A Malayali festival completely changed the way I think about Gods and Goddesses.
I had heard from my grandparents that the temple held a very interesting history of events that apparently did not involve the 'higher caste' population. Legend has it that Devi Badrakali, after destroying the demon Darika, was calmed down by the very famous 'BharaniPattu' - erotic songs with lyrics that are abuses and profanities. Yes, the primary offering to Kodungallur Amma are hymns which are profane, and absolute erotica is displayed with a fierce spirituality. Some say that it is related to the story of Kannaki of Silappathikaram who burned down a city with her fury, when her husband was wrongly convicted and killed for a crime he did not commit.
Before the Kaavu Theendal ritual began
When I started my journey to the Kodungallur Devi Temple with my friend, I wasn't sure what to expect. Buses were packed with devotees, both men and women clad in red, with curved swords (Pallivaal) and bells attached to them. As the bus started, the mysterious cult began chanting songs in Malayalam that put everyone into a peculiar trance. After a while we were all glued to the rhythm of “thaanaro thannaro” that echoed in the bus. On listening carefully, I could hear the raw, sexually charged stories being sung about the deity herself.
A devotee dancing to the chants of Bharani Paatu
Feeling offended yet? There's more.
We reached the temple where I could only see a huge red sea of devotees and oracles chanting, raving and dancing around it. We were going to witness Kaavu Theendal and we were scared and excited at the same time. People of 'lower caste' were not allowed to enter the temple permises. This particular festival was injected with the fury against caste pollution by re-enacting events the legend holds.
Both men and women dress up as the Devi in red sarees and ornaments
As a member of the Royal family unfurled the red umbrella (Pattukuda) - an expression of granting access to the 'low caste' to enter the temple, the devotees and Komarams (oracles) rushed in to the sanctum sanctorum and ran three rounds (pradakshinams) around the temple, establishing their presence to the deity by singing and dancing in frenzy. They hopped and bounced around to please Kali and stop her from unleashing her wrath over the human race. It is believed that the Devi's fury would not calm down unless these 'theri paatu' a.k.a erotic songs were raw and dirty.
An oracle who has surrendered to the punishment of the Devi inside him
The furious Devi was now inside every oracle and she wouldn't stop until she destroyed the universe. The komarams danced under the hot sun, their sweaty bodies trembling with the same emotion. They would smite their foreheads with the swords as blood ran down their faces; feeling no pain and struggle, but only a never-ending devotion for their goddess. Devotees applied turmeric to these wounds even though the komarams continued with the act for hours. As the crowd roared and screamed the “Theri paatu” in euphoria, we watched with utter amazement and curiosity how the way Devi was perceived in this community. It was mesmerising to watch but it wasn't for the faint hearted.
Calming the deity through erotic songs
After the ritual, all the ornaments were taken off the Devi's Idol and chandanam (sandalwood paste) was applied. And that's when the Devi leaves her superhuman form and rage for total destruction, to become a normal woman. The king of the Royal family would bless the devotees and fold his red silk umbrella to mark the end of the ceremony.
Turmeric for the wounds
The entire experience shook us in a way we couldn't imagine. The images Kodungallur Bharani cast in us that day will never be forgotten. The deity here is considered a normal woman who shares the same erotic feelings any woman has, and that's what makes common people embrace her story as one among theirs. Even though our historical artefacts portray Kali and Durga in the form of nudity and crude sexual enchantment, we find it difficult to come out of our 'sanskari' selves and appreciate art in its unrefined form.
If we have literally started to try and clothe the deities in our temples just to save our so-called culture from getting destroyed, maybe we've gone too far.
The Devi inside every oracle
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Megha Suresh Menon
Photographs by: Aslam Yahya and Yahya Ashraf