It was pouring that morning but the storm clouds went unnoticed by the villagers who gathered in the backyard of a small house to watch the Kerala Police’s forensics squad dig up the soft, wet earth. Teenaged Arjun’s body was the first to emerge, then came his older sister, Arsha, and mother, Susheela. The family patriarch, Krishnankutty, was at the bottom, his legs bent to accommodate his frame in the ditch he had dug to compost goat droppings.
In the six months since the murders at Kambakakkanam village in Idukki, police have pieced together the bizarre story that culminated in the bloodshed: a sorcerer’s brew of fear and greed.
Just as people were coming to terms with the murders, Kerala was to see another round of ugliness and violence in the name of faith after the Supreme Court allowed women of all ages into the revered Sabarimala temple. Many have questioned the anger over the entry of women into a temple in a state considered among India’s most forward-looking.
There are more such aberrations.
National Crime Records Bureau data shows that Kerala has one of the lowest murder rates in the country but the highest rate of political murders —eight times that of Uttar Pradesh and five times that of Bihar, the two states with notorious crime records. The coastal state has been the largest contributor of jihadists to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Maoists and extreme Hindu nationalists are growing in numbers.
Beneath the glossy, God’s-Own-Country marketing image, there’s a deep vein of blind faith that perhaps also explains the Kambakakkanam murders and the Sabarimala unrest.
No one in Kambakakkanam admits to being close to the 52-year-old Krishnankutty. Some even warned their children to keep away from 17-year-old Arjun, who had intellectual disability, and college-going Arsha, five years his senior.
People talk about Krishnankutty in whispers, as if afraid an evil spirit might overhear them. But, they used to peep out of their windows to watch the flashy cars that would park outside his house.
Within the walls of the neatly painted house, neighbours told Firstpost, Krishnankutty would gaze at a bowl of uncooked rice to tell fortune. He would foretell great perils and, for anywhere between ₹2,000 and ₹200,000, ways to ward them off.
There is reason to believe that Krishnankutty feared violence. In each corner of the house, he had weapons: a sword hung in the corner of the main room and behind the bed was a hammer. He also had choppers and wooden sticks in different sizes.
Perhaps the only person Krishnankutty trusted was his 30-year-old apprentice, Aneesh. Living in a one-room annexe to the Krishnankutty home, Aneesh was sometimes given charge of sacrificing chickens—one of the many rituals performed for the clients.
But, unknown to Krishnankutty, Aneesh was in the grip of his own dark gods. Another black-arts practitioner, investigators say, told Aneesh that his ascent to a full-blown priest was being held back by his Master. Krishnankutty also possessed palm-leaf scriptures in an obscure language but had refused to initiate Aneesh.
Three years into his apprenticeship, Aneesh convinced himself that killing his Master would make him heir to the powers Krishnankutty had harnessed from “300 goddesses”—as well as his wealthy customers.
Libeesh, a friend of Aneesh who ran a local motorcycle-repair workshop, was willing to join the plot. Police say he was promised the gold Krishnankutty had hidden in the house.
The killings, on July 29, 2018, were savage—but incomplete.
The two men returned the next night, to find Arjun alive, propped up against a wall. “Aneesh pulled out a hammer from the house and smashed Arjun’s head, killing him,” says KP Jose, deputy superintendent of police, Thodupuzha.
Later that night, Aneesh pierced his thumb with a pin and let the blood drip into a bowl. The ritual was meant to ensure the police would not catch him. “By the eighth day, we caught him,” says Jose.
Krishnankutty had failed to foresee his violent death.
Police investigating Krishnankutty’s customers were surprised at the spread of his business. His customers included everyone--students, housewives, businessmen and politicians. The faithful came from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, drawn by his formidable reputation. “How will we live now?” cried Geetha, a client, when she was told about the murders. Krishnankutty had predicted how and when her estranged husband would come back to her.
He got that one right.
Unlettered, Krishnankutty was one of nine siblings. About a decade ago, he left cattle rearing and put all his energies into practising black magic.
The village was sceptical of the sorcerer in its midst. After his neighbours, Sasi PK and Vilasini, lost three cows in quick succession, Krishnankutty told them they were victims of a curse. Sasi ignored his suggestion to rid the curse through incantations.
But the black magician of Kambakakkanam soon became something of a rock star. “By fluke, some of his prayers worked well and people started coming to him,” Sasi says.
Krishnankutty’s murder has not dented faith in the gods he worshipped or their agents on earth. About 100km away in the neighbouring Thrissur district, dozens of black-magic temples thrive in Peringottukara village, a study in India’s bizarre collision between faith and consumerism.
The Devasthanam is one such temple. The youngest of the three brothers who own the shrine runs a cinema hall next door, where latest Malayalam films are screened. Across the road, is the temple’s guest house. An obese 31-foot falcon fashioned out of concrete watches over the expensive cars the devotees leave in the parking lot.
Pure entrepreneurialism meets shamanism effortlessly at the Devasthanam. Those who want solutions from Chatan, the diminutive demon god worshipped there, must register their name in the temple office to be called before the priest.
The price of a personal consultation, lasting a few seconds, is ₹20,000 rupees, a hen and a bottle of booze—brand no bar.
In the next temple, run by the uncle of the Devasthanam head priest, a 21-day prayer schedule is priced at Rs 40,000.
A few metres away, devotees nervously huddle in front of a small shrine in the vast premises of Avanangattil Kalari, the oldest of the black-magic temples. The silence is broken by ringing of temple bells, announcing the arrival of Chatan, in the body of the medium.
Possessed by Chatan’s spirit, the priest shakes vigorously. Ghungroo bells tied to his chest make a racket, while the head priest translates his mystic words—gibberish to the uninitiated—into Malayalam.
Thirty seconds of advice, more often than not, earn a wad of banknotes from the grateful supplicant.
The pious have brought with them hens, which they rotate over their heads before depositing the squawking birds in a special donation box. Every few minutes, staff collect the birds, take them to the back of the temple.
In the backyard, staff wring the necks of the hen, tossing their heads into a basket.
“I am doing this as a duty, for the sake of people,” said AU Raghuraman Panicker, the head priest.
For centuries, Idukki’s tribes practised the shamanic rituals from which the Chatan temples’ practices are drawn. “It is an appropriation of a tribal practice,” explains Jairam Poduval, a professor of arts, history and aesthetics at Maharaja Sayajirao University in Vadodara. “The tribal cults have been absorbed into a Brahmanical framework.”
Poduval says the reason for Chatan’s popularity is that wishes can be fulfilled by paying cash. Chatan’s favours are open to all, irrespective of caste, gender, or even religion, as long as they can pay.
Udayakumar, a rationalist from Thrissur, says simple demand-and-supply led to mushrooming of the Peringottukara temples. “Anyone who worked at a temple and understood how Chatan prayers are done could start their own,” he notes.
In a society beset with pressures of modernisation —unemployment, strain of inter-caste and inter-religious ties and a growing burden of psychiatric illnesses —the temples step in where civic institutions lack. “Lots of people go to these temples in search of solutions to problems like depression,” Podval says.
Kerala’s black-magic world, rationalist-movement activists say, has cashed in on the opportunity: fraud and cheating aren’t uncommon. “These murders, based only on fictitious beliefs, shook the region,” says Anilkumar KN, president of Kerala Rationalists Association.
But the beliefs have survived. Even a fake faith, perhaps, is better than the rootlessness and uncertainties that come when a polity and culture can’t keep pace with change.
The path to Krishnankutty’s house is covered with withered leaves. Rubber collected from trees has dried in the cups tied to the trunk. A torn surgical glove hangs lonely from a branch and the pit where the bodies were found is covered with shrubs. His brothers burnt everything in the house. The floor and walls are washed and the house has been locked.
His ghost, however, still haunts Kerala.