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Pageant of colour and revelry


The Karikali festival in Kodagu is one way of expressing the identity of the area's Keralites.

Photo: Anand Sankar

In high spirits: A close-up of the priest in the ceremonial dress; Quenching his thirst with offerings; Donning the ritual make-up. Photo: Anand Sankar

IT is a sultry evening at a picturesque coffee estate in Kodagu. The heat has reduced life to slow motion but the tom-tom of drumbeats shatters the calm, as the festival of Karikali begins its climax.

As I laze on the verandah of the estate bungalow, I hear the drumbeats coming closer and soon the house is a flurry of activity. The drummers reach the courtyard, and they are Malayali priests, dressed in white mundus and beating the traditional chenda slung around their shoulders. They play for about an hour to invoke the gods and leave.

Kodagu is synonymous with the indigenous people, the Kodavas. But the district also has a thriving population of Keralites and not all of them are recent economic migrants. They go a long way back and have developed their own distinct identity. Karikali is one way of expressing it.

Karikali is celebrated every year at the Pannaya Estate in the far south of Kodagu, bordering the Nagarhole National Park. The name means "king's campsite" and the ruler of Kodagu gifted it to the family 14 generations ago. According to one of the family members, P.B. Keshav Das, it was a reward for preventing Tipu Sultan from entering Kodagu in 1834. The king celebrated the festival back then and the family has continued the tradition. As the name indicates, Karikali celebrates the goddess Kali (Durga).

Colourful ritual

Quenching his thirst with offerings

But apart from the religious aspect, the six-day festival is a spectacle of what the western media would call a "pagan" ritual. The estate has two small open-air shrines — one on top of a slope for the daughter Bhadrakali, and another at the bottom for the mother, Karikali (The goddess is known as Karikali because her face is black). The first four days of festivities are low-key, spent on appeasing the gods, but during the last two days the festival changes gear.

The priests wear red dhotis and hold the ceremonial swords. This time there is no music. Drunk on religious ecstasy, they run to the Bhadrakali shrine — I run with them but keeping a safe distance for obvious reasons. Deserted just a couple of days ago, the shrine is now virtually unrecognisable.

A thatched roof has been built above it and crowds from all over Kodagu have gathered. A small shanty has also sprung up around the shrine to cash in on the throng. The priests perform their rituals and leave to get dressed to become deities or theyyams.

It is dark now, and I follow them down the slope to the second shrine, all the while slipping and sliding in the undergrowth. The crowds don't follow us. The Lakshmanatirtha (a tributary of the Cauvery) flows at the bottom of the slope. The shrine is located near its banks. The swords are placed at the shrine and the elaborate process of dressing to become a theyyam begins beside the river. One man enthusiastically tells me earlier they used to don the makeup by a small fire but today they have a gas lantern.

Only two men will dress up as theyyams because only they have been handed down the responsibility over generations. Their faces are coated with colourful and incredibly detailed paint and they are helped into their elaborate costumes that must weigh more than just a few kilos.

Then it is time to pick up the swords and run uphill to the bungalow. I ask another priest whether all this running is necessary and all I get is a quizzical look. Later I learn that the priests go on a ritualistic diet for days to build their stamina for the ritual.

We are soon back at the bungalow and estate owners offer the two "gods" puffed rice, which the "gods" in turn distribute to the waiting crowds. It's back to the top shrine now for a night of dancing to the drumbeats.

Two men notice me taking photographs of the priests and ask me to take theirs too. I tell them I am shooting them because they are gods. Pat comes the reply: "We are also god." That's when I catch the whiff of arrack and realise almost the whole crowd is in the "spirit" to celebrate. By four in the morning the crowd has passed out, not from tiredness but alcohol overdose! The priests say there will be a break of two hours before the grand finale.

The main part

Donning the ritual make-up.

At six a.m. the drumbeats start again. This time the priest, dressed as Karikali, will come from the shrine and meet another priest dressed as daughter Bhadrakali midway up the slope and proceed to the shrine at the top. The specialty of this part is Karikali's headdress. It is 38 ft tall and weighs about 50 kilos. Made from bamboo poles and hand-decorated, it is fastened firmly to the torso of the priest with extreme care because any mistake could snap his backbone in two. And when the priest walks, two people are always on hand to ensure he doesn't fall over. The estate owners and Bhadrakali meet Karikali midway up the slope and run with her to the top shrine.

Here a dance and a ritual follow, and then Karikali sits down to lend a ear to the hundreds of people who come to ask for her advice.

Now that the gods have been satisfied, it is time for the finale — to placate the ghosts. In steps one priest dressed as Kuttichathan, a malicious and mischievous spirit. Nothing but alcohol will satisfy him. On cue, the crowd starts pulling out bottles of alcohol as offerings. Everything from vintage wine to Scotch whisky and arrack packets are offered. The "ghost" takes a sip from each offering and hands back the bottle, which the people drink as thirtham. This is one ceremony where there is no age bar for alcohol, and everyone including children has their sip (or gulp).

Suddenly the "ghost" notices a couple of beat constables, looking on empty-handed. He calls out to one and admonishes him for not bringing him an offering. The constable looks nervous but the "ghost" laughs, gestures him to enjoy himself, takes a bottle from the crowd and gives it to him to drink. The poor man looks at his uniform and then decides that inviting the wrath of the ghost is worse and takes a sip. So much for not drinking on duty!

* * *

A feast for all

It's not just worship during Karikali. All the people who turn up are fed on the penultimate day. Up to 400 people tuck-in the elaborate fare prepared by the estate cooks.

The meal is vegetarian because meat is a strict no-no during the festivities. The courses include your usual rice and rasam along with some lip-smacking Keralite specialities.

The payasams include the pal payasam and the absolutely sinful kootu payasam, which is made from boiled rice mixed with jaggery, grated coconut and lots of ghee. The inji puli is another that must not be missed. It is a tangy and spicy sauce made from tamarind, ginger and green chillies. To top off the meal large glasses of buttermilk are served.

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