A large sarpakkalam, a drawing made of turmeric powder and other colours, is taking shape on the open space near a house in Thrissur. As the lamps are lit and the kalam nears completion, Subhashini is also ready. During a puja that will last for almost two hours, the devotees gathered around will look at her and see God.
In the kalam, Subhashini, a velichapadu (oracle), is the voice of the divine. Outside it, she is a 38-year-old woman who has to put food on the table for her family. The Kodungallur Bhagavathi Velichapadu Association was formed to help oracles negotiate the worldly problems faced by the messengers of God. Subhashini, who has been an oracle for the last 11 years, is Thrissur district secretary of the five-year-old association.
“We say that a velichapadu has no tears. But even as we give some solace to hundreds of people through our words, our own conditions are bad,” says Subhashini.
Oracles usually come from families that have been following the calling for several generations. Subhashini’s ancestors maintained temples to snake gods and healed those affected by snake venom. Her decision to become an oracle happened out of need for money.
Subhashini’s family disowned her after she fell in love with a man from a different caste and married him. “Due to some reason, my husband couldn’t find a permanent job. To help feed our two children I became a velichapadu.” Her work has also helped her come out of recurring anxiety and depression that tied her to her home in the beginning. “After I became a velichapadu I have not had illnesses of any sort,” she says.
But her communion with God could not spare her from her neighbours who started bad-mouthing her due to the unearthly hours of her work. She travels to far off places to do pujas and some of them begin at midnight and go on for hours.
The union of oracles intervened and helped her approach the police and set the record straight. She has since then been an active member of the organisation.
“There are many oracles who have no families and have no support during their old age. We have been able to bring some relief to them,” says Shibu, State general secretary of the organisation. Hailing from Koduvayur in Palakkad,
Shibu took up the mantle of a velichapadu from his grandparents. “We have about 1,500 to 2,000 members. Oracles from all over the State who come to the Kodungallur Bhagavathi temple for the Bharani festival are part of our organisation,” says Shibu, a post-graduate in History and one of the founding members of the association. They have been able to institute a pension for aged oracles. They are also in talks with the government to set up welfare schemes for oracles.
“Oracles are revered by many and people approach them with all their problems. But the young have no interest in this work. It will perhaps die out with our generation,” says Shibu.