It's the Garden of Eden story retold with God as the Serpent.
Mannarassala, in Kerala, South India, where snake worship has been sanctified for centuries, is an ecological paradise of bamboo thickets, entwined creepers and cratered banyan trees that provide a
perfect setting for the unhindered completion of the reptilian life cycle.
The caretaker of this paradise is a woman. Her predecessors predating the earliest calendar have all been women. This snake temple has a female ancestry lost in antiquity.
These were not aggressive amazons who wrested the top slot by declaring war on male supremacy in temple administration. The woman head priest at Mannarassala is an obedient spouse discharging the will of the Namboodiri patriarchal order as decreed by the serpent king Nagaraja of legend.
At dusk, after performing a battery of daylong rituals to propitiate the snake idols installed at the shrine, 65-year-old Amma, the current incumbent, endorses the male hierarchical order: "The wife of the eldest male becomes Amma. That is the tradition," she points out.
She operates out of a dimly lit incense-filled chamber in the traditional Namboodiri dwelling called Illam, interacting
with devotees through a narrow window. She listens patiently to their woes and offers advice. "My daughter-in-law is trying to murder me," an old woman complains. "Before that happens I want to give you my property." The crowd giggles. The old woman persists, but the
high priest declines her offer. She gives the distraught woman a vial of oil
to rub on her forehead. "I am disturbed when I hear the stories that people tell me," she confesses. "And glad when I am able
to comfort them."
The head priest is the "link" between the serpent god and the public. Pilgrims must please or appease the deity and Amma supplies the know-how. Only she is endowed with the hereditary mandate to perform the crucial propitiatory ritual called Nurum Palum at the Nilavara or basement of the Illam where the serpent idol is installed. Only she can orchestrate the surreal dreamlike strains of the Sarpam Pattu (serpent songs), a ceremony held once in 41 years.
Amma is central to the mystique of the snake temple. Deadly snakes roam the dense vegetation that surrounds the shrine and the prevalent belief is that nobody here has ever died from a snakebite, however potent
the venom. The head priest simply dabs a secret herbal potion and the victims
are back on their feet.
But people don't go to Mannarassala with fear in their hearts. Their security
lies in a traditional belief system that allows them to view the serpent with reverence rather than horror. Many a household in Kerala allocates space exclusively for a Kavu or serpent's cove
: a bamboo cluster where lamps are lit at dusk.
The head priest of Mannarassala sits at the pinnacle of this animistic religious tradition. But how does a woman qualify to don the mantle of the serpent god and perform ritualistic functions strictly associated with male priests?
Therein hangs a tale. Way back, past the bounds of memory, a childless Namboodiri couple lived exactly where the Illam stands today. A fire broke out
in a bamboo forest nearby and the couple ended up providing refuge to a serpent population on the
run. With fans made of scented grass and herbal ointments, they cooled the overheated bodies of the snakes and nursed them back to health. As a boon, Nagaraja incarnated himself as a five-hooded serpent-child
which the Namboodiri woman delivered.
This legend still draws scores of couples to the
temple from every part of the country. "They are never disappointed," contends Subramonian Namboodiri, at present the
senior most descendant of the original Namboodiri couple. Couples whose prayers are answered must visit the shrine
with their infants six months after they are born. Why six months? "A newborn baby embodies godliness and therefore does
not need to be brought to the temple. God does not have
to visit God", Namboodiri quips.
The rituals on behalf of the couples are performed exclusively by the head priest. At the end of the day, visibly worn out by the rigours of her daily regimen, she trudges the stretch between the temple and the Illam in full ceremonial gear. She must give a patient ear to the pilgrims
througing outside her chamber before she retires to rest. It's a hard life. A seasoned male priest could buckle under the strain.
How does a woman her age cope with the physical demands of the role? Is she ever bored, frustrated? Would she like to be doing something else? "There are some things I'm not supposed to talk about,"
is the cryptic reply.