Ayilyam - A Unique Serpent Festival of Kerala
In South India, the traditions and customs are very different from the North of the country. Though the traditions and culture of the North are more well known, the South has its own unique ancient customs and festivals. While the North celebrates Nag Panchami, in one corner of the South there is a different kind of serpent festival.
In the backwaters of Allepey, now known as Alappuzha in Kerala lies a forest shrine called the Mannarasala Sree Nagaraja Temple. The temple itself looks like a cottage hidden in the forest. The adjoining forest is called Grandfather’s Cove named after ‘grandfather’, the Serpent God. Every October hundreds of Malayali Hindu devotees visit this beautiful temple dedicated to the Serpent God. Located in the Harippad region of Allepey, this temple is known for its annual serpent festival called Ayilyam.
According to the Malayali calendar, the festival is held in the Malayalam month of Kanni which falls in October. The word ayilyam means ‘the ninth lunar mansion’ which is the thullam month of the Malayali calendar and the festival is celebrated as ayilyam asterism. This festival had humble beginnings, but one visit of the Maharaja of Travancore turned it into a grand affair. The Travancore King offered his prayers at this ancient temple every year but one year he missed his regular date and arrived at the temple on the holy occasion of Ayilyam. This visit made the occasion memorable and thus the Vetticode temple became well known for this festival.
The Rituals & The Offerings
This is one of the most well-known temple festivals of Kerala and includes large processions and many rituals. On this occasion, people visit the Mannarasala Nagaraja Temple in Vetticode and ask for the blessings of the Serpent God. Legend has it that this auspicious festival is important for childless couples. During this festival, childless couples observe the Uruli Kamazhthal, a sacred pooja conducted beneath the temple tree to eliminate the Kalsarpa dosh, which enables them to get rid of the curse of a barren womb. Many people come to this temple on this auspicious day for a cure.
There are many distinct rituals and offerings made at this festival. Offerings include various scared items like Abhisheka and Alankara, agarbatti, flowers, lamps, etc.
Similar to the sarpa dosh puja, there are special pujas like oil abshikam, ghee abshikam, coconut abshikam, etc. The rituals and pujas vary according to the purpose.
Folklores, Festivals and The Legend of Muthassan
The festival begins 7 days ahead of the ayilyam day when devotees start pouring in for a long ceremonial procession to an ancient Brahmin house in Meppallil, Illam where the Serpent god, Nagaraja is said to lie in Samadhi. The 5 hooded serpent Nagarjuna resides in the ancient house of Illam and the people of the house call him Muthassan or Grand Father. It is said the reincarnated serpent left the temple after blessing the childless couple and entered this house and asked to be worshipped every year with certain rituals. The reincarnation of Nagarjuna blessed the childless couple Vasydeva and Sridevi with a child. Nagarjuna was pleased with the devotion of the couple who saved serpents from wildfires in the forest and nurtured them with milk. So, he reincarnated as a serpent child and lived in the Mannarsala temple which had the Mandara trees, amongst which the couple hid the snakes for protection. He then reincarnated as a five hooded serpent child of the couple and resided in this house. The temple tree is worshipped by childless couples on ayilyam day
Unlike other temples the Mannarsala temple is unique as it has a woman priestess. The priestess carries the Nagaraja idol to the brahmin house.
According to the legend when Muthassan left for the Cellar, he had given certain rights and instructions to his mother. He instructed that his mother herself must offer offer prayers. On certain special days men too can worship. The senior-most Brahmin lady in the family has the status of the Mother. From the time the Mother assumes this position, she has to live as a brahmacharini and observe penance.
“ Those who worship me with devotion will have children, will be cured of diseases, will have long life and health and wealth; the men of the family will have the title of 'Vasukisridevi''. He reminded that the rituals and customs suggested by Parasurama are inviolable.”
Valia Amma or the mother is the heart and soul of Mannarasala. The resplendent brightness of Valia Amma who has turned into a symbol of Naga deities through fasting and other austerities has not dimmed in the least by now as a result of the performance of rituals and poojas.
There are many mysterious serpent folklores surrounding this festival, including one that says “ a fierce yellow serpent started dancing on the eastern bank of the holy pond near the Appooppan Kavu carrying an evil snake in its mouth. Then it vomited the evil snake and released it. The serpent raised its hood either out of fear or out of a desire for revenge. The fierce snake with a sense of humour swallowed that cobra again. The late Valia Amma came to know about it. She came to the spot with tears in her eyes and spoke a few words. The serpent did not budge. This drama lasted for half an hour. Amma became sad. With the chanting of mantras, she prayed for the release of the cobra. No more delay, the serpent left the cobra, bent down its head and went straight into the Appooppan Kavu, as if nothing had happened. The nature of the yellow snakes of Appoppan Kavu is beyond description, and is wonderful.”
At dusk, a Sarpaballi or serpent sacrifice starts and ends at around 9 pm after which the temple is closed for the Brahma Muhurta and Shruddhi Kriyas.