Drinking and cursing, devotees mix sacred and profane at Kerala temple

  • Vaisakh E Hari, Hindustan Times, Kodungallur
  • Updated: Apr 19, 2016 20:32 IST
A devotee at Sri Kurumba Bhagavathy temple, where underprivileged castes assert themselves at a oracle festival. (Vaisakh E Hari/ HT Photo)

By the evening of April 8, traffic in the five-kilometre radius around Kodungallur, a coastal town in central Kerala’s Thrissur district, had swelled.

Buses, hatchbacks and the even the occasional auto-rickshaws packed with red-clad devotees were headed to the famous Sri Kurumba Bhagavathy temple that Thursday. A merry bunch, the devotees sang and tapped with an earthy abandon, the infectious enthusiasm slowly spilling over to the ring road surrounding the temple.

At the first sight, there was nothing unusual in the scene. A long queue of devotees wrapped around the temple like a snake, passing the time by singing earthy songs or dancing along.

On a closer inspection, however, it took a completely different dimension. A major chunk of the devotees resting under the banyan trees, at shops or even inside un-gated compounds of private homes were drunk, sneaking in gulps of liquor every once in a while.

Temple oracles strolled around, shaking their turmeric covered hair in the depths of a trance.

The bhajans or the devotional songs sung by the devotees were actually choicest abuses, some of them directed at the presiding deity and often sexual to the point of obscene.

Though Kodungallur residents have grown immune to the mad rush of devotees at this time of the year, even providing them asylum in their own homes, this reporter did witness an occasional housekeeper arguing with them for consuming cheap country rum within the spitting distance of his courtyard.

Watch | Devotees throng to Sri Kurumba Bhagavathy temple

A frenzy of oracles

Thursday was a mere precursor to the feverish mystique and madness of Kodungallur ‘Kavu Theendal’ (polluting the temple), a unique event which is reportedly the world’s largest congregation of oracles.

Hindus believe that armed with a customary curved sword a red-clad oracle is the voice of god, who in the depths of a trance stage acts as an intermediary between the mortal world and the next.

The temple surroundings had transformed into a frenzied place by Friday noon, with thousands of oracles taking out processions, abusing the goddess with folksongs of sexual persuasion and smiting themselves with their ritual swords until their foreheads were matted with blood.

Around 4pm, the head of the Kodungallur royal family signalled to the oracles by unfurling a red umbrella. The oracles then broke rank, madly dashed inside the temple, pelted turmeric, grains and money onto the roof, and continually hit the walls of the temple with sticks.

After circling the temple thrice in a heaven-shaking din of deafening noise and action, the oracles prostrated before the head of the royal family for his blessings. The temple was then closed for purification, to be reopened only a week after.

The event is commonly seen as an assertion of authority by the lower castes. The ‘Kavu Theendal’ signals the end to Meena Bharani festival, which starts in the first week of March with ‘Cheru Bharani’ flag off.

Two weeks later, all that were reminiscent of the sheer energy of the day were tattered rags on which the devotees slept and the bleached roadsides where an occasional instance of open defecation are not an uncommon sight.

Caste-ridden temple legend

According to popular lore, Goddess Kali, pictured victorious after her battle against demon Darika, is the presiding deity of the temple. Alternate versions of history also credit the then ruler Cheran Chenguttavan of constructing the temple as a memorial to Kannaki, the heroine of Tamil epic Silappadikaram.

Kannaki, a dancer, and her husband Kovalan lived in Madurai. As the story goes, Kovalan is mistakenly beheaded by the king under the suspicion that he stole the queen’s anklets, but he actually had Kannaki’s.

A heartbroken Kannaki storms into the palace and proves her husband’s innocence by breaking open her other anklet and spilling the rubies inside. In the fit of rage, Kannaki is also believed to have burned down the Madurai city. Several devotees see Kannaki as an incarnation of Goddess Kali.

However, head priest Thrivikraman Adigal says the deity is ‘Adiparashakti’ and not Kannaki as per popular perception.

“After Parasurama recovered Kerala from the sea, he created four Ambika temples in four corners in the state to protect it from the attack of demons. This is the Lokambika temple that he had installed then. Later, Adi Sankaracharya, who visited the area, felt the presence of the divine Parashakti and channelled the power into a Sri Chakra,” Thrivikraman says.

A devotee at Sri Kurumba Bhagavathy temple where oracles get to drink and even abuse. (Vaisakh E Hari/ HT Photo)

“The stories related to Kannaki being Kodungallur Amma are not true. It is believed that the anklet thrown away by Kannaki after using it to prove the innocence of her husband Kovalan fell down almost 500 metres away from the temple. Then-ruler Cheran Chenguttavan saw it in a dream, and he installed an idol made of ‘Anjanashila’ from the Himalayas. The spiritual essence of the idol was later merged with the Kodungallur Devi,” he adds.

The temple customs of Kodungallur also give a rare insight into the caste system that was prevalent in the society when untouchability was practised. The caste system in Kerala, the sheer inhumanity of which had prompted social Swami Vivekananda to refer to the place as a lunatic asylum, had barred lower castes from setting foot in temples for centuries.

The maharaja of Travancore abolished the custom with Temple Entry Proclamation Act in 1936.

“Kodungallur Bhagavathy temple has always remained open to all castes, much before such an act came into effect. Even lower castes have their own rights and responsibilities within the temple,” Thrivikraman says.

Such a demarcation, virtually impossible to find in other Kerala temples, can be clearly witnessed in the manner of the festivities.

A ‘Malayan Thattan’, caste traditionally used to denote gold craftsmen, would oversee the ‘Cheru Bharani’ flag off. The presence of a ‘Velan’, a caste specialising in medicines and treatment, was necessitated before the ‘Ashwathi Pooja’ as a prelude to the ‘Kavu Theendal’. The ‘Keezhkkavu’ or lower temple for Goddess Kali has a ‘Pulaya’ caste member as a priest, unthinkable in the past as the ‘Chaturvarnya’ had placed ‘Pulaya’ in one of the lowest rungs of the social ladder.

Such customs had withstood the test of time, even after the onslaught of Aryanisation and Brahmanical hegemony. However, some later influences are still visible.

The entry of lower castes into the temple has been renamed as ‘Kavu Theendal’ or polluting the temple, as opposed to its earlier reference ‘Kavu Pookkal’, which loosely translates into blossoming of the temple.

Citing numerous sources, author Ravi Kuttikkadu has jotted down the legends behind such proceedings in his pioneering book on the history of Kodungallur temple.

“The duties of the Thattan or gold craftsmen are said to be linked to Silappadikaram, where a conniving gold craftsman had conspired in the murder of Kovalan. His offering a necklace and silk clothes before the goddess could be a way of making amends. After killing demon Darika, it is believed that the worn out Goddess Kali had entered into the house of a ‘Pulaya’ caste, where she was offered meat and alcohol. She would appear at that point for seven days in a year, which is currently where the lower temple traditionally run by a ‘Pulaya’ family is situated. The ‘Velan’ is believed to help heal the wounds of Goddess Kali after her drawn out battle with demon Darika,” Kuttikkadu notes in his book ‘Thannaro Thaanaro Paadunna Makkal’.

Devotees at the temple break traditional notions of what’s holy and acceptable. (Vaisakh E Hari/ HT Photo)

Various assortment of animal sacrifices had also once taken place in the temple and were banned later.

“All these legends play a role in keeping the rituals intact. However, the truth is that all these beliefs and customs are a subset of the ‘Kavala’ system of worship once practiced in the Kodungallur temple,” Thrivikraman says.

Controversial festival songs

The obscene songs sung by the devotees during the festival are also believed to have a rich history behind them. While some claim that the songs were reminiscent of a time before Aryanisation, other studies and articles credit such songs as an attempt to arouse the sexuality of the goddess.

Some have even postulated the entire event as a show of happiness and joy by the lower castes after the temple entry proclamation was declared.

However, the event has faced stiff opposition from numerous quarters. Prominent social reformer Sahodaran Ayyappan had conducted an impassioned campaign against the custom in the 1920s. Later, Hindu spiritual leader Swami Bhoomananda Tirtha conducted a relentless campaign for its abolition.

Writer S Saradakutty has said that the obscene songs are very offensive to women.

“Almost all songs are related to women’s reproductive organs and private parts. If the custom is to arouse the sexuality of the goddess, these songs are not the way to go. Who decided that the goddess likes such songs?” she asks.

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