IT is certainly a temple with a difference. In the heart of central Kerala, some 150 km from Thiruvananthapuram, Mannarssala is a sylvan nine-acre paradise of bamboo thickets, entwined creepers and banyan trees. Dangerous snakes, like cobras and kraits, slither in the shrubby vegetation. In the middle of this lush and riotous green landscape stands the fabled snake temple by the same name. Snake worship here, according to legend, has been going on for the past eight centuries.
But that is not what is unusual about this temple. What is unique about Mannarssala is that its affairs are run by a woman. She's certainly not the first head priestess-her predecessors have all been women. And this had nothing to do with women wresting the exalted position by declaring war on male supremacy in temple administration.
The head priestess at Mannarssala is actually an obedient spouse discharging the will of the Namboodiri patriarchal order as decreed by serpent king Nagaraja. Legend has it that a childless Namboodiri couple lived exactly where the illam (the priest's residence) stands today. When a fire broke out in a bamboo forest nearby, the couple ended up providing refuge to serpents fleeing the blaze. With fans made of scented grass and herbal ointments, they cooled the overheated bodies of the snakes and nursed them back to health. As a boon, Nagaraja (the serpent king) incarnated himself as a five-hooded serpent-child which the Namboodiri woman delivered.
By dusk, the 65-year-old Amma (her worldly name is renounced the day she takes charge), the present head priestess, has already performed a battery of daylong rituals to propitiate the snake idols installed at the shrine. She endorses the male hierarchical order unabashedly: "The wife of the eldest male in the family becomes Amma. That is the tradition."
She operates out of a dimly-lit incense-filled chamber in the illam, interacting with devotees through a narrow window. She listens patiently to their woes and offers advice. "My daughter-in-law is trying to murder me," an old woman complains. "Before that happens I want to give you my property." The crowd titters. Yet the old woman persists. The high priestess, however, declines her offer. She gives the distraught woman a vial of oil to rub on her forehead. "I am disturbed when I hear stories people tell," confesses Amma. "And glad when I am able to comfort them."
She is the 'link' between the serpent god and the public. Amma is vested with the hereditary mandate to perform the crucial propitiatory ritual called nurum palum at the nilavara or the basement of the illam where the main serpent idol is installed. She also leads the choir, singing the surreal strains of the sarpam pattu or the serpent songs-a ceremony held only once in 41 years. The last such ceremony was held some 10 years ago.
Amma is central to the mystique of the snake temple. Though venomous snakes live in the dense vegetation that surrounds the shrine, no devotee or visitor has reportedly ever died from a poisonous snake bite. This belief is also mired in legend: the head priestess simply dabs a secret herbal potion and the victim is back on his/her feet.
But people don't go to Mannarssala with fear in their hearts. The serpent is viewed with reverence rather than horror in many parts of Kerala. In fact, many households in the state allocate space exclusively for a kavu or serpent's cove which is a bamboo cluster where lamps are lit at dusk.
The temple draws scores of childless couples from every part of the country. "They are never disappointed," says Subramonian Namboodiri, currently the seniormost descendant of the original Namboodiri couple. The family claims that up to 30,000 devotees flock to the temple during peak season.
Couples whose "prayers are answered" must visit the shrine with their infants six months after they are born. Six months because "a newborn baby embodies godliness and therefore does not need to be brought to the temple. God does not have to visit God."
Throughout the day, Amma is busy performing rituals for the couples. At the end of it all, visibly worn out by the rigours of her daily regimen, Amma, draped in a white tunic, trudges the stretch between the temple and the illam. She must still give a patient ear to the pilgrims thronging her chamber before she retires for the day.