I am still working on the Pambattu piece. So in the meantime, here is something else from Kerala. This story (in fact there are two stories – I really should learn to write shorter posts!) too was handed down through the generations, with a few embellishments added along the way. I have also noted the cultural and social references to the best of my ability to give you a more well-rounded view of the history behind the myth.
In Kerala in the olden days, most tharavadu (family/clan) homes were spread over many acres and stretched across hills, forested land and fields. The area was dotted with traditional homes of the family and the extended family. Each home would be situated in splendid isolation, surrounded by vast tracts of wild land. Family members co-existed happily with domestic animals like cows, goats, and hens. It was a safe environment. As long as one stayed close to the homestead and farms, and did not venture out after dark. This was drummed into every child’s head. You ventured out after dark at your own risk… because, then you could meet a wild animal or worse, a paranormal one, like the yakshi or the odiyan.
Malayalee folklore is replete with dark elements that can make your blood run cold. The yakshi, chattan, kuttichattan, gandharvan, and marutha have featured prominently in our grandparent’s tales. The most popular of these characters, in my opinion, was the odiyan.
Odiyan was the word used to describe people who practiced odi vidya (a form of black magic) that allowed them to change form. The odiyans, known for their physical prowess, were the product of a vicious caste system, black magic and thirst for power. The members of the Panan, Parayan, Pulayan, and Velan communities were the ones often accused of becoming odiyans. Poor, uneducated and downtrodden, they made ends meet by making chool (brooms), paya (mats), kuda (umbrellas) and morams (dustpans) with dried coconut fronds and selling it to the wealthier upper caste folks in the community.
Odi vidya was usually practiced by the upper caste men and they used a potion and black magic to turn a man from one of the above downtrodden communities into an odiyan. A magical hired gun who would do their bidding, which usually involved the murder of a rival tharavadu or family member.
The legend goes that the method of preparing the potion (marrunnu) was a secret held by the upper caste folks. An appalling yet important ingredient in the making of the odiyan marinnu, according to the stories handed down, is an unborn foetus. Pregnant women were lured from their homes and their foetus stolen. The woman would then make her way back home. The next morning, she would be found lying peacefully in her bed without any injuries – but stone cold dead. As a result of these fears and beliefs, pregnant women were not allowed to travel alone and forbidden to step out after sunset (as the odiyan only attacked when one was alone and usually in the dark).
In odi vidya, after the performance of some rituals, a pouch containing the marrunnu was placed behind the ear of the chosen man. This enabled the man to turn into an animal like an ox, buffalo, fox, dog or wolf, or trees or even an inanimate object like a wicker gate. These animals or things would however have an imperfection – like a missing tail or limb or eye. At the conclusion of the puja, the odiyan would break a little stick which represented the intended victim’s spine. The rituals were meant to literally break someone’s spirit. Most of the victims died of sheer fright.
The odiyan, who was usually out only during the dark could see clearly in the night. He also had the powers to become invisible and change his form as per his choice – as long as the marrunnu pouch was behind his ears. The upper caste men would however never place the marrunnu behind their own ears, as it was believed that the man who became an odiyan would die soon.
Some believe that the odiyan could revert back to his human form only when the upper caste man or his helper would knock the marrunnu pouch off, with a stick, from behind the odiyan’s ears.
Rationalists believe that the legend of the odiyan was created by thieves and murderers to scare away people and to ensure their own safety. They argue that in the past when Kerala did not have access to electricity, stepping out in the dark was a frightening proposition because even a harmless plantain leaf hanging oddly could resemble a Yakshi or the shadow of a strange animal. As regards the pregnant women who were found dead in their beds, female mortality rates were high especially in the case of pregnant women, and these stories were a way of coping with and controlling something that was beyond the understanding of the people in those days.
In Kerala, in the late 19th century, my maternal great-great-granduncle was the karanawar (head) of the Adikarakunnath tharavadu. He was highly respected by one and all in the community. People from near and far came to him for guidance and even to settle fights and disputes. His word was considered final and no one ever went against his decision.
He was also unique in that he was not afraid of the odiyans. He was in the habit of walking through his property and its thodi (front and backyard) at any time that he pleased – day or night. It was a habit with him to walk in the thodi, and even in the woods surrounding his home, after dinner. He would often sleep outside on a charpoy (wooden cot). The people in the community believed that he too possessed certain magical powers.
One day some men came to him and asked him for some food and veraggu. Usually, a generous man, on that particular day, the karanawar was in a foul mood. He shouted at them and asked them to get out of his compound.
The men were enraged and decided to teach him a lesson. That night after everyone had gone to bed, four of them entered the compound. They had used their magical powers to take on the shapes of a wolf, a fox and two huge dogs. When they saw him fast asleep on the cot, they smiled at their luck. Silently, the walked to the cot in the dead of the night and then moving as one, lifted the cot with the karanawar still sleeping on it. The odiyans then headed to the woods nearby. Once in the woods, they planned to wake him and scare him with their appearance.
When the odiyans reached a thickly forested part of the wood, they decided to put the cot down. But they couldn’t put the cot down! They thought it may be because the area is too thickly wooded and they didn’t have space to manoeuvre the cot around. So they walked on to a place with a little bit of clearing and tried to put the cot down. To their surprise, they found that they could not put the cot down. They tried to put the cot down several times, but they could not.
For the rest of the night, the four odiyans carried the karanawar on his cot, trying to put the cot down every now and then, but unable to. Their arms and legs were hurting and they felt that their muscles were on fire. But no matter what they did they could not lower the cot on to the ground. They even tried to shake their hands and fling the cot down, but they could not even remove their hands from the cot’s legs. It was as if the cot was stuck to their hands!
The sun was about to rise. Tired and scared they were near tears, as the karanawar woke up. It was not yet light and the odiyans were still in their animal forms. The odiyans had by now realized that they had crossed paths with someone who had even more powerful magic in him than them. They cried and begged for his forgiveness.
He then ordered them to take him and his cot back to the place from where they had picked him up. The odiyans carried him back to his front yard. And this time when they tried to place the cot on the ground they succeeded. The odiyans fell to the ground in sheer exhaustion. The karanawar sat up on his cot and with a stick lying nearby knocked off the marinnu pouch tucked behind the ears of the odiyans. The odiyans reverted to their human forms.
The karanawar then made the odiyans promise him that, henceforth, no odiyan would ever trouble or scare any member of the his tharavadu. Feeling that the odiyans had learned their lesson, the karanawar then ordered his servants to give the odiyans rice, vegetable and clothes and then sent them off.
Another oodiyan story that was handed down to us involved my paternal grandfather, achachan. The story goes that he was returning home from work and had stopped at a wayside shop (shaap if you want to sound like an authentic Malayalee J) for a bite. As he stepped out, he was stopped by a poor man who said, “Thamburane (lord) what about me?” Achachan initially snapped at him, but on realising that the man was hungry, asked him to come home and get something to eat.
Achachan then walked home (again at quite a distance) and on reaching, sat down on his favourite chair near the thinna (flat wooden veranda railing where one can sit and even lie down – almost like a window seat). His second eldest daughter, Bhargavi, came out to give him water and she exclaimed, “Acha! There is a huge black dog behind you!” He turned around and indeed there was a huge dog in the thodi on the other side of the thinna. Achachan loved dogs, but this one looked wild. So he took a stick lying nearby and shooed the dog away. The dog was quite stubborn and reluctant to move but finally, he was chased out of the property.
The next day as my grandfather was returning from work, he saw the poor man again and asked him why he had not come to the house to get some food. The man looked affronted and said, “Thamburane, I had come. But you chased me away!”
While the stories relating to the odiyans are fascinating, they expose the ugly underbelly of the caste system that was even more prevalent in those days in India. These were men and women who were branded untouchables. They suffered a lot at the hands of the society’s rich and powerful. They had no access to education and had no money whatsoever. They made ends meet by making household goods with dried coconut fronds and selling it to the upper caste folks. Since they were untouchables, they were not allowed to enter the homes of the upper-caste people. They would stand at least 50 meters away from the house. From there they would call out to the residents of the house and the servant would step out and give them some rice or vegetables as payment for the chool or paya. The odiyans also use to help clear the animals that had died on the homestead. Some say that they would eat the meat of the dead animals and save the skin and make things out of it. Some of them would use these skins to disguise themselves while committing petty thefts thus lending to the mythology of the odiyan.
Today, surrounded by electricity and information, it is hard to believe that people could believe in yakshis and odiyans. But even as recently as the mid-to-late 20th century people were extremely superstitious and scared of anything and everything that they didn’t understand. Education and development have helped in the emancipation of communities like the Panan, Parayan, Pulayan, and Velan. The practice of odi vidya has died a slow death with few or no takers for this practice. But even today, when you are in Kerala and you step out into the thodi or the street and see the looming trees and the weird shaped shadows they throw, a tiny part of you can’t help but feel the cold finger of fear and wonder – does the odiyan really exist?