Like every year, arrangements for the annual ‘Kumba Bharani’ festival are in full swing at Chettikulangara Devi Temple in Alappuzha, Kerala. However, what many don’t know about this grand festival, also called the Kumbh Mela of the south, is a 250 old regressive ritual that involves young boys from poor families being ‘adopted’ by the rich and offered as bali (or sacrifice) to God, only to be abandoned later.
That’s not all. Temple authorities continue to conduct the ritual every year, defying the ban that was imposed on it by the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (KeSCPCR) in November 2016 for violating the Juvenile Justice Act and the Kerala High Court upholding its validity.
This year too, the Kerala High Court has ruled against the ritual’s performance, stating anyone found in defiance of its order, would be guilty of a non-bailable offence. Unfazed by the Court order, temple authorities are still continuing preparations for the ritual that will see 24 children being offered as human sacrifices this year, in what can only be described as blatant child rights violation.
The ritual, known as ‘Chooral Muriyal’, forms a part of the larger ‘Koodiyattam’ – an offering devotees make to Goddess Bhadrakali, the temple deity during the festival. As a part of Koodiyattam, young boys between the age of 8- 14 years are ‘adopted’ from underprivileged families in exchange for money, sometimes as much as Rs.1 lakh.
The boys are adopted by the families which promise to make the vazhipadu (offering) for the next 7-10 days until the day of the festival. Apart from decadent feasts being prepared at these households, the young boys are taught elaborate dance steps. On the day of the ‘Bharani’, the boys are dressed as kings with paper crowns and plantain leaves.
Then, in a ritual of ‘chooral muriyal’, the skin on either side of the child’s midrib is pierced with a needle and golden strands are inserted by an Asan (master). The children are paraded to the temple accompanied by cheering devotees and a cacophony of flute and slogans on the festival day. When they reach the temple, the elders pull out the string from the bleeding fissures and offer it to the temple. This, officially, marks the end of the Koodiyattam ceremony.
“The rules of the ritual actually mandate that families offer their own children for the sacrifice. But obviously, that doesn’t happen. Instead, poor children have become the scapegoat, with rich families ‘adopting’ children from poor families in exchange for a sum of money,” says Jaswinder Singh, Head of Communication & Advocacy, at Protsahan, which has started an online petition on change.org against the conduct of the ceremony.
Says T. Sudheesh, the journalist who has witnessed the ceremony, “We spoke to 15-20 families, and saw for just how little – sometimes for as little as jewellery and toys the children are exchanged for by their families. The shame is not on the poor families. It’s on the rich, who couldn’t dream of putting their children through what they do to poor kids.”
But, the best-kept secret about the practice perhaps is what happens to these children after the festival. Since the ritual signifies that a ‘human sacrifice’ has been made to God, the children are completely ostracized by society, considered ‘dead’ for all intents and purposes. People look down upon them as a sign of bad luck, and as the children grow up, this tag stays with them through life, Singh told YKA.
Efforts to end the practice so far, have fallen on deaf ears, because of the large political patronage the temple enjoys.
“The devotee outfit – Sreedevi Vilasam Hindumatha Convention – that claims to represent the interests of the entire community, has some very powerful people that no-one wants to take on. And while the Court has categorically said that the organization neither represents the interests of the community or the temple, the strong clout that this temple enjoys from them, has emboldened them to defy even court orders,” Sudheesh told YKA.
Just how much political patronage the temple enjoys can be gauged from the active support it enjoys from politicians, who at times even take part in the ceremony. For example, last year, Suresh Gopi, a sitting member of the Rajya Sabha, took part in the primitive ritual, and two children were subjected to the ritual for the ‘welfare’ of the politician’s family.
In addition to Gopi, 14 others also offered Koodiyattams to the deity on the day last year, parading at least two children each, spending ₹10 to 50 lakh.
“This is the most shocking part. That something like this is happening in a state with the highest literacy rate, and that it has gone unchecked, due to the collusion between some very powerful people and the temple authorities,” child rights activist Sonal Kapoor, told YKA.
That the issue has been completely blacked out by local media in Kerala hasn’t helped either.
“There is a gross human rights violation happening despite court orders, but no one in Malayali media wants to cover this issue. No one wants to pick a fight with vested interests within the community,” Sudheesh says.
And so, all that all those fighting against the regressive ritual can do is – hope. Hope, that enough awareness, will force the public to take notice and pull out government machinery from its slumber. So that, at least this year, 24 innocent children, can be saved.