Thirunelli Temple is the only temple in the world where the devotees can perform all the rituals related to one’s life, starting from birth to death and life after death.
It is one of the most ancient temples in Kerala. It is believed that here the prathishta of Lord Vishnu was performed by Lord Brahma. It is also known as ”Sahyamala Kshetram” and ”Kashi of the South”.
Thirunelli Temple draws pilgrims from allover, primarily for ancestral rites. The rituals are performed on the banks of the stream Papanasini which flows down from Mount Brahmagiri. It is believed that this stream has divine power to dissolve sins of all the mortals. Another major attraction of the temple is the holy rock where people pray for their forefathers.
On the western side of the temple is the cave temple Gunnika, dedicated to Lord Shiva. Thus Thirunelli becomes blessed by the unique presence of all the members of the trinity.
The beautiful Brahmagiri hills and the surrounding lush green forests have made the temple premises a valley of tranquility. So everybody feels completely relaxed after sitting in the sanctum of the temple. The temple is an embodiment of ancient temple architecture. The aquaduct that brings water to the temple is also a witness to hundreds of years of history.
The name Thirunelli derives from the word nelli, the Malayalam/Tamil equivalent for Indian gooseberry (Amla) tree. Once when Lord Brahma while traversing the world, saw an idol of Lord Vishnu resting on an amla tree in the valley and thus the place came to be named Thirunelli. In Padma Purana (written by Veda Vyasa) there is mention of a beautiful Vishnu temple located in the picturesque Sahya valley deep in the middle of the forest. Thirunelli temple is also referred to as Amalaka temple and Sidha temple.
History depicts Chera king Kulasekharan as the founder of this temple. He lived between A.D 767 and A.D 834. After a brief reign, he relinquished the throne and started missionary work to propagate Vaishnava order. It was he who wrote the Sanskrit work Mukundamaala in which he earnestly prays to Lord Vishnu to instill in him devotion.
On stylistic ground this looks as a typical Kerala temple. The inner sanctorum is surrounded by a tile roofed structure. And there’s an open courtyard around the sanctorum. At the east, in front of the entrance is a granite lamp-post. Curiously enough the flag post is absent, though one can spot a hole on the floor where it ought to be.
Along the outer wall of the temple is a cloister made of granite pillars cut in cubical style. This part of the temple architecture is slightly unusual for a Kerala temple. And it seems the cloister work was never completed. The story goes that once the King of Coorg, tried to renovate this temple. When he was half way through, the Vellattiri King who owned the temple objected to the same. Thus renovation was discontinued. Even today we can see proof of the half finished renovation work.
It is an undisputed fact that Thirunelli was once an important town and pilgrim centre in the middle of inaccessible jungled valley surrounded on four sides by mountains. The copper plates of the 10th century and a few books of the later centuries convincingly prove that Thirunelli was an urban hub in South India at least from 10th century onwards. Also in the dense forest surrounding the temple, the ruins of two ancient villages can be found. Recent excavations at the time of paving roads have yielded coins of 9th and 10th centuries. There are two copper plate inscriptions pertaining to the history of Thirunelli Temple. They date back to the period of Bhaskara Ravivarma, a ruler of the Chera kingdom who lived in the 10th century. First inscription is written in 999 A.D (37th year of the rule of Bhaskara Ravivarma) and the second inscription in 1008 A.D (46th year of the rule of Bhaskara Ravivarma). The first one is regarding the allotment of the royal land in Thirunelli to the temple, to meet its expenses towards daily poojas. The second inscription deals with the procedures to be observed during the temple visit of the ruler of the Puraikeezhar Kingdom. The donor in the first inscription is Kunhikutta Varman VeeraKurumpurai who ruled Kurumbranaad. The donor in the second inscription is Sankaran Godavarman of Purakeezhar dynasty. Both the inscriptions shed light to the ruling customary practices and social relations of the time.