The Deity - Bhagawati
Kerala is known for stories of Yakshis (blood sucking female spirits) who appear in the guise of voluptuous women to entice susceptible young men. Gupthan Namboodiri was one such young man who was on his way to visit his friend, the erudite Kosapilli Namboodiri, who was also known to practise the occult arts.
The young man walked through a dense forest, lost in his own thoughts, when he suddenly heard the melodious chime of anklets. In a clearing, he saw before him, a comely maiden, attractive enough to lure him. She had long black hair that covered her back, and eyes that were like bottomless pools to drown a man in. Luckily he was carrying a copy of the Devi Mahatmyam, a treatise on the Goddess Herself, and the Yakshi could do him no harm.
His friend, Kosapilli, discerned that his friend was in danger. So he gave him a magical towel that would protect him from the vengeful spirit on his way back. This time, the young man was on his guard, and when he saw the Yakshi, he took to his heels, and ran all the way to the Chottanikkara Devi Temple. There he threw the towel outside and rushed into the temple compound.
However, since the towel was no longer with him, the Yakshi hurled herself at him, catching hold of his feet. Gupthan cried aloud for help, and the Goddess Herself, hearing his cries, appeared as Kali, and cut the Yakshi into several pieces. She then threw the pieces into the Temple pool, which turned blood red in colour. Even today, the pool is known as Yakshikulam or Rakthakulam (loosely translated as 'the Yakshi pool or the bloody pool').
The other legend is that the Goddess washed Herself in the pool, and hundreds of years after, a devotee named Vilvamangalam fished an idol of Kali out of the pool.
The Chottanikkara Temple is a significant Devi temple, located near Ernakulam in Kerala. Bhagawati is worshipped in Her three forms through the day! She stands resplendent as Saraswati, clad in white in the morning, and transforms into Lakshmi in crimson at noon. By evening she takes the form of the awe inspiring Kali, all dressed in blue. Lord Shiva is also one of the deities worshipped here.
This temple is unique in that it is a haven for people who suffer from diseases of the mind. As one walks along the compound, one finds women and men in various states of hysteria, battling their personal demons, running around or swaying from side to side, their long hair tossing around wildly. A chant of 'Amme Mahamaye' resounds as the devotees pray fervently for the cure that only the Goddess can deliver.
The daily Valiya (Big) Guruthi Puja is an awe inspiring sight. The afflicted women are made to stand in front of the shrine, and at the appointed time, they are witness to the deity's anointment with the guruthi, a liquid that is made from lime and turmeric, and turns blood red in colour. They go into a trance, swaying from side to side, their movements getting more and more frenzied, till the final moment when the Goddess releases the evil spirit from their bodies and they are permanently cured.
The Valiya Guruthi Puja
A huge Pala tree stands, statuesque, at the furthermost section of the temple, its vast canopy shielding the temple. When one looks closer, one notices thousands of long iron nails, which have been driven into its trunk. Legend goes that, in the past, the afflicted people would rush towards the tree, and in the frenzy of their illness, would hit their foreheads against its trunk, driving a nail into it, and keep hitting it incessantly, till the whole nail was driven right in. Then they would be taken back to the shrine, with bloodied foreheads, where they would pray to the Goddess, their illness having been plucked out by its roots and thrown away.
The Pala Tree covered with iron nails
Faith plays a vital part in these cures. There have been cases of patients with schizophrenia, epilepsy, neuralgia and such illnesses having been cured by the Goddess. People with weak hearts are advised not to visit the temple as the sights might prove too harrowing for them. In the month of Kumbam, which falls in February- March, it is believed that the Goddess appears for her ritual bath (aarattu), blesses Her devotees and returns to the shrine.