituals conducted for the departed souls. By conducting rituals there, it is said that the emancipation for the departed souls is ultimate. The temple is dedicated to Vishnu in the form of Chaturbhuja. There are sub-deities of Ganapathy and Nagam.
Legend behind the temple and Papanashini
There is no recorded history on the origin of the temple, but it is believed that the temple is more than 1000 years old. There are many legends and stories associated with it. Though they do not have evidences, they are fascinating.
The temple is believed to have been built by Lord Brahma. He was travelling round the earth upon a swan and noticed the enchanting beauty of the Brahmagiri Hills. He descended on the spot and found an idol of Vishnu under an Amla tree. He installed the idol there and called the temple Sahyamalaka temple. Lord Vishnu, as per the request of Lord Brahma, made the waters of the area also sacred and blessed it with the capability to wash away all sins. Hence, the river there is known as Papanashini, meaning the stream that washes away all sins. According to some other legends, the King of Birds, Garuda, was flying with Amritakumbha, (the pot of Amrut, the nectar of life) above Thirunelli when Lord Brahma was consecrating Vishnu’s idol. Garuda circled over the place and a few drops of Amrut fell into the stream nearby, thus making the Papanasini to attain the power for purifying sins.
People believe that Lord Brahma worships Perumal in the temple on the wee hours every day, hence the head priest of the temple leaves a fresh quantity of worshiping materials required for pooja in the temple before closing the temple at night.
The name of the place too is derived from this legend – Thirunelli means the holy gooseberry in Malayalam.
The reference to the Sahyamalaka temple, in the picturesque Sahya Valley can be seen in many ancient Puranas and Hindu texts too. Legends say that Parasurama, the incarnation of Lord Vishnu visited Thirunelli and performed last rites for his dead father, sage Jamadagni. It is also believed that he took a dip in Papanasini to atone for his sin of killing Kshathriyas.
Papanasini and spectacular views
The temple surrounded by mountains, hidden in dense wood, provides a refreshing view of nature. It faces east and a view of sunrise from here is fascinating. The Brahmagiri range with its shades of green on the north, the greenery of Karimala and Narinirangimala on the west and south respectively adds to the mystic nature of the temple.
Papanasini, the mountain stream emanating from the heart of Brahmagiri is about 1 km away from the temple. Panchatheertham is the temple pond seen on the temple premises. There is a boulder with the image of a footprint in the middle of the pond and it is called Vishnupada (footprint of Lord Vishnu).
The temple is a fine piece of architectural wonder of yore. There are 30 granite pieces supporting the shrine and the floor is also paved with huge square granite blocks.
The temple also carries some characteristics of typical Kerala architecture such as tile roofed structure of the inner sanctorum, the open courtyard around the sanctorum, the granite lamppost at the entrance etc. The temple does not have a well, so the water is transported from a stream at the foothills of Brahmagiri through impressive stone aqueducts, which reach right up to the priest’s room. The temple also has a narrow corridor (Vilakkumaadam) which is constructed of granite pillars, though they are incomplete on the eastern side.
On your way to Papanasini from the temple, you can see a small bridge and if you cross it, you will reach a small Gundika temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. The Shiva temple is believed to be as old as the Vishnu temple and this is also a place of connoisseur’s interest, thanks to the presence of various sculptures here. Hence, Thirunelli offers a very rare religious significance to believers with the presence of Trinities – Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu – in the location.
Legends behind aqueduct and Gundika temple
There are many legends related to each structure, streams and pond near Thirunelli temple. The Gundika temple nearby too has a tale to tell and according to believers a pilgrim came here and plucked an amla fruit from an amla tree. He left it on the river side to take bath and when he again turned to take it, he saw that the fruit had turned into a Shivalinga.
There is a tale related to the incomplete Vilakkumaadam (narrow corridor) of the Vishnu temple too. It is said that the construction work of Vilakkumaadam was started by a chieftain of Coorg without the consent of Kottayam Thampuran. The latter ruled over the area including Thirunelli and he was enraged at this action of the Coorg chieftain. The Coorg king had to leave his work incomplete and he tried to renovate the Lava Kusha temple of Kuthirakkode, near Thirunelli with the remaining unused materials.
The aqueduct, which ensures continuous supply of water into the temple from the stream, is believed to have been constructed as per the instruction of a North Malabar princess. It is said that she came to visit the temple, felt thirsty after to the long journey, but there was no water available. She sympathised with the plight of the priests there too and immediately ordered the construction of a water supply system. Local people believe that her servants and courtiers constructed a temporary aqueduct from the stream at the foot hills of the Brahmagiri to the temple with bamboos, with the help of local tribal people. Later the princess sent masons to reconstruct the aqueduct with granite which can still be seen here.
Festival of the temple
Puthari, Chuttuvilakku, Navarathri, Shivarathri and Sreekrishnajayanthi are the festivals conducted in this temple.
Rituals at Thirunelli
Obeisance at Thirunelli temple is believed to have the power to let the departed souls rest in peace. The ritual is done in batches and it starts with a prayer in front of the temple. The priest and the pilgrims then head towards Papanasini, with the materials for the rites. The pilgrims standing in water then follow the instructions of the priest and thus offer obeisance to their departed dear ones. After that, they take dip in the water. The pilgrims again visit the temple for prayers.