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Sri Sankara and Melpazhur

By Dr. Krishna Iyer, Chottanikkara

Adi Sankara was a great thinker and the noblest exponent of Advaita Philosophy. We are indebted to him for the revival of Hinduism after the onslaught of Buddhism and Jainism. By defeating great Buddhist scholars in various arguments, Sankara established the supremacy of Sanatana Dharma (Historically interchangeable with Hinduism, it means "Eternal Truth/Teachings/Tradition." Sanatana Dharma is the recognition of the spiritual essence of life and its infinite expressions. An eternal and ever present way of life).

Adi Sankara is considered to be born in Kalady, a small village in Ernakulam District, Kerala. Today, Kalady is a holy place of pilgrimage where the Sringeri Mutt and the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham have built great monuments to the memory of the great genius that was Adi Sankara. (These mutts and peethams are offshoots of the Adi Sankara heritage). Some of these great edifices that were built in the last hundred years are the Sankara Mutt, the Sankara Sthoopa, Advaita Ashramam, and the Sharada Temple.

Indian and foreign scholars alike, now concede that Sri Sankara was born between 8th and 9th century A.D, to be precise, between 780 and 820 A.D. His parents were Sivaguru of Kaippilly Illam (a nambudiri household) near Kalady and Arya Antharjanam belonging to Melpazhur Mana near the famous Chottanikkara temple, in Veliyanad. For the learned scholar, Sivaguru, his marriage to Aryamba was a late one. When after many years of marriage they did not have a child, the devoted couple went to Trichur to worship Lord Siva at the Vadakkunnathan Temple. Their prayers bore fruit, when in course of time, with the Lord's blessings, Aryamba gave birth to Adi Sankara.

Some say that Sivaguru attained eternal peace before his son was born but there are other scholars who hold the view that Sivaguru died when Sankara was three years old. The early life of Acharya is shrouded in mystery. All that we have are only legends and hearsay. To analyse that, the genesis of the Nambudiri set up in early Kerala has to be understood.

The history of Nambudiris can be traced back three thousand years. There were two sects called the Panniyur and Sukapuram and both varied in culture, manner of dressing, the performance of the rituals, etc. Each sect consisted of many sub groups and communities. Azhuvancherry was the leader for the Sukapuram assembly, and Kalpakancherry for the Panniyur assembly.

Traditionally all the members gathered annually at Thirunavai on Maha Makam day (An important festival celebrated on the day the star Makam is seen.) The assembly came to be called Mamankam. This assembly discussed and decided the cultural, social and economic activities for the next year. This assembly also advised the rulers, whose dictum was final and unquestionable. Over time, as internecine quarrels between these sects grew, their power base eroded. Panniyur sect members influenced by the outside forces destroyed their idol of worship, Sri Varaha-moorthy; likewise, ill- tidings were seen in Sukapuram too and it is not known what happened to the Sukapuram diety, Sri Narasimha-moorthy.

Subsequently, a few of these Namboodiri groups left Panniyur and crossed the Bharata Puzha River and settled at Peruvanam, Iringalakuda, Iravikulam. Of these, seven and a half hamlets or groups left for the south, crossed the Periyar River and settled on the Southern bank of the river, in the region between Alwaye in the north, Udayamperoor on the west, Kannjiramattom in the south and Ramamangalam on the East.

At that time this region was known as Venna Nadu. Since the arrival of these Namboodiri Vedic scholars, it came to be known as 'Veda Nadu' (or village of the Vedas). The settlers established eight settlements of their own, which are:

  • Thottara - 8 Kms South of Chottanikkara.
  • Ramamangalam- 10 Kms Eastern to Chottanikkara.
  • Ayamkudi-Chelamattom- 16 Kms North of Chottanikkara.
  • Ekadasi - 5 Kms West of Chottanikkara.
  • Perumpilly - 5 Kms South of Chottanikkara.
  • Eravoor - 5 Km. North of Chottanikkara.
  • Muriyamangalam - 6 Km. North of Chottanikkara.
  • Pazhoor - 6 Kms. South east of Chottanikkara.

The eighth, Pazhoor Gramam (village) is the place where Melpazhoor Mana - the birthplace of Adi Sankara is situated. Apart from Melpazhur Mana, there were twenty-three other manas or households in Pazhur village, of which most have become extinct. The names of the 24 Manas or households are mentioned below:

  • Melpazhoor
  • Paduthole
  • Vadakkillam
  • Karuthedath
  • Thali
  • Pulikkamattam
  • Puduva
  • Panamuttam
  • Vettha Nadu
  • Kurur
  • Vadakkam Kurur
  • Kalampoor
  • Nellore
  • Kollimattam
  • Ambalapilly
  • Pazhoor
  • Kanjirapilly
  • Kavunkal
  • Elamana
  • Pulliyat
  • Pallipuram
  • Kottathunkal
  • Edapilly

Adi Sankara's mother Arya was from Melpazhur Mana. At that time child marriage or Kannika Danam was prevalent in the Nambodiri community. (The literal meaning of kannika would mean young girl child who has not attained puberty. The phrase derives from the customary attitude with which a father gives his precious daughter away in marriage to another family). Probably Sivaguru received Arya as Kannika danam. Typically, the marriage takes place at the bride's residence and the celebrations last four days. Some scholars believe that Arya Antharjanam, as she was named, was taken from here and the function conducted at Kaippilli Illom, the household of her groom, Sivaguru, in Kalady village. The marriage was consummated only after the girl had attained maturity and was brought back to Kaippilli Illom from her maternal home at Melpazhur.

The age difference between Arya and Sivaguru created some confusion regarding the paternity of Sankara. Some people believe that Sivaguru attained eternal peace while Sankara was still to be born. Consequently, Arya Antharjanam was forced out of her husband's household, Kaippilli Mana on charge of illegitimate pregnancy. She was left with no choice but to return to her home in Melpazhur. There she prayed to the presiding diety of the household, Vettokkorumakan to bless her child with fame and name as long as the world existed. Her prayers were answered. And she gave birth to the great Adi Sankara at Melpazhoor Mana.

Another set of people aver that Sivaguru passed away when Sankara was three years old. Whichever school of thought one goes by, it still stands to reason and inference, that Sankara's birth took place in Melapzhur Mana, since it was customary for women to deliver their first born in their maternal home.

Elders from the Melpazhur region have said that Sankara made commentaries on the Vedas and the Bhagavad Geeta at the age of five. He kept these in the outhouse of this Mana. Senior orthodox Namboodiris, who considered his commentaries revolutionary, destroyed it, by setting the outhouse on fire. When Sankara came to know of their ploy, he cursed them, but most of them realized their mistakes and begged him to pardon them. Sankara pardoned them and ordained that no outhouse be constructed at these manas. Even today these manas stand without out-houses. It is also said that no member of these manas should accept 'Sannyasa' (become renunciates) and till date there have not been any sannyasins from these manas.

Sankara's upanayanam was conducted at the age of seven, at Melpazhoor Mana, where after he migrated with his mother to his father's household, Kaipilly Illam at Kalady. Legend has it that Sri Sankara gave four Saligramas- indicative of "DHARMA, ARTHA, KAMA, MOKSHA" to his maternal home. They were all lost in course of time, the last as recent as fifty years ago.

In short, the birthplace of Adi Sankara as being Melpazhoor Mana, is now an accepted truth. But why was it a point of much debate before? The reasons attributable to this could be the social set up of those days, the customs of the people, non-participation or non co-operation, inhibition to question the statements of the rulers or contradicting their preference of people other than locals. These have not been probed in detail.

Adi Sankara never felt he was a Keralite only. He thought of himself as a satputra (good son) of Bharatha Varsha or India as it was known then, and he made the whole of India, his home. He did not belong to any one particular village or person, or sect. He was and continues to be the son of India.

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