The Kick Of Bhakti: A Goddess’ Football League Where Devotees Play To Pray
Devotees of the goddess play football for five days each year to celebrate the victory of good over evil.
Their jerseys are plain shirts drenched in devotion. With every kick, they try to nudge the ball into the opponent’s goal to mark the victory of good over evil.
A unique football match on the southern coast of Karnataka is one that has two villages pitched against each other. The game is bound by no rules, no time, no sponsorship and no qualification except for one—bhakti.
For this is the football premier league in service of the goddess - the Polali Chendu. That’s a unique annual temple ritual that turns the precincts of the Shri Rajarajeshwari temple in Polali in Dakshina Kannada into a large football field. The football match is itself part of larger annual temple festival.
Chendu or chend in Kannada and Tulu respectively mean 'a ball'. And this five-day ritual called Polali Chendu involves a game of football among two villages on either sides of the temple.
The ball is a sphere of leather, larger than your average football, custom-made, and filled with coconut fibre. It is hand-sewn by a family in nearby Moodabidri town for the annual ritual itself.
The ball is brought to the temple on the day of the chendu by the family and handed over to the priest incharge. The priest then carries it in a ceremonial walk to the large field in front of the temple.
This is the field that will see two gramas (villages) contest against each other to get the ball to the opponents side, marking the victory of dharma over adharma.
The band plays along all the while as the priest is accompanied by members of the two guthus (traditional family households) involved in the running of the temple—the Ammunje guthu and the Ulipady guthu—to the katte (platform around a banyan tree). The katte is now called sultan katte as Tippu Sultan too is said to have come and watched the Chendu take place during his reign in the region.
The priest then takes the ball to a shallow trench in the centre of the large field and announces the game open.
And the ball keeps rolling to the kicks of the young boys from the Ammunje grama and Manel grama, who stretch the game for a good two-three hours. The Goddess’s rituals wait for them to get the ball back to the pavilion.
When the villages face-off against each other, the goddess sits there, mighty and tall in clay, as the Adishakti incarnate and watches over her children play for five days before she can board her teru (temple car) for the annual rathotsava (car festival). And ritualistically almost, the skies pour down the first mango showers of the season for Polali Chendu.
A few decades ago, when agriculture was the predominant occupation of the region, villagers would wind up their work in the fields early, and rush in great numbers to this organic football field.
“It was impossible to spot the ball once the game began for such were the crowds and such was the enthusiasm as both villages would go all out to ‘score’” explains Krishnaraja Marla, who comes from a family of traditional muktesars (trustees) of the temple, reminiscing the game as it was held a few decades ago in his childhood.
Originally said to be a three-day affair, the sport was extended by two days after the Queen of Keladi, Rani Chenamma’s, mystical experience with the Devi.
That story is popular folklore here and has been recounted by author N A Sheenappa Hegde in the book Pulinapura Mahatmye. Pulinapura is said to be the original name of the town, while in the regional language Tulu, it is known as Pural.
Rani Chenamma of Keladi has the honour of being the only ruler who dared take on Aurangazeb’s army to save Chhatrapati Shivaji’s son Rajaram, who had come seeking refuge.
She not only stopped the soldier’s led by Azamath Ara, the prowess with which she did that was such that it left the Mughal scion astounded. Aurangzeb then signed a treaty and withdrew his forces, but not before he had suffered a considerable loss of men.
The story goes that in 1679, Keladi Rani Chenamma was in nearby Gurupura, visiting the mutt there. Hearing of her visit, the Pulinapura temple authorities invited her to see the chendu.
She promised to be a part of the ‘final chendu’ the following day. The temple awaited the arrival of the queen but she didn't make it. The chendu though, was held as usual.
But that night, Chenamma is said to have had a dream that nudged her to visit the temple and she left for the shrine immediately.
When she sought to see the ball game, she was informed that it had always been a three-day affair and that this could change only if the deity so wished.
It is said that the queen then made an appeal to the deity and there was a divine pronouncement that the ritual be extended by two days and that the queen would bear the cost of the two day utsav-extension as well as that of the repair of the temple chariot.
Eventually, the ritual was extended, the queen was witness to it and she also offered the royal saree to the deity before returning to her capital.
From then on, the football festival is held as a five-day affair.
The annual temple festival here is unique in many aspects. While most temples' chariot festivals last a week or so, the one here ranges anywhere from 26 to 30 days and the duration is a secret until the day of the hoisting of the flag, marking its inaugural.
The Nattoja, who is in-charge of this ritual, visits the priest of the Chowta royal family of Moodabidri. Here, he is informed of the duration of the festival for that year. Knowing the dates, he either travels back to the temple without uttering anything to anyone around.
Only after he reaches the temple is the date whispered to the concerned persons and it is then that the announcer beats the drum and informs the villages.
The temple precincts themselves go back a few centuries. Oral tradition says that the clay idol of Devi Rajarajeshwari was made by King Suratha and is said to find mention even in the Markadneya Purana.
As goes the tale, Suratha, a king when defeated and deceived, along with a trader called Samadhi, sought refuge in the ashram of Sumedha rishi who lived here.
As he slept one night, he is said to have dreamt that the Devi asked him to make an idol of hers out of clay from a nearby well.
Guided by the sage Sumedha, he then did as ordained, taking the clay from the well that was said to be inhabited by a swamp of snakes.
A peacock, the vehicle of Subramanya, stood guard while he gathered the clay for the murthi.
Guarded by the peacock thus, the king is said to have brought clay from the well and made this large murthi which was then consecrated.
Interestingly, it is a Subramanya bronze murthi that receives all the worship and presides over the external rituals of the temple here.
The crown she wears is said to be facing the rear. It is believed that when Suratha was making the idol, he took off his crown and and placed it on the goddess' head without changing the direction.
He then is believed to have got back his old glory and wealth as she sat there, presiding over the region.
The central sanctum sanctorum however is the only remnant from the original temple, which was said to have been washed away when the river Phalguni flooded the region in 1446.
Prior to the renovation last year, one couldn’t stand straight and see the main idol. One had to go down on the knees to see her in her entirety.
Fahien, the Chinese ambassador who visited India in the 6th century, is said to have mentioned the temple in his writings. As Hegde mentions, as per records in the Oriental Library in Madras, Fahien talks of Polali Rajarajeshwari saying, “In the whole of Hindustan, I haven't seen any other idol that possesses such power”
Similar superlatives are said to have been used by Italian traveller-writer Nicolo De Conti in 1420, who said “I was astounded to see the idols here...I haven't seen such idols anywhere. The idol in the centre is called Shri Rajarajeshwari...She is adorned with all wealth and treasures".
One doesn't need citations to know the Devi as she sits here in all her vibrance. The dark vermillion face of the Mother and those eyes that devotees have felt staring right into their deepest selves, has everyone who visits this Tulunadu temple, bow down to ‘Pural da appe (mother in Tulu)’ in absolute surrender.
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