At a village on the outskirts of Mangalore, Mohit M. Rao has a rendezvous with a chicken-devouring local deity.
It’s late in the night. People cram themselves, in their hundreds, into the modest temple. A young man — slender, sinewy, swarthy — stands at the centre, awkwardly, being felicitated for what was going to come. For, in little more than an hour, the lad, in his early 20s, would find himself sitting with a face smeared in blood amid five dead chickens. The transformation is a part of an elaborate, yet crudely animalistic, and systematic, yet unpredictably chaotic, “Bootha Kola” ritual, or the worship of spirits or local deities.
The stage is a temple tucked between paddy fields on the outskirts of Mangalore. An industrial estate, a port, a Special Economic Zone and a petroleum refinery — all signs of the new India — surround the temple, where the tradition will come to life.
All eyes on the young man as he applies paint on his face – limestone, charcoal and Kumkum give white, black and red. The designs of his face are stark, symmetric, fearful. His leg trembles steadily under a black dhoti. The politeness ebbs out, and the brush strokes, more furious.
“Spirits to us are more powerful, more important than gods,” explains Rohitaksha Rai, on whose land the temple for the local deity Kottada Babbu is built. “Rama and Krishna look after the country. Whereas, the spirits look after the village,” he says, keeping an eye on the young man sitting by the small “Rahu Guliga” shrine.
Though built here only five years ago, the shrine for Rahu already has a mythology behind it. Kottada Babbu felt the region was too large to manage and asked for Rahu’s help, says Rai. “Gods are genial and merciful. Spirits are violent and merciless. If a person is wrong, the spirit will kill, whereas, there is redemption with the gods. Rahu Guliga is the most violent. He devours everything, even human beings!”
Rahu Guliga, who likes to hover around ethereally, is to be called down to earth tonight. It’s 11.15 p.m., and we are whisked away. Those from the Nalike caste — for it is believed only they can harbour this spirit — keep an eye on the convulsing man. A loud growl emanates, the crowd goes silent. A band of oboes and drums plays, fervent in their tempo. The young man convulses, letting out animalistic screams. Elaborately choreographed, his Nalike brethren “control” the “spirit”, which circles the courtyard, menacingly threatening the crowd. Fear reverberates among the crowd. Suddenly, he bangs his forehead with a steel plate. He goes around the temple repeating this: sound of steel against skull echoes amid the tempo set by the band. The force is such that plate has bent in half; brass rings given suffer a similar fate. The only person to communicate with him is the landlord, Rai, who in Tulu, calms down “Rahu” by telling him he was called to bless the crowd. Rahu answers reverentially in primeval sign language.
The self-destruction, it is explained, is a protest by the spirit for having been fettered to a body. When the anger and self-destruction goes beyond control or when he tries to break through the crowd, his troupe pin him down, douse him with water to cool him. Be careful of your camera, a devotee warns my colleague. The eyes of the young man reflect equal measures of pain and anger. As the violence recedes, a Nalike priest sings the story of Rahu, while the spirit himself provides a few lines.
Dozens — the young, old, upper caste, factory worker, farmer — garland him, seek blessings from the “spirit” in the body of a caste that was considered as untouchable. The heavily-garlanded figure performs more ritualistic dances — with fire and firecrackers adding to the effect — before running out of the temple… It was time. The spirit was hungry. When Rahu returns, he has in his hand a fluttering chicken. Devotees stand behind him, in a queue, each holding a live chicken.
“As Rahu loves to eat, chickens are given to fulfil vows,” Rai had said. A feeding frenzy was to take place, for, the more violent the spirit, the more powerful the effect, believed devotees. Animalistic pleasure followed the breaking of the chicken’s spine by bending its torso as you would bend a stick. Feathers from the neck were plucked and the bare neck displayed. Rahu bites into it, blood spurts. The chicken head dangles, only a strand of tissue connects it to the body. He smears the blood across his face. The theatrics brings in fear. Another chicken is taken up. This goes on, till five chickens, all fluttering about, lay on the ground.
The landlord, sensing that it was late — the watch showed 12.45 a.m. — told the spirit that, perhaps, he had enough chickens for the day. Submissively, the spirit blessed other chickens offered by flinging them around.
Though primeval in its approach to food, its likes and reactions make him seem approachable to the devotees when compared to the flawless, sententious gods of the scriptures. He shows contentment, and expresses gleeful surprise when puffed rice, bananas, coconut water are offered. He devours greedily, childishly playing with the food, and even mockingly offering leftovers.
In the end, whiskey is presented, and the spirit expresses joy. He asks if he can gulp it down and fall asleep at the temple. The crowd responds with mirth. Instead of offering a little by strewing it to the gods, he tilts the bottle with his finger jamming the mouth and pretends an offering has been made. The crowd laughs.
As the night wears on, the theatrics dim and devotees peter out. It’s 1.30 a.m., and the spirit will take hours to “leave” the body.
What does possession feel like? Yogesh, from the Nalike caste who has been performing for years, said it was like “sleep”. “I don’t know for sure. It just happens. I am only conscious after the kola has ended and the crowd tells me what has happened,” he said.
Bhootha Kola remains a widely-practised ritual in Tulu Nadu (land of Tulu-speaking people), stretching over south coastal Karnataka and parts of north coastal Kerala.
Though there is a diversity of more than 40 types of “spirits”, Folklorist K. Chinnappa Gowda says they are all bound by a common origin in the Tulu Paddhana or epics, which narrate tales of heroes, born in poverty, who fought injustice, discrimination and in the end are defeated by an untimely, unnatural death. “The spirit does not go to the heavenly abode, and instead acquires godly abilities to defeat the forces of discrimination,” he says.
Most are lower-caste deities — born out of story-telling traditions of Nalike, Parava, Pambada castes that were social outcasts — that have crossed the boundaries of caste when they attained spiritual status, says Gowda.
While Gowda says there are “some instances” where the control of the deity by an upper-caste landlord is equivalent to control of the lower caste devotees, he does see the ritual, which turns the caste hierarchy upside down, as a form of “catharsis” where the anger can be let out in a ritualised context. “It is like a safety valve to prevent caste discrimination outrage from becoming a revolution.”