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Talk Dirty to the Deity

Kodungallur Temple

Nightfall at Kodungallur. Within the temple grounds, the atmosphere is electric. Mahogany bodies flash in the night. The blades of a hundred sabres carve the air, etching frenzied syllables of adulation to Kali. This is the hour of the vellichappad, the resplendent oracle embodying the mystic tradition of centuries, smiting his crown with the sword of his faith, proclaiming his communion with the mother goddess in an awesome act of self-flagellation.

Vellichappads in frenzy Blood and belief blend in symbiosis during the Bharani festival at the Kodungallur temple in Kerala, South India, in the Malayalam month of Meenam each year. From the symbolism of the cock-stone ceremony with which the festival opens to the thandava tremors of the vellichappad which form its climax, blood is an extended metaphor that encapsulates a whole range of moods, from the spirit of war and bloodlust of the conqueror, to the joy of liberation and the ecstasy of thanksgiving and communion. A background chorus to this ritual tapestry, strident as a discordant note in a symphony, is the ribald convention of Therippattu, the singing of obscene songs addressed to the temple deity.

Each year, bus loads of pilgrims flow in to attend the seven-day festivities at the temple. Once in the temple premises, the pilgrims break up into small clusters and sing; some in low tones, some with gusto.

In recent years, an ashram near Trichur, around 10 kilometres from Kodungallur, has become the nerve centre of a concerted campaign to stop Therippattu, a practice integral to the Kodungallur temple ethos. Swami Bhoomananda Teertha and his band of faithfuls of the Hind Navotthana Pratisthan have held road marches and public meetings to focus attention on their mission of refining temple practices which are retrograde or which violate the laws of the land. The swami denounces the entire corpus of rituals at Kodungallur. No less obnoxious in his estimate than the custom of singing profane songs is the practice of Kavu Theendal, or 'polluting' the temple, the climax of the festival, after which the shrine is closed for a week.

Everyone agrees that the practice of singing scurrilous songs must stop. The general observation is that it has been on the wane over the years. State and temple authorities prefer to let the convention die a natural death. Swami Bhoomananda seeks to accelerate its demise. He charges the authorities with dereliction of duty for condoning a decadent custom that instigates antisocial elements in the garb of religious sanction to run amuck during the festival.

Kavu Theendal, the pollution ceremony, is overseen by the Kodungallur king. Hordes of vellichappads who have arrived from other parts of the state assemble at various spots in the temple compound. 

Bharani Festival in progressA red ceremonial umbrella is unfurled over the king's head. This is the signal. The vellichappads charge around the temple in a daunting human stampede, waving their sabres in the air, while members of their retinue strike the temple rafters with sticks and hurl objects over the roof and on to the inner quadrangle. They circle the temple three times in a frenzy and then fall before the king for his benediction. The temple is then closed to the public for a week. Its doors reopen after 'purificatory' rituals are conducted to cleanse the shrine of the 'stain' of Kavu Theendal.

A widely accepted notion connects the Kodungallur shrine with Ilamkovadigal's Tamil classic, Silapathikaram, whose date of composition is uncertain but is placed roughly between the second and ninth centuries AD. The temple is believed to be a memorial to Kannaki, the protagonist of the Tamil classic, whose husband was falsely implicated in a theft of royal jewels and then killed by the king's decree. Kannaki plucked her left breast in anguish and rage, and reduced the city of Madurai to ashes with her curse. At the end of her wanderings she is resurrected in heaven. The Chera king erected a memorial to Kannaki in the capital Vanji, which is now believed to be present-day Kodungallur.

Scholars speculate that Ilamkovadigal has based his characterisation on a contemporary heroine in whose honour a memorial was later established. An intriguing architectural feature of the Kodungallur temple is the existence of a sealed underground vault. Scholars speculate that the granite vault could be a megalith or a burial chamber, possibly containing the mortal remains of Kannaki.

The riddle may never really be solved. Temple authorities do not permit any exploration of the crypt or the breaking of its sealed walls for purposes of research. The popular imagination is infested with taboos. The local community fears that those who attempt to peer into the vault invite the most harrowing consequences.

Tracing the origins of the Kodungallur shrine to the Kannaki cult raises the question of how it ended up as a Kali temple. The transformation quite possibly followed the recession of Buddhist influence in Kerala. Considering that Silapathikaram's author was believed to be a Jain, and that Kannaki is not described as a Hindu but is linked through personal and family ties with the Buddhist tradition, it may well be that the Kodungallur temple was once a Buddhist or Jain shrine which later yielded to Hindu influence. This could explain why the Kannaki story does not form part of Kerala folkflore. The transformation of the Kodungallur temple from a Buddhist shrine to a Hindu devi temple completely obliterated the Kannaki tradition in coastal Kerala.

The Kodungallur deity has some esoteric rituals that deviate from laid down procedures. For instance, in the run-up to the temple desecration ceremony, non-brahmins perform a three-hour puja which is said to be a departure from the norm. The ingredients used are said to be substitute items for meat, fish and alcohol. The Kodungallur temple has an age-old image as a great social leveller. Its doors were open to those at the bottom of the caste hierarchy long before the temple entry legislation came into force. Where other temples barred their entry round the year, the Kodungallur temple allowed them access for 27 days. Swami Bhoomananda finds it absurd that even after the temple entry proclamation, the old era of untouchability should be commemorated in the form of the Kavu Theendal ceremony in which low caste Hindus play a key role.

This swami is a staunch advocate of rationality in religion. He challenges the practice at Kodungallur of barring the devotees from witnessing the anointing of the deity, a process that only the local king is permitted to see. The swami wants the Kavu Theendal ceremony replaced by a more dignified rite. He also cannot understand why the king has to play a key role in the festival.

But popular tradition will not succumb easily to rational dictates. The king is perceived by the devotees as a presence integral to the temple festival. They will not readily relinquish that presence. 

percussion performers at the Bharani festival The wellsprings of faith lie deep in the psyche of the devotees. Most of the pilgrims come from the northern districts of the state such as Palakkad, Kannur and Wyanad. They are agricultural workers who flock to Kodungallur in the aftermath of the harvest season. The festival acquires for them the significance of a fertility rite. The obscene songs perhaps have a cathartic dimension in the lives of these simple rustic folk. The real social menace are the gangs of urban goons who see the festival as an arena for vandalism. The authorities are wary of wielding the bludgeon. The agricultural workers who converge on Kodungallur during the festival are invariably communist votaries. They are also untouched by the great debate raging over their heads about the temple they flock to, the receptacle of their faith.

To the poor pilgrim, the Kodungallur festival represents more than just an occasion for irreverent songs or a perverse infatuation with obscurantist rites. It is a quest for solace, a plea for redemption, a time for unburdening. And it is a time for renewal under the scathing stare of Kali, the mother goddess.

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