The German Shepherd pup whimpered but remained calm when it changed hands to the human incarnation of Lord Muthappan, the Theyyam, dressed in an intricate, characteristic costume, the sequins glittering on his headgear.
The Muthappan Theyyam turned around to face the sanctum sanctorum of the Parassini Madappura Sree Muthappan Temple, chanting a few mantras, even as several dogs of different sizes fearlessly roamed the temple premises. The devotees, too, are unperturbed by the presence of the canines.
A priest affectionately blessed the pup with a gentle pat, and the Theyyam whispered something to the dog and fed it the prasadam — the holy offering — before facing the dog parent again.
The Muthappan handed the pup back to the owner, exchanged a few niceties, and blessed both. The naming ceremony is over.
The naming ceremony of dogs is a frequent sight during the Thiruvappana Vellattam — a ritual — at the temple. Several people from different districts bring their pups to the temple for the naming ceremony.
“There is no receipt or fee for holding the naming ceremony of dogs here. Anybody can bring their pets during the Thiruvappana Vellattam and seek the blessings of Sree Muthappan,” an official at the temple counter said.
“However, it is better to avoid weekends as there is a huge crowd on Saturdays and Sundays,” he added.
Dogs’ own temple
For someone new to the temple on the banks of the Valappatanam River, about 10 km from Kerala’s Kannur city, the sight of dogs mingling freely with devotees — or vice versa — on the temple premises might come as a surprise.
More shock is in store when they see a few dogs walking in and out of the sanctum sanctorum — or Madappura as it is called — even as the priest performed the puja. Dogs are often seen resting in the cool interiors of the Sanctorum.
The sight evokes no surprise for the devotees of the rebel deity in the Hindu pantheon. Muthappan is the God of the poor and the toiling masses, the deity who enjoys palm wine (toddy) and roasted fish.
Dogs are Muthappan’s companions and are revered in the temple. A secular god, Muthappan is depicted in a hunter’s attire, holding a bow and arrows.
The dogs are not just inside the temple. They could be found resting in front of the shops lining the road to the temple. Many shopkeepers have kept food bowls for Muthappan’s beloved friends.
They are provided pazham pori (banana fritters), vellayappam (rice-based fluffy pancake), or uzhunnuvada (a doughnut-shaped, deep-fried snack made of black gram). None of them goes without food or water.
The canines in the temple are not violent. Children and adults move around freely without fear. Several children from a nearby school reach the temple at noon for lunch.
Muthappan is a unified form of two gods — Maha Vishnu and Param Shiva. Two huge bronze sculptures of dogs welcome the devotees reaching the sanctum sanctorum.
“This is a holy place where dogs are treated equally to gods. Prasadam, after the puja, is served first to the dogs waiting inside the Madappura before serving it to the devotees,” K Ramakrishnan, an ardent devotee who frequents the temple, told South First.
“Muthappan himself feeds them the prasadam during the ritual enactment of the two divine figures — Thiruvappana and Vellattom,” he explained.
Praying for the health of pets
During special pujas, bronze sculptures of the canine are placed next to the Muthappan to please the deity. Devotees offer bronze figurines of dogs to Muthappan to seek his blessings.
A large number of dog figurines could be seen near the offering boxes and bhasma thattu (a tray in which the holy ash is kept).
Praying for the good health of children and other family members and offering special pujas is a common custom in India.
Many in Kerala seek the blessings of Muthappan for the good health of their pet dogs.
“My Julie (dog) was detected with canine distemper, a deadly disease found in dogs. I prayed to Sree Muthappan and when she recovered, we took her to Parassini Madappura,” CK Chandrika, a resident from the neighbouring Kozhikode district said after travelling to Kannur with her pet.
Offering carved forms of male, female, and child or those of limbs on the steps of the Madappura is common at Parassinikadavu.
A person with leg pain or injury may offer to place a miniature metal statuette of legs to Muthappan. Along with the figurines of men and women, one can find the small statuettes of dogs that are offered to the deity.
Kuvi to visit temple
People reach Parassinikkadavu from all districts in Kerala. Ajith Madhavan, a dog lover and a trainer with the K9 squad of the Kerala police, is planning to bring his Kuvi to Muthappan Temple in April.
A native of Alappuzha, Madhavan, and his Kuvi is well-known among dog lovers.
Kuvi is an Indian pariah dog who was part of the dog squad. She grabbed headlines after she kept searching for her Dhanuska, a two-year-old girl, and her family, who were killed in a landslide at Pettimudi in Idukki on 6 August 2020.
The dog later led rescuers to Dhanuska’s body. More than 70 people were killed in the tragedy. After the search operation was called off, Madhavan took Kuvi with him to the training centre.
“I frequent the temple and am planning to bring Kuvi along during my next visit,” Madhavan said.
People from various districts in Kerala bring their dogs to the temple for the blessings of Muthappan, he added.
“Dogs are part of the puja at this temple and we have dogs that are offered by the devotees,” Nirmal Parassini Madappura, a member of the Parassini Madappura family, told South First.
These dogs are permitted inside the Madappura and they are given food and a safe home at the temple, he said.
During the first and second Covid-19 lockdowns, the temple authorities fed several stray dogs along with those living within the temple premises. Nirmal and his wife served rice cooked with fish or chicken to the dogs living in and around the temple premise during the period.
“Initially, we cooked only for the dogs living in the temple. Later, many stray dogs also started coming to the temple and I offered them food in the parking area outside the temple. Realising the condition of the dogs during the lockdown, temple management decided to cook food for the strays as well,” Nirmal explained.
However, the temple authorities are worried about the trend of people abandoning aged dogs on the temple premises. Many people abandon their pets when they grow old or are sick, Nirmal, who is upset with the unhealthy trend, said.
The legend of Muthappan
So, how did dogs become Muthappan’s companions? According to mythology, Ayyankara Naduvazhi (a feudal lord) and his wife Padikutty were childless and prayed to Lord Shiva for a child. After their continuous prayers, they found an infant crying on a river bank and adopted the baby boy.
Untouchability was then prevalent in the community. Muthappan, who was fond of hunting, once reached a local community where people from the lower social strata lived.
He was hungry and thirsty and asked for refreshments. Fearing punishment for serving food or water to a boy from an upper-caste family, the people did not come out of their huts. It was then the dogs of the village went to the boy, wagging their tails.
Slowly, the people also started coming out of their houses and served him water in bamboo vessels. The bond between Muthappan and the dogs did not end there.
The dogs started following Muthappan to the forest whenever he went hunting. Muthappan also started helping the poor and the backward communities which made his father unhappy.
Realising this, Muthappan left his house after revealing his divine form to his adoptive parents.
However, he never left the companionship of dogs and took them wherever he travelled.
Devotees and temple authorities treat the dogs well and offer them food as turning away dogs from the temple is considered a sign of disrespect to Sree Muthappan.
“A few years ago, the temple authorities decided to reduce the number of dogs roaming around the temple premise. They sought the help of dog catchers to shift dogs to other places,” Anil Kumar, a devotee, said.
“This infuriated Muthappan and the people who performed the Theyyams of Thiruvappana and Vellattam were unable to perform after the incident. Later, the temple authorities were forced to revoke their decision to prevent the entry of dogs to the temple,” he added.