Periyambillai Amabalakarar, the village elder in his late 70s, is angry, but manages a snarky smile. “What do you know about us peasants, about our life?” he says.
His village, Vellalur, about 30 km from Madurai town, has faced unsolicited attention over a centuries-old ritual held at its Ezhai Katha Amman temple last month, when little girls were “offered” to the local deity for a fortnight. Reports spoke of the “exploitative nature” of the “bizarre temple ritual”, as part of which seven “divine” girls chosen by the temple priest were made to parade in skirts, with only gold ornaments and garlands to cover their bare chests; in Vellalur, there’s anger at the sudden intrusion into their lives.
For centuries, youngsters from Vellalur have migrated to lands far away in search of jobs — Myanmar and Malaysia as indentured labourers in the 19th century, later to Iraq and Iran and more recently, to the Gulf. But despite its diaspora, Vellalur maintains a strong sense of its agrarian, rural self — evident in the posters across the village to mark the sixth death anniversary of a Jallikattu temple bull and flag posts erected by youths from the Thevar community, a politically powerful OBC group, in honour of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose (an affinity that comes from their role in Bose’s Indian National Army).
Surrounded by fields that have mostly dried up due to the drought in the state, the Ezhai Katha Amman temple marks the centre of Vellalur village. It was here that the controversial ritual involving seven girls, selected from among 600 children from 60 villages surrounding Vellalur, began on September 19 and ended on October 4.
The unwavering faith of the villagers in the powers of Ezhnai Katha Amman, or ‘she who protects the poor’, stems from their belief that the goddess has answers to each of their problems. During the festival, devotees make offerings of painted clay dolls and place them at the feet of the deity. As a testimony to that faith, in a yard behind the temple, lie over 2,000 such dolls, each holding a silent tale of woe — from a woman who wants her child’s illness cured, a couple with fertility issues or a man without a job. Villagers also practise a rigorous, self-imposed period of abstinence, during which they deny themselves their favourite dishes and devote themselves to the goddess.
The temple is also a venue for crucial meetings held twice a month, where villagers settle disputes and everyday discord. These meetings are led by three ‘Ambalakarars’ — a chief and his two deputies — who are a legacy of the 7th-century Chola dynasty, which had an army base in Vellalur and whose soldiers, the Ambalakarars, held considerable clout.
In September, with activists up in arms over reports of the “primitive” temple ritual, Madurai District Collector K Veera Raghava Rao ordered an inquiry to find out if the girls were being harassed or abused during their 15-day stay at the temple. With the inquiry report ruling out abuse, the district administration refused to stay the ritual, saying the parents had willingly sent their children.
“The report submitted to us said the ritual was held with the consent of both parents and their children. We asked the villagers if they could avoid bare-chested children. However, we found that children who attended the event this year and even those in the previous years were all between 6 and 10,” said a senior official in the Madurai district administration.
The activists, however, raised more questions — “Why can’t they carry out the ritual when children wearing blouses?”; “Did the parents of these children take their consent before sending them to the temple?” — and even moved the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) against the practice.
Subramanian Ambalakarar, one of the two deputy Ambalakarars, says he is “hurt and shocked” to hear these questions. “Unlike children in cities, it’s normal for girls in these parts, at least up to the age of 10, to roam around in just skirts. Even when we take them to Sabarimala (for the annual pilgrimage), they are usually bare-chested. Does it imply we are being indecent or that we are exploiting them? Aren’t we parents? Why do you presume we wouldn’t know what’s right for our children and that you would?” says an angry Subramanian.
In his late 40s, Subramanian is a graduate from American College in Madurai and holds a diploma from Madras Christian College in Chennai. He says that some years ago, his two daughters took part in the ritual, but were never “chosen by the goddess”.
After an awkward pause, he continues, “You people in cities send your little girls for tuition and swimming classes. While you have the confidence to send your children to male teachers or trainers, you don’t trust parents in villages with their own children. And you call us and our rituals primitive?”
Talking of the ritual, he says most children chosen by the priest are below 10. “Over 600 children come with their parents and relatives from 60 villages around here. Of those, we select seven and they spend the next 15 days in the temple, where they are treated as goddesses.”
Manthayan Ambalakarar, the third Ambalakarar, says, “There are 100 more people in the temple premises throughout those 15 days — not strangers, but the parents of these girls, their relatives and grandparents. Besides, the girls who are chosen to be goddesses sleep with their mothers inside the temple.”
Manthayan points out that the village has no police station in a 10-km radius and that it’s the temple that is their moral compass. “Does it mean that we are primitive? Hundreds of youths from this village work abroad, mostly in the Gulf, and they come here for the 15-day festival,” he says, pointing out to all the other markers of a ‘modern’ society — government and private schools, four Public Health Centres, ration shops and four government-run liquor shops — in Vellalur and surrounding villages.
Subramanian, the deputy Amabalakarar, says, “What the Centre does to Tamil Nadu is what activists and the media are doing to us. Just like the government in Delhi imposes Hindi and tells us that there is only one culture, you people in cities dictate how we should live and celebrate our festivals.”
Sudha Ramalingam, a senior lawyer of the Madras High Court who, at the height of the controversy, said that “such practices” would affect “the psyche of the children”, now admits that people tend to judge others using their own yardsticks. “The question is whether is it right for us to do an objective analysis on a society in which we have no major role? Vellalur is a primary endogamous society and their standards vary from my secondary exogamous society. While we saw this ritual as an aberration, theirs is a society where everyone knows each other. So they will have their inherent systems to check crimes.”
As the sun beats down on Vellalur, farmers and farm labourers continue to work on their parched land on either side of the village road. On trees that line this road are talismans, little bundles tied to the branches. They’ll stay that way, biding their time until the goddess “unties them” and frees them of their burdens, pains and sorrows.