Can you imagine a temple dedicated to a villain?
One of the reasons why the story of Mahabharata is so enduring is because almost none of the characters in the epic is straight-up black or white.
Everyone is a shade of grey and even when you look at the most villainous characters in the story, you’ll likely see that they have wronged themselves and, like any normal human being, sought revenge.
Shakuni, the prince of Gandhara is one such character. By all accounts, the maternal uncle of the Kauravas had been instrumental in fanning Duryodhana’s ego and egging him on to go to battle. It was Shakuni who loaded the dice and it was he who goaded Yudhishthira to bet everything he had on the game. At first glance, Shakuni can easily be pegged as the villain of the piece. It’s easy to see how the conniving prince who stayed in the palace of Dhritarashtra, plotting to bring down his family and the entire bloodline can be seen as a negative character. Yet, Shakuni has a temple dedicated to him!
The Mayamkottu Malancharuvu Malanada Temple is one of the most unique temples in India. Dedicated to the most reviled character in the Mahabharata, this Kerala temple has no idol in the sanctum sanctorum, just a piece of granite on which Shakuni reportedly sat. Devotees don’t perform sacrifices or rituals in this temple, instead, they offer tender coconuts, silk, and even toddy. It is said that the temple was built at the spot where Kauravas hid their weapons when they went after the Pandavas who were living incognito as part of the terms of the game of dice that they lost. This is also the spot where Shakuni is said to have meditated and performed penance. Just like the Duryodhana temple that’s located not very far from here, the Shakuni temple is visited by many where the most reviled character in the epic is worshipped. But why is that so?
Shakuni may be seen as a villain in Mahabharata but when you really look back, he was merely a prince seeking revenge. The backstory of Shakuni, though mentioned in Mahabharata is often forgotten. Long before Shakuni made it his mission to destroy the Kuru race, he was just a prince oblivious of the empire that was going to spend his life. This was when he was still a child, Dhritarashtra was single and Bhishma was seeking alliances for him.
Bhihma’s search led him to Gandhara (present-day Afghanistan) and he asked the king Subala, for the hand of its princess, Gandhari, for the blind Hastinapur prince. Even though he was at first hesitant, the king agreed to marry off his daughter to the blind prince because he knew better than to anger the great Bhishma. Shakuni, whose favorite sister Gandhari was, was unhappy.
Shakuni was the youngest of Subala’s 100 sons and, by all accounts, also the most intelligent too. Being close to Gandhari, it broke Shakuni’s heart to see her voluntarily blindfolding herself. He knew just how much she used to be afraid of the dark and seeing her shut her eyes to the world drove Shakuni to anger.
Things got worse when Bhishma realized that Gandhari was a Manglik – born under an inauspicious sign – and so he imprisoned Subala and his 100 children for concealing the fact. This didn’t stop the Gandhi-Dhritarashtra marriage and now Shakuni had to watch all his siblings and his father being imprisoned and his favorite sister is married to a blind prince. Needless to say, the resentment got worse.
From the prison, Subala pleaded for him and his sons to be fed but Bhishma only granted them a grain each every day. Together, they agreed that Shakuni, being the most intelligent of them all, must stay alive. So they donated their share of the grains to him. One by one all the Gandhara princes died in prison as did Subala who also reached an agreement with Bhishma to let Shakuni live.
As a result, out of the 100 Gandhara princes, only one survived. And he was filled with vengeance against Bhishma: first for being forced to marry his beloved sister to Dhritarashtra and then for imprisoning and killing his entire family. As he stepped out of the prison, Shakuni promised himself to avenge their death and began plotting a series of elaborate plans to drive a wedge in the empire that had done him wrong.
His ways notwithstanding, Shakuni did manage to get his revenge. It cost him his life, sure, but Dhritarashtra also lost all but two of his children: son Yuyutsu (who fought on the side of the Pandavas) and daughter Dushala (who being a princess, didn’t participate in the battle). It was a mission of his life and he saw it completed.
Shakuni’s temple is said to be an homage to this determination that drove him to seek his revenge against the the greatest empire of the land.