Located at a distance of 30 km Mananthavady, Thirunelli is a tiny hamlet that is placed at the foothills of Brahmagiri Hills, a part of Sahyadri Ranges, neighboring Karnataka. This village holds a lot of religious significance due to the presence of an ancient temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu and Papanashini stream that flows nearby. The place is also quite close to a thick forest, and so it is popular amid trekking enthusiasts and ornithologists.
History of Thirunelli
As far as history of Thirunelli is concerned, the information about this place is limited. It is believed that till the 16th century, Thirunelli was a significant religious center. Malayalam works belonging to the early 11th and 12 centuries such as Unniyachi Champu mention this place. Copper plate inscriptions going back to the times of Bhaskara Ravi Varma I and II who ruled the region in the 10th and 11th century have been excavated from the village by the archeologists. The Malabar Manuel, work of William Logan also refers to place. It is said that when roads were being made, the workers found coins that belonged to 9th and 10th century, pointing to the significance of the place at the time of the rule of Kulasekhara. One now clearly make out that this place was an important religious place for centuries in northern Kerala.
Dedicated to Lord Vishnu in the form of Chaturbhuja, Thirunelli temple lies in the forest area of Brahmagiri and is famed as the Kashi of South because of its sacred importance. The other deities worshipped here are Nagam and Ganpathy. The temple also finds its comparison to Gaya in Bihar state as it is also the venue of such rites that are conducted for the deceased souls to liberate them.
Population and accommodation options
The village of Thirunelli has a very small population and its residents are Adivasis. Apart from a guest house managed by the temple itself, the accommodation options are scarce. The temple premises has some small lodges as accommodations.
How to reach Thirunelli
The road journey from Mansnthavady to Thirunelli is a memorable one, passing through thick forests, bamboo jungles, and elephant reserves. From a huge patch, there is no habitation but just expanses of paddy fields.
Opt for a road journey on the Mysore road, from Mananthavady to Thirunelli, taking a turn from Kattikulam to arrive at Thirunelli. As this small hamlet is placed on the border of Kerala and Karnataka, it can also be accessed from Kutta in Karnataka.
Legend behind Thirunelli temple and Papanashini stream
Although there is no chronicled history of Thirunelli temple, but it is said that the temple is over 1000 years old. There are a number of interesting stories that point towards the same.
One of such stories state that the temple was constructed by Lord Brahma himself. It is said that he was flying around the earth on his vehicle, a swan and this is when he was mesmerized by the beauty of the Brahmagiri Hills. At the spot where he came down, he saw an idol of Lord Vishnu under an Amla tree. He installed the idol there and called it Sahyamalaka temple. On his request, Lord Vishnu blessed the waters of the area, making them sacred and giving them the power to wash away all the sins who would take a bath it in. This was the birth of river Papanashini.
Another legend says that Garuda, the king of birds was above Thirunelli with Amrit Kumb (the pot of the nectar of life) at the time when Lord Brahma was installing Lord Vishnu’s idol. Few drops from the pot fell into the stream and this it became sin-curing Papanashini River. The locals believe that every day in the wee hours, Lord Brahma visits the temple to worship Perumal. For the same reason, before closing the temple at night, the temple’s head priest keeps fresh worshipping material needed for pooja. In Malayalam, Thirunelli means the holy gooseberry.
Various ancient Hindu texts and Puranas mention the Sahyamalaka temple. It is also said that Parshurama, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, also visited Thirunelli temple and completed the last rights of his father, sage Jamadagni. He also bathe in Papanashini to make for the sins of slaughtering Kshathriyas.
Papanasini and remarkable sights
Placed amid thick wilderness and mountains, Thirunelli offers some lovely views of the surrounding greenery. As the temple front is eastwards, the views of sunrise are mesmerizing. Lush Bramagiri ranges on the north, Karimala on the west and Narinirangimala on the south make the place greener and more beautiful.
Originating from Brahmagiri, Papanasini mountain stream is located at a distance of around 1 km from the temple. The temple premises also has Panchatheertham temple pond. There is a huge stone in the center of the pond, called Vishnupada or the footprint of Lord Vishnu.
An architectural gem, the temple has been made with 30 granite pieces and the floor has been made from huge square-shaped granite blocks. The temple’s architecture is typical Kerala inspired with tile roof in the inner sanctorum, granite lamppost on the entrance and open courtyard surrounding the sanctorum. As there is no well in the temple, the source of water is a stream from Brahmagiri that reach the priest’s room through channels. Vilakkumaadam is a slim corridor made of granite pillars, although unfinished in the eastern area.
While going to Papanasini from the temple, cross a small bridge to arrive at a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, called Gundika temple, which is known to be as old as Lord Vishnu temple. This temple has various beautiful sculptures.
This clearly points out that Thirunelli has been blessed with a rare phenomenon of the presence of Trinity – Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh (Shiva) at one place.
Folklores behind the watercourse and Gundika temple
There are a number of stories connected to the stream, pond and other structures near Thirunelli temple. As far as Gundika temple is concerned, the locals say that once a pilgrim came here and grabbed an Amal fruit from the Amla tree. Later, he went to take a dip in the stream and when he returned, he saw that fruit had converted into a Shivalinga.
There is also a legend behind the unfinished Vilakkumaadam corridor in the Vishnu temple. It is said that one of Coorg’s chieftain started the corridor’s construction without taking permission from Kottayam Thampuran, who ruled over the area along with Thirunelli. He became quite angry with this and so the chieftain hasd to stop the construction in between. He then renovates the Lava Kusha temple at Kuthirakkode, near Thirunelli with the remaining material.
It is believed that a princess from North Malabar commissioned the construction of the water channels that carry water to the temple. When after a long journey, the princess arrived at the temple, she felt thirsty. On finding no water source, she empathized with the condition of the priest and commissioned the construction of the aqueduct. It is said the courtiers and servants of the princess with the assistance of the local tribe made a temporary aqueduct so that stream can reach the temple from Brahmagiri foothills.
The aqueduct, which ensures continuous supply of water into the temple from the stream, is believed to have been constructed as per the instruction of a North Malabar princess. It is said that she came to visit the temple, felt thirsty after to the long journey, but there was no water available. She sympathized with the plight of the priests there too and immediately ordered the construction of a water supply system. Local people believe that her servants and courtiers constructed a temporary aqueduct from the stream at the foot hills of the Brahmagiri to the temple with bamboos, with the help of local tribal people. After going back home, she sent masons to make aqueduct using granite.
Festival of the temple
The temple becomes the venue of a number of festivals like Chuttuvilakku, Sreekrishnajayanthi. Shivarathri, Navarathri, and Puthari.
Ceremonies at Thirunelli temple
It is said that homage at Thirunelli temple makes it easy for the deceased souls to travel to the next world peacefully. Done in lots, this ceremony begins with a prayer in temple’s front. Then, the priest and the pilgrims visit Papanasini carrying the things from the rituals. As per the instruction of the priest, the relative of the deceased stand in the river, pouring the content in the water, thus paying homage to his dead dear ones. This is followed by a dip in the holy waters and then they return to the temple for the last prayers.