The festival of Meenabharani is celebrated for ten days and it is believed that on the tenth day the benevolent Goddess appesrs and showers her blessings on the devotees. The Meenabharani festival generally starts with Kodiyettu (flag hoisting), nine days before the asterism of Bharani which is considered as the birth star of Sarkaradevi. It ends on the tenth day with Arat (holy immersion) of the deity in the temple tank. There are very interesting ceremonies connected with this festival. On all days recital of the exploits of the Goddess is staged by special teams of people.
On the ninth day an important function is conducted in this temple known as Pallivetta. It is believed that during this function Sarkaradevi disappears from the temple and she went for hunting. The Goddess is taken in procession as for hunting with the accompaniment of five caparisoned elephants and firetorches to the Bhagavathy palace. Through this hunting she tried to avoid powers of malice and maintain peace and security in this vicinity. During the earlier period animal sacrifices were conducted along with this performance. How ever animal sacrifices were avoided during the later periods. Now this function ends with the return procession of the deity and the cutting of a coconut with a bow and arrow. (interview with Narayanan namboothirippadu op.cit). after that the ceremonial Arat of the deity is conducted.
Urul is another important ceremony connected with Meenabharani celebrations. It is an occation of ground festivity for the whole region of Sarkara. During earlier times the Urul (ceremonial rounding of the temple by devotees) was conducted as an offering by four jenmi families of the four Kara or sarrounding regions of the temple vicinity. They appointed people who took special vows of penance and fasting for three days before the actual Urul ceremony.
At present the Urul offering is conducted by twenty - five Karakkar from the four direction of the temple vicinity. Each Kara has a Kavu or temple as the base of the Urul celebrations to the Sarkara Temple. People who take vows of the ceremonial temple - rounding follow strict penance and weat short which dhothi. A special attraction of the Urul ritual is that all through the function which encompasses five to eight kilometers of the sarrounding area of the Sarkara Temple, the Urul devotees are accompanied by Vadyamelam and musical concepts, performed by the most accomplished Nagaswara (Nagaswaram is also known as Pandivadyam. It is played in connection with the Urul Mahotsavam.) experts and other veterans of musician rhythm from all over India. Along with their musical rhythm, varied for dances like Theyyam, Thira, Arjuna dance, Garudar parava, dance with pots on head (Ammankudam), the beating of bands and the local musical instrument of chenda which will also be adding color and sound to the ritualistic procession of Urul.
The auspicious and devotional rituals related to Urul start with the arrival of the veterans playing Nagaswaram and the folk dances in the Sarkara temple at four O' clock in the evening. Then they perform, separate seva which is the devotional. Performance of their art form to placate the goddess. Next is the Uruchuttal or covering the sarrounding areas in religious procession by the accompany musicians and advancers. Each fractional group covers their area and reach their particular Kavu or temple of their Kara.by eleven o' clock at night the ritual of Urul starts from separate temples of the Karas after the special poojasin their temples clad in single dhotis and garlands. The devotees who have specialy taken the vows lay on the grounds in complete obeisance and the cover up of the entire path from the particular temples to the Sarkara Temple rolling on the ground all the way. The musicians playing their flutes and other instruments, accompany in decorated lorries with floats of scenes of gods and goddesses on there. The performing artists of varied folk arts also follow performing their skills. It is a right great festivity and devotion for the lakhs of devotees who through the area for viewing the ceremonies.
At 3.30 in the morning the Urul devotees from different direction rolling through the ground for five to eight kilometers would reach the Sarkara Temple premises and pay the deity by rolling the Temple seven times. That particular ritual is Known as Urul Sandhippu (coming together of all the Urul). At this time special poojas are conducted in the temple which work the climatic of a whole night of devotion, ritual and festivity.
It is reported in recent years that the number of Urul devotees have increased so much that the temple premises could not contain all of them and they reached beyond to the village paths even at the moment of Urul sandhippu. This shows the increasing faith and hope of the people in such religious ceremonies related to the Sarkara Temple.
The ceremonies on the tenth-day of the Meenabharani festival mark the climax of a grand final of an annual feat. The day opened with the typical kerala religious ritual of Pongal which is solely a women's offering to mother Goddess or to the sun God. Several women assemble in the temple premises and near by areas bringing with them mud pots which are often used for Pongal, the required quantity of rice, jaggery ghee, plantain etc., and firewood and cook the Pongala in the openyard as an offering to the Sarkaradevi. Every year the number of women devotees for Sarkara Meena- Pongal increase in numbers.
The grand climax to the annual festival of Meenabharani in the Sarkara Temple was staged in the highly devotional and self - torturing act of offering the Thookkam (hook swinging ) on the tenth day which also fell in the asterism of Bharani the birth star of Devi. So it assumes special significance among the varied rituals in the Sarkara Temple and attracts devotees in thousands from far and wide.
Thookkam is not a performing art which enterains the audience, but it attracts a number of spectators. Literally, it means hook swinging and is an act of self - mortification indulged in by a person is fulfillment of vows made by him to Goddess Kali in order to propitiate her. The former has to under go strict penance for forty-one days. During this period he abstains from animal food, intoxicants and worldly pleasures and visit the temple every morning after bath. His body is also rubbed with oil every morning in order that it is made ready for the hook. Thus the hook - swinger is prepared in mind and body to the achieve the perseverance needed in the final act. For the actual performance a sort of car is made which will rest on two axils with four wheels. A horizontal beam resting on two vertical supports is set up on this. Together they are known as Thookkavillu.
The hook which is inserted on the back of the performer is connected to a ring attached to the beam by means of a strong rope. That part of beam is decorated with flags, flowers and tender leaves of the coconut tree. He is then raised or hauled up or lowered by holding a strong rope tied to the bottom of the beam.
Thookkam is divided into two, i.e., Garudan Thookkam (kite swinging) and Toni Thookkam (boat swinging). Of these Garudan Thookkam is the primary offering in the Sarkara Temple. There is a legend related to the Thookkam festival. That is, Garudan Tookkam is celebrated to propitiate a devil or Vethalam. (Vethalam is considered as a ferocious animal and vehicle of Bhadrakali in the typical Hindu mythological pantheen.). Vethalam is installed in the southwest corner of the Sarkara Temple. To renew this belief Thookkavillu stoped for a moment during its swinging rounds in the southwest corner of the temple.
In the Garudan Thookkamthe performer paints his face green with a red colored beak resembling that of the kite. In Toni Thookkam thee fake wings and book are missing. But in both cases the performer carries a sword and shield in hand and flourishes the same while swinging. Thookkam is also alone in proxy by paid professional who are engaged by the person who has taken the vow chooralkuthu (the function of choralkuthu is related to the concept that the blood which oozes from the body of the hook swinger when the hook of the Thookavillu is inserted to his back is offered to the Vethalam. It believed that is blood is drunk by Vethalam.) is a function which is related to this festival.
The people who take the Thookkam should strictly follow celibacy and live in the temple premises for the last seven days of the forty - one day penance under strict penance and mediation. They did not allow to eat food in the outside. They followed seven days fasting. In the first day they rounded the temple seven times. On the last day, they rounded this temple one thousand and one times.
During the reign of the kings of Travancore when the administration of the Sarkara Temple was under the direct supervision of the kings, they took keen interest in conducting the Thookkam. There are royal records which show that the Travancore king added to the kanikka (money offering) given to the Sarkara Temple during the Thookkam ceremony. Certain other records in the royal repositories evidence that formerly on the night of the Thookkam ceremony arrangements were made for the performance of fire-works. Expenses were met from the royal treasury towards the fielding of the men performing fireworks. On the Thookkam day the performers collected together in the Bhagavathy palace early in the morning hours and dressed themselves for the ceremony.
The function starts at seven o' clock in the morning with the Pandarathookkam which is the special offering of Garudan Thookkam prescribed by the Devaswom Board itself. After that the Thookkam offering of private persons begins. During this time money devotees entered the temple ans assisted in supporting the Thookkavillu. This was done by holding to a strong rope which was tied to the wheels of the cart. Holding this rope people helped in drawing the beam or villu around the temple once or thrice. In the minds of the hook-swinger as well as the separators the waves of extreme devotion ebb during the whole period of Thookkam which is an ordeal on the will power and perseverance of the swinger.
The Closing Ceremonies
The closing ceremonies of Meenabharani festival started at nine o' clock at night with the ceremonial Arat procession of the Devi. After Arat and the return Procession at three o' clock in the morning, takes place the offering of Valiya-Kanikka and Kalamezhuthum pattum. Bhadrakalipattu or sing and dance of the Kali is performed in front of the original granite structure on the northern side of the temple. The song and dance formed the climax of a ceremony lasting for days. Among the observances connected with it is the drawing on the floor of a sketch of Kali in varied colors obtained from vegetables, leaves, rice-flour etc. this is known as Kalamezhuthu. The drawing is followed by the recital of the melodious in verses the episodes in the life of Bhadrakali along with steps to suit it by experts from the ponnara family.
It is said that Meenabharani festival is also a festival of the marchants. During these days the merchants came to the temple from different parts of South India. It is a blessing and pleasure for both the merchants and the people.
Thus it can be concluded that the meenabharani Mahotsavam in the Sarkara Bhagavathy Temple is indeed a grand festival Mahotsavam, a synthesis of varied cultural, religious, devotional, social, economic and artistic strands in the life of the people of Kerala. It is one of the underlying factors which helps in upkeeping the continuing traditional values of our culture.