A Temple of the War Gods
On vacation to Kerala recently, I happen to accompany my wife on one of her innumerable visits to temples, a favourite jaunt of hers whenever on vacation. The shrine we visited this time was in Thiruvanathapuram. Having overcome the challenge of parking the car in the crowded locality where it was situated, we were in for a rather tiring exercise with a massive crowd of devotees thronging to offer prayers. Later, browsing through a pamphlet of the temple I had picked up, my curiosity was tickled by the page on the Board of Administration and other committees. Except for a couple of names of civilians, the entire list consisted of army officers and JCOs, a number of them serving, topped by a lieutenant general. Indeed I had had heard of an army-administered temple in Thiruvanthapuram, but did not know this was the one and that it was so hugely popular. Neither did I know, until I learned from the pamphlet, that it is not one but there are three temples administered by the same board, with two others within the city affiliated. I am told that the other two are quite popular too. What I found even more fascinating were the origin and history of the temple, hallowed in a mixture of faith, legend and soldiering tradition.
The period was around 1750 A.D. and the locale Padmanabhapuram, capital of the erstwhile state of Venad (later Travancore). Soldiers of the legendary Nair Brigade guarded the fort and the palace within it with sentries posted on all sides round the clock. Sited on one side of the fort was a shrine dedicated to the fiery spirited Godess, the Yakhi of Melaankot. The spell of the Yakhi was so fierce that the sentry on night duty at that side was invariably found unconscious in the morning and soldiers dreaded taking up that post. One day it was the turn of a highly devout soldier to take up the frightful post. As he was bathing in the nearby Valliyoor River prior to taking up the post, his foot brushed against a stone lying on the riverbed. Picking it up he found himself holding a miniscule idol of Lord Ganapathy, abour six inches tall. Feeling a strange divine grace, he carried it on his person by keeping it in his pouch when he attended the duty. The Yakhi cast her spell on the soldier as was her wont but it was powerfully thwarted by the divine presence he carried. Watching him in amazement as he returned to the barracks unscathed on completion of duty in the morning, his fellow soldiers were all in devotion to the Lord, when the shy soldier reluctantly revealed his experience. They went on to install the idol within the barracks and every soldier began customarily worshipping it before setting out on his daily duties. Inevitably thereupon, they found themselves safe from the Yakhi’s spell. From then onwards Lord Ganapathy became the War God of the Nair Brigade.
It is believed that the idol, prior to it being found by the soldier, was being worshipped by a great Yogi, who carried it with him to various pilgrim centres. Eventually, the Yogi transferred all his powers to the idol, having ‘Sankalpa of Prapancha Ganapathy’ (roughly meaning universal celestial impact), before depositing it in the deep waters of the river. Religious Pundits pronounced that since the idol was obtained from the riverbed, it was an instance of divine self-revelation (Swayambhoo); and the soldiers were therefore bestowed with the solemn responsibility of preserving it at all costs for eternity without ever causing any damage to it. The troops continued to worship the idol at Padmanabhapuram, until it was shifted to Thiruananthapuram, the new capital of Travancore in 1760.
At Thiruanathapuram it was initially kept under a peepal tree in the premises of an existing temple. Then during the reign of King Dharma Raja a small shrine was built in the Magazine Area of the Fort around 1765; the place eventually assuming the name ‘Pazhavangadi’. Renovations in subsequent years, especially those during the reign of Aayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma Maharaja (1860 – 80), saw the temple grow in size and stature. Over the years two more deities – Goddess Durga Bhagavathi, symbolizing Sarva-Sakti Swaroopani, the embodiment of all energies and Lord Vettakkorumakan, the younger son of Lord Siva and Goddess Paarvathi who, with churika (dagger) in hand, is considered a War God – were installed. Thus the temple came to house deities that are all influential for the well-being of the troops and victory in war. Further renovations and extensions during the 20th Century and into the 21st saw the Pazhavangadi Sree Maha Ganapathy Temple, as the shrine is known today, grow into a major place of worship in Thiruananthapuram, its reputation spread far beyond the city.
There is no clear record on how the temple was administered in its early years. In 1935 the Nair Brigade formed a committee to hold the Thiruvathira Festival during the Malayalam month of Dhanu (December-January) that celebrates the birthday of Lord Shiva. Thereafter the festival became an annual feature with a committee constituted under a Hindu Officer of the State Forces conducting it. After integration of the State Forces with the Indian Army in 1951, the maintenance of the temple was overseen for five years by a local State Forces Officer serving with the NCC. Finally the Madras Regiment took over the administration of the temple in November 1956.
A major reconstruction work of the temple taken up in 2018 has recently been concluded. Since this involved relocating the idol during the work, the 12-day rituals for its reinstallation, the Punah Prathishta Pooja-s, were conducted earlier this month, with the Colonel of the Madras Regiment, who is the Chairman of the Apex Board of Administration, in attendance. While the Madras Regiment holds the Gallant legacy of the Nair Brigade dear, the Pazhavangadi Maha Ganapathy Temple with its origins linked to that brigade, continues to draw devotees in their tens of thousands every day – a Temple of the War Gods people reach out to win their private battles.