On a little hillock overlooking Kerala’s cultural capital stands the Vadakkumnathan temple. Fiercely protecting an ocean of calm in the middle of the bustle of Thrissur, this sacred site is more than a place of worship. It is a mammoth woven into the tapestry of the city’s historical, architectural, artistic, and social narrative. 

While the first set of shrines in this multi-shrined complex are said to have been built in the 12th or 15th century AD, this ancient temple has seen phases of construction, renovation, and expansion that have extended till the early 21st century. Today, the Archaeological Survey of India protects the temple’s dated mural paintings and guides other complex conservation efforts to safeguard the temple’s artistry. These conservation efforts helped win the ‘Award of Excellence’ at the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation (in 2015). 

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One of the Four Gateways of the Vadakkumnathan Temple in Thrissur_https://www.keralatourism.org/photo-gallery/vadakkumnathan-temple-thrissur/1781/ds70

The God Is In The Details 

A Kerala temple or ‘ambalam’ has a sri-kovil (shrine) at its heart. From there, the horizontal organisational structure features five enclosures or ‘pancha-prakara’ that enable circular movement within the temple complex. One of these, the ‘nalambalam’ or ‘chuttambalam’, is the structure that holds shrines and their substructures. In the case of the Vadakkumnathan temple, it encloses the three main shrines dedicated to Vadakkumnathan (which translates to Lord of the North, i.e., Shiva), Rama, and Sankaranarayana (the combined deity form of Shiva and Vishu); and the shrines for Parvati, Ganesha, and Parvati’s dasi. 

Though part of the same temple, each sri-kovil features a different roof. While the shrine for Shiva and Parvati has a conical roof, the others are pyramidal or two-storey roofs. This emphasis on roof design is a defining element of the Kerala style of temple architecture. Speculation is that the striking sloping roof systems developed as a response to the region’s climate. They provide shade from the sun, shelter from the rain, and enable the movement of air to prevent excessive heat and humidity. 

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Drawings of the three main sri-kovils in the Vadakkumnathan temple complex_http://www.ceptarchives.org/items/thrissur-vadakkunnathan-temple-775

Another unique feature of the Kerala style of temple architecture is the ‘koothambalam’ or ‘natyashala’ placed along the central axis and on the right side of the shrine. This structure is a temple theatre built per the Natyasastra to propagate traditional art forms like Koothu. With a rectangular plan, elaborately carved wooden brackets, a high roof covered in copper alloy sheeting, and exquisite finials, the koothambalam in the Vadakkumnathan temple is a sight to behold.

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Koothambalam at the Vadakkunnathan Temple, Thrissur_https://narthaki.com/info/articles/art482.html

Outside these structures lies the ‘pradakshina-patha’ – the pathway that connects the spaces and shrines inside the temple complex with each other and the four temple gateways that face the cardinal directions. These gateways or gopurams have impressive superstructures with wooden supports and tiled roofs. They pierce the imposing, thick stone fortification enclosing the 9-acre temple complex. Between this wall and the ambulatory are almost ancient trees that soothe birds, squirrels, and humans alike. 

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Section and Elevation of the Gopuram (West) at Vadakkumnathan Temple, Thrissur_http://www.ceptarchives.org/items/thrissur-vadakkunnathan-temple-770

Lore and Behold 

With history comes lore. As an ancient and iconic temple, the Vadakkumnathan has mythology and lore blended into its being. One of the most popular is the temple’s (and Kerala’s) origin story. While most accounts agree that Parashuraman founded the temple (and Kerala), the details vary. Some believe that Parashurama, to atone for his sins, requested a piece of land to meditate on, while others say that he hurled his axe into the sea and caused the land to rise. The land Parashuram received was then consecrated by Shiva and subsequently turned into a temple in His name. 

The temple also has associations with the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The Vadakkumnathan temple pays homage to Rishi Vyasa, the author of the Mahabharata. The ‘Vyasa Shila’ is a platform under a peepul tree along the pradakshina-patha where devotees are known to write “Hari Shree Ganapathaye Namaha” with their fingers. Now-protected mural paintings dating back to the 16th-17th century AD also depict stories from the Mahabharata. 

Speaking of the connections to the Ramayana, a section of soil is believed to have fallen onto the earth when Hanuman was flying, carrying the sanjeevani mountain. This patch of land has been elevated and preserved on the temple grounds. 

Over the years, temple-goers also have made a fascinating observation: the ghee poured over the ‘Shivalingam’ in the sanctum sanctorium never melts. Added daily, it has formed a mound over the original Shivalingam and enveloped it completely. On the rare occasion when the mound collapses, the weight of the collapsed ghee is poured again. This centuries-old accumulation still refuses to melt. Is it a miracle or a scientific phenomenon yet to be explained? 

Stepping Out And Into The Cultural Fabric 

The Vadakkumnathan temple stands tall in the middle of the ‘Thekkinkadu Maidanam’, a forest cleared by Maharaja Shakthan Thampuran to make the land habitable. These grounds now host the ‘Thrissur Pooram’ – a spectacle that brings lakhs of people from across the globe to this humble city. The annual festival features caparisoned elephants (some of whom have their fan clubs!), brightly coloured umbrellas, and the ‘Ilanjithara melam’ – a rhythmic extravaganza featuring about 250 artists trained in traditional musical instruments, led by the sounds of the ‘chenda’. While the festival takes place on the temple grounds, an interesting thing to note is that the Vadakkumnathan temple is the ‘sakshi’, the witness. Other temples are the participants.

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Elephants and Crowds outside Vadakkumnathan Temple during the Thrissur Pooram_https://www.keralatourism.org/photo-gallery/caparisoned-elephants-at-thrissur-pooram-celebrations/2649

The Vadakkumnathan temple still pulls crowds of history, archaeology, architecture, and art enthusiasts on other days of the year. However, the atmosphere at the Thekkinkadu Maidanam is vastly different. The pace of the city falls away the minute you step onto the grounds. Families on picnics, friends out for a stroll, individuals power-walking, tourists taking in the greenery of the surroundings and the majesty of the temple, and even groups of people playing cards and chess are all common sights here. 

The irony is that the busiest road in the city encircles these grounds, and many of Thrissur’s major roads radiate outward from this ‘Swaraj Round’ or ‘Round’. So, while the temple is a religious refuge for some, a place of artistic and architectural beauty for others, and a space for congregation or meditation for the remaining, for everyone who lives in Thrissur, Vadakkumnathan is the nucleus, the heart of the city – even on the map. 


(1982) Report on the Study of Vadakkunathan Temple, Trichur Town, Kerala State. Available at: http://www.ceptarchives.org/items/thrissur-vadakkunnathan-temple-598 

P.R, N. (2021) History of Vadakumnathan Temple

Available at: 


Vadakkumnathan Temple


Thrissur Pooram (no date) Kerala Tourism. Available at: