Kuthiyottam row: Kerala temple authorities defend 'cruel customs', seek refuge in tradition in fight against child rights activists

In Thiruvananthapuram's famed Attukal Bhagavathy temple, 983 boys aged between 5 and 12 years went through the rigorous 'Kuthiyottam' ritual on 2 and 3 March, completely unaware of the controversy raging outside the temple's walls.

The boys' ordeal began on 26 February and ended on Saturday morning, after the procession carrying the deity to the nearby Sastha temple at midnight returned in the morning. The children had accompanied the procession called 'Purathu Ezhunallathu', their bodies pierced by silver hooks.

Neither the temple authorities nor the state government have taken note of the pain these innocent children were made to endure for perpetuating an archaic custom that is questioned by child rights activists and even the courts. On the contrary, the two are trying to hound R Sreelekha, chief of Kerala's prisons department, who has highlighted the painful cruelty the children endure.

While temple authorities accused Sreelekha of spoiling the temple's growing popularity, the government has threatened to discipline the officer.

In a blog prior to the event, Sreelekha had described the insertion of metal threads after piercing the sides of children's bodies with sharp hooks, keeping them away from their parents for five days, and the arduous tasks assigned to them as part of the age-old practice as a criminal offence punishable under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, Juvenile Act and Child Right Protection Act.

 Kuthiyottam row: Kerala temple authorities defend cruel customs, seek refuge in tradition in fight against child rights activists

Young boys taking part in the Kuthiyottam rituals. Firstpost/TK Devasia

The Left Front government has viewed her blog post as a violation of the principle of impartiality that government servants are expected to maintain during their service period. Chief Secretary Paul Antony has issued a show cause notice to her seeking her explanation for the violation, according to Malayala Manorama, the largest circulated daily in the state.

Stating that the controversy triggered by her blog had affected the image of the state government, the chief secretary has asked Sreelekha to explain why action cannot be taken against her for the violation. She has been given 15 days to explain her stand.

Political analysts view the notice in tune with the soft Hindutva line being followed by the Left Front government to counter BJP's moves to monopolise Hindu votes. They pointed out that Temple Affairs Minister Kadkampally Surendran had defended temple authorities and extended all help to them to conduct the ritual without any hindrance.

Surendran, who belongs to the CPM, that professes atheism, maintained that the government had no role to play in the issue, as it had not received any complaint about cruelty to children. He backed the ritual saying it was a matter of faith.

Popular writer Zachariah wondered who will protect the rights of children if the government was taking such a stand. He told Firstpost that the stand taken by the minister and the notice issued to the police officer, who had raised her voice against cruelty to the children, showed that the government was more interested in vote bank than the children. "I salute Sreelekha for bringing out the cruelty of this so-called religious practice. The government and its agencies and the mainstream media do not dare to stand up for the rights of the children because it involves a powerful temple," he alleged.

The notice against Sreelekha came in the wake of the strong stand temple authorities and various Hindu bodies supporting them have taken against her. Temple authorities alleged that Sreelekha had raked up the issue just before the festival in order to paint the temple in a bad light. Temple trust secretary K Sisupalan said that her blog had created unnecessary confusion in the minds of the devotees.

Taking a cue from them, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alleged her move was part of a conspiracy. Party national executive committee member V Muralidharan cited the suo motu case registered by Kerala State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights in the matter to support his allegation.

"Kuthiyottam is being performed since centuries in connection with the Attukal Pongala festival. None of the children taking part in the event or their families have raised any complaints, nor have there been differences of opinion against the ritual. The present controversy is aimed at destroying Hindu organisations," he said.

A. Image procured by TK Devasia

Children participating in the kuthiyottam festivities in Kerala. Firstpost/TK Devasia

The BJP leader said that the child rights panel's move was against judicial ethics. “If the commission considers the Hindu ritual harassment, it should also take a similar view on similar rituals in other religions too. Unfortunately, the commission is silent on them. This shows that those behind the controversy are acting with vested interests," the BJP leader said.

Hindu Aikyavedi general secretary RV Babu pointed out that the circumcision ritual being practiced by the Muslim community and the piercing made on the ears of girls for earrings also constituted cruelty. The Aikyavedi will support the plea for an end to the Kuthiyottam ritual if authorities were ready to treat circumcision and ear piercings as cruelty.

Noted writer Lakshmy Rajeev, who wrote a book on the Attukal deity, said the temple authorities' defence of Kuthiyottam was unjustifiable since they had changed the identity of the deity from Bhadrakali to Kannaki after Nairs took over the temple from the lower castes some 60 years ago and appointed Brahmins as priests.

"Kuthiyottam is performed only in temples dedicated to Bhadrakali, daughter of Shiva. The conduct of the ritual at Attukal even after devotees started worshipping the deity as Kannagi was enough proof that the original deity at the Attukal temple was Bhadrakali," the writer said.

Lakshmi, who has done a five-year research into the history of the deity for her book titled Attukal Amma: Goddess of Millions, told Firstpost that Brahmin priests changed the nature of the temple and its rituals to cater to their own customs. There is evidence that animal sacrifice and killing of hens used to be performed at Attukal till 60 years ago.

"I am certain that Bhadrakali has reigned at Attukal from antiquity, right from the times when the human race began to propitiate the divine. With the support of historical records, we can unambiguously assert that the Attukal temple was a mudippura, where the lowest castes offered prayers, and it was taken over by the upper caste community to further their agenda," the writer said.

Lekshmy said there was no justification for the conduct of Kuthiyottam at Attukal if temple authorities are not ready to recognise the deity as Bhadrakali. "Unfortunately, authorities are least concerned about the purity of the deity. They are guided more by commercial interests. Let them do it, but at least they should stop abusing devotees, particularly the children," she said.

The writer said Kuthiyottam was fast turning into a mockery, with the rich hiring boys from poor families to perform the ritual in place of their sons. She said a friend of hers hired such a boy after giving him money in the just-concluded festival. Lekshmy refused to divulge the details of the family.

Lekshmy said this practice was going on in most temples where the ritual is performed. She hoped that the children's commission, which has registered a suo motu case in connection with the Kuthiyottam at Attukal, will look into these "unholy" practices and bring an end to the mockery.

Updated Date: Mar 03, 2018 12:41:30 IST