The Intriguing Bharani Festival at Kodungallur

Where abusing an erotica loving goddess, is the tradition

Kodungallur is home to a Bhagawathy temple (Kurumba Kavu), where devotees throng every summer in a macabre celebration termed ‘Bharani’ when they sing songs filled with the choicest erotica and used to conduct unique sacrifices. Also noteworthy is the fact that at a time when lower castes were not allowed into other temples, this temple allowed all castes to throng in, and pollute the temple – for the Kavu Theendal. The idol is considered by some to be a manifestation of the famous Kannagi of Madurai and the temple supposedly has a sealed secret chamber in the Eastern side of the sanctum sanctorum, housing her remains. Kannagi, as you may recall, was a woman of virtue who brought havoc to the town of Madurai when a Pandyan king unjustly had her husband sent to the gallows. What connections can we dig out from the myths, fables, and legends around the temples and this erotic festival?

Kodungallur, Muziris, Vanchi, Tiruvanchikulam, Cranganore, are all names connected with a region (near today's Kochi) where Romans, Greeks, Thebans, and Arabs, eons ago, intermingled with the locals, in pursuit of free trade. It was also the capital town of the Chera dynasty, reigning over the kingdom of Malayala, or Cheranad. This was the locale where many asylees fleeing persecution from the west, as well as missionaries seeking to grow their folk arrived, such as the Syrian Christians, Jews, Moslems, and so on. Mixing with traders, they thrived for a period and interacted, amidst a tradition of peace and cosmopolitism.

The Cheras had incidentally displaced Buddhist and Jainist traditions in the region and Brahmanism was on the rise during the Sangam age (2nd – 3rd century CE). Fair-skinned brahmins from the North were coming in, creating a new feudal culture together with armies of warring Nairs. Chola and Pandya invasions followed and the Perumals of Makkotai took over Chernad in the 9th Century. After its decline by the end of the 12th century, individual kingdoms and suzerains came into existence and the well-known swaroopams or minor dynasties came into existence. The twin pillars of Vaishnavism and Saivism were soon to follow. Nevertheless, this legend takes you to a period just before the Hindu culture replaced Jainist and Buddhist traditions and ended up either destroying or converting their many viharas, into Hindu temples. But the departing Jains and Buddhists left behind remnants of their culture and the Bhagavati cult in today’s Kerala is considered one such.

Gananath Obeyesekere explains the transition in the 8th-13th centuries - First, Buddhists were pushed out of South India and settled on Sri Lanka’s west coast. Second, in South India itself the original Pattini cult was absorbed into the popular Hindu cults of Kali, Durga or Bhagavati. Third, another group of immigrants from Kerala settled on the east coast of Sri Lanka and were Hinduized. Their version of the goddess is that of a Hindu deity, but, unlike the situation in South India, the goddess is kept separate from the Kali cult and retains much of the quality of a folk deity, as in the Sinhala areas.

The story of Kannagi also dates back to the Sagam period and the heroine is intimately connected to the festival, so it is important to recap her sad tale. Kannagi, a virtuous woman residing at the port city of Puhar (North of Nagapatinam) in the Chola empire, is the central character of the epic Silapathikaram.  She is a chaste woman who remains with her husband despite his extramarital relationship with a courtesan Madhavi, and the beautifully narrated epic takes you through her travails and the attempts at reunification after Kovalan has a lover’s tiff with Madhavai. Kannagi and Kovalan then leave Puhar for the Pandyan ruled Madurai and here a ‘not so well off’ Kovalan is falsely framed (by a local goldsmith, of having robbed the queen’s anklet, when in reality, the one Kovalan was trying to sell, was one of Kannagi’s own anklets) for theft and sent to the gallows by an unjust Pandyan king. Kannagi, sad and furious at the gross injustice done, produces the second matching anklet to prove her husband’s innocence, then rips off her left breast and throws it at the city with an angry curse, setting it alight and destroying it. The Pandyan king dies in shock and the lamenting single-breasted (Ottamulachi) Kannagi then drifts on towards western ghats to Cheranad, towards the banks of the Vaigai river, and to the location called Chengunnu where she teams up with the celestial Kovalan and flies away to the heavens. The hill tribes witnessing the glorious sight, report this to their Chera emperor named Chenkuttavan. Deciding to honor her, he brings a memorial stone from the Himalayas and consecrates it at the temple in Tiruvanchikulam. This is the myth and legend associated with the Silappathikaram (Broken anklet).

This mythical poem penned by the Jainist Ilango Adikal, brother of the ruling Perumal Chenkuttavan (drawing from previous similar tales written by others- Ilango Adigal based his work on an earlier tale, a popular ballad called Kovalan Katai (The story of Kovalan)), had quite a following, so much so that and a cult named Kannagi or Pattini spread soon after in South Kerala and Lanka. Somehow it merged with the Kali or Bhagavathy goddess traditions prevalent in the region. There are many related arguments between historians, such as the dating of Chilappadhikaram itself - whether it belonged to the 2nd-century Sangam era, or the Kulashekaras of the 7th century when the Jains were evicted. There are many more areas of dispute such as the fact that early Bhagavathy kavu worship was already existent. Detractors of the Kannagi myth state that the idol at the temple has eight arms and is not mutilated, and that other Pattini idols possess both breasts. Many more questions arise, why situate a memorial of Kannagi in a temple? How can Hindus tolerate mortal remains in a temple? For that matter, was it a Hindu temple? Then again, was the chamber sealed after this Buddhist or Jainist shrine became a Hindu temple?

Induchudan who penned a detailed monograph on the temple, opines that it was originally a Siva temple and that the remains of Kannagi (memorial stone/menhir/idol?) were placed in a megalith or rock-cut cave close to the temple, for it was a practice of that time to bury important persons near Siva shrines. He also believes that the Chengunnu location can be placed at Tiruchenganrur, two miles distant from the Kondungallur temple. This then became the Kurumba kavu due to the involvement of the Kururmba hill tribes of Kurinji. The Kurumba’s or Kuravas worshipped the Kannagi shrine just like they worshipped the Vetachi (huntress).

Let’s take a look at the rituals and festivals now associated with this goddess, be it Kali or a manifestation of Kannagi. It occurs in the Malayalam month of Meenam (about March or April). Starting with the act of Kavu Theendal, a man of the goldsmith caste (thattan) goes around the temple 7 times on the Bharani asterism, in the month of Kumbham, and rings the temple bell, signifying the start of the pollution at the sacred premises. After flags are hung on the tress, the temple doors are thrown open to all and sundry, and celebrations start.

As Gopala Panikkar states succinctly - Rice, salt, chillies, curry-stuffs, betel leaves and nuts, a little turmeric powder and pepper, and, above all, a number of cocks form an almost complete paraphernalia of the pilgrimage. These are all gathered and preserved in separate bundles inside a large bag. When the appointed hour comes, they throw this bag on their shoulders, conceal their money in their girdles, and, with a native-fashioned umbrella in the one hand and a walking-stick in the other, they start, each from his own house, to meet the brother pilgrims at the rendezvous.

Cock sacrifices start approximately a week earlier when the Nairs from the North and the South of Kodungallur arrive and many cock heads are slit and their blood split on two stones situated outside the temple. One should take note of the fact that the ceremony commences with the sacrifice of two cocks brought in from the families of the Tatcholi Othenan (you can read my article on him here) the renowned fighter (17th century) and Karampilly Kurup in North Malabar. This is later followed by cock sacrifices by other castes such as the Tiyyas, Izhavas, and the Pulayars.

The Adigal priests now take over, and the Kodungallur Raja comes to witness the celebrations. Crowds throng the temple, both locals and hill tribes. Led by the velichappad or oracle, they surge in and pollute the temple enmasse. Sweet molasses payasam is served to the worshippers while the cock sacrifices continue, and pepper and turmeric is thrown around the premises. In addition, the Palakkal Velan is also invited to pollute the premises, and all types of devotees throw their offerings over the walls, while a lamp is lit at the North door to represent Bhadrakali’s victory over Daruka. So much for the Kavu Theendal.

Checking now for Kannagi connections, on can directly identify the villain in the celebrations, which is the goldsmith, who is called upon first, to pollute the temple. Interestingly the Pandyan king had in the original tale, tried to appease Kannagi, by killing some 1,000 goldsmiths of Madurai, perhaps this is what the cock sacrifice signifies. Others mention that blood sacrifices are all part of Kali worship. The priestly classes attached to it are not Brahmins, but a peculiar sect called Adigals, of whom there are but three families in the whole of Malabar. If you recall, Ilango was an adiga, thus indicating the Jain link. Also, Kavundi Adiga in the Siliappdhikaram was a Jain nun. Unlike every other Kerala temple where Nambuthiri’s (and Tulu Moosads) are the sole priests, here we come across Adiga’s. As they got involved in these forbidden rituals, they were degraded, caste-wise. There is a Lankan connection as well, signifying a Buddhist link, for it is mentioned that Gajabahu, the Lankan king was present during the Kannagi consecration, and we can also note that Manimekhalai, the daughter of Kovalan and Kannagi, is believed to have come to Vanchi to become an ascetic. Take note here that the Kannagi connections are more popular with the masses between Cochin and Travancore, not necessarily in Malabar, for some reason, according to C Achuytha Menon (Kali worship in Kerala).

The devotees during their pilgrimage march and upon arrival sing obscene songs (their pattu). These songs typically describe the sexual organs of the male and female and narrate sexual acts in the most graphic fashion you can imagine, all raw and in crude words. They are sung along the way and even in the temple premises, though not inside the sanctum (sreekovil). Both men and women sing these songs, though the numbers of women partaking are somewhat lower. No orgies or vulgar acts take place though suggestive actions are exhibited by the singers, nor are any women in the throng subjected to any groping or other acts (These days it is a bit different – A researcher attending the festival says her bottom was pinched).

Why all this is done is not very well explained, though some opine that it depicts orgies conducted at Pukar during an event called the “chandolsavam” or the moon festival, mentioned in the epic. The imbibing of liquor during the march shows an apparent connection to Indra, as at some time agriculture perished, famines occurred and so Indra had to be appeased for rains. This was signified even when Chenkuttavan was consecrating the idol, for he consumed Madhu, symbolically.

Some others however opine that the always angry Bhagavati goddess being an unmarried virgin, likes to hear such songs and fantasize, and so they sing to calm her lust this way. This is also needed to calm the rage within the goddess and appease her since she controls the land, its produce and the onset of any sickness. Some scholars opine that the Bharanippattu (theripattu – lewd songs) began when lower castes were instigated by the Namboothiris to sing lewd songs in order to drive out the Buddhist or Jain monks away from Kodungallur. Researchers ask us to note that upper castes had set a moral standard for male-female relations or sex and that these songs are simply about human organs, lust and desire, nevertheless sung in public and in devotion to the goddess.

There is yet another story related to the singing. It appears that Kannangi was propositioned by an amorous Nalachan while Kovalan was alive and sleeping. Legend has it that she asked him to come to Vanchi for a tryst at a later date. After all the events, the burning of Madurai and so on, and Kannagi’s arrival at Vanchi, it appears that Nalachan came to Vanchi, only to be turned into a stone by the angry Kannagi. But she remembered her promise to satiate him and it is for this reason that devotees were encouraged to sing these songs in order to satisfy Nalachan’s desire.

A tantric angle is also offered by Shweta, a researcher – She explains that the Kodungalloor temple is believed to follow an amalgamation of Samayacharam and Kavalcharam traditions of worship. One of the most important systems of pooja within these two traditions is the Panchamakaram pooja. Under this, there must be five offerings for every worship - malsyam, mamsam, maithunam, mudra and madyam (fish, meat, sex, grain and alcohol, respectively). Most of these offerings are represented symbolically and the theripaatu is the symbolic representation of maithunam - the offering of sex. Her explanation for the theripaatu was that, talking about sex, simulating it, often tricks the body into setting up an energy flow. Talking about it and chanting it in a rhythmic way, in a collective, helps the body release the same energy.

A rough translation of one of these profane songs follows – Tanaro tannaro taka, Tanaro tannaro, If you have to f$%k Kodungallur Amma, (the goddess), one has to have a co$k like a flagpost, Tanaro tannaro taka, Tanaro tannaro… Now, as I don’t have a co$k like a flag post, I had to borrow one from Bhima, the giant ….There are many more, just head over to youtube for samples..

The singing itself is carefully organized, where each group has a leader or foreman, who sings each line and the others repeat vociferously. Thus, many obscene songs, interspersed with local ballads, characterize the pilgrimage route to Kodungallur and the return after the festival. While some may find this all vulgar and indecent, revolting to every sense of decency, it is perhaps a catharsis to the repressed, a way of letting it all out during the pilgrimage. Many liters of arrack are consumed and as we saw, they then offer the cock sacrifices, turmeric powder, and principally a lot of pepper, so also some other objects of lesser importance. In the temple, manjal prasadam (turmeric powder blessed by the goddess) is given to the devotees, by young maidens, who are, as you can imagine, subjected to volleys of vile and vulgar abuse.  Tulabharam, i.e., weighing a person against items of offering to the goddess to thank her for recovery from a disease, for example, is common. The items are plantains, rice, and principally pepper. I can only guess wildly that pepper was the principal item of export in Vanchi or Muziris in ancient times and so this became a favorite offering.

Now, this was how it was once upon a time; I am not so sure how it is regulated these days! As far as the cock sacrifice is concerned, the popular idea is that the greater the number of cocks sacrificed, the greater is the efficacy of the pilgrimage. So, groups of devotees use to vie with one another in the number of cocks that they carry on the journey, and in the procession are many oracles both male and female, brandishing their curved swords.

Gopala Panikkar explains how it was once, for it is banned these days- The sacrifice is begun, and then there takes place a regular scramble for the sanctified spot reserved for this butchering ceremony. One man holds a cock by the trunk, and another pulls out its neck by the head, and, in the twinkling of an eye, by the intervention of a sharpened knife, the head is severed from the trunk. The blood then gushes forth in forceful and continuous jets, and is poured on a piece of granite specially reserved. Then another is similarly slaughtered, and then as many as each of the pilgrims can bring. In no length of time, the whole of the temple yard is converted into one horrible expanse of blood, rendering it too slippery to be safely walked over. The piteous cries and death throes of the poor devoted creatures greatly intensify the horror of the scene. The stench emanating from the blood mixing with the nauseating smell of arrack renders the occasion all the more revolting.

As the Bharani festival day draws to a close, the devotees start their trek back home. The temple doors are shut and for the next seven days, the agitated goddess rests. The temple is cleaned and as the belief goes, according to Panikkar - For the next seven days, the whole place is given over to the worst depredations of the countless demons over whom this blood-thirsty goddess holds sway. No human beings can safely remain there, lest they might become prey to these ravenous demons. In short, the Bharani day inaugurates a reign of terror in the locality, lasting for these seven days. Afterwards, all the dirt is removed. The temple is cleansed and sanctified, and again left open to public worship.

After the festival, the devotees go home, distribute the prasadam and go about their normal activities, calmer now that much of the pent-up frustrations have been vented. As one can imagine, there are other connections also mentioned, such as the similarity of the Pattini cult to the goddess Isis of Egypt. They find parallels between the story of Isis and Osiris to the Kannagi story, the 14-day lunar cycle between the time Kannagi saw the celestial Kovalan compared to the 14 pieces of Osiris and the fact that he was the lunar god.

But as Induchudan explains, the temple is not just a Kannaki temple. The main kavu is for the Bhagavati with normal rituals, while the Kannagi remains are in the secret chamber which connects to the main temple through a secret tunnel. During the Bharani Festival, a red cloth, one of the goddess's symbols worn by devotees and given in offering to the goddess, separates the chamber between the tomb and the Kali sanctum. One should not cross this limit, and if they do it, they go blind. When the Pattini cult was extant according to Induchudan, new members were initiated and reborn after passing through this tunnel, and Atikals performed the services. The Kavu thindal is performed for the Kannagi and the oracle or the velichapadu always carries the sword and wears an anklet, the chilambu.

An interesting aside to all this is that the Zamorin once went to watch the Bharani at Kodungallur, and it was during this event that the Dutch attack took place and the famed Cheraman sword was partially destroyed.

The Secret Chamber – V T Induchudan
Re-reading Caste and Gender: A Study of the rituals of Kodungallaur Sri Kurumba Bhagavathy Temple of Kerala- S Sudheesh & Athira Prakash (IJTSRD 2018)
Scandalizing the Goddess at Kodungallur - M. J. Gentes
Malabar & its folk – TK Gopala Panikkar
Sanitizing the profane – Shweta Radhakrishnan
Religion, Ritual and Liminality: A Study of the Kavu Theendal Festival at Kodungallur – Dr Seetha Vijayakumar

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