Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 03/1/09 8:36 AM

Feature: A Temple for Troubled Minds

Faith Fatale

The Chottanikkara temple, near Kochi in Kerala, is a place that attracts the mentally disturbed, who seek solace here when all else fails. 

I’m standing with scores of people facing the closed doors of the Shiva shrine, awaiting darshan.

Suddenly, without warning, it starts. A handful of women begin moaning. It is an eerie sound. Slowly, gradually, the tempo builds up. The women start to sway, tossing their hair from side to side. And then, again without warning, the woman next to me, suddenly comes to life and pushes me to one side, so hard that I fall on the person on my left.

My heart gives a jump. She rushes up to the front of the shrine, wailing, calling out to Shiva in a deeply personal way. As she joins a small band of women, all swaying hard now, I observe that all of them are somewhat incongruously clad in nighties. And that there are a couple of people who look like attenders just behind them.

Then the  doors of the shrine open and the hysteria rises to an unbearable crescendo…

I’m at Chottanikkara, Kerala. The Chottanikkara temple, situated on a modest hillock, 18 kms  away from Ernakulam, enshrines Bhagwati, the Mother Goddess, one of the most popular and powerful deities in Kerala, in her Rajarajeswari form.

The deity here is worshipped in three different forms: as Saraswati in the morning, draped in white, as Bhadrakali at noon, dressed in crimson, and as Durga in the evening, decked in blue.

The Devi is believed to be a powerful benefactress for women from all walks of life, hence the predominance of that gender.

Also, they have a strong belief that the goddess will cure them of all mental afflictions.

The swayambu (natural) idol is an uncut red laterite stone that can be seen in the early part of the morning, when the previous day’s flowers and garlands are removed. For the rest of the day, the goddess is covered with a golden carved representation of Parashakti with four arms.

The image is not fixed to the ground; instead it stands on sand and thus, liquids offered during ablution ceremonies go straight below.

Unusually, there is an idol of Vishnu on the same pedestal as the Devi’s; along with Lakshmi and Narayana, there are idols of Brahma, Shiva, Ganapathi, Subramanya and Sastha (Ayappan) in the temple precincts. The chant for the deity thus, includes all her names: Amme Narayana, Devi Narayana, Lakshmi Narayana and Bhadre Narayana.

At the Dharma Sastha shrine, as the devout try their level best to pray quietly but urgently, a voice pierces the air. A strong mellifluous voice singing a bhajan.

My racing heart slows down; I listen, grateful for the switch to normalcy and turn to locate the source of that voice. A woman in her late 50s is singing passionately with eyes shut. Her sari is dishevelled and as she opens her eyes,  there is madness in them. She begins a tandav, her mudras exquisite, her footwork sure. A palpably embarrassed companion tries to restrain her and is thrust away with some force.

The woman dances for five minutes, her song almost unbearable in its soulful melody. There aren’t any small children about, a fact I silently give thanks for; the happenings at the shrine may well scare them out of their wits.

Apart from the main deity, the temple complex consists of the Kizhukkavu Bhagavathy temple, a level below. This is the ugra (angry) face of the goddess, the form that is believed to destroy evil from the minds and bodies of devotees.

However, it is at Shiva’s and Sastha’s shrines, to the southwest of the Devi,  that the first stirrings of internal agitation become outwardly manifest. Sastha is considered the goddesses` protector, and it
is to him and Shiva that prayers are first offered.

At this lower level, just beside the Devi, there stands an old paala tree, the lower part of its trunk covered with plastic dolls, empty cradles and pieces of red or yellow silk, all tangible evidence of supplication.

However, what rivets the eye are the long nails studded to the tree, some as high as 12 feet up the trunk. Those seeking a cure for mental ailments generally pray for five to ten days, then hammer a nail given into the tree, using the fist or forehead. It is usually the latter, till the bleeding breaks out and the afflicted person loses consciousness. When she recovers, it is believed that she has been cured.

Every evening, after the main puja, the head priest comes to the Kizhukkavu to perform the valiya guruthy (big sacrifice) puja. The guruthy is prepared in 12 cauldrons and the puja is done at 8.45 pm every night. Temple lore has it that women attending it on Fridays are permanently cured of mental afflictions.

Such is the faith of devotees. Each and every one of them. The priests make it clear to those suffering from ‘incurable’ ailments that prayer alone won’t do the trick. However, all forms of mental illness do not seem to fall in this category of incurable ailments.

And then I see a young girl, barely out of her teens. Tall, with thick hair down  to below her hips. I look into her eyes and hurriedly look away. They hold the look of a whipped dog. She is being held up by her hair, gripped hard at the nape by an older man, presumably her father. Close by stands  a woman with a weary,  beaten expression, who I take to be her mother.

A man with a long straggly beard and the look of a priest begins to shout at the girl, “Who are you? Why are you in this body?” There is no reply from the near insensate girl.

The devotees mill about, some averting their eyes from what is happening, other gazing with frank curiosity. At a request from the priest, the girl is made to do a series of quick bows to Sastha, her movements directed by tugs at the hair held by her father.

And then, as the grey-bearded man starts afresh, the head of the girl lolls. The father drags the half-conscious body to the side of the shrine; the mother tries to pour some milk into her mouth. The eyes are open, still with that look of speechless agony.

Those eyes will haunt me for a long time to come. I walk away, willing my heartbeat to resume its natural beat, fighting the urge to weep.

Behind me, the chants of Amme Narayana, Devi Narayana, Lakshmi Narayana and Bhadre Narayana rise and fall.

This appeared in MARIE CLAIRE magazine of March 2009.


BhadrakaliChottanikkara templedisturbed mindsDurgaFeatureFeaturesKeralaKizhukkavu Bhagavathymental illnessSaraswati

Sheila Kumar • March 1, 2009

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