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This goddess loves erotica

Oracles, both female and male, clad in red, and the clanging of their belts, anklets, and ritual swords, add to the festive fervour at Kondungallur temple. Photo: A.T. Mohanraj  

The folk refrain thaannaro thannaro reverberates through Kodungallur as oracles head to the Kodungallur temple, accompanied by groups of devotees singing to the rhythmic beat of bamboo sticks. The hot, humid air is suffused with turmeric, and dust rising from the crowded, sandy ground. Thousands of oracles, mostly clad in red, turmeric smeared on their foreheads, and the clanging of their belts, anklets, and ritual swords, add to the hues and tunes of the summer morning in Kodungallur.

Oracles and devotees, mostly from the North Kerala region, throng the Sri Kurumba Bhagavathi Kavu (now mostly referred to as Kondungallur temple) to participate in the Meena (Malayalam month) Bharani festival. Sixty-five-year-old Thanka P. from Palakkad says she has been participating in the festival for the past 25 years. “The belief is that when the oracles perform, the energy of the goddess is invoked in their body,” she says. “Participating as an oracle at the annual festival is very important to me,” she added with a smile.

Male oracles clad in saris and adorned with ornaments in the image of the goddess outnumber women oracles. The oracles and devotees flow into the temple throughout the day and night. The atmosphere is charged with the intense expressions and frenzied dance of the oracles; some of them cut their foreheads with their crescent-shaped sabres while circumambulating the temple. The wound is covered with turmeric as blood drips down their face.

Popular narratives identify the deity as Kannagi of Silappatikaram, closely related to the Pattini cult in Buddhism. The deity is also associated with the Kali-Darika story, which is part of the popular Bhagavati cult in Kerala. Darika is similar to the figure of Mahishasura. Dravidian rulers are demonised and female tribal/ regional deities (who murder the ‘demons’) are appropriated into phallic cults. The Kali-Darika story is the theme of songs sung during many rituals such as kalam pattu (songs sung while drawing and erasing ritualistic illustrations on the floor) and thottam (invocation songs in the Teyyam cult). R. Mahalakshmi, professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, in her study on the Tamil deity Kuravvai, says that reference to this myth is found in Silappatikaram.

A small sacred grove called Pulakavu or Keezhkkavu is located a kilometre away from the temple where rituals, parallel to those at the main temple, are performed by members of the Dalit Pulaya community. According to local legend, the deity, Kurumba, had come to the house of their ancestors and was offered liquor, rice husk, fish and meat. Later, the ruler of Kodungallur built the temple dedicated to the deity. Though Pulaya priests performed the rituals at Keezhkkavu, the main priest had to go to the royal head and receive ritualistic offerings, bringing them under royal patronage.

The antiquity of Keezhkkavu, its relegated status today, the narrative of Sankaracharya’s arrival at the temple, and the importance attached to the royal family — all this could be read along with the history of the rise of Brahminical hegemony in Kerala since the 8th century, and the subsequent appropriation and marginalisation of local traditions.

Thrivikraman Adikal, a member of the family entitled to perform the rituals at the temple, insists the temple has no connection with Kannagi, and instead links the origins of the temple to Parasurama and Sankaracharya, while explaining the rituals in terms of Tantric Brahminism. This narrative appears to be in continuation of the process of appropriation of tribal/ regional deities into the Brahminic pantheon. Ajay S. Sekher, assistant professor of English at Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Tirur, argues the festival was born out of the strategy of ‘upper caste’ Hindus in the area to usurp a Buddhist centre that had existed there.

Kaavu theendal (‘polluting’ the temple) and Bharani paatu are the two significant rituals held as part of the festival. Kaavu theendal is based on the notions of purity/ impurity inherent in Brahminical Hinduism. On the day of Aswathi, a member of the Velan community offers tender coconut to the head of the Kodungallur royal family. Upon accepting it, the royal head is “polluted”, and as per belief, the goddess leaves the temple and it remains closed for seven days. Soon devotees, appearing to be in an angry fervour, rush forward, and pound on the doors, walls and roof of the temple building with bamboo sticks. Some of them also hurl pepper, turmeric and rice into the temple.

Though this ritual is usually portrayed as a celebration of Dalit communities, many oppose the ritual as it is seen as embedded in the idea of caste pollution. Sekher says these rituals are “a re-enactment of the violent efforts that converted the Buddhist nunnery.”

Like other folk rituals such as Teyyam, the Bharani rituals were also seen as ‘superstitions’ from the rationalistic view point of the reform movements of the 19th century in Kerala, and people were discouraged from participating in them.

While Bharani songs are termed obscene in mainstream discourse and even dismissed as ‘drunken revelry’, most of the devotees who participate in the ritual believe the songs are sung to satiate the goddess. Shanta R., a devotee who goes to the festival every year, says, “We sing the songs all along the way. The goddess will not be satisfied if we don’t sing, and she’ll get angry.”

One of the songs echoes this belief:

Valla theripaatum pachayil paadanam

Illengil devikku kopamane

(Sing explicitly obscene songs, or the goddess will get angry.)

Devotees belonging to all age groups sing. Some of the songs refer to the benevolence, ferocity, and divine powers of the goddess, while most of them describe sexual organs and sexual acts involving the goddess. The songs describe the insatiable sexual desire of the goddess, and the divine or unimaginable nature of her vulva, along with imaginative sexual postures. The sanitised version of these songs, without reference to sex, is popular in the form of devotional music.

There are different beliefs and opinions among the devotees on why such erotic songs are sung. According to Kurumba K. (70), a devotee form Kottappala, Palakkad, the goddess, when seated inside the temple, turned back to look, even when she was told not to do so. “That is why she got the name ‘Koothichi’ (devadasi),” Kurumba says.

These songs break down the conventional binaries of sacred/ profane, and question the moralistic attitude towards the concepts of erotica and abuse. Singing erotic songs with the participation of women is in contrast to the sexually-repressive public sphere of Kerala. Though the festival is usually lauded for the presence of female oracles in large numbers and the wider participation of women, like most festivals and public events in Kerala, the rituals and celebrations are organised and managed by men. Many of the songs are set in the patriarchal notions of female body and sexuality. Another aspect is that many of the commonly-used swear words are explicitly or implicitly casteist or sexist in nature.

Though the evolution of Bharani pattu has not attracted much academic attention, this centuries-old tradition appears to document social and cultural transformations as we find references to the police, hotels, vehicles, film stars, political leaders, and so on, along with praises for the goddess’ powers.

Folklorist P. Vasanta Kumari points out that the Bharani festival, across Kerala, is associated with the fertility cults of the agricultural society. The festival of Vishu, which comes soon after Meenam Bharani, marks the commencement of New Year, according to the Malayalam calendar, when paddy seeds are sown. The festival is held to please the mother goddess and pray to make the earth fertile.

Regardless of the fact that the deity is identified as either Kannagi or Kurumba/ Kodungallur amma, the popular perception of a goddess who loves erotic songs and gets angry if her devotees do not sing those, could be seen as a subversion of the conventional image of the ‘chaste female deity’. And, she does not need to be recovered from ancient myths, she is very much alive.

Nileena M.S. is a freelance journalist from Kerala.

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Printable version | Jan 14, 2021 5:38:48 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/nileena-ms-on-the-meena-bharani-festival-and-the-goddess-who-loves-erotica/article8537146.ece

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