Guruvayur is a small temple town in the Southern part of India in the state of Kerala. Known to some yet unknown to many, this town is famed for the Guruvyur Temple which is often believed to be the Dwarka of the South. I share my experience of discovery and rediscovery of this temple in this temple town.
Before taking my readers to Guruvayur I shall give a small prelude. All credit for finding this place goes to my mother. Long back in my childhood, she received a gift from someone. It was a unique photo frame of a beautiful ‘Bal Gopal’ on a mirror. Since then the Gopala accompanied her to every state my father was posted to.
One day it accidentally fell and broke and since then my mother wanted to visit Guruvayur from where the Gopal was gifted to her. Like today all the information were not just a click away. We knew that Guruvayur was in Kerala but did not know the best route to go there. Much later while on a trip to Otty we made a sudden plan to visit Guruvayur and reached Coimbatore Railway Station. With no prior reservation, getting general tickets we boarded the unreserved crowded compartment of the express train with a good amount of luggage.
It was a different experience standing in the crowd with our luggage being shoved from one part of the floor to the other with all the bunks taken and the place below the seats filled. Passengers were busy in various activities some relishing their packed Biryani, some playing cards and some conversing in the top of their voice. Only a handful of people understood English to guide us before our destination station of Thrissur arrived. From there we reached the town in a hired cab.
A small town, a peaceful town, a temple town with a handful of hotels and lodges in the adjoining areas around the Guruvayur temple. It was a sleepy town with all the activities centred around the main temple. Visitors to the temple were mostly locals from the neighbouring districts and state.
I remember how language was a big issue to communicate with the locals then and sign language was our only saviour. In sign language and broken English, they explained the dress code on the temples. In the temples here, men are required to wrap dhoti on their lower and Vesthi (a plain white piece of cloth) or nothing else on the upper part of the body.
Western clothes, short dresses, jeans are not allowed for women. Women need to dress either in Saree, or Mundu (piece of garment to be wrapped around the waist) or long skirt and blouse or top or salwar kameez. While churidars are allowed in the Guruvayur temple they are not allowed in the Mammiyoor Temple. I remember how I had to wrap a Dhoti above my folded jeans to enter the temples. This funny incident became memorable for the rest of my life.
The small town setup, the greenery within the surrounding areas, the peaceful ambience and the simple people maintaining their culture and tradition made this place even more sought off. I developed a liking for the town and even being not so religiously inclined I had an urge to visit Guruvayur again. After many years I was in Guruvayur this time especially to rediscover and feel the essence of the town with my husband. In the known town and the known roads, we were in the same Guruvayur again. There was a lot of change in these years and once a small town is an established municipal town now.
Even with a lot of change and a lot of makeover of the place we could locate a few old landmarks that remained in the same way. The old lodge where we stayed was still there bright in its fresh coat of paint but we went ahead to our new stay that was booked through the hotel booking site. Just behind this hotel was the temple pond and near the pond, a tree was the home to a flock of Darters.
The temple premises remained the same just with the increase in the crowd. Throughout the day the queue remained similarly large with hundreds of devotees coiling within the shaded area designated for the queue and even beyond. The characteristic smell of the burning camphor and the wicks of the huge lamp in front of the temple sanctifies the area.
Men, women and kids dressed in Vesthi, Mundu and saree looked graceful. White dress with the golden border all around instinctively purifies the soul. These sarees were so enticing that during my first visit I made sure to purchase one and that was again a tough job to communicate my choice. I still take pride in possessing such a beautiful saree from Guruvayur and it was the first of this type in my collection. Many such sweet memories are still afresh in my mind.
Apart from the white dressed devotees, the other interesting part was the temple elephant, happily swaying its head and brushing its body with a big leaf in its trunk. This was one among the many elephants of the temple stable at a little distance, that take part in the temple activities during festivals.
The fragrance of the Jasmine garlands dangling from the hair braids of the traditionally dressed ladies fills the air. I aroma took me back to my previous visit and at once reminded me of the wedding that I was privileged to witness. It was a simple temple wedding with all dressed in similar Vesthi and Mundu but the pretty bride resplendent in heavy golden jewellery covering a major part of her body.
This time we were not fortunate enough to witness any such occasion. The evening cultural programme seemed to be a daily routine for years. Last time we saw a group of young girls performing in the adjoining stage and this time it was a renowned Mohiniatyam performer giving her elegant dance performance.
The temple surrounding and every associated happening touched my soul as it did a few years back. The constant chanting of “Om Namo Narayana” and the classical music played in the backdrop, the white dress and the white flowers all around heighten the prevailing holiness. A true feeling of peace, a feeling of sacredness, a feeling of the presence of God was felt everywhere. It seemed God is not just within the temple but all around us.
Like every other temple town, there are roadside stalls selling souvenirs, photos and idols of God, traditional Mundus-Vesthi and Sarees. What attracted me were the beautiful Kathakali masks and the shiny headgear for the elephants on display. Now their number of stalls has increased and their variety too. Being a temple town, non-vegetarian food is not available within the precincts of the town. I was so glad to find the Indian Coffee House where we had our food last time.
There were only a couple of restaurants during my last visit and the interesting part was they served pale red lukewarm water along with the food. In broken English, they made it clear that they added Ayurvedic ‘pudiya’ to the lukewarm water to help in digestion and it was completely safe to drink. This time I expected the same and they did serve as expected.
Language is not a major issue now with many people communicating in English and some in Hindi too. Along with modernisation, the traditional look of the town has changed. The traditional Kerala type architecture has given way to modern Bungalows and Hotels. I did find everything that I saw during my last visit but still, there was something bothering me inside.
The Guruvayur temple’s Elephant stable used to be in a comparatively isolated area. Now there are a lot of residential buildings and a big parking area too. The number of elephants has come down from 60 to 49 now. Every elephant here are properly taken care of and all are well fed and medicated. There were obvious reasons still, I was pained to see these gentle giants chained.
A visit to the other temples of Thiruvenkatachalapathy and Mammiyoor brought an end to my trip to Guruvayur. I was glad to rediscover the old yet sad to discover the new. The change was obvious and modernisation even more apparent. Something kept bothering me from inside. I was wondering what was bothering me. Is it the change or the modernisation or my mindset that wanted the place to remain the same as it was? With many such questions in mind, I left my once a favourite, once a sleepy town of Guruvayur.