They said she was only a woman

With Theyyam season set to start next week, the legend of the woman whose intellect threatened men

Updated - October 20, 2018 05:07 pm IST

Published - October 20, 2018 04:24 pm IST

Muchilot Bhagavathy Theyyam is among the most elaborate and gorgeous of Theyyams.

Muchilot Bhagavathy Theyyam is among the most elaborate and gorgeous of Theyyams.

It all happened a few centuries ago in Perinchalloore village, what is today Taliparambu, in Kannur district of north Kerala. Perinchalloore was known for the dominance of its priestly Namboothiri caste.

The Perinchalloore Namboothiris were acclaimed for their scholarship, in the Vedas, in literature, grammar, and more. Scholars came from faraway places to participate in debates with them, to weigh their erudition and to earn fame and respect if they won.

One such Namboothiri family was Rayaramangalathumana, reputed in Perinchalloore for the prominent scholars and debaters in its fold. At one point, this family found itself without an heir. The family elders offered special prayers to propitiate their deity, Rayaramangalathu Bhagavathy, for a son. But a baby girl was born. The family accepted her as a gift from the goddess, and she was named Daivakanya (or heavenly girl).

‘Devi’ was exceptionally bright. She was given the best possible education available at the time. Her family looked upon her to continue their legacy. She drank in the contents of the rich ancestral family library, and soon it was clear that a child prodigy had emerged. As she grew up, so did her erudition. Her fame spread like fragrance in a breeze.

For the other scholars of Perinchalloore, however, she was only a woman. They refused to recognise her scholarship. They tried to silence her in public debates, but were routinely defeated. Her gender and her scholarship soon became a direct challenge to their ego.

It was the practice among Namboothiri clans then for a girl to be married off as soon as she turned 12. Devi agreed to this, but with one stipulation. She said she would marry only the man who defeated her in a public debate. A date was fixed, and aspirants gathered, all prepared to compete for her hand. For the first two days, nobody defeated her.

Ecstasy and pain

Realising it might be impossible to win against Devi in debates, and that at this rate she would soon pose a big threat to all the male scholars, some of the more influential Namboothiris conspired to humiliate her and thus get rid of her. So, on the third day, they guided the debate to the nine rasas or feelings, asking her which was the most significant of these. Sringara, she replied, referring to the rasa of romantic or erotic love. They next asked her what the greatest pain known to humans was. She answered, “The pangs of child-birth.”

The assembled men sniggered: “How is it that a virgin answers these questions so perfectly?” Their sneering insinuation soon spread like wildfire. She had experienced the ecstasy of sex and the pain of childbirth in secret, they said. Her father’s pleas fell on deaf ears. Devi was ostracised. The wedding arrangements were cancelled. All the eligible bachelors returned. The decision of the Perinchalloore Namboothiris was final.

Deeply distressed, Devi walked out of the village, promising to establish the truth. She refused all the property and money her father offered but he, nonetheless, anxious parent, arranged for a karyasthan (family assistant) to follow her, to ensure she was provided food and clothing whenever required.

Walking steadily, Devi soon reached the Eachikulangara temple, where she sat down in intense prayer. On the 40th day, she strongly felt the urge “to leave her body by jumping into a fire to prove her innocence.” The next day, at the brahmamuhurta hour — the most auspicious time, an hour and 36 minutes before sunrise — she stood up, offered prayers at the temple, and walked away. She soon reached Karivelloore, which she decided was the ideal place to end her life.

She collected branches and dry leaves and made a pyre. She took off one of her anklets and jumped into the fire. But the flames proved inadequate. She saw a Thiyya (community traditionally involved in plucking coconuts) passing by. He was carrying bundles of dry fronds. She pleaded with him to throw them into the fire. But he ran away, frightened.

Divine sense

A stoic Devi waited. After a while, she saw a Muchilotan (from Vania community of the Muchilot lineage) coming by with coconut oil. She requested him to pour it into the pyre. This man sensed a divinity in her. So, overcoming his apprehensions and praying for “the fire to be put out”, he poured the oil in. Devi blessed the Muchilotan and as the flames rose high, she vanished into them. By now shaking with fear, the man threw his pot or thuthika down and hurried back home. After a while, he realised that the thuthika was following him, oil flowing steadily from it.

Soon, everyone who heard the story began to believe that Devi was none other than goddess Bhagavathy herself, incarnated on earth. The Vania community deified her as Muchilot Bhagavathy Theyyam.

That fatal morning, when the karyasthan deputed to follow Devi realised she was missing, he followed her trail and reached Karivelloore, where he saw the extinguished pyre and one of her anklets lying nearby. He returned immediately to Perinchalloore to inform Devi’s family. Soon after, legend has it, the Namboothiri scholars who had started the rumours began to succumb to misfortune and disease, some to smallpox or leprosy, some to destitution.

Legend also says Daivakanya was actually Parvathi, the consort of Shiva, sent to quell the mighty egos of the scholars of Perinchalloore.

Today, Muchilot Bhagavathy Theyyam is among the most elaborate and gorgeous of Theyyams, attracting massive crowds each year. The 24 to 30-hour performance has several arresting rituals and moments, including one where a man from the Vania community walks backwards with a pot of water on his head, symbolising the moving thuthika .

Author of Kathakali Dance-Theatre and associate editor of Nartanam journal, the writer is passionate about traditional arts.

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