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A colourful festival from a hoary past

G. PRABHAKARAN

The Kalpathy festival has an important place in the annals of history. A look at what the festival means to the cultural milieu of Kerala.



UNDIMINISHED GLORY: The Kalpathy chariot

THE 10-DAY annual Kalpathy Music and Car Festival remains a grand event of Malabar. The festival which began on November 7 ends on November 16. The Car Festival starts on November 13 and ends on November 16.

The festival centres round the Viswanathaswamy Temple (Kundampalam in local parlance) on the banks of the Bharathapuzha at Kalpathy, an ancient shrine.

According to mythology, the deity was brought from the holy Ganga at Varanasi and the great Bana had worshipped in the temple.

An inscription on a stone at the east of the Siva temple proclaims that it was built in the Malayalam year 600 (1425 AD) by Itti Kombi Achan, the then Raja of Palakkad.

The Car Festival is celebrated in the last week of the Tamil month of Aippasi. The festival starts on the 22nd day of Aippasi and concludes on the last day of the month. This synchronises with the festival celebrated at Mayiladuthurai in Thanjavur district. The main centre of the festival is Kalpathy Sree Viswanathaswamy Temple.

The three satellite temples in the village of New Kalpathy, Old Kalpathy and Chathapuram also celebrate the festival during this time.

The Dhwaja Arohanam takes place on the 22nd day in all the four temples. On the fifth day of the festival, the famous Rishabha Vahana procession is taken out in the night, with the deities from all the temples taken out in decorated cars. They converge at the western end of the New Kalpathy village ground around midnight. They disperse after two hours. Competitions are regularly held for percussionists. This attracts thousands of people from villages around Kalpathy and other parts of the district and outside.

On the fifth day, the 28th day of Aippasi, the deity from Viswanathaswamy Temple is taken out and installed in three cars, one for the main deity Sree Viswanathaswamy and his consort Goddess Parvathy, the second for Vigneswara and the third for Lord Subramaniaswamy.

The chariots set out on village tour around 10 a.m. After going around all the villages the three chariots return to the base on the 30th day around sunset.

The deities of Old Kalpathy Temple and Chathapuram Temple mount the cars and go on village tour the same day. By sunset, all the cars return to their bases. `Abhishekams' are performed and the deities redecorated and taken out on procession in floral palanquins around midnight.

The palanquins return to the temple at dawn on the first day of the Tamil month of Karthigai, coinciding with the Kadamukham festival at Mayiladuthurai and the curtain falls on the car festival.

The Kalpathy Car Festival is based on the Vedic Tamil Brahmin culture. The Tamil Brahmins who migrated to Palakkad in the 14th century established as many as 96 Agraharams in the district and 18 within the town.

All the Agraharams have temples and the Car Festival is celebrated at one time or the other during the year. The festivities start with the Kalpathy festival in the last week of Aippasi and ends with the festival celebrated in Tirunellai village in the second week of Vaikasi.

The festival is spread over six months in the agraharams, with one village or the other celebrating it.

Tamil Brahmins

The original Kerala Brahmins are Namboodiri Brahmins. Legend has it that a Prince of Palakkad, a vassal of Cochin lineage in 12th century, fell in love with a tribal girl and wanted to marry her. This was objected to by the Namboodiri Brahmins. The prince was infuriated and drove away all the Namboodiri Brahmin families from Palakkad.

This perhaps explains the huge number of temples consecrated to tribal goddesses such as Emur Bhagavathy, Kurumba Bhagavathy, Kothankulathi Bhagavathy, Meenkulathi Bhagavathy, etc., which are not found in other districts of Kerala. The male descendants of the prince have names akin to tribal names such as Kombi Achan.

The prince and his consort were deeply religious and they wanted the Brahmins to perform religious rites and rituals in temples.

Having driven out the Namboodiri Brahmins, they were compelled to request Tamil Brahmin scholars who passed through Palakkad Gap to attend Vedic conferences at Tirunavaya, near Tirur in Malappuram district, every year.

The prince persuaded them to stay in Palakkad and gave them land and built houses for them. Thus grew the Brahmin agraharams in Kalpathy and other places.

These Brahmins, called Paradesi Brahmins even today, built temples and consecrated them to the deities they used to worship in their villages of origin in Tamil Nadu.

There is evidence to prove that the Namboodiris occupied some of the houses earlier.

In Old Kalpathy village, we find sacred groves (Sarpakavu) in many houses, which are normally found in Namboodiri Illams only.

Social importance

Though the festival is celebrated by the Tamil Brahmin settlers, equal rights have been given to other communities as well. The fifth day celebration of the festival is the privilege of Komutti Chettiars of Pattikkara Street and the right to dismount the deity from Viswanathaswamy Temple is the privilege of Thoni Palayam Chettiars.

During the British regime, the festival was organised and conducted by the people of Kalpathy and the adjacent villages. The then District Collector and Superintendent of Police with headquarters at Kozhikode camped at Kalpathy village and supervised the conduct of the festival.

In the olden days, the festival attracted traders and merchants selling households utensils such as `Kalchattis' (stoneware), piece goods and other consumer items and the villagers bought their requirements from them.

Music festival

The week-long Carnatic Music Festival is an integral part of the festival. Until 1930s, music concert by eminent musicians was a regular feature.

Renowned Nadaswara maestros and other artistes performed during the processions every night and on the last day all the four villagers competed with one another. Such concerts have become rare with the change in the cultural outlook of the younger generation.

The temples that were impoverished by the Land Reforms Act were celebrating the festival with the support of the villagers.

While the rituals inside the temple and the mode of worship are strictly according to the Tamil Brahmin culture, practices such as drum beating and decoration of cars are truly of Kerala style.

Historical importance

William Logan, the then Collector of Malabar in his Malabar Manual had described in the middle of 19th century that the Kalpathy Car Festival as the most important festival in Kerala, when nearly 30,000 people reportedly assembled from all over the district and adjacent districts.

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