Instilling fear was the means adopted by the wise men of the past to evoke in the community the need to respect every species and to respect boundaries.
In the large compound in which my ancestral home stood, there is a corner, dark and away from the place frequented by men. In that corner stood a cluster of trees, old, crowded, hissing and rustling. Though a small half built mud wall demarcated the boundary of this place, any game that we children planned to play outdoors was accompanied by a subtle warning “Kavu theendallu ketto” (don’t go anywhere near the Kavu and desecrate).
The concept of ‘Kavu’ was a place dedicated to the god and goddess of snake- nagar and nagayakshi. Thick foliage, made up of interwoven creepers , over grown climbers clambering up huge trees and the self sufficient eco system, demarcated this place from the rest of the courtyard. The fear of these imminent reptiles kept all – adults as well as kids – away from it. Hence, the flora and fauna thrived and was preserved. Some of the creepers were as thick as the trunk of a tree. The fragrance of blooming jasmine and champaka and illanji wafted through the air. The fragrance filled the air as nobody dared to touch the flowering plants. Some seasonal and native fruit trees also found its place among the foliage. Maybe this was the lung space that flushed in the necessary oxygen.
Under the canopy hidden by the foliage stood the deities of nagadevatha. Once in a while, a special pooja was ceremonially conducted to please the deities – when there was a poor harvest or someone in the family was anxious or happy about something. This was the only occasion in which I have seen a human enter the space. As a child, I was in awe of the pujari (priest) who ventured into the space of these virulent serpents which everybody else dreaded. The entire atmosphere of the Kavu awakened in us the reverence for the known and the unknown powers of nature. The image of the snake gods bathed in turmeric, adorned by the flowers of Aeracanut trees specially plucked for the occasion, and symbolically clothed in red or yellow silk, is a breath taking sight.
When the Kallu Vilaku (stone cut lamps) were lit at dusk, the Kavu dramatically transformed itself into a eerie magical world. The invocation to the spiritual self and the confluence of nature and faith were too strong to be ignored. Even as an adult, when the knowledge of the reptile family filled me with rationale, I began to see the importance of the worship. To an agricultural community, nothing was as important as the snake which checked the rodents that could have been their greatest threat. Perhaps the place dedicated for the venomous beings saved the community from fatal encounter with the species. It could also have been a subtle message to the community to the need for peaceful coexistence .
Instilling fear was the means adopted by the wise men of the past to evoke in the community the need to respect every species and to respect boundaries. As children, when the ripe jamuns and rose apples tempted us to break rules, our dare devilry stopped short as we either imagined hearing the hissing or the rustling of the snakes among the creepers. The fear played its own games. The greed was replaced by the fear for self. There were no dearth for other fruit trees in the compound for us. The fruits of the Kavu were reserved for the rodents, insects, the birds. But the urge to eat the forbidden was also innate. As we grew up, some of us dared to enter the forbidden space but with reverence. What is meant for the other species was carefully left for them.
The ecosystem provided by the concept of Kavu is worth imitating . The wisdom of keeping a part of the land for trees and animals and guarding it is the age old wisdom that the present generation needs. The undue attention given to worship and the superstitions associated with snake worship had to some extent led to practices which were not wholesome to the community. Some rationales decried the concept of kavu , instead of questioning the blind faith. This, to a large extent, led to the death of a wonderful model which could have been the solution to the present day value system and environmental concerns.
Every occasion for celebration and rejoicing started with the humble offering to the reigning deities. It became the reason for many family get togethers. As a child though, it was just a place of worship, as an adult it became a social context for all to get together. Even when some of the weddings in the family were missed, the annual puja wasn’t.
Today, with folded hands when I stand before the deity of Sarpadevatha, the fear has been replaced by admiration. The splendour of the rituals lit by many earthen and brass oil lamps fill me with faith in the energies of the universe. When I offer milk and turmeric knowing well that snakes don’t drink milk. I value all experiences meaningful and mundane that has shaped me. Having questioned the rationale behind the faith, I have come to believe that relatedness and connections matter more than rationale. An entire value system was being put in place by the concept of that corner dedicated to all other life forms. The Kavu for the community became its tree of life.
Pics: Devi S. Nair