In Malathi Jaikumar’s short story “Liberation” (from the
anthology Urban Shots, edited by Paritosh Uttam), the housewife
Chamundi, regularly beaten by her drunkard husband, one day visits a Mariamman
temple on the outskirts of Madras. It is the last day of a three-day festival
culminating in the possession of three women by the goddess. Chamundi is
intrigued by the power they project and the fear they instill in the most
brutish of men in the audience. She decides to throw a possession tantrum at
One Saturday—when the beatings usually happen—midway through her husband’s dinner, Chamundi starts shaking, rolling her eyes, and saying in a low guttural voice that she has come to bless him, while enjoying the sensations of her body’s unconstrained movements. He thinks she has been possessed by the household deity, Balaji, and never dares to touch her again. She is finally free.
It’s a cool April morning in south Karnataka and we’re a few kilometres from the centre of Udupi, at a clearing just off the national highway where preparations are in progress for something similar. The bhuta kola possession ritual, dedicated to the deified human Babbu Swamy or Bobbarya and his mother, goddess Dhumavati, has been held on the first Saturday of April for a few centuries at least, according to the records. It’s run by the men of the lower Nalikeyaru caste and is by definition a boys’ club thing. Women can watch, but only those parts of the performance meant for the general public. The main act, the hours-long possession dance, takes place in the night.
Under an improvised roof, men are splitting the palm leaves into threads. They will decorate the structure that serves both as an open sanctum sanctorum and partly the proscenium space. This one has been erected for VIP, higher-caste guests: the Bunts or Shettis.
Coconuts and green bananas are strewn all around, along with the other ritual paraphernalia: a wooden table with drawers, a brass ornament topped with a demon’s head with a downward protruded tongue, various props and holders, strings of coloured lights, artificial and real flowers, mango and areca leaf strung on a cord, cashew fruit, cane mats, deepas. A group of musicians rehearses in the jam—a flute, nadaswaram and two kinds of small drums. The underlying smell of fermenting cashew intensifies with the heat.
n one man’s deft hands, I notice dry, red scaling patches. He is bent over the areca leaves he is attaching to the thin ends of palm threads; it is to be a part of the main dancer’s costume.
“He’s been a dancer but has been punished by the spirits for a transgression in his personal life,” says a tall, mustachioed man in charge of the event. “Now he’s mostly our costume designer and makeup artist.”
Using the end of his plain white dhoti to wipe the sweat off his forehead, he begins telling the story of this kola and the legends of its presiding deities in Tulu, voice straining to rise over the constant whoosh of vehicles on the highway:
One day, the woman who was going to be Babbu Swamy’s mother went out with the queen to a nearby river to bathe. She was the queen’s maid. Being of a low caste, she could not bathe with the queen, but a little further downstream. While in the water, she felt an unusual energy descending on her. In a few weeks, she found out she was pregnant.
People didn’t believe her story and accused her of an illicit relationship. They put her through many tests, including a dip in boiling oil and pulling snakes out of their holes. When she survived these unharmed, people were dumbfounded and started worshipping her. Her name was Dhumavati.
As a child, Babbu possessed the ability to perform magic and had unnatural strength. When he was seven, the queen employed him to keep the crows and hens out of the fields. He made a little bow and arrows out of coconut leaves and killed the birds. When the queen saw what he had done, she was terrified and ordered him to revive them. He agreed and fetched some water in a coconut husk to sprinkle over the birds. And they all came back to life.
This heroic legend contains the almost compulsory element of
caste oppression, highly present in the bhuta kola underlying
narratives, which some see as an outlet for lower caste frustration and fury.
Curiously, Dhumavati is a dark-skinned, demon-slaying witch-goddess; macabre
queen of all things inauspicious. She dwells in cremation grounds, forests,
wilderness and desolation. That’s why snakes don’t harm her–she’s their
mistress and can wear them as garlands. The tests she goes through are
evocative of the heroine’s plight in the 1997 Kannada movie Nagamandala
(the adapted play by Girish Karnad,
directed by T. S. Nagabharana). Dhumavati is, in part, the goddess carved in the image of her devotees. And what better mother for their hero, Babbu Swamy?
A little before noon, everyone gathers around the main stage whose roof they have to now fix a bit higher above the supporting posts. Divine timing and sacred geometry have to be followed—the roof must go up exactly at noon. This is one of the components in which bhuta kola rituals resemble the Vedic rites of pitru-yajnya (sacrifice to honour the ancestors), with their minutiae listed in shrauta-sutras or sacrifice manuals.
In his two-volume work The Cult of Draupadī, Alf Hiltebeitel writes about south Indian rituals which include possession, trance and (blood) sacrifice, and says how “such continuities take place within the framework of traditional Vedic sacrifice as it is conserved, yet transformed, through the medium of popular bhakti Hinduism.”
Prior to the exertions, the men offer prayers to the sound of drums and the droning of an electric generator. They touch the dusty ground and throw fistfuls of shredded areca flowers towards the structure. Then they take the ropes wrapped around pulleys and, with drums and cymbals beating the rhythm, start to heave the flat roof with palm threads and flower garlands dangling from its sides. The frenzied drumming builds up to a crescendo as the bluish background image of the divine couple, Shiva and Parvati, is gradually revealed.
Out of nowhere, one of the men toiling at a pulley slips into an uncontrollable tremor, white foam at the corners of his mouth. Everyone flocks around, fanning him with their dhotis and palm leaves. The intense heat and acceleration is now cooled down by the calming sight of the snowcapped mountains behind the Shiva-Parvati couple, and the assumed gurgling of the crystalline waters of the Ganges jetting to earth from below Shiva’s half-moon hairpin. The couple’s gaze is tranquil and unperturbed; the man’s fit subsides and he slowly opens his eyes.
It feels like an uncanny overture to everything that is to happen later in the night.
ater in the afternoon, we walk towards Babbu Swamy’s temple in the village of Kodankur, a few kilometres from the ritual grounds. The narrow road cuts around blazing purple and blue family houses conspicuous among the opulent greenery—the saturation and intensity of colours one finds in Gauguin’s paintings. Then a bridge over a dry canal (in which, legend has it, Babbu took a dip before leaving for Kerala) and we stand before a nondescript temple around which the entire village or villages have thronged.
Women and children are seated in several rows of chairs, anticipating, but patient. Shirtless men are perpetually coming and going, with hens or swords or icons in their hands, putting all of them in place, getting everything ready.
“The whole community worships Babbu,” says one of the main organisers, “he is not a household deity, but a village tutelary.”
In the 1940s, the avantgarde filmmaker, dancer, and writer Maya Deren documented the syncretic Vodoun rituals in Haiti (published as the book Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti). She wrote that, for the working classes of African descent (as opposed to the upper-class Catholic converts), Vodoun ceremonies of possession are a means of channelling Les Invisibles, the archetypised spirits of the ancestors, for regeneration and empowerment of the collective. “It is the procedure by which the race reincorporates the fruit of previous life-processes into the contemporary moment, and so retains the past as the ground gained, upon and from which it moves forward to the future … it is the dead who are made to serve the living.”
Vodoun shares a spiritual, psychological and political dimension with bhuta kola and similar practices, but, in one aspect, also with the Hindu brahmanical tradition: the honouring of ancestors and seeking their interventions in life is present in every part of the caste vertical.
In front of Babbu Swamy’s temple, the distorsic music amplifies, announcing the start of the ritual. The main actors–two slender, androgynous boys–are putting on wide red shorts with rows of tiny sewn-in bells, and broad sheet metal belts to highlight the waistlines. Then come heavy anklets, jasmine and kanakambaram garlands, and smearing of biceps and foreheads with horizontal white and red lines, half-moons, trishuls, and dots. The hectic drumming picks up as one of the boys, Madhava, positions himself in front of the Babbu Swamy’s murti and begins a tête-à-tête. As the tension rises, he releases his hair from the confines of a bun, shaking his head and ruffling the semi-wet locks with his fingers to make them more unruly. All the while, his eyes never leave murti’s.
A loud wailing sounds from within the temple. Then everything is suspended, the anticipated climax delayed.
The other boy emerges from the temple, unsheathed provisory sword in hand, shouting and wildly shaking his many bells. At that moment, somebody touches the nape of the first boy’s neck with a stick and sends him rattling and reciting as well. The rustling sound advances like the tide and floods everyone’s senses. There is a lot of eros in all of this, a certain vitality.
Finally, the men lift the murtis, tin cases and cane baskets filled with things Babbu demanded for his trip to Kerala, and the entire procession takes a detour through the fields and villages towards the city, and then the ritual grounds. A carnivalesque dollu kunita troupe has been hired to lend a Bakhtinian air to the spectacle: tall figures on stilts, men in gaudy peacock costumes, giant village folk, and swan riders, all halt several times in the dusky fields to pay their respects to the setting sun by throwing coconuts towards the horizon and blessing the villagers gathered along the way.
he ritual grounds are now colourfully lighted up and resemble a village fair which, in a way, this was. Over the course of the night, up to 3,000 visitors will invade the chaat stalls, ice cream pushcarts, and pop-up fast food joints.
The cursed-dancer-turned-costume-designer is still holding the same pose, adding the final touches to the palm leaf skirt for the main dancer, Ravi, who is going to enact Babbu Swamy. Ravi, on the other hand, is sitting by himself in the back of the VIP structure, absentmindedly fiddling with his iPhone, as if the fact that he is about to become a divinity in two hours has nothing to do with him at this particular moment.
Ravi’s father died 10 years ago. Ravi, who is now 30, started to learn from his father when he was 12, and gave his first performance at the age of 18.
“During the kola season, between December and May, I perform 10 to 15 times. It’s difficult going days on end without sleep or proper food, but there is not much else I can do. This is my only means of livelihood,” he says, and adds that there isn’t any pension for retired ritual dancers either. They have to sustain themselves and their families on the money they save (though we later heard that some dancer communities and bhuta kola organising committees are now trying to petition the government in that regard).
“The dance steps have always been passed down from father to son,” Ravi says. “It’s a family tradition, and the steps have more or less remained the same. I have a six-month-old daughter but can’t carry on the tradition. In the past there were women performers, mostly accompanying singers, but it’s over 30 years now since women were allowed to practice.”
After our conversation, Ravi gets up to prepare for his performance. He sits by the edge of the dance space, and begins applying makeup. He smears his face with turmeric powder and outlines the eyes, eyebrows and long moustache with kohl, resembling at this stage—with his dark hair in a tight bun—a Japanese Kabuki actor. This simplicity is later disturbed with an elaborate and heavy headdress, and garlands of jasmine and kanakambaram. It takes him an hour and a half to get ready. His red, golden and silver costume has sun and moon stitched on the back.
After the preparatory puja, Ravi takes two heavy anklets in his hands and, shaking them, alternately lifts them to the sky and down towards the ground. Drummers are quickening in tempo, while Ravi’s dance gathers momentum: he starts pirouetting and bouncing, then swaggering and strutting. Doldrums replace crescendos and vice versa at a regular pace. The smell of jasmine interlaced with sweat emanates from the dancer who oscillates between focused trance and frenzied ecstasy. He bears no resemblance to the reticent young man from two hours ago, before he entered mythical time, became a deity. In brief intervals during the dance, people approach with offerings of more jasmine garlands which are by now fragrantly suffocating him.
Behind a long desk under the VIP structure, several white-shirted men—the upper-class village chieftains—are sitting turned frontally towards the dancing ground and looking like a panel of talent show judges. Whenever Ravi moves closer, they engage in a kind of negotiation with the dancer. He becomes still, his gaze intensifies, expressing strange spite and daring: they speak about the village well and family matters—all things concerning the collective. Ravi ends each of these talks by defiantly lifting his chin and moving away.
As the hours pass, there are times when he falls to the
ground from exhaustion. Then the people haul him to the side and start fanning
him and sprinkling him with water, until he
resumes. Each time another accessory is added to his costume. Now it’s the palm leaves skirt, whose rims are cut and adjusted on spot, along with a palm branch which he uses in the same way as a Spanish matador uses the red cloth.
Sometime during the night, Ravi joins the men and the boys from the village standing in front of the Shiva-Parvati image. They begin transferring shaktipads to each other–laying the palm of one’s hand to another’s forehead. The person on the receiving end bounces back every time, as if jolted by the shock of this power exchange. One elderly woman from the audience bursts into spontaneous dancing and mumbling, demanding to be touched as well. She is harshly reprimanded and pushed down to her seat.
By four in the morning, Ravi is wearing the full Babbu Swamy costume—an entire structure laden with palm leaves has grown around him, and he looks like a god placed in the midst of a leafy altar. This is when the real possession takes place: he kills a chicken, has the last say in negotiations. After sunrise, Babbu Swamy gives way to Dhumavati.
omen are not allowed to witness the ritual of the second day at noon, for fear—I’ve heard both men and women say—that exposure might send them swooning like heroines of Victorian romance novels. This is the most benign of possible scenarios.
What transpires is the men’s esoteric bonding and the subsequent feeding of the gods—the sacrifice to sustain the cosmic order of things, the Vedic rita—through two possessed mediums who each kill and slowly devour a whole chicken, with no fancy cutlery to aid them, except the three-clawed chicken leg they use to thrust the pieces of raw flesh down their roaring throats. This is the bhuta kola ritual at its most direct: an indiscriminate, literal incorporation of flesh and spirit, impure and pure. The dwelling in the abject–gnawing at the bone of philosophical contention.
Bulgarian-French feminist philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, whose work dwells on those basic dichotomies and (sacred) taboos, in her book-length essay, “Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection”, writes that “The abject confronts us, on the one hand, with those fragile states where man strays on the territories of animal ... Abjection appears as a rite of defilement and pollution in the paganism that accompanies societies with a dominant or surviving matrilinear character. It takes on the form of the exclusion of a substance (nutritive or linked to sexuality), the execution of which coincides with the sacred since it sets it up ...”
It seems that the difference between the lower caste ancestor and deity worship and the upper caste or brahminical one, lies primarily in the point of contact—the possession being the most immediate. Anthropologist Karin Kapadia, who researched the relation between possession and class in Tamil culture, writes that the lower castes boast of this immediateness, openheartedness that draws the divine presence to them or through them, if you will. The more reserved upper castes, in contrast, view this performative abandonment as reckless and unnecessary.
Recalling Kristeva, it could be suggested that the divide between the lower and the upper classes is established on the basis of how these groups relate to the fundamental binary oppositions—subject-object, inside-outside, etc.—and what qualities they assign to them.
However, the reasons for this difference in rites may be traced back to the political. As Deren’s African slaves and native Indians in Haiti (their fight for freedom from French colonialists, finally won in 1804, was first articulated in ritual), India’s oppressed are through their rites channelling the assertiveness, even aggression, to build revolutionary momentum, while upper class spirituality reflects rootedness in secure domesticity which always feels threatened by excess emotion, and therefore shuns it.
Still, as these annual empowerment rituals regularly take place in Udupi (as elsewhere in south India), oftentimes positioning the lower castes in wider political and economic constellations, the power imbalance persists between the genders, within the homogenous group. Women have yet to be allowed to get possessed.