[Photostop] The Oracles of Kodungallur

A celebration of unburdening, a triumph of crude, unrestrained expression of repression, and a surrender to Goddess Kali – the Meena Bharani festival is a much awaited catharsis for the marginalised communities in Kodungallur, Kerala.


 

Although the most acute judges of the witches and even the witches themselves were convinced of the guilt of witchery, the guilt nevertheless was non-existent. It is thus with all guilt.
Friedrich Nietzsche

An apparition. Piercing eyes, sabre in hand, bloodied forehead, and a song dripping with sexual innuendos.
There I was at Kodungallur, a village located in the Thrissur District of Kerala, surrounded by hundreds of men and woman in red costumes – half worn and barely wrapped around the torso – hair flying, faces a mixture of turmeric, vermillion and blood. Yes, blood spread across their foreheads, axed deliberately in ritualistic vigour.

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Kodungallur Bharani, celebrated at the Bhagavathy temple, is one of the oldest festivals in Kerala to honour the deity Goddess Bhadrakali. The legend goes that a Chera king built this temple in honour of Kannagi, the protagonist of Silapathigaram, an epic poem by the famous Tamil poet Elanko Adikal, in his capital Vanchi (present day Kodangallur).

Some also claim that the Bharani temple was initially a Buddhist monastery during the chera reign and later became a temple,while others believe that Prasuram built the temple for kali or parasakthi, for protection from the demon, Darikan.

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The Meena Bharani celebrations last a month although the gaiety peaks during the concluding three days. It’s the day of the ‘Kavutheendal’, a day when the red flag is unfurled and the velichipads (Oracles) get dressed in red, brandish ceremonial swords, wear heavy anklets, adorn their waists with aramani (small bells tied in a string around the waist) and a chilanka (an ornament worn around the leg designed to strike many a tune while walking). They sing earthy songs, dance with gay abandon, and start circling the temple in a trance.

The scene becomes chaotic with the Oracles running around the temple as if possessed by a strong spirit, swinging their sabres around them, hurling turmeric and other objects over the roof of the temple, and striking the temple rafters with sticks. They circle the temple thrice and prostrate before the king, seeking his benediction. The temple is then closed to the public for a week, re-opening after ‘purification rituals’ are conducted to cleanse the shrine of the ‘stain’ of Kavutheendal.

 

Most of the velichipads are farm labourers who flock to the temple after the harvest season from different parts of Thrissur, Palakkad and Wayanad. To them, this festival symbolizes a celebration for marginalized communities where worship is expressed through Tharripaatu – a triumph of crude, unrestrained expression repression through the singing of obscene songs. The songs signify a process of catharsis in their lives.

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The entire spectrum of society and culture of this land gets represented in this month-long celebration. The festival seems to bring a much awaited avenue of escape for these villagers.

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I tried to stand with my fellow photographers behind the barricade and capture the spirit of the festival in its entirety. But in vain. I hit the ground while running in a mad frenzy to try and capture the elusive nature of these Oracles.
It is fascinating to be challenged as a photographer. However, the fear of the unwanted touch and abuse took over.
I got stuck in a crowd of drunken lecherous men when a transgender velichipad pulled me out – held my hand tight and swung her sword at the lecherous men. She then dragged me around the temple, screaming at the men. I seemed to me that I had become a part of the Oracle, and she had wrapped me in her power and mysticism.


The devotees believe in fighting against attempts to civilize, control and annihilate emotions that are so essential to our existence. Blood is an extended metaphor that includes a whole range of moods: the spirit of war, power and conquest, the ecstasy of liberation, and the joy of communion.
They also believe that the Devi will protect them from misfortune, black magic, enmity and other such dangers. The unabashed raw expression of emotions such as fear, devotion, hatred and jubilation is their way of demonstrating that emotional energy is to be indulged in and not controlled.

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Bharani is surely not just an occasion for profanity or a cheeky lust for ‘tamasic’ rites. It is an upsurge of hopefulness, a quest for liberation, a prayer for redemption, and an attempt to unburden the self.
And surrender to Kali, the Mother Goddess, for re-affirmation.

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Also read:

Patang: Uttarayan kite flying festival in india
Jallikattu is a celebration of cruelty


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sindhuja P is a freelance Travel and Social documentary photographer. In her other life she works as an educator for an IT major. Gifted with a high restlessness quotient, she has dabbled in varied fields including theatre, playing the ‘veena’ and counselling. She constantly tries to bring her interests in travel, photography, education and psychology together to impact societal change. more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sindhuja P is a freelance Travel and Social documentary photographer. In her other life she works as an educator for an IT major. Gifted with a high restlessness quotient, she has dabbled in varied fields including theatre, playing the ‘veena’ and counselling. She constantly tries to bring her interests in travel, photography, education and psychology together to impact societal change. more

Discuss this article on Facebook

  • Kartik Dhar

    Sindhu, i see some real good work here. great reportage 

  • Vikram

    Sindhu, fabulous stuff as usual

  • Thanks a lot,Kartik and Vikram!

  • Lakshmi Vijayan

    love it 🙂

  • Thanks Lakshmi, for your inputs on the local history 🙂

  • Supriyasehgal

    Sindhuja, Loved the article.. Been wanting to go for this one for so may years…

  • Thanks Supriya,You must go for it next year!

  • T.Viswanathan.Namboothiri.

    T.Viswanathan.Namboothiri.