Kuthiyottam row: Young boys endure days of suffering, brave piercings with metal hooks in Kerala temple ritual
About a thousand boys between the ages of five and twelve suffer physical and mental abuse as part of a ritual called Kuthiyottam.
Kerala Prisons department chief R Sreelekha firmly believed that she got through the civil services examination because of the blessings of Attukal Amma, the principal deity at the renowned Attukal Bhagavathy temple in the Kerala capital of Thiruvananthapuram.
After taking her postgraduate degree, she vowed to offer special pongala (a mix of rice, jaggery and scrapped coconut), the main offering at the centuries-old temple (often called the women's Sabarimala) continuously for three years for this blessing. She got selected to the Indian Police Service after the third pongala.
Since then Sreelekha has seldom missed the pongala festival, which falls during February-March every year. She continued the practice till last year as a mark of gratitude to the goddess for the blessing she had received. But the senior officer, who now holds the rank of director general of police, has decided not to offer the pongala this year.
The reason is the physical and mental abuse about a thousand boys between the ages of five and twelve are made to endure as part of a ritual called Kuthiyottam, in which they are paraded with pierced metal wire in their sides every year. The boys are made to live in the temple for five days continuously cut off from their parents and relatives for the ritual.
During the stay, they perform many rigorous tasks such as taking a dip in cold water thrice daily, performing 1,008 prostrations etc. They are given only measly portions to eat and have to sleep on bare temple ground. On the final day on 2 March, they are taken out in procession wearing yellow clothes, garlands, jewellery and makeup.
Sreelekha has called the abuse a crime in the name of faith in her blog on 27 February. The blog said the ritual has been causing physical and mental strain in children. This, she said, was an offence under sections 89, 319, 320, 349, 350, 351 of the Indian Penal Code. Those causing this pain can also be booked under Juvenile Justice Act and the Child Welfare Commission Act.
The IPS officer questioned the practice after she saw the miserable condition of her security officer's son, who was made to perform the ritual last year. "He was looking miserable each time I saw him in the crowd of boys. All the boys in wet loin cloths bore the same look of the sacrificial goats of Kamakhya," she said.
Srikanth Vellikkatt, who underwent the ritual at the age of 12 in 1994, vividly remembers the ordeal he went through for seven days. The youth, who was sent by his parents to seek blessings for the family, told Firstpost that he along with 284 more boys were made to stay in the temple without proper food and sleep. "We were given a single thorthu (thin towels) to wear. We were woken up at 4 am, made to bath in cold water and stayed awake till deeparadhana (diyas) are over around midnight. The officials used to be harsh if anybody fell sleep during the pooja. We slept on a single woven coconut leaf," Srikanth said.
The children had to perform the prostration every day. "On the final day, the flesh is pierced with a metal hook and cane threads are inserted into it. As blood oozes from the wounds, we accompany the procession carrying the idol enduring the pain," he said. Srikant said that separation from his parents was more painful to him than the physical torture he underwent for seven days. He had never stayed away from his parents for so many days before.
Prajod Kadakkal, another youth who had gone through the ordeals in different temples between 1990 and 1998, is more concerned about the health problems the ritual cause to the children. He said that there was a big risk for contamination of blood and infections as the temple authorities were using the same instrument for making the holes.
P Muralidharan, who runs a clinic near the hospital, agrees with Prajod. He said there used to be a regular flow of children to his clinic right after the pongala festival. Many used to come with deep wounds that required antibiotics. He had to give a tetanus injection to most children. After seeing the suffering of the children, Muralidharan had approached the State Human Rights Commission in 2014 pleading against the practice of piercing the flesh during the festival. The commission had forwarded the complaint to the chief secretary but no action has been taken on it till now, said Muralidharan.
The government is reluctant to act as the ritual is deeply rooted in the hearts of the devotees, who constitute a sizeable vote bank, and it is practiced in a large number of temples with Bhadrakali as the chief deity. There are several myths surrounding Kuthiyottam, which is also called as chooral muriyal in some parts of the state.
One of the most popular stories behind its origin is that of a king who was granted a boon by goddess Bhadrakali when he prayed for perpetual prosperity for his subjects. Legend says that the goddess asked the king to find a perfect male child, educate him and then sacrifice him at the age of 10.
Kuthiyottam evolved from this myth. Instead of the earlier human sacrifice, the devotees now pierce gold or silver wire on the sides of children and offer the same to the goddess as a token of the sacrifice of the boy. Over the years, the ritual has deteriorated to such a way that rich people hire kids from poor families by offering huge sums of money to their parents and offer them instead of their own sons.
Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (KSCPCR) has already banned the ritual at Chettikulangara temple in Alappuzha district. The ban was imposed in 2016 on a petition filed by human rights lawyer AK Rajasree, citing the violation of child rights. However, the temple authorities have been continuing the practice even after the ban was upheld by the high court.
The Mavelikkara police have registered contempt of court case against parents of 24 young boys, who were subjected to torture as part of chooral muriyal ritual held at the temple on 21 February. Office bearers of the temple and festival committee were also booked as the ritual was conducted violating a high court order upholding the ban. KSCPCR has initiated steps to ban the ritual in the Attukal temple too. The commission has registered a case suo motu against the conduct of the ritual on 2 March on the basis of media reports and issued notices to the temple authorities and the chief secretary.
Undeterred by the commission move and the widespread criticism, the temple authorities are going ahead with the preparations for the ritual on Friday. More than 1,000 children have been going through various rituals involved in Kuthiyottam for the past four days. Temple head Chandrashekhara Pillai has denied the allegation that the ritual was inflicting physical and mental torture to the children. He claimed that piercing of the skin did not involve any pain as only a small hole is made on the top layer of the skin.
The Left Front government is steering clear of the raging controversy. Minister for Temple Affairs Kadakampally Surendran has affirmed that the government will not intervene in the matter as it could not sit on judgment over matters of faith. He said that the festival will go on as usual.
A large number of women from all over the state and from several other parts of the country have converged in the state capital to participate in the festival, which is billed as the largest congregation of women in the world.
It entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest annual gathering of women in 1997 with a participation of 1.5 million women and in 2009 with 2.5 million women. In 2015, the number rose to four million and is increasing year by year. Clad in traditional Kerala saris, the women will set up earthen hearths on the streets of the city and cook pongala to propitiate Bhagavathy, mostly for the well-being of their husbands and children.
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