At the popular Chettikulangara Devi Temple in Alappuzha district of Kerala, arrangements are in full flow for the annual ‘bharani’ festival. However, a controversial ritual involving young boys—part of the festivities and conducted over decades—is making news for the wrong reasons.
The ritual known as ‘chooral muriyal’ is a segment which forms a part of the larger ‘kuttiyattam’, a unique offering that devotees make to Goddess Bhadrakali, the main deity of the temple. ‘Kuttiyattam’ is seen as a symbolic representation of ‘human sacrifice’ (bali) offered to the deity as part of which young boys are ‘adopted’ from their families for a fee, invited to the households which ‘adopt’ them and taken care for the next 7-10 days till the day of the festival.
Each family, which promises to make the ‘vazhipadu’ (offering), is obliged to adopt two boys between the ages of 8 and 14. At each household, elaborate feasts are prepared for locals. The young boys are taught elaborate dance steps and songs which describe in great detail the demon-slaying deeds of the goddess. The boys are also known to undertake a strict ‘vratham’ (vow), desisting from meat, in the days leading up to the festival. On ‘Bharani’ day, the boys are dressed as kings with paper crowns and plantain leaves.
Then, in a ritual of ‘chooral muriyal’, a thin golden coil is inserted through one end of the boy’s waist, just beneath the surface, and taken out through the other end and tied around his neck. The boys are then taken in a procession from the homes with the accompaniment of drums and colourful umbrellas to the temple. The children then dance in front of the deity post which the golden coil is taken out and offered to the goddess. This marks the end of the ‘kuttiyattam’ ceremony.
This year, a total of 24 boys from 12 households are set to participate in the ceremony on which a ban of the Kerala High Court remains in place. Earlier this week, a division bench of the High Court dismissed a petition by the organisation representing the temple which sought the ban to be overturned.
“The ban is still in place. The court said that children below 18 years shouldn’t be hurt physically or mentally for such ceremonies,” said AK Rajasree, an advocate who was the complainant in the case for the Kerala State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights.
Temple authorities were not available to comment on the High Court’s decision but a ‘kuttiyattam’ teacher said the ceremony will take place on February 22 as planned with 24 kids as part of the ceremony.
“It’s a symbolic ceremony. Besides, permission is taken before-hand from the children’s parents. The kids won’t feel any pain. I did it when I was 10 and I didn’t feel anything,” said Gopalakrishna Pillai, a kuttiyattam asaan (teacher).
An online petition, floated by NGO Protsahan, on change.org against the conduct of the ceremony, is garnering signatures.
“It is a blatant case of child trafficking and abuse. This is happening at a point when India aspires to be a world power and its children are abused in the name of religion. Something like this cannot go unchecked,” said Jaswinder Singh, the head of communications, at Protsahan.
Singh said that the petition will be forwarded to Maneka Gandhi, the union minister for women and child development, and government authorities in Kerala when it garners enough support.