Monday, December 26, 2016
Temple of the tortoise
The shrine of Lord Ayyappa at Sabarimala, in Kerala's Pathanamthitta district, has had its share of misfortunes. One such was a deliberate act of desecration and arson in 1950, that left the stone idol severely damaged. A new panchaloha idol was wrought, and before its consecration, it was taken to several parts of the country. During its perambulations, the idol was brought to this temple on Armenian Street - from where, for one reason or another, it could not be taken out for three days. To recall this incident, a shrine to Ayyappa was added within this temple complex, which has Lord Siva as the main deity.
The temple - the Kachhaleeswarar temple - was constructed in the 1720s, funded by the dubash Kalavai Chetty, who was a devotee of Siva in the form of Kachhabeswarar, the one worshipped by a tortoise. According to mythology, the tortoise was Lord Vishnu, who had assumed that form during the churning of the ocean of milk. The tortoise also forms one of Siva's five seats in this temple; on account of having these five seats, the deity is also referred to as Pancha Vaahana Sivan.
In ancient times, there was a federation of castes based on their 'handedness'; those engaged in agriculture and related fields were referred to as the 'right-hand castes', while the metal workers and weavers formed the numerically lesser 'left-hand castes'. These divisions continued into the early 20th century; but in Kalavai Chetty's time, it was common for Madras to be wracked by clashes between these castes. And Kalavai Chetty was himself accused of engineering these clashes; but he is today remembered for this temple, rather than for the divisions he attempted!