K V Cybil
It is as part of an ethnographic work (forthcoming) on the ritualistic practice of kalam ezhuthu pattu that I made my visits to the famous kavu tindal of Kodungallur Kurumba Kavu (temple)[i] on the day of Aswathy according to the Malayalam calendar (late March) in the years 2014-16. The ritual made famous or infamous in the writings of colonial (Thurston: 1906, Iyer: 1909) to modern ethnographers (Tarabout: 1986, Gentes: 1992) was definitely something I would have not liked to miss. I was studying the kavu tindal ritual as the source of overwhelming movement in popular religion towards the non-brahminical traditions[ii].
The kalam ezhuthu pattu based on the worship of the deity of this temple which I was studying is a non-brahminical worship that uses meat, alcohol, song, dance and possession. My interest was to map the legends of the ritual on to a temporal and spatial map of the present. It was in the course of arriving at this stratagem that I realized that there is a strange ambiguity surrounding the notion of the goddess’ personality upon whose legend the ritual of kalam ezhuthu pattu spread over a whole region surrounding the temple.
This ambiguity was a result of the clash of the Brahminical and non-brahminical traditions in the worship of the goddess in this temple. I realized that it cannot be subsumed under the explanation of one great tradition encompassing its little counterpart. The two were separate and distinct and choose to live apart in separate temporal and spatial worlds while allowing for the transference of devotion between them. Transgression using sexuality as its metaphor allows this transference possible. Sexuality shapes a singular experience that opens the devotion to its limits and crosses it. It no longer represents anything, but defines the devotional being in an affirmation of surpassing itself; of the concepts of purity and power immanent to performances of the sacred.
This blog is based on a couple of songs which I have recorded during the kavu tindal in 2014.
These songs are overtly sexual, they are also erotic, understood as a modern slang they are also abusive but aimed at slamming the concept of chastity that makes the deity of the temple sacred. There is a particular day of the year specially earmarked for the devotees to celebrate these songs and that is the day of desecration (kavu tindal) that ushers devotees in thousands swarming into the temple, letting them shout these songs aloud in a voice that the deity is expected to hear, and drown the temple in turmeric yellow and pepper corn which are gift offerings during the desecration (symbolic of their healing powers in treating most diseases, especially measles). It was accompanied earlier with cock slaughter that flooded the sanctorum with blood. Though stopped in recent times, live cocks are set free or thrown into the sanctorum that seats the idol.
In summary this is a festival like no other known at present in Kerala. In a fast modernizing society with an economy and industry that is catering to not just the national but global markets, it is a challenge to visualize the festival itself as anything more than a spectacle that evokes horror for the community that surrounds the temple. The religious community that surrounds the temple and those who desecrate the temple are different. They come from different parts of the state while the devotional community that lives around the temple does not come out of their houses on this day.
As a festival of our times, the kavu tindal therefore allows for transference of devotion from a region to so many other regions, and also that of a personality of deity from that of iconic chastity to wanton promiscuity.
As the myths inform us, the deity of the temple, fought and won her husband back from death on the strength of her chastity. He had been given to indulgences which rendered him bankrupt first and sent him to gallows later. Once resurrected in a divine form, the deity (who was earlier human) also took the divine form and accepted the temple as her abode. Her chastity that gave her the powers to exceed the normal life she lived is devised as a power derived from her actual potential to be promiscuous. It is this orientating theme of devotion; its eroticism that derives sexuality as the experience of its own limits.
The songs that I have recorded speak of the plenitude of this experience. It verbalizes a non-representative language that tries to dissolve itself in the voice of a bird (it is imagined to be the singer in one song and the listener in another). The milieu for the singing is the mass of devotees/pilgrims journeying from all directions to reach the temple on the day of kavu tindal.
The first song begins with a prayer to sexual unions. As for the rest of it, every line from this song is drawing a simile between snakes and male sexual organs. Its lines go like this,
“The sexual acts that produce offspring are root of all goodness.
The world exists due to the good deeds of the sages who were all born to sexual unions.
This applies to Sanyasi (Hindu sage), Kathanar (a Christian priest),
Musaliyar (a Muslim priest) and Kanyastri (a Christian female priest).
The same applies to Brahmacharis (Hindus who observe chastity) and Pandithar (the learned ones)
no veda has been written that brought class of serpents and male organs or to scientific order,
just as the serpents may be classed into eight divine forms (ashta naga),
there are eight different names for the male organs,
padman, anandan, vasuki, karkodakan, mahapadman, shanghapalan,
gulikan and thakshakan are the names for serpents.
Chunni, kosam, kunna, lingam, vrishnam, unnippuvu,
koppu and mutta are the names for male organs.
The bird sings to her best on the day of Aswathi, Revathi
to desecrate the temple and then fly away
Oh goddess! daughter of time (kala atmaja) herself,
I shall be here to sing again on time for all festivals.”
The second song – The deity kodungallur amma is here worshipped as a virtual mother for the prostitutes and then listening to their complaints. This song starts with an invocation to the goddess amma and lines soliciting the friendship of a listener imagined to be a bird whom the singer is supposed to be addressing.
“Praises for the festival that comes in the month of Meenam starting with the day Thiruvonam,
followed by Avittam, Chathayam, Pururattathy, Uthrattathy,
Revathi, Aswathy and the day of Bharani.
We are the people from Valayar border to the Sea in the West,
Kanyakumari in the south to the shores of Gokarna in the North (borders of Kerala)
coming here to the temple of the goddess.
Listen to these songs as offerings for the goddess sung for a safe journey
Listen to what a mother told her daughter long ago.
Listen, oh Naniyamma from the South and Paruamma from the North (neighbors)
We earned half a rupee (ara panam) in those days for a sexual act,
they (the younger ones) now earn a thousand rupees (ayiram panam).
With the half a rupee earnings, for whom have I invested?
Look here friends , I earned all of the property from sex.
I have the desire to grow six to seven sexual organs on my body, but alas!
I have to live with a single one, it’s my destiny my dear elder sisters!
pastime has whiled the day of Revathi away and,
Aswathy or kaavu theendal is today,
welfare to all, let amma shower her blessings and shine forth,
blessing from Harihara, Siva and Adi Para Para (Supreme Being of Saktha followers),
blessings to the male organ, blessings to the female organ,
blessings from Siva to those who have sex”
These are a few excerpts (the actual length of these songs can fill volumes though hardly written down which I am still in the process of collecting) from the songs which capture the experience of profanation (tindal) and they open and end in profuse praises for the goddess who is portrayed as a champion of sex and protects everyone who enjoys it. These praises are produced also in erotic, but also abusive (I would like to call it non-representative as in the form of a bird singing) language.
I draw upon the work of Michel Foucault (1977) in making these arguments. The crisis of modernity, to the extent that it has been linked to the death of god, and a religious experience in/of modernity being undeniably a surpassing of the limit of devotion linked to god as the one without limits, invokes a ‘return of the masks’; of primordial forces in affirmation of the same but in a multitude of forms, ie the many forms that repeat the fissure of chastity and promiscuity in the making/unmaking of the deity in Kodungallure.
Dr K V Cybil is Associate Professor with the Department of Humanities at IIT BHU, Varanasi. He has been associated with the Social Science research Council, New York (2005), Indian Council for Social Science Research, New Delhi (2012) and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi (2013) as part of research fellowships. His recent work is Social Justice: Interdisciplinary Inquiries from India (ed.) published by Routledge (2019). Twitter @gangadhaaba
[i] In Kerala, Southern India.
[ii] The Brahminical worship is read as part of the great tradition that determined the field of popular religion in India (Redfield: 1955 , Singer: 1955). Non-brahminical worship is categorized as little traditions that confederate to make the great tradition perform as a civilization.
Foucault, Michel (1977) A Preface to Transgression in Donald. F. Bouchard (ed) Language, Counter-memory, Practice : Selected Essays and Interviews, New York, Cornell University Press pp.29-52.
Gentes M J (1992) Sacandalizing the Goddess at Kodungallure, Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 51, No. 2 (1992), pp. 295-322
Iyer, L.K. Ananthakrishna (1909,1912), Cochin Tribes and Castes,Volume 1& Volume II, London: Higgin Botham and Company
Robert Redfield (1955) The Social Organization of Tradition in The Far Eastern Quarterly, Vol.15, No.1)November, pp.13-21.
Singer, Milton (1955)The Cultural Pattern of Indian Civilization:A Preliminary Report of a Methodological Field Study. The Far Eastern Quarterly, Vol.15, No.1 , Nov. 1955, pp.23-36.
Tarabout, Gilles (1986) Sacrifier et donner à voir en pays Malabar Les Fêtes de Temple au Kerala (Inde du sud) Paris, École française d’Extrême–Orient.
Thurston, Edgar (1909), Castes and Tribes of Southern India (Vol.I&II) , Madras: Government Press.