The Chottanikkara temple, near Kochi in Kerala, is a place that
attracts the mentally disturbed, who seek solace here when all else fails.
However, the scientifically misleading and socially cruel practices may well
leave the ordinary devotee troubled.
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. The doors of the shrine open and the hysteria rises to an
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 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.
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
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.
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.
is at Shiva’s and Sastha’s shrines, to the southwest of Devi, that the first stirrings of internal agitation
become outwardly manifest. Sastha is considered the goddess’ protector, and it
is to him and Shiva that prayers are first performed.
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.
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.
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 is 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.
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.
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 Bhadri narayana rise and fall.
Labels: Chottanikkara temple, Feature, Features, Kerala