Remember the Pambattu story I had promised? No! Can’t blame you. It has been some time coming. I did not forget it though; I was waiting to get some more input before I put it out there J
Disclaimer: Image for illustrative purpose only. Image Courtesy: Manoj K. (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sarpa_Kavu_By_Manojk.JPG)
If you have grown up in Kerala or spent your summer vacation in Kerala like I used to, you will know that monsoons are serious business there. It’s the norm for the locals to crib about a poor monsoon, even as you tried to hang on to that umbrella that was being buffeted by gale force wind and rain. My grandfather was no exception. He’d look out at the sheet of water falling from the skies and mutter about how we need more rain. He had no clue that we kids were praying to the rain gods to make the rain go away as we desperately wanted to play in the yard.
Due to the rain, quite often afternoons were spent indoors reading one of those old James Hardly Chase novels that my grandfather had stored (hidden?) in the big chest, or snoozing. One such afternoon, I remember a cacophony of bird noises waking me up. The birds were definitely sounding distressed. My grandparents, cousin brother and I went out to the veranda abutting the kitchen. The noise was coming from the trees near the shed where the wood (veraggu) for our old-fashioned stove was kept. The birds were gathered on one of the lowest branches of the tree and they were screeching away at something on the ground. My grandfather was the first one to spot it. An adult viper happily feasting on a fallen egg.
In itself the event, while a part of the natural world, was disturbing enough. But I was even more frazzled by it because Velliachan (my grandfather), my cousin and I were headed to my grandfather’s maternal family shrine – The Pambattu – the next day. This is akin to the kula devatha (family deity) of North India. For those not familiar with Malayalam or Tamil – Pambu means snake, and our family deity was a snake goddess. I have mixed feelings about snakes. Given that most Hindus are taught to revere nature and all creatures associated with our Gods, I could not bring myself to outright hate them. Yet they were not on my favourite animals list. Partly because they don’t look cute and cuddly, or regal and beautiful, but mainly because of the venom angle. I was, and still am, petrified of snakes. However, it was that time of the year and I had to go and pay my respects. That night it rained.
Early next morning, the three of us stepped out. We soon left the cluster of homes (mostly, in the 70s and 80s, peopled by relatives near and far) and started walking through paddy fields. I think they were paddy fields. I am not an expert. All I know is that it was green, the grass grew tall (almost to one’s knees), and the earth was wet and slushy. My young mind (I am not sure how old I was but I must have been 13 or 14 I think), was stuck on the word – ewwwwww…. ew ew ew. It was at this point that my younger cousin brother kindly decided to enlighten me. He said, “Chechi (elder sister), sometimes they have spotted snakes in these thodis (fields)”
I could have killed him then and there, but every minute spent murdering him would be a minute longer for all those snakes hiding in the field to take a shot at me. So I speed walked as fast as I could out of that slushy field even as hot tears trickled down my cheeks.
Once we cleared the fields, we were in a lush area where the oldest houses of the Karuthodiyil Tharavadu (my grandfather’s tharavadu (clan)) were. One look at them and you will begin to believe in ghosts. My grandfather and pesky cousin caught up with me. He was looking slightly chastened.
Velliachan then told me about the house I was staring at. He said it was over 100 years old. It looked it. We walked a little bit down the road, but now it was just lush greenery around us. Then we stopped. To our right stood an entrance. No gate. Just a wall of black rocks covered by the undergrowth. Inside stood the temple. It felt and looked ancient. These temples or kaavu (abode) are not the tall, decorated and colourful creations of Tamil Nadu. There were three small wooden structures of the same blackish stone standing in a clearing surrounded by trees and shrubs. The largest one stood just a little bit taller than me. To enter it you would have to stoop. Everything, including the stone oil lamps and tiny sculptures of what looked like chubby snakes, had turned black with time and oil. These three structures were devoted to Siva, Ganapathy and Mahalakshmi.
Apparently, during the festival season, this place is bursting at the seams with worshippers. But on that particular day, even the priest was missing. Opposite the main temple, there was a natural arch made by the drooping branches of the trees. The branches of the trees blocked what little sunlight could filter in through the monsoon clouds. To my overactive and totally stressed out imagination, every branch and leaf and creeper looked like a snake. We had to walk through that arch to reach the inner kaavu – the sarpa kaavu – where the prayers and offerings to the snake gods and goddesses are made… no surprises there. The way my day was turning out to be, I wouldn’t be surprised if a snake came up to me and said hi. The short tree arched path led to a stone platform, also darkened by age and all those oil lamps. An array of snake sculptures rested on the platform. We prayed to them. I mostly begged to be spared.
Due to the missing priest, we didn’t have to hang around for long in the kaavu and we were soon out of the temple. Walking back, Velliachan decided to drop in at the ‘ghost’ house and pay his respects to an elderly relative. She too looked ancient. But her mind was tuned into young kids. Within 5 minutes, my cousin and I were tucking into banana chips and red squares of halwa. She walked us around the backyard – the view over the green hills of Malappuram with coconut trees swaying tall over green woods and fields was stunning. From the backyard, we could see the entrance of the kaavu.
When she heard that we had just been there, Muthashi* shook her head sadly and said, “In our days, the kaavu never looked this deserted. It was always lit by oil lamps and shone like a jewel.” My cousin and I looked at the dark stones, and maybe our disbelief showed on our face. “There is a reason why it was always lit,” Muthashi continued.
Long ago, Muthashi said, the woods surrounding the temple were denser. There were fewer people and more snakes – both venomous and otherwise. The jyotsan (astrologer) was a man of great standing in the community – someone to whom even the tharavadu heads would pay attention to. People turned to the jyotsan for advice on everything from planting the next crop to fixing a marriage or figuring out why something went wrong. What he said was considered the ultimate truth and no one questioned his knowledge or authority. When one of Muthashi’s forefather noticed that there were more frequent sightings of snakes in the area, he had asked the jyotsan for advice. The astrologer was convinced that the sightings were divine and the tharavadu head should build a temple in the area to honour the snake goddess.
Back in those days, poojas were held regularly, pambattam (snake dance performances) were held often, and neivedyam (sweet prasad and milk) was offered to the snakes every year. People could witness the snakes drinking the milk! Worshippers would often come to the kaavu to pray for the fulfillment of their wishes and would donate nilavilakku (tall lamps) or make special offerings to show their gratitude.
The kaavu was in those days an integral part of the tharavadu’s daily life and worshippers came on a daily basis. But after many decades, during Muthashi’s grandparent’s time, things fell into disrepair. The celebrations and rituals had got diluted over the generations. While still a part of everybody’s life, it was no longer the center of the community. The man who was the head of the tharavadu at that time was for some reason not very particular about following all the rituals. He was warned by the elders, jyotsans and the priests. But the warnings fell on deaf ears. Soon the temple was being neglected. Poojas became rare.
Then in the middle of the wet season, on a dark, stormy night (but of course!), the temple caught fire. No one could explain it. How could a stone structure catch fire during the rainy season! But there it was. A fire that gutted the temple and the trees surrounding the kaavu. Many tried to douse the fire, but it could not be put out. The fire engulfed and destroyed most of what was in the compound except for the small structures honouring the gods and goddesses. Finally, it died down on its own.
However, it was not the fire that scared the people and the tharavadu head out of their wits. It was the lady, who looked beautiful and strangely powerful who was spotted leaning by the main temple structure even as everything else around it went up in flames, who scared the living daylights out of them. According to some, she looked angry and according to others, she had a mocking expression on her face. Some saw her during the fire itself, others claimed to see her leaning on the temple after the fire died out.
The people were worried and consulted the jyotsan, who wasted no time in frightening the people further by saying that the gods were angry, and the only way to appease them was to return the temple to its old glory. Whatever it be, since then the tharavadu has continued to uphold the old traditions and rituals like before. No one wanted to risk upsetting the goddess again; because while no one could agree on the other details, everybody was certain of one thing – that beautiful woman was no human.