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CASTE-BASED DISCRIMINATION: Kodungallur Bharani and Human Rights

Dr. [Fr.] J. J. Pallath


An annual "lawless situation" for one day or a certain number of days for the ritually or socially free expression of pent-up emotions is practised in every culture, both ancient and modern. Valentine's Day on Feb. 14 and April Fools' Day on April 1 in India and the West are some instances in modern cultures.

The Kodungallur Bharani Festival (Temple Festival), one of the oldest in the Indian state of Kerala, a festival which was traditionally celebrated by the low-caste Avarnas, has been one such ritual celebration where people throughout Kerala come together to sing sexually obnoxious songs with their families or clans throughout the state to celebrate the lawless situation and to go into a trance to relax themselves emotionally. Irrespective of age and position in the family, parents, grandparents, young daughters, sons and great grandchildren sing together in unison the sexual songs in honour of the Hindu goddess Bhagavati. William Logan, a social historian of Kerala, noted in 1887 that, "after Onam, the national festival, Kodungallur Bharani was the most important celebration in Kerala."

With widespread English education and the accompanying cultural domination in the last century, the indigenous celebration has been progressively taken over by the high-caste Savarnas, who organised themselves under a swami (Hindu monk) a decade ago and prohibited the sexual singing, arguing that it goes against the moral sensitivity of the public and "true devotees." When the low-caste people fiercely objected, the government handed over the celebration to the police as a law-and-order issue. Today the police harass the devotees for whom annual singing and entering into a trance is as essential as food for their normal life. The glamour of the celebration has thus been diminished, and the crowds have decreased as the police round up devotees while they are enroute to the festival. As a consequence of such numerous bans on annual indigenous-free celebrations, Kerala has the highest suicide rate among the states in India.

The Problem

We were on our way to participate in the Kodungallur Bharani, which is known for its poorappattu (sexually obnoxious songs). Reaching Guruvayoor, an upper-caste temple town, a group of people - men and women clad in red clothes who must have been from the same clan or area who looked very much like folk - rushed into our bus. A half-empty bus suddenly became crowded. The men were obviously drunk but looked quite different from ordinary aggressive alcoholics; they had already reached an emotional peak almost in the state of a trance. Though the women were not drunk with liquor, they were drunk with devotion to the goddess Bhadra Kali, and the emotional state of both men and women was of the same plane.

In the crowded bus, one of them began singing devotional "filthy" sexual songs. The conductor, obviously an upper-caste person, shouted him down and threatened to throw him off the bus. We questioned the conductor and encouraged the person to sing. Enthused by our support, the clan chief took up the lead, and all of the clan, including women and children, started singing in unison sexually foul songs. Some songs were traditional; others were composed on the spot. They did not spare the conductor who shouted at them either. They instantly made up songs rebuking him. An irritated conductor finally yielded and agreed to allow half an hour of singing.

Meanwhile, we noticed that the conductor was warning upper-caste women waiting at bus stops that the repugnant sex songs were being sung in the bus. The women appreciated the moral sense of the conductor and did not get on the bus. When the allotted time was up, the conductor ordered the singing to stop and threatened to call the police. We too asked the singers to stop, lest they end up in jail due to our misplaced enthusiasm. Only after the singing was stopped did the conductor begin taking passengers, particularly women.

We expected that the singing would be allowed at least in Kodungallur, a town mainly known for poorappattu. To our surprise though, the small town was reverberating with the devotional songs of Kodungallur Amma (Mother Goddess) that had been recently rendered on cassette by the film actor and singer Kala Bhavan Mani. Hundreds of temporary cassette shops were selling only devotional songs. We were saddened by the artificial situation in Kodungallur, a folk-temple town.

We thought though that the sex songs would be freely allowed within the temple. To our shock, the intensity of the ban was at its maximum inside the temple walls. Groups of folk people in families, clans and from specific areas were coming like a wave spontaneously singing sexual, mucky songs and dancing - some in a trance, others in a dazed state. Numerous policemen, deployed both in plainclothes and in uniform inside the temple, were immediately censuring the songs. Consequently, there was a lurking fear of the police. Some singers stopped at the sight of the police. Other enterprising ones quarrelled with the police. Some singers were taken into custody for not stopping at the sight of the police. The police also beat up a few people for going into a trance. Thus, the entire celebration and its emotional expressions were censured, supervised and closely monitored by the police, causing grave emotional distress and discontentment to the devotees.

For a Keralite, Kodungallur Bharani is a synonym for sexually foul songs, or poorappattu, of lawlessness and also freedom symbolised in the Kavutheendal ceremony. There is a lot of misgivings about this ritual celebration, so much so that some "civilised" people without any serious reflection and study wanted them to stop, which has resulted in conflicts, and the tension still persists. The State has very decisively intervened, naturally without any serious study, taking very naively the "tension" as a law-and-order problem; and at present, the entire celebration is under the supervision and control of the police.

In this article, the celebration will be examined from an anthropological point of view by exploring how emotional expressions are stylised to satisfy the moral injunctions of the middle class. Moreover, the article notes the control imposed on the devotees. The police are insensitive and ruthless in dealing with the devotees, and the people resent it. The devotees are helpless to change this situation, however. Still, to my knowledge, no serious study of this ritual, its psychosocial significance and the human rights violations involved have been undertaken.


Kodungallur is important not only in the history of Kerala but also of India. It has reference in the epics Ramayana and Mahabharatha. The poets Pathanjali and Karthiyayan have referred to it in their poems; it also finds reference in the Chilappathikaram. Kodungallur is mentioned in the stone writings of Asoka
as well and mention is found in the travelogues of both Plieni and Ptolemy under different names.

Kodungallur is on the banks of the river Periyar where it joins the Arabian Sea. Being a coastal town and a geographically strategic place, it became the largest and most important harbour of ancient India. Kodungallur was known as one of the four gates to India along with Chennai (Madras) on the east coast, Kolcotta (Calcutta) in the northeast and Mumbai (Bombay) in the west. It had trade relations and the accompanying cultural exchanges with such civilisations as Rome, Babylonia, Egypt, Phoenicia, Alexandria, Arabia, China, Siam and Greece. An average of 100 ships were said to be operating from the harbour of Kodungallur at the height of its glory. It should be remembered that while the other three ancient harbours - Chennai, Kolcotta and Mumbai - became three out of the four modern metropolitan cities in the country (the other being New Delhi)

Kodungallur has been reduced to an insignificant village in terms of modern development. A flood in 1341 is said to be the reason for its destruction and trade relations with the outside world. Still, Kodungallur was the capital of kings and dukes for several centuries in modern times, and they maintained its cultural uniqueness and traditional gaiety.

Kodungallur is the meeting place of all of the world's religions and cultures. The first Christian church, the first Muslim mosque and the first Jewish synagogue in India were built in Kodungallur. Because of its importance, several wars were fought on its soil. The Samurins, the British, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the Tippu sultan attacked Kodungallur. Still, it maintained its uniqueness. It is said that Elangovadiyar wrote Chilapathikaram in Kodungallur, and it is from here the poet Kunjikuttan Thampuran rendered the epic Mahabharatha into Malayalam. There was a Gurukulam in Kodungallur, which was as famous as the Nalanda, Thakshsila and Sree Kasi.

The Kodungallur Temple

Kodungallur Sree Kurumba Bhagavati Temple plays an important role in the history of Kerala. The Kodungallur temple is one of the four Devi temples which Bhargava Raman is said to have installed at the four boundaries of Kerala. The popular belief is that in order to save the devotees from the epidemic of chicken pox the Lokambika was installed in the Kodungallur temple by Bhargava Raman. The responsibilities and rituals in the temple are classified and distributed among different categories of people, and the rights, duties and titles are distributed according to their work, skill and taste. That Brahmins have no rights in this temple is a thing to be noted. This is one of those rare temples where the Brahmins are not performing the pooja. The officiating priests in the temple are known as Adikal, who are outcaste Brahmins.

The Deities Venerated in the Temple

Though the goddess Devi Prathishta is facing the north, importance is given to the thekke nada (southern gate). The eastern gate is also important because the Holy of Holies (Rehasiya Arra, literal meaning, the secret room) is facing east. The chakras installed by both Bhargava Raman and Adi Sankarachariar are in the secret room. The Ganepathi Prethishta is in the southeast corner facing west. The Seven Mother Deities (Saptha Mathrukkal Prethishta) are facing north. The pallival and chilanka (sword and ornament) of the goddess are venerated in the Pallimada Shetram in the northern side. Thavittu Muthi, facing west, and Vasurimala Shetram, facing north, are situated outside the chuttambalam (encircling wall). One "chicken stone" (koshikkallu) in the eastern gate and two "chicken stones" at the northern gate are installed.

Siva is the main deity venerated in the sreekovil (main temple) today. The other subordinate deities mentioned above are installed according to the rites and prescriptions of a Siva temple. Some of the essential deities, Dhwara Palakar and Nandi, as well as the kodimaram (flag post) that go with the Siva pantheon are missing in the Kodungallur temple, an omission which is believed to be due to successive
attacks and destruction of the temple.

Kodungallur Thalla/Amma

Chamundi, one of the Seven Mothers, is venerated and worshipped in the temple, and the rites and rituals are patterned after appeasing the goddess Chamundi. A serene and composed Devi with eight hands after killing Dharuka is venerated in different incarnations. This is said to be the uniqueness as well as the glory of the Kodungallur Mother Goddess (Amma). Devi is worshipped as Sarawathi during Navarathri festivities, Mahalekshmi during Thalappoli festivities and Dhurga during Meenabharani celebrations. The Tamil devotees venerate Devi as Kannaki. For the people of Kodungallur, Devi is Kodungallur Amma. Over and above all else, Devi takes different forms according to the different times of the day. Accordingly, Devi is considered to be Saraswathi in the early morning, Dhurga in the late morning, Bhatra Kali in the afternoon and Parvathi in the evening. Some devotees think that the same deity of Lokanar Kavu near Vadakara in northern Kerala is venerated as Kodungallur Amma and that is the reason why the people of Vadakara are given special importance in the Kodungallur Bhagavati Shetram. The peculiarity here is that, though people venerate the deity under different forms, there is no difference in the rituals.

Kodungallur Meena Bharani

Among the high feast celebrations (Maholsawams), the most important and the most famous is the Bharani festivity. Though the celebration is simple without elephants and other accompanying extravaganzas, thousands come from all over the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

The Meena Bharani celebration lasts more than a month, from the Bharani of the month of Kumba to the day of Pooyam of the following month of Meena. On the day of Kumba, Bharani begins the celebration with flag-hoisting. Covering of Koszhikallu, which is the beginning of the high celebration, is on the day of Thiruvonam in the month of Meenam. The celebration reaches its peak on the three days of Revathi, Aswathi and Bharani. On Revathi, the important ritual is seeing the Revathi Lamp; and on Aswathi, it is the ritual of Thrichambaracharthu. On the day of Bharani is the famous ritual of Kavu Theendal. After this ritual, the nada (entrance) is closed, and it will be opened only on the day of Pooyam after seven days.

With this, the celebration comes to an end.

Devotees come for the Bharani in groups wearing red clothes with a sword and wearing aramani (small bells tied to the waist) and chilanka (a leg ornament that makes a sound while walking) in a devotional trance rhythmically running and jumping and melodiously yelling and shouting, "Devi Sharanam. '' They march as if they were going to a battlefield. The continuous flow of such large and small groups to the temple from far-off places is a rare sight in temple celebrations.

The devotees believe that Devi will protect them from their misfortunes that arise out of enmity, evil spirits, the effect of black magic and from all dangers in life. The emotions of fear, devotion, hatred, jubilation - in short, all rasas (emotions) - are displayed by the devotees as they march towards the temple entrance. In fact, it is a celebration of total emotions, and the devotees uninhibitingly indulge in it in the presence of Kodungallur Amma.

The participants in the celebrations are known as Bharanikkar (people who come for Bharani). Those who come from the south are known as Thekker (people from the south), and those who come from the north are identified as Vadakker (people from the north). Within the temple, the devotees address themselves as mooppan (elder). It is commonly believed that the most important day of the festivity is the day of Aswathi; but from the point of view of the people's participation and emotional involvement and display, the day of Revathi (i. e., the day before Aswathi) is more important. This is the day that the lower-caste people from all over Kerala and Tamil Nadu come to worship the goddess Thalla.


The Pulaya family attached to the temple has its own rights, which are maintaining a parallel small temple known as the Keezhkkavu (low-caste temple). The Pulaya also have clear and important rights in the temple celebration.

The Keezhkkavu is traditionally managed by a Pulaya family known under the special title Vallon, which has rights and special privileges in the Kodungallur temple. In the Melkkavu (upper-caste temple) celebration, the Keezhkkavu has a significant role in the performance of rites and rituals.

The present myth circulated about the Keezhkkavu by high-caste people is that the couple, Vallon and his wife Chakki, belonging to the Pulaya caste, immigrated to the present place out of fear of Asura called Daruka. This place is known as Pulayappadam as only Pulayas inhabited the area. The chieftain of the Pulayas was given the honorary title Vallon for looking after Pulayappadam.

After beheading Daruka, Bhatra Kali came to the Pulaya hut with Daruka's head to dispel the fear of the Pulaya couple, and she lived with them for 14 days. While living with the Pulaya couple, Devi ate fried husk, toddy and chicken. A happy and contented Devi blessed them and disappeared, saying that her presence will always be there and that the food that was s e r ved to her can be used as an offering to her by the devotees.

The king who came to know about this story built a small temple and erected a statue that is worshiped even today.

Devi also promised Vallon that she would come to Pulayappadam seven days in a year so that he need not take the trouble to go to the Melkkavu. From that day onward, no male member of the Vallon family went to the Melkkavu to worship; women did not strictly follow it, however. Though the men from the Vallon family do not go inside the temple, they do pay respect (darsan) to Devi from outside the temple and take a holy bath from the temple pond. They follow these practices even today.

The Rituals at the Keezhkkavu

On Kumbabharani every year, the annual festival of the Melkkavu starts with a flag-hoisting ceremony. That day, before beginning the flag-hoisting ceremony, along with offering a cock, other rituals are performed in the Keezhkkavu. The same is true also for the Kozhikallu Moodal (Covering the Chicken Stone) ceremony that takes place as a preparation for the annual Meenabharani celebration during which the singing of sexually abusive songs and pollution of the Kavu takes place. A temporary pavilion is built at the Keezhkkavu that is known as Thallakke Pandal Virikkal (making a tent for mother; thalla is the most pure Malayalam word for mother, which is out of use today). After this ceremony, it is believed that the presence of Devi increases in Pulayappadam. The picture with four hands of Devi is drawn using different coloured powders in the pavilion. The people from Kadathanade, a place in northern Kerala, have the right to do this. Pooja and other rituals will be performed, and the offering is always husk, toddy and chicken - the food that was offered to Devi when she first came to Pulayappadam.

On Aswathi, the second day of the three-day main celebration - Revathi, Aswathi and Bharani - the Vallon and his helpers pay a ritual visit to the thamburan (ruler) and receive pattu (a piece of silk cloth), valu (a sword), vala (a bangle), mala (a chain) and vadi (a stick). He then goes to the temple for darsan in a procession to the accompaniment of a drum. Three times he goes around the temple and comes back to the Keezhkkavu and climbs the tattu, a temporarily built tower. This ritual is known as Vallon Tattu Kayari (Vallon Claimed the Tower). The Vallon remains on the tower, receiving offerings and the blessing of devotees until the Kanu Theendal ceremony is over in the Melkkavu. After climbing down from the tower, offerings, sacrificing cocks and other rituals take place.

The Chavalakar (people from Chavala) and Oodikkar (people from Oodi) go to the Melkkavu only after visiting the Keezhkkavu first. Similarly, most of the devotees who come from the north and south pay a visit to the Keezhkkavu and break coconuts before they return.

On the day of Bharani after the morning pooja, after erasing the kalam (the picture of Devi with four hands), the spot is covered with red silk cloth. The olakkuda (coconut-leaf umbrella) is placed in the
kalam on the eastern side, and the lamp is lit. This lamp remains until the pooja begins in the Melkkavu after seven days. On all seven days, a cock will be sacrificed every evening.

On the day when the Melkkavu is opened after seven days of "mourning," there is the ceremony of sacrificing the cock (Guruthi). The valliathampuran (ruler) used to participate in this ceremony with the santhikaran (officiating priest). It was the custom, after the Guruthi at the Keezhkkavu, that they immediately go to the Melkkavu to open the nada (temple gate) for the public to worship. This was considered as escorting Devi from the Keezhkkavu to the Melkkavu, but this custom has been discontinued for the last several years. Likewise, for the last several years, there is not Desaguruthi in the Keezhkkavu. The absence of a
Velichappad is said to have been the reason for it.

The last Velichappad died about a century ago. No suitable person has been identified thus far. The presence of a Velichappad is inevitable for the Desaguruthi. When Devi is taken from the Melkkavu to the Keezhkkavu and back, the Vallon should be accompanying Devi with his official dress and status symbol, a cane stick. During the ceremony, the Vallon should stand on the northern side of the Guruthi pavilion. While this ceremony is taking place, the Melkkavu is open, and the valliathampuran was to stand as a sentry at the Melkkavu until Devi returns after the ceremony in the Keezhkkavu. Similarly, the Vallon returns only after accompanying Devi back to the Melkkavu.

Kodungallur Bharani - A Highly Complex Ritual Celebration

The Kodungallur Bharani celebration is highly complex, which is a deposit of the contradictions of its long and unique history. The entire stratum of society and culture is represented, as it were in a mirror, in a more than one month ritual celebration. One extinct ruler of the area, Thamburan, is still the head of the celebration. In addition to him, there is a people's organisation known as Onnukrureye Aayiram Yogam (Nine Hundred and Ninety-Nine Brotherhood) looking after the administration of the temple as well as the annual feast celebrations. Over and above the Devasam board, the government machinery has its own controls and claims over the temple.

Different castes from throughout Kerala have their right and share in the temple through their althara (a small platform around the pipal tree). There are numerous castes that have direct involvement in the ritual celebrations - Nairs, Palakavelan, Pulayan, Chaliyas, Vallovan Arayan and several other castes. The Adikal are the officiating priests. Brahmins have only a nominal role outside the temple for vechunivathiyam. How these former untouchable castes and high castes worked together for centuries in the Kodungallur temple is a fascinating inquiry.

High-Caste Appropriation of Low-Caste Places of Worship

It is a significant phenomenon in India that all the important popular worship places of low-caste people, which shot to fame as a moneymaking source, were progressively appropriated by the high castes. Thus, the most popular Sabirimala temple, the Sree Krishna temple in Guruvayoor, the Muthappan temple in Parassinikadav, Sreepadmanabha Shektram in Trivandrum, Madai Kavu in Kannur,

Valliyoorkkavu in Wayanad, Malliswaran temple in Attappady, etc., in Kerala once belonged to the low-caste people and were taken over by the high castes. It is a pattern throughout India. A low-caste connection can be traced in all the moneymaking pilgrim centres in India today. Interestingly, in all these temples, a low-caste person will have a right (avakasam) in the key annual celebrations of the temple, such as performing rites for the flag ceremony or performing the first pooja to begin the celebration or lighting the first lamp on the eve of the celebration or holding the lamp in front of the procession, etc. The untouchability of the polluted caste will be temporarily lifted to perform these rites in the temple. Once the rite has been completed though, the low-caste person is yet again a polluting person who is prohibited from going anywhere near the temple.

The Strategy of Appropriation Stylisation of Emotions The stylisation of emotions is a global phenomenon. The main concern of invariably all world religions is to stylise the emotions, which eventually mean their "middle classisation." A religion's strategy for the "middle classisation" of emotions is a kind of organised campaign for the control of the emotions. Emotion is that unique energy in humans that is not meant for controlling; its very existence is through expression. Control of emotion is the same as drying up its very source. People who claim to have controlled emotions are the ones who have lost them forever - never to be retrieved.

Another of the religious strategies for drying up emotions is the elimination of negative emotions. Human emotions are found to have another unique feature, that is, they have no positive or negative aspects.

It is one unit, which is expressed in different ways. The great Indian tradition has divided it into nine main categories, namely, resas, which have several subsidiary resas. Dividing emotions into positive and negative is a cultural category. Negative emotions in one culture will be positive in another and vice versa. Thus, in suppressing negative emotions, we unknowingly suppress positive emotions too. From the point of view of culture, the "middle classisation" of emotion is the biggest threat to humanity today. All the cruelty to, and even the total annihilation of the indigenous, folk, tribal and Dalit people, are in the name of controlling the negative emotions in them; there is an attempt to "civilise," or "middle classise," them emotionally.

In the Kodungallur Bharani celebration, what occurs is exactly the "middle classisation" of emotions. The Bharani celebration with the poorappattu had been undisturbed until a decade ago. As part of Hindu fundamentalism, some puritan Hindu Saniyasins got the idea of reforming the celebration by suppressing the sexual songs. Five years ago a Hindu swami who wanted to block the singing by force created a war-like situation. He led a group of upper-caste people to prevent the low castes from singing sexual songs. With that incident, the police, which are the arm of middle-class society, were given the charge of censuring and supervising the singing. Recently, police officers have taken this opportunity to prove their moral integrity by imposing stricter measures to prevent people from singing sexual songs and entering into a trance.

Stylisation of Rituals

The stylisation of rituals is another strategy used by the upper castes to take over low-caste worship places. Low-caste celebrations, as well as their decorations and movements, are thought to be crude, rough and uncouth as well as disorderly. Conversely, high-caste celebrations are considered to be orderly, systematic and well planned with sophisticated movements; they are smooth and "civilized." The upper castes first tell the low castes that their celebrations and ritual performances are crude and unacceptable to the deity. In this vacuum, they fill in the upper-caste religious rituals and performances in the name of their superior stylised quality.

The Keezhkkavu celebrations in Kodungallur are still kept very folk-like and are treated as something low and undignified. Only low-caste devotees go to the Keezhkkavu, and those who go there are given to understand that they are low by the stepmotherly treatment meted out to them. The entire celebration in the Keezhkkavu is dominated by the high castes whose involvement in the entire ceremony is condescending. The upper castes very clearly state that their involvement in the Keezhkkavu celebration is to make it a civilised celebration. The impression that upper castes still hold is that low castes are unable to
manage affairs

Sanskritisation of Temple Feasts

Sanskritisation means the process by which a low-caste person becomes high caste in the caste hierarchy. Low-caste worship places were open areas, and the deities were installed on a small platform often inside a grove. Kerala earlier had thousands of such sacred groves that were destroyed either by modern culture and education or by the Sanskritisation process. The sacred groves were Sanskritised by building temples on the model of high-caste temples over the original installation of the deity on the platform. Often the groves themselves were destroyed to build temples and square-shaped buildings called Nalukettu around the temple. Once the temple is walled, the low castes, the very people to whom the grove originally belonged, were forbidden to enter the temple. The Holy of Holies, which was originally the god-installation of the low castes on the open-air platform, becomes unapproachable to them. Thus, low castes become outcastes from their own worship places. In most of the famous temples in India, the Holy of Holies are still the original low-caste installations of the indigenous deities.

This process also continues in the performance of rituals. In all of the sacred groves of the low castes, priests from the respective castes were performing the ceremonies and officiating at the sacred rituals. Slowly, the high castes introduced their priests and took over the temple celebrations. This process is done in a very subtle and cunning way. The high-caste priest begins with performing only some of the poojas of the newly introduced high-power high-caste deities. Slowly and systematically, they take over the entire celebration, and the low-caste priest subsequently finds himself one fine morning an outcaste in his own
sacred grove or temple.

The Kodungallur Bharani celebration is an example of this phenomenon. The Keezhkkavu, meaning low temple, was the original worship place, and it remains even today a roofless platform with the original installation of Thalla, or Devi. It was slowly taken over by the upper castes and made a different temple called Melkkavu, meaning upper temple, in a central place.

Absorption of Low-Caste Myths, Symbols, Rituals and Language

In India, the strategy followed by the dominant cultures to domesticate the subaltern cultures was absorption rather than destruction as against the Western style. The invading cultures very cleverly used the religion which permeated the entire life of the people at that time. The dominant invading people integrated their own myths, symbols and rituals into the existing indigenous myths, symbols and rituals of the people and slowly absorbed them into the former's way of life. This process is illustrated in the Kodungallur Bharani celebration. In the original myth of the celebration, the worshipping deity was Bhatra Kali, but today only low-caste people who come from far-off places refer to the goddess Bhatra Kali and address her lovingly in the most colloquial language, Thalla (Mother). The high castes who control the celebrations today call her Devi; and instead of Thalla, they use Amma, which is a stylised high Malayalam word.

Dividing the Low Castes over Worship Places

In all the temples appropriated by the upper castes, they have divided the original low-caste people who owned the place of worship. The upper castes followed a uniform pattern everywhere. First, they support a particular family or person and give special honours, rights and privileges through which they isolate the family or person from the rest of society. The family or person, thus cultivated by the upper castes, automatically imbibes the upper-caste values and lifestyle, inviting the envy and hatred of the rest of the low-caste people in the area. It is always found that such families or people always take the same stand as the high castes. Once the isolation is complete, the honoured low-caste family or person is a puppet in the hands of the high castes. Then slowly and steadily all the rights and privileges granted are withdrawn one by one under some pretext or another to make the family or the person a non-entity.

This is exactly what happened in the case of the Kodungallur temple. Pulayappadam was a Pulaya caste settlement. All except the family of the Payyambilly Vallon left the area when he was handpicked by the Thampuran as the only rightful heir of the Keezhkkavu. A Pulaya settlement, which originally occupied more than six acres of land, is now left with just 30 cents, and that too is only based on an oral agreement. Moreover, this patch of land is now under attack by the neighbouring high castes. The present Vallon has no guarantee that his son will be made the next Vallon, a custom that has been followed for generations. Being a single family in the area, they are not able to withstand the intimidating pressures of the high castes. As we have observed above, the importance of the Keezhkkavu is being slowly reduced by the upper castes by discontinuing some key ceremonies under the pretext of lame excuses.

The Ban on Poorappattu and Human Rights

Human rights, it seems, has been defined on the basis of the Western (colonial and Christian) understanding of the human person. The Western worldview seems to understand human nature as exclusively static and universal. The universal understanding of human rights is, it appears, derived from this understanding. The Vatican has recently criticised cultural relativism, which, it appears, is an indirect attack on cultural diversity.

The idea of the person in culture and society is taken seriously; human nature differs from culture to culture, though certain universal elements are basic to human beings. Western morality though is not even able to come to terms with the gay and lesbian phenomenon. They still hold that these biological tendencies are a psychological aberration while it has been scientifically proved that they are not.

The expanded understanding of the "individual in community," particularly of the indigenous folk cultures, seems to widen the human rights definition to include rights other than those of a civil and political nature. It is in this context that we should take the ban on the right of the ritual expression of emotions by the low-caste people at the Kodungallur Bharani celebration.

A subtle process of the "masculinisation of emotions" is taking place the world over, promoting middle-class values through the various expressions of patriarchal religions, which form the underpinning for modern mainstream culture. Thus, the indigenous folk celebration that is designed to express spontaneously pent-up emotions is generally frowned at, in certain cases stigmatised and in some cases strictly monitored by the state law-and-order machinery. This has become a socio-cultural order in hierarchically ordered caste societies in India. A progressive appropriation of the indigenous folk celebrations by the dominant high castes and depriving it of its highly rich emotional content in the name of "civilising" the celebration is occurring in the case of the Kodungallur Bharani celebration as we have seen. If this is not a human rights violation, what else is?

Posted on 2003-05-29
Asian Human Rights Commission

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