The Chatans of Malabar

Driving lazily last weekend, en-route our local desi grocer, I passed by the Chatam street. We do have several towns and places in the East Coast of America named after locales of old Britain, and Chatam must have come from the ancient Chatam port in Kent. That set me thinking about the name, but I got sidetracked to the Chatans of Malabar and the famed Chatan cult, a topic that our revered historian KV Krishna Ayyar himself spent many a day on. I remembered also the first Indian 3D movie ‘My Dear Kuttichatan’, and our childhood frenzy to get to the theaters to see one, using disposable glasses in spite of widespread rumors that those newfangled glasses were carriers of the dreaded madras eye (conjunctivitis) affliction. Anyway, I thought I will research a bit and tell you what I gleaned, without any kind of judgment or conclusions.

The diminutive child demon or poltergeist of Malabar seems to have been a remnant drawn from the Buddhist traditions which once existed in Cheranadu and up north. Chathan seva (Worship of Chathan) had originally been confined to the lower castes. As time went by, his fame elevated him as the guardian of villages and even as the God of hunters. He ended up as a person of honor, his miraculous powers were in demand to ward off enemies and as time went by, the masses linked him to the Shasta or Lord Ayappan. That passage of this legend over time presents an interesting and sometimes stimulating study.

Before we get to all that, let’s see what our little friend or Kutti Chatan as he is more popularly known as, does in these village towns. As you can gather, he is considered a little comic imp or household elf, not definitely a ferocious adult ogre with gnashing teeth and blood thirsty eyes, out with an intent to kill.

A little intro to his activities can be gleaned from an interesting introduction by KM Panikkar in his paper - Kutti-Chattan (sometimes merely Chattan. Kutti means boy, a term of endearment; Chattan is supposed to be a corrupted form of satan), is in no sense a god. He is something like Puck, much inclined to mischief. He is supposed to be a dwarf, though he can assume any other form, or remain invisible, as he chooses. He never goes out of his way to harm anyone, though if anybody injures him once, Kutti-Chattan never forgives, and keeps on troubling him for life. His favorite method of annoying anybody is by throwing stones at the house or dropping unclean things in the food. He may do so without interruption, which would render life almost impossible. He is supposed to have no fingers, and therefore his vices can be thwarted by people who know it. For example, he cannot pick up things if kept in a place high above his reach, unless, of course, there is something nearby on which he could climb. He cannot untie a knot, as he does not possess fingers, though he can open the strongest lock. What rich people do to keep their money out of his reach is to tie a knot on the purse and keep it locked in a safe, the latter precaution being necessary against human hands that possess fingers. Kutti-Chattan can, of course, be tamed by magicians, and bribed to do whatever his patrons liked.

Thankappan Nair emphatically states that Chatan was a colloquial usage of Sastha, clarifying that it is not Satan as KM Panikkar and some others felt. He goes onto explain that Kuttichatan is not a dwarf, but always a well-nourished 12-year-old boy. It was believed that the one who propitiates him at home in secrecy would gain health, wealth and fortune. Kutti­chathan can work wonders; but "this most mischievous imp of Kerala demonology, is of sterling honesty and demands complete submission of his devotees”.

He continues - Chata Seva (worship of Chathan) is confined to the low castes. Those who want to wreak vengeance upon their enemies let loose Chathan. Pelting of stones and appearances of feces and urine in foods and drinks are caused by Chathan, as it is believed. The poltergeist pelts you with pebbles, brings abominable substances, and decamps with cash and valuables from locked-up safes and cupboards mysteriously. “As remuneration for his services, Chathan want nothing but food. It is said that the malignity’s inflicted through their instrumentality recoil on their masters who die childless after undergoing physical agony" said Mr. L. A. Krishna Iyer, the octogenarian anthropologist of Kerala. The life of the victim as you can see is made miserable and whenever there is any harassment and unnatural happening, people attribute its cause to the malevolence of Chathan in Kerala. Dr. Gundert in his Malayalam Dictionary, written about a century ago, has defined Chathan as the deity of hunters. The worship of Sastha as their god of hunting is confined to the Hill tribes of Kerala, especially among Kanikkan, Malayarayan, Urali and Mannan. Velans and Pulayans are the accredited Pujaris of Chatan and seemingly, he changes his color according to the class of people who worship him.

All very interesting, and as the imp’s believers increased, the desire to worship him resulted in the construction of Kottils (improvised places of worship) dedicated to Kuttichathan all over Kerala. There is as you can see, a reputed Chatha Seva matham at Triprayar near Trichur and if you need his favor, you have to propiate him with constant invocation and gifts, especially food. His food habits are non-vegetarian and everything else consumed by normal people in the sly (those days) and so offerings to him comprise chicken, mutton, arrack, ganja etc. which are relished by him.

But what was surprising to me was the documented experiences of KV Krishna Ayyar and the family of L Anantha Krishan Ayyar, which will tell you how prevalent the belief was in the early and mid-20th century Malabar.

KV K Ayyar details his personal involvement with a case in Calicut which details the mystery. Quoting him - In September and October last there occurred in a family living in Calicut (India) certain extraordinary incidents which the common folk regard as the work of Chathan or the imp of mischief in South Indian demonology. One morning some human excreta were noticed on the outer side of the kitchen door leading to the backyard of a certain house. This did not arouse any suspicion, as it was thought to be the trail left by some bandicoot in its nocturnal rounds through gutters and latrines. Next morning the same thing was noticed in the same place. The womenfolk were alarmed, but the father of the family pooh-poohed their fears and went to his work as usual. But the third day the filth was found within the kitchen, in the hearth itself.

The hand of Kutti-chathan was unmistakable, for is not, night soil the most favourite weapon in his armoury? From that day, for the space of nearly two months, the family was subjected to the most harassing torment that human mind could conceive of. There was a horrible uncertainty hanging about the whole house; there was no peace, no sleep; they knew not whether and when they could enjoy a meal. The lot of Tantalus seemed to have fallen to them. They dared not open the water pot lest they should find filth in it. Sometimes, when everything was ready for the runner and the hungry children had taken their seats, the cruel disappointment would come, for the distracted mother had just detected the ubiquitous filth in the carefully-cooked dish. As a variety, Chathan would sometimes substitute human hair, charcoal and cow dung. Water mixed with turmeric and saffron-a vicarious offering for blood considered to be the most favored drink of the denizens of the spirit world-would be found spilt here and there in the house. Squares, circles and other patterns by which lndian women usually decorate their floor were also drawn in the various rooms of the house.

To expel the devil, an image of St. Anthony, reputed to possess power over spirits, was brought into the house. But an hour had not elapsed before it was found lying in the compound. One day Chathan developed into an incendiary. Jackets, petticoats, straw and dried palm leaves were suddenly found to be in flames. Inanimate objects seemed to quicken into life; pictures and mirrors were heard to fall from the pegs on which they had been hung and broken. Pottery, china and cooking utensils of bell-metal, brass and copper, were violently flung about the rooms.

On the day when I paid my visit to this haunted house the Chathan had become more aggressive than usual. He had removed the bangles from the wrist of the baby of the house, broken them and concealed them under the roof. An old lady of the house had become the target of Chathan's violence. Stones, small pots, dried cakes of cowdung, had been hurled at her in the morning. I was standing near with my back to her when suddenly she uttered a. cry of pain, and I turned only to see a brass lamp falling to the ground after hitting her. I was told that that particular lamp had been kept locked in a trunk. But locked doors and boxes were not proof against Chathan. The only way of preventing him from opening boxes and scattering their contents was to tie them with ropes or strings. For the devil has no thumb, and without it he cannot untie the knot.

My visit was very opportune in that I was able to witness one of the methods of expelling the devil. It is the peculiar characteristic of the people of Malabar not to do anything without ascertaining the will of the gods about it. The astrologer occupies a unique place in Malabar society. He is in demand everywhere and for everything. He had been consulted. From the stars the astrologer had been able to read the particular Chathan (for according to popular belief they are twelve brothers) who had chosen to visit the house, the reasons for his visit, the person against whom he had been set in motion (the Chathans have no will of their own and are the absolute slaves of those who have them in their power), and the person who could expel him from the house.

Here we come upon another feature of Malabar society. Certain families are considered to possess influence over spirits. Of these, the most notable are the Nambudiri families of Kallur and Kattumadam, and the Parayans of Tolanur. The former are at the top, the latter at the bottom, of the social ladder; the former the descendants of the Aryan immigrants to South India, the llatter of the aborigines ; the former use their power for good, for casting out devils, and charge no fee, the latter generally for blackmail and mischief.

In this particular case the stars pointed to Kallur as the person who could deal with the devil. But he could not come on account of a pollution. So he wrote a letter in the following words; "Kallur Nambudiripad to Kuttichathan" (" It is our desire that you do desist from all your activities till we come to you"). This letter was solemnly read by the head of the house after purifying himself by a bath. But it had no effect. At last a disciple of Tolanur was called in, and I am told that the trouble has ceased.

Such incidents as these are by no means uncommon in Malabar. In almost every village, folk can tell you of some person who had fallen a victim to Chathan's pranks or point to you some house deserted on account of his activities. This Chathan, a faithful and obedient slave to his master but a perpetual worry and nuisance to those whom he may be sent against, is a god worshipped by the Pulayas, Parayans, and other castes, low in the social scale. His worship by the Brahman Nambudiris incidentally illustrates the process by which South Indian demonology has grown up; the gods of the vanquished aborigines have been recognized and given a place by the successful invaders, but as devils and spirits.

After ruminating on some possible theories, he lays the question to the public - it will be interesting to know whether such phenomena as these have been noted among other peoples and races. I did not come across any replies.

Prof Bhagyanath (Actress Vidhubala’s father) the famous magician explaining this topic to the scholar and Magician Lee Siegel provides details - Kerala is the place of black magic. It's the home of Kuttichathan. Do you know about him, about the tricks he plays? He tries to prevent people from performing penances, since it is through such practices that you can gain control over Kuttichathan, that you can become a real magician. Let us say, for example, that you, in hopes of acquiring magic powers, stand neck-deep in the waters of some tank, river, or lake. That is when Kuttichathan takes the shape of a crocodile and comes for you. One minute a crocodile, the next a striped snake or a dog, a crow or an eagle, a goat or a pig! If you are afraid, your fear will make the illusion real, and then the crocodile will devour you. But if you are without fear, the magic can't work, and Kuttichathan is foiled. The priests of Kuttichathan are all magicians. And they worship him at midnight. If you make an offering to him, an offering of flesh and blood, you might entice him. He has, you know, one weakness—he has no thumbs. Yes, no thumbs, and so he cannot undo knots! And so if you can tie him up, he can't get away. Then he'll bargain; he'll offer you magic powers in return for his release. But be careful! Never trust a magician!"

But the most astounding write up on a real life adventure with the Kutti Chathan comes from L Ananta Krishna Iyer, the son of LK Ananta Krishna Iyer. LAK Iyer was an Indian Anthropologist and a writer of several books on the subject, following in the footsteps of his father, the doyen of Anthropology. His article Kuttichathan – Confessions of a sufferer documents the event and provides the reader a detailed account of the indignities suffered by him at Quilon.

It was about the middle of September, 1931 that affairs of State took me off from Aryancavu, where I left my family. After 3 or 4 days it so happened that the Office-key which was hung up on a nail in the portico was found missing in the morning. Search was of no avail. A fresh key was again made the same day, and hung as usual on the same nail, to be found lost the next morning. Thus four keys were successively made, to be found lost the next morning. This aroused the suspicion of Mrs. K. who experimented on a useless key, which was hung up on the same nail. After a few hours it was found missing.

The hand of an unseen agency was suspected. The next evening the Bungalow was under the watch and ward of 4 watchers and a Police Constable. Two keys were suspended on the same nail in their presence. When they were in an unguarded moment, the keys were found missing in the twinkling of an eye; everyone got panicky, and no one slept- till daybreak. The next morning, there' was a great flutter’ in the household, as Miss K. found that her gold chain was missing- from her neck The servants were at their wits’ end as to what to do. A diligent search was made, and the sweeper found it safely stowed underneath a lime plant covered with dry leaves. It was observed that things were getting out of hand, and it was decided that the master of the house should be written to; Mrs. K. opened the box for taking: the fountain pen to write a few lines, but, alas, the pen was missing! The whole house was in consternation, and Mrs. K. decided to leave the place and went home.

As matters progressed, Iyer got home and employed the services of many exorcists to drive away the little imp, but all this was of no avail. Iyer continues…

A Nayar exorcist came and he informed us that we have incurred the wrath of Sastha (a Sylvan deity) and his satellite, Karuppuswamy. If they are appeased by offering two fowls and arrack,' the mischief will cease. His request was granted. As a result of his intercession, prayers and offerings, the unseen being was not in evidence for 18 days, after which he again reappeared.

He would remove my watch, fountain pen, inkbottle, bunch of keys, and others but they would be recovered from the compound the same day. The Nayar exorcist, was again sent for. He divined that we had incurred the wrath of Karuppuswamy who should be appeased with offerings. Karuppuswamy is installed at Kottavathukkal, one of the gateways of Travancore. There he remains as the ‘watch dog of Travancore. He accepted the offerings, and the trouble ceased, but again reappeared.

I was then informed of one Abdul Jabbar, a Muhammadan exorcist of Quilon, an adept in the art. A man was sent to fetch him. He sent word that it was not necessary that he should go to Aryancavu. He assured that, if his written prescriptions were adhered to for three days, the trouble will cease and we will be happy. It was desired that the paper should be folded and sent back to him by post on the fourth day,

The purport of his prescriptions is, “I am of opinion that this trouble at Aryancavu is due to a hierarchy of evil spirits whose wrath the occupants of the Bungalow have incurred. I order you all to leave the locality. May the inmates of the Bungalow live in peace”.

The instructions were that this should be read for three days in the morning in the presence of all those about me, and that, on the third day, a small quantity of frankincense should be put in the paper which should be folded and sent to him by post in a cover. The instructions were carried out for three days to the very letter, and I am glad to say that the mischief ceased and we continued to live in peace and happiness.

Ethno medical practices in Malabar show that many castes believed in propiating the Kutti Chatan to ward off the ill effects of a variety of ailments and occurrences such as scorpion bites or even barrenness in women. Another interesting aspect you would have gathered is that the Chattan was not restricted to the Hindus, they were also common as the ‘Chekuttypapa’ or Kanjirakudam among the Moplahs. PPA Razak explains in his paper that some Moplah homes had separate rooms and stools dedicated to such spirits.

There are so many such stories sprinkled in the accounts of real and educated people (KPS Menon also recounts a story in his ‘Many worlds’). Another interesting story is recounted by Saletore about a Jailor Amrit Rao of Mangalore who had dealt with a Moplah criminal wrongly or too severely. After enduring all this patiently, the man while leaving stated that the Jailor will suffer for all this. Within days the Kutti Chatan attack ensured and after enduring days of suffering, the jailor sought the help of a wizard from the Amin Divi (islands) to ward off the little devil.

The stories are many, the accounts seemingly real, but beliefs, legends and such myths are sometimes difficult to explain, spread across religions and are even more difficult to dispel if one is convinced he is affected. As Prof Bhaganath stated, “If you are afraid, your fear will make the illusion real, and then the crocodile will devour you”.

Religion and Magic among the Nayars: K. M. Panikkar - Man, Vol. 18 (July 1918)
The cult of Chathan and Sastha Worship – P Thankappan Nair, Quarterly journal of Mythic society, Vol 60. 1969
Chathan: A Devil or Disease? K. V. Krishna Ayyar - Man. Vol. 28 (Sep., 1928)
Indian Witchcraft- Rajaram Narayan Saletore
Net of Magic: Wonders and Deceptions in India – Lee Siegel
Nâyars of Malabar - F. Fawcett
The Mysore Tribes and Castes – LK Anantha Krishna Iyer
From Communitas to the structure of Islam: the Mappilas of Malabar -P.P. Abdul Razak