An ordeal by fire at Suchindram

An accused would be told to dip his hands into boiling ghee to prove innocence

Updated - February 25, 2022 12:16 pm IST

Published - February 24, 2022 05:58 pm IST

Rishaba mudra must be taken out of the boiling pot of ghee

Rishaba mudra must be taken out of the boiling pot of ghee

Even after the British brought the entire nation under their control and established the police and the judiciary, there existed a trial of ordeal in the 19th century at Suchindaram in Kanniyakumari district, which was part of South Travancore.

Kaimukku, dipping one’s hand into a boiling pot of ghee and picking up a small rishaba mudra (seal),was conducted at the Suchindram temple when Nambudiris were accused of sexual offences and murder. The system rationalised the practice by an argument that if the accused was innocent, the boiling ghee would not burn his hands.

Historian K.K. Pillai, the author of The Suchindram Temple, had written, “Several kinds of ordeals for testing the guilt of people are known to have been adopted, and these strange methods of trial were in vogue so late as the 19th century.”

If a person is suspected of a crime, he was walked through a stream infested with a crocodile or made to dip his fingers into boiling oil or melted lead or a coconut shell in which a snake was concealed. If he drew it out unhurt, he was declared innocent.

“The trials, both in Travancore and Malabar, were invoked not only in cases in which Hindus were involved. Even if the suspected offenders belonged to other religions, ordeals of one kind or the other were employed; they were not permitted to conduct the test within the precincts of Hindu temples,” Pillai had noted.

Documents that recorded incidents of Kaimukku are found in Vattapalli Madam, the house of the Vattapalli Sthanikar, a hereditary dignity and managing trustee of the rites and ceremonies of the temple. According to the records, the largest number of Kaimukku was conducted in respect of sexual offences. Out of dozen records, barely one deals with the crime of murder.

A.K. Perumal, the author of a book on Suchindram temple in Tamil, said Kaimukku was performed in the temple because it was there Indira, the king of Devas, was relieved of his curse by submerging himself in boiling ghee. “Though the Padmanabaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram is a much bigger and important institution, Suchindram was preferred for Kaimukku,” he said.

Those who belonged to Cochin and Travancore had come either to Cengannur or Suchindram to take the ordeal.

“The rishaba mudra (seal) was lost and I have made a replica of the original in silver and covered it with a gold plate. When a new priest is appointed for the temple, he will take an oath by placing his hand on the mudra,” explained N.P. Sharma, the present Sthanikar of Vattapalli Madam.

Kaimukku was conducted after elaborate rituals when the accused would be called upon to dip his hand into the boiling ghee and take out the rishaba seal. Then the hand of the accused containing the rishaba mudra will be tied with a freshly washed cloth. The third day, Yogam, known as the Assembly, would meet again to study the case.

If the hand is found free of any wound or blister, an exonerating document is executed. If the hand was found blistered or burnt, the fate of the accused was doomed. He would be declared a social outcast.

K.K. Pillai, who had reproduced the records in his book, had written that “among those subjected to the ordeal at Suchindram, some were found guilty and others not guilty”. He had listed eight cases with years and Tamil month. “In a few records, however, the results are not indicated,” he had said.

He had also recorded an interesting incident of a Nambudiri from Malabar challenging the judges to prove their innocence by poking their hands into boiling ghee. As they could not take up his challenge, they consented to adopt a course suggested by him. He was allowed to dip his hand into a pot of cold ghee.

“Lo and behold! The hand had become blistered and burnt. Everyone, including the offender, was shocked. He was ostracised from the community,” he had said. The incident had supposedly taken place in 1816 AD.

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