The Pongala, a sort of annual offering at the Bhagavathi temple in Attukal, 3 km off Kerala’s state capital Thiruvananthapuram, is perhaps the largest congregation of women for a festival in the world. The ritual, preparation of sweet pudding made out of rice, jaggery, coconut and plantains in roadside makeshift ovens can only be performed by women. Thousands of women queue up stretching for miles a day before the festival, bringing the city to a standstill. The goddess of prosperity and salvation, fondly referred to as Attukalamma, is said to be appeased by this ritual. The festival, which takes place in the Malayalam month of Kumbhom (April-March), in the past has had come under criticism for the damage done to the atmosphere from the fumes of lakhs of furnaces, leftovers of cooking vessels (mainly mud pots) and plastic glasses, and the inconvenience the gathering creates to general life in and around the city for days.
However, this time around the festival has come under the scanner of child rights activists with a sprinkling of politics thrown in. Director General of Police (Prisons) R. Sreelekha has annoyed believers by questioning the very relevance of Kuthiyottam ritual, involving the piercing of a hook on a child’s side after five days of penance, performed at the Devi temple as a run-up to the Pongala festival. In her blog titled, “Time to Stop this Yearly Crime in the Name of Faith,” Sreelekha wrote, “…for 1,000 odd boys, it’s torture time in Attukal now. Parents conspire with temple authorities to put their children through rigorous mental and physical abuse for five days… And on the final day, each of them will be decked up in yellow clothes, garlands, jewellery and makeup on face, including lipstick, and made to stand in a queue for their last unexpected torture. An iron hook, tiny though it is, will be pierced into their skin on their flanks. They scream. Blood comes out. A thread will be symbolically knotted through the hooks to symbolise the bond with divinity. Then the hooks are pulled out and ash roughly applied on the wounds! All this for temple deity! Parents may feel relieved that their boys will grow up to be disciplined kids and do well in their studies. Will the kids too feel the same? And how will our dear Attukal Amma be feeling?”
The first woman IPS officer in the state, Sreelekha goes on to add that causing physical and mental pain to children are offences under Sections 89, 319, 320, 349, 350, 351 of the Indian Penal Code. The Juvenile Justice Act and the Child Welfare Commission Act penalise it. While it is not known why only boys perform this arduous ritual, no one has gauged as to whether the over enthusiastic parents of this underage children have prepared them mentally in advance for this painful ritual. Nor there seems to be any authentic study on the psychological or any other after-effects of the ritual among children. Most of them seem to sleepwalk into it. Though it is not clear from her blog whether, or not, Srrelekha had the opportunity to talk to some of those children, she writes that “I found everyone with whom I talked knew about the torture on children, but did or are planning to do nothing!” She claims to be a devotee of the goddess from the age of 10, but came to know of this particular ritual only last year after she found out that one of her security officer’s son had performed the same. Incidentally, there is a somewhat similar ritual called Chooral Murial (breaking the cane) at the famous Chettikulangara temple in Alappuzha, central Kerala, which has also come under scrutiny by the Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights.
The Attukal Temple Trust has questioned the timing of Sreelekha’s blog. “It is unfortunate that a police officer whose job is to look after the well-being of the people of the state has raised the issue at the time of the temple festival,” Trust authorities said. There are some who believe that the IPS officer, who is said to be not in good terms with Kerala’s ruling Left Front government, has deliberately chosen such a time to raise the issue. They feel that the CPM would find it difficult to ignore this issue. However, CPM minister for Devaswam affairs, Kadakampalli Surendran has brushed aside the issue and said the ritual would be held as usual. “Why stop something which has years of tradition? Now here is no need to pounce on it. This year’s Kuthiyottam will be held in a way better than that during the last time. There have been instances when many of the traditions in society were stopped in later years. We are examining whether there have been any violation of chid rights,” he told a local channel. This was not so surprising since CPM has turned highly “devotional” and God fearing ever since the rise of BJP in the state.
For good or bad, the questions raised by Sreelekha remain relevant, with rationalists and social activists in the state calling for an end to such customs. However, much of the change will happen only when people are freed from obscure superstitions and blind faith. It is strange that such rituals still exist in a society which prides itself as very forward looking and enlightened.