At Kerala's Chottanikkara Bhagavathy temple, devotees pray to be rid of their 'demons'
The Sri Chottanikkara Bhagavathy temple, situated in Ernakulam, Kerala, is not merely a Hindu shrine of worship, but a place of 'exorcism' and healing
It must have a simpler time when the demons existed outside our heads. They took on fearsome forms, sprouted fangs, sported massive limbs and many heads. They manifested as rakshasas, asuras, prethaas, pischaasas and yakshis. They carried weapons, possessed specific powers and weaknesses, participated in combat. The gods knew exactly what they were up against. And so did we.
When the battle between Good and Evil was waged, we watched it all happen, and we wrote about it in our epics and puranas, made it into folklore, passed on their stories. So we could remember. Now when we read about Nrsimha destroying the prideful and almost-invincible Hiranyakashipu, or about Durga annihilating the rapidly replicating Raktabija, we can visualise the physical forms and shapes of such Evil, and we know of the boons these wily demons had acquired, of the ingenious ways in which the gods had outsmarted them. And when we heard stories of a brahmarakshasa disrupting the penance of sages, or of a yakshi waylaying and devouring men, we could recognise the face of such evil, of the ways they attack, the ways they can be subdued. As long as we could see the demons, they were not as frightening, as terrifying. As long as they existed as separate entities, they were foreign. They were not part of us. And thus they seemed fallible. The gods would fight them. And we could watch.
Unfortunately, we don’t have it as easy now — for the demons no longer live outside, but inside our heads. We cannot see them anymore. They do not take as easily recognisable forms. They have become part of us. Yet the battle still wages on. Against Evil. Against forces that live within us and take control of our minds. Against forces that leave us feeling weak and powerless, confused and delusional, fearful and without faculties. These inner demons go now by many names — depression, schizophrenia, paranoia, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, PTSD. It is now up to us to fight our own demons. With Medicine and Psychiatry. With patience and understanding and professional counselling. And, if one is a believer, with Faith. One could still turn to the gods — as some continue to do. One could still seek their help in fighting our demons.
The Sri Chottanikkara Bhagavathy temple, situated in Ernakulam, Kerala, is not merely a Hindu shrine of worship, but a place of 'exorcism' and healing. Devotees throng to the temple to seek the Goddess’ assistance in purging them of their mental afflictions, in ridding them of the inner demons that possess them. The Devi is believed to cure all those who approach her; people not just from Kerala but from all over the country come to her. They use the Goddess’ powers as adjunct therapy or even alternative treatment for their ailments. Personal and eyewitness accounts suggest that many return home cured.
While the main deity at Chottanikkara takes on the benign forms of the Mother Goddess — Saraswati in the morning, Lakshmi at noon and Durga in the evening — the idol in the Kizhukkaavu part of the temple is believed to represent Bhadrakali, the fierce manifestation of the Goddess. A flight of stairs on the eastern side of the temple pond leads one to Her, the Kizhukkavu Devi, the Exorcist Goddess who will fight our inner demons.
The valiya guruthi puja, or the Great Sacrifice, is performed here every night. The ritual involves chanting of divine verses and the offering of twelve pots of guruthi — a mixture of lime and turmeric that turns the colour of blood — to the Devi. And then the mentally disturbed and afflicted are brought in for their cleansing, to the sounds of percussion and prayers.
A huge and ancient Pala tree stands before the deity. The devotees are asked to drive in iron nails into the trunk of the Pala. They strike them in with their foreheads, where the pineal gland is located, and they drive in the nail steadily, almost mechanically, until it has pierced deep into the trunk. Each such nail represents a demon that has been cast away, trapped within the tree. The patients, or rather devotees, are then offered prasad, blessings that they can imbibe. For those who would like or require a longer stay at the temple, there is available the option of the bhajanam puja. This rigorous ritual involves dietary regulations, regular participation in prayer, and living in the accommodation provided by the temple authorities for the duration of their stay. Devotees can choose to undertake the bhajanam for as long as they might need — from a couple of days to a few months — to recover and find respite from their troubles.
In my novel, The Demon Hunter of Chottanikkara, I have returned us to the simpler times. To the Vedic ages, to be precise. When the demons are back outside, free to roam, free to hunt and free to be hunted. The Devi is no longer contained within stone either. She no longer stands restrained, invisible, fighting our demons through her mysterious ways. She takes on a human form to do the said hunting. And she wields weapons and rides a lion and practises kalaripayattu. From towering, menacing brahmarakshas to wily prethas, she hunts them all down, crushing them with her might and courage, saving her believers from these evil forces, thus setting a precedent for what her idol and temple in Chottanikkara will mean in the future. In my novel, the Goddess becomes the Shakti we all need to fight our demons. She becomes a display of the inner strength we will need to subdue and destroy the Evil that resides within us, amongst us, around us.
The tree of nails and trapped demons exists in my book too, just as it stands now in the temple, tall and strong and perhaps awe-inspiring — a reminder of what the Devi can do for us, a testament to all the people who have defeated their demons, a symbol of hope and fortitude.
SV Sujatha is the author of The Demon Hunter of Chottanikkara: A Supernatural Thriller, published by the Aleph Book Company
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