Field Notes Society

On 'kaniyan koothu', an art form dedicated to the graveyard god

Ajith and Regis dance at the festival   | Photo Credit: A. Shaikmohideen

Outside the entrance to the Ammanathan temple in Cheranmahadevi, a village 12 km from Tirunelveli, songs by villu paattu performers blare from a speaker, the words barely distinguishable through the screechy acoustics.

Inside the temple, on a makeshift stage, as the singers approach the end of their story, their voices reach a fever pitch, while a man with a belly as rotund as his ghatam plays to the beat of the leader’s tunes.

Seated on a straw mat in the corner, Ajith and Regis, two dancers, await their turn, exchanging notes on their make-up and hairstyles, adjusting each other’s earrings. The two men are dressed as women, as is the custom with kaniyan koothu, the ritual art form native to Tamil Nadu and largely performed today in its southernmost tip — Nellai, Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari districts.

Dissident deity

As the villu pattu performers make way for the next act in this kovil kodai (a summer festival to honour the local deities), eight men come rushing into the temple. They have just washed themselves in the nearby well, and they look frenzied, fierce and manic. They line up on the floor, grabbing a banana leaf each, and are served handfuls of a heaped pink mass. They scarf down the food, going for thirds, fourths, and even fifths.

They are eating mashed bananas mixed with chicken blood. Convention requires human blood, but some temples are switching to avian sacrifices because “we are getting more civilised,” as Mariappan, the leader of the kaniyan performers, says.

The temple is holding a festival to honour Sudalai Madan, the graveyard god and offspring of Shiva and Parvathi who was banished to earth after it was discovered that he preferred eating human flesh to the nectar of the gods.

Rapture: The blood-letting ceremony during a kaniyan koothu performance

Rapture: The blood-letting ceremony during a kaniyan koothu performance   | Photo Credit: A. Shaikmohideen

Worshipped widely in southern Tamil Nadu, he is depicted as a ferocious deity whose wrath and furore can only be assuaged by kodais and ritual sacrifices. If he is treated well by the community, the belief goes, he will protect the village or town from harm.

Integral to the worship of Sudalai Madan are the Kaniyans, a Scheduled Tribe, who sing, dance and perform to invoke the spirit of the graveyard god, inviting him into the bodies of men chosen from the local community.

Before the invocation begins, these men — komarathadigal or male mediums — are given an amulet to tie around their wrists. With its turmeric, betel leaf and iron ring, the sacred cord will prevent evil spirits from entering their bodies.

Mariappan takes centrestage, behind the microphone. He is accompanied by two men playing the magudam, a drum, and by an assistant singer. As the annavi or lead singer, he will recite the story of Sudalai Madan. It is an entire repertory that can go on for as long as eight hours sometimes, all of which Mariappan has committed to memory from hearing his father’s performances.

Ajith and Regis walk towards the mediums and start dancing, encouraging them to join. The men oblige, and soon the crowd starts to retreat as the men dance with violent vigour, carrying spears and camphor-lit trays.

A bell from an anklet

The word kaniyan in Tamil means to calculate, hinting at a time when the community was renowned for their astrological skills. “This community is almost exclusive to Tirunelveli, and theirs is the only performance considered truly native to the region,” says Peter Arockiaraj, Professor of Folklore Studies at St. Xavier’s, Tirunelveli.

Numbered at less than 1,000 today, with even fewer working as full-time koothu performers, the community traces its origin to the eponymous Kaniyan.

The story goes that Shiva, when dancing in a graveyard, lost a bell of his anklet, which became Kaniyan. Today, the Kaniyans are the gatekeepers for Sudalai Madan — bridging a gap between the divine and the human — and don’t perform anywhere but in temples and graveyards. A select few among the Kaniyans (numbered at approximately seven today) continue the tradition of slashing their hands and offering their blood as sacrifice.

A slit on the forearm (or sometimes the tongue) produces a few drops of blood that are collected on a banana leaf and eventually licked by the medium. “Nobody except people from the Kaniyan community can perform the blood-letting ceremony, sing or play the magudam. It’s a sin otherwise,” Mariappan tells me. Other rituals include late-night visits by performers, mediums and shamans to the graveyard during the kodai, where they look for buried corpses and bones, which they sometimes gnaw at.

Underlying tension

Ajith gets ready for the show

Ajith gets ready for the show   | Photo Credit: A. Shaikmohideen

“Today, a lot of these traditions have died out,” says Muthu Perumal, referring to the co-opting of more Sanskritised practices in what was largely a local deity-centric culture. “We have become very saivam (vegetarian) in our rituals,” he adds. Perumal is a lead singer from Cheranmahadevi with his own kaniyan troupe, widely considered to be the best in the country.

Tirunelveli, one villager tells me, is “number one for halva and for communal clashes.” A closer look at the dynamics of temple festivals such as the ones I attended reveal the underlying tensions.

Each temple is mostly patronised by either a family or a particular caste, and outsiders are not quite welcome. The Kaniyan community is not always treated well by these temple patrons. Perumal remembers a childhood where his father was spoken to disrespectfully.

“But today, it is different. We are in demand because our population is decreasing, and these people know you can’t worship Sudalai without the Kaniyan. It will make the god angry,” he says, adding that he has already received bookings for 2020.

The community, which performs seven months a year, often finds itself without work. “During the season — May, June — we can negotiate about ₹40,000 per performance, and this is divided between seven people, but at other times, what we earn is a lot less,” says Mariappan. “Most of the time we fall into debt. Sometimes, we do daily labour.”

Both Mariappan and Perumal have decided that their sons will not continue the profession. Armed with a bachelor’s degree, Mariappan himself had left in pursuit of an office job, but when his father died unexpectedly, he had to return — bookings and advances for the next year had already come in.

“The Sudalai brought me back,” he says, shrugging. “Sometimes when people get possessed, I ask why life is so difficult for us, and the sami (lord) says, ‘I am the one who made it impossible for you to find a job. You are mine.’ But as long as he is protecting us, I know we will be okay.”

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Printable version | Jul 25, 2021 9:53:31 AM |

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