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Sri Kurmam Temple – Abode of Little Living ‘Gods’

It was my day off from work around six years ago. Waking up to a beautiful cloudy-drizzly August morning, I decided to go on a long drive and after breakfast took to the wheels. I had Srikakulam district in my mind for a particular reason.

Those days, as a journalist, I was working on a series of reports on Olive Ridley turtle deaths along the Visakhapatnam sea coast as well as the need for conservation of endangered star tortoises. I had heard from my contacts about a temple in Srikakulam district of North coastal Andhra Pradesh that houses these endangered species of star tortoises. Curious to find out more about the tortoises and get inputs for my article series, I decided to drive to the temple.

In these parts of Andhra Pradesh, Star tortoises (Geocheloneelegans), listed in the Schedule 1 (endangered species) of Wildlife Protection Act, are herbivorous land animals and are usually found in grasslands, dry scrub forests and rocky patches. Sometimes, devotees offer them to small temples or people illegally keep them as pets at home because these wild species are considered important in ‘vaastu’ as harbingers of prosperity and good luck.

I found out that this Srikurmam Temple (also called Kurmanathaswamy Temple) located in Gara Mandal of Srikakulam is unique because it is said to be the only temple in India exclusively dedicated to Kurmam (tortoise) – the second of the ten avatars of Lord Vishnu – besides being the only temple with a conservation centre for the endangered species of star tortoises. 

I had started driving from Visakhapatnam City around 9 am hoping to reach before 12 noon as I had heard the temple remains closed till the afternoon. I was curious about the real tortoises living in the abode of the Tortoise God. At one point, I noticed that I needed to refill the fuel tank and I drove for another 15 kilometres on National Highway 16 to find that the petrol bunk was closed for some renovation work. I drove to Srikakulam Town to find that the nearest petrol bunk had no petrol but only diesel that particular day. I had never seen the temple deity but prayed to Lord Vishnu to let me reach on time as I had almost another 40 kilometress to go.  

Someone in that petrol bunk directed me to a smaller fuel refill centre in the outskirts of the town and finally, much to my relief, I got petrol over there to fill my car’s near-empty tank.

After driving for around 130 kms, that included the highway and a route after taking a diversion from Srikakulam town, the temple came into sight in a semi rural set-up. Luckily, the ticket counter was still open and I was one of the last persons to gain entry into the temple minutes before the garva-griha or sanctum sanctorum was to be closed till its reopening in the evening.  The cloudy weather had changed to sunny and the temple seemed to shine under the mid-day sun.

Like most South Indian Temples, I found the temple intricately sculpted. The temple architecture showed influence of Odia and Dravidian styles. From talking to the local devotees and priests and doing my own research I got to know that the all-stone structure has 108 eksila (single-stone) exquisitely carved pillars, none resembling the other. Most of them bear inscriptions related to the royal lineages dating back to the 11th century. I gazed at a beautiful stone sculpture of Lord Vishnu and wondered about the architectural treasure of a temple that this obscured mandal of Srikakulam has to offer. The temple walls are adorned with mural paintings and frescoes of Lord Vishnu and other deities in natural or vegetable colours somewhat like those seen in the Ajanta-Ellora caves. The upper part of the sanctum sanctorum was built in the form of an eight-petal lotus.

I first headed to have a darshan of the Lord. The presiding deity is said to be swayambhu or self-manifesting.  The deity of Maha Vishnu’s kurmam avatar is made of black stone but appears yellow as it is coated with sandalwood paste. While bowing to the deity (shaped like a tortoise shell), I silently thanked Him for enabling me to reach the temple and have a darshan before its closing hours.

Another unique feature of this deity is unlike most other temples, here the deity faces the West direction and the temple has two flag posts or Dwaja Stambhas, one in the east and the other to the west. It is said that the temple had an ancient underground tunnel leading all the way to Varanasi.

As per mythology, Lord Vishnu transformed himself into a tortoise during the time of Samudra Manthan (The churning of the sea). According to mythological tales and ancient history, the temple was visited by many kings and saints, including Lord Rama’s sons Lava and Kusha, Lord Krishna’s brother Balarama, sage Durvasa, Adi Sankaracharya, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, philosopher Ramanujacharya and so on. It is also believed that during the Kreta yuga, a piousking Sweta Maharaj observed penance near this place and chanted Kurma mantra. In answer to his prayers, Lord Mahavishnu had manifested in Srikurmam in the form of Kurmavataram. Locals believed that Lord Brahma created this temple. The temple is said to have been reconstructed many times. The present structure was built by King Anaga Bhima of Kalinga dynasty about 700 years ago. The temple is also known for ancestor worship.

There is also a beautiful lake in front of the temple called Sweta Pushkarini. It is believed that the lake was formed by the Sudarshana Chakra of Lord Vishnu. Sri Maha Lakshmi emanated from the lake. As I stood looking at the crystal clear waters of the lake, a local devotee (her name was Lakshmi) told me that the Sweta Pushkarini has cleansing powers and a dip in it can absolve one of his or her sins. Legend also says that Lord Krishna played with gopikas in these waters. Deities of Sridevi, Bhudevi, Rama, Sita and Lakshma were also found in the waters of this lake.

Interestingly, Srikurmam Temple follows both Shaivite and Vaishnavite method of worship as abhisekham is performed daily like the way it is done in Shiva temples. It is said initially the temple was dedicated to Lord Shiva and was called Kurmesara Temple. Philosopher and theologian Ramanujacharya converted it into a Vaishnavite temple in the 11th century CE.

 The Endowment Board of Andhra Pradesh Government administers and maintains the temple. It seems that the Indian Postal Department had issued a stamp featuring the temple in April 2013.

I spoke to the temple priest Krishnamachari, who informed that the deity of the kurmam is made of black stone and the ancient stone temple, which is under the Trusteeship of the Gajapathirajus of Vizianagaram, draws maximum crowd during the three-day Dolotsavam festival (Holi) in March when people from Odisha and neighbouring districts throng the temple in several thousands.  Other auspicious days are Kurma Jayanthi in summer and Mukkoti Ekadasi. On week days, around 1000 and on weekends around 3000 to 5000 devotees frequent the temple for the Lord’s darshan. This being a Vaishnavite Temple, is popular among the Tamilians too. Next, I started exploring the sprawling temple premises and headed to the direction of the enclosure where the star tortoises, both adult and young ones as well as hatchlings were kept. I found devotees feeding them gongura leaves as a token of respect for the Kurma avatar. I requested a temple staff to allow me to hold a baby tortoise on my palm after he took it out for a close-up photograph. For that one minute, it felt as if I was holding a little God – little avatar of Vishnu – as the tiny creature crawled on my palm.

These star tortoises have been the responsibility of both the Temple Endowments Department as well as an NGO Green Mercy since 2011. I spoke to the executive director of Green Mercy K V Ramana Murthy, who is also the curator of the Star Tortoise Conservation Centre at Sri Kurmam Temple. He averred that moved by the pitiable condition of the tortoises, who weren’t fed properly and left without an enclosure, making them easy prey for poachers and dogs, they had approached the forest department for help and wrote to the chief wildlife warden some years ago. These herbivores are usually found in the nearby foothills and fields of Srikakulam and devotees would offer them to this temple.

“The forest department readily responded and wanted to take care or release them in the wild. But meanwhile, some devotees and religious organisations filed a case and kept pressurising us to withdraw the complaint. They also got a stay order from the High Court that said the tortoises shouldn’t be moved from their temple enclosure. The High Court, on condition that the temple authorities should provide a habitat, balanced diet, medical care and proper enclosure for these animals, allowed the temple to keep the creatures,” said Mr Murthy. And the tortoise conservation centre was redesigned as per expert advice and still continues braving challenges of maintenance, funds and manpower.

I returned from the Srikurmam Temple with a beautiful, positive feeling, hoping to meet the little living gods once again. As per Mr Murthy, currently, there are around 200 star tortoises in the temple complex.

For those interested to visit this ancient Indian Temple, Srikakulam town is well connected by road and railways on the Chennai-Kolkata rail route. Srikakulam district shares boundary with Odisha. Visitors can avail auto-rickshaws from the town to reach the temple located at Gara Mandal of the district.  One can also undertake a 130-km drive from Visakhapatnam city of Andhra Pradesh through the National Highway 16.

Written by:

Sulogna Mehta

Sulogna Mehta is journalist and creative writer with interest in subjects like medical-health, scientific and archaeological research, wildlife and environment and travel. With around 15 years of professional experience in mainstream national media including the Deccan Chronicle (Hyderabad) and The Times of India (Andhra Pradesh).

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