In the still of the night

by Steven Bonta
Special to Via Negativa. All rights reserved by the author.

In the still of the night, I pay my respects at the Shrine of the Cobra.

Actually, I’m in a tiny sanctum at the fringe of Tattaneri Cemetery, on the edge of a bustling city in Tamilnadu, South India. Here cobras sometimes issue from the fringe of acacias to drink milk offerings left in saucers before the billhook-wielding image of Sonaisami, one of the many ferocious Shaivite demiurges worshipped in the villages and waste places of Tamilnadu. Sonaisami (“Lord of the Tomb”) sports a potbelly and florid mustache, as do the other protector deities, or bhuts, posted on each corner of the roof of the dilapidated shrine. On the back of the building is a terrifying painting of the goddess Kali garlanded with skulls, the corpse of Shiva prone at her feet.

Ordinarily, Lord Sonai’s shrine is neglected, competing as it must with thousands of more attractive temples housing more charismatic gods in a city that styles itself the heartland of Dravidian Hinduism. But tonight, on Shivaratri — the Night of Shiva, nearest thing in the Hindu world to Halloween — Sonai has taken center stage. His niche is lit by oil lamps, and an offering of coconuts, rice, and arrak liquor is spread on the dusty brick floor.

“Do you believe there are such things as cannibals, white man? Here in India, I mean?”

I fumble for a reply to such a typically Indian non-sequitur, setting aside my sweaty barbell as a rat scurries across the dirt floor of the gym.

“I’ve never thought about it, but I suppose not.”

“That’s my saying, too, but this man, he is from the south, from Tirunelveli, and he says his family worships a god whose priests are cannibals.”

The man indicated, a burly, taciturn laborer performing dumbbell curls, speaks no English, so I ask him in Tamil what he is talking about.

He assures me, in perfectly measured tones, that his kuladevan, or family deity, is propitiated by priests who actually eat the flesh of corpses, and that he has seen this rite performed. I ask the name of this god.

“Sudalai Madan,” he answers — “Fiend of the Burning-ground.”

“Is it possible for outsiders to see such rites?” I ask.


My friend Balu and I grow restless. It is well past midnight, and the only living thing we have seen in hours of waiting, besides the swarms of insects buzz-bombing a pair of feeble streetlights, was a lone bicyclist who shot past the silent cemetery grounds without a sideways glance. The dead, however, are very much in evidence. Human remains unearthed by stray dogs from shallow graves lie scattered among the weeds, and some thoughtful soul has placed several bones, including a nearly-intact skull, on the ground in front of Kali’s leering image.

Underneath each of the three large metal pavilions that mark the crematory portion of the cemetery, a corpse is burning. Beside one of these corpses, we find something else: a large circle, marked with tika powder and sprigs of various plants, inscribed in the ashes left from decades of cremations. In the middle of the circle is a small heap of human bones, gathered from the cemetery and broken into bite-sized pieces. A tangle of acacia branches has been dragged over the site, to prevent trespassers like myself from getting a closer look.

Finally, past 1 AM, I hear from the deserted street the sound of voices and the hypnotic wheeze of an udukku or squeeze-box drum.

The sightless eyes stare back at me from a ruined, bloodied face. By his appearance, the man was the victim of some reckless truck driver and, without kin, has been dumped unceremoniously at the entrance to the cemetery, only partially wrapped in a bloody sheet. He will presumably be cremated anonymously, by some of the rough-looking men who labor in the necropolis. On a whim, I approach several of them and ask, feeling somewhat foolish, if they have ever heard of such a thing as people coming into the cemetery at night and eating human remains.

“Oh, that’s tomorrow night,” one of them says, without a twitch of surprise.

“Is a velaikkaran [white man] allowed to see such a thing?”

“Sure. You come tomorrow, around midnight. You’ll see.”

An odd and unexpectedly noisy procession has arrived at Tattaneri Cemetery. Twenty or thirty men, including a uniformed policeman, surround a terrifying figure dressed in colorful black trunks, wearing a wig of long, black tresses, and carrying on his head a gorgeous, flower-draped, spindle-shaped object known as a kapparai. The figure is in a state of frenzied possession, which the Tamils call avesam; he howls and screams and spins wildly, while several of his acolytes help to support him. At the head of the group, a kodangu or soothsayer, who is playing the squeeze-box, along with another drummer, keep up the mesmerizing rhythm as the group pauses right in front of me.

“They worship the god Irulappan [Lord of Darkness],” one of the cemetery workers informs us, “who is the same as the one they call Sudalai Madan in the south.”

At this, Balu becomes uneasy. Later, he tells me that he has heard of this dark god and the fearful secret rites his followers practice. There may be some danger, he suggests. Good Hindus do not worship in the dead of the night. I offer to pay more than the usual fee to Balu, who is a trishaw driver, and his concern appears to abate.

The votaries of Irulappan are surprised and delighted to find a Tamil-speaking white man waiting for them in this secret, desolate place. No white man has ever seen their rites before, and they are eager to show an outsider how religion is really done.

The priest carrying the kapparai suddenly gives a bloodcurdling shriek and races towards the pavilion where the ritual circle has been prepared. The kapparai is jammed into the ash next to the burning corpse, and the priest, still jerking and babbling under the influence of the spirit that controls him, sits down cross-legged in front of the pile of bones. The rest of us crowd around, a ring of expectant dark faces and one pale face, imperfectly lit by a pair of guttering oil lamps. I am ushered to the priest’s side, so that my view will be unobstructed.

“I have heard of such things,” my Brahmin landlord tells me earlier that evening. “These people are not Hindus at all, and I don’t understand why they worship such dark gods. We always say that puja should not be held after midnight, but what they do is not really puja. I think you should be very careful.”

With another howl, the priest scoops up the bones with both hands and stuffs them in his mouth, molars crunching improbably through brittle, sun-bleached fragments of femurs, skulls, and ribs. In a moment, Irulappan has finished his meal, and is ready to grant a wish or two. Leaping to his feet, the wild-haired vessel for the god begins barking auguries to the circle of devotees, who merely look deferentially at the ashes and murmur “Aama, sami” (Yes, lord). One of the acolytes suddenly keels over into a possessive swoon and, as his comrades crowd around trying to revive him, Irulappan departs, and his bone-weary human vessel goes over to the water pump to revive himself.

After a few minutes’ break, in which I am allowed to photograph a cluster of grinning Irulappan sectaries standing around the colorful kapparai, the ritual resumes with the mukkavu, or triple sacrifice of a goat, rooster, and pig. A black kid is presented with a circle of banana leaves, on each of which is placed a pile of rice. As soon as the animal noses one of the rice piles, its throat is cut and the blood mixed with the chosen portion. The other two animals are similarly dispatched, and then the head priest, with two acolytes (including the one who swooned earlier) retires into the acacias to perform the most secretive part of the entire ritual: the rice/blood mixture is hurled into the air, and Irulappan takes it. From within the trees we hear a loud scream, and then the cadre returns. They will say only that the offering was accepted, as always.


Two nights later, I return to the cemetery for a sequel to this ritual (dare I call it osteophagy?), which can only take place during one week out of the year. This time, the same group appears with a different kapparai, a triangle enclosing five faces. A similar rite is performed.

Another group from a different temple shows up as well, larger and more boisterous. Their priests arrive first, eat bones, and then greet the large procession of followers as it surges down the street to the cemetery. Among them are mummers dressed as bhuts, with black mustaches and carrying billhooks and whips. Tonight, evidently, will feature the initiation of one of their acolytes.

A young man in manacles is thrown into the ashes next to a pile of bones, while the rest gather around to watch. The whip-wielding bhuts lash at the devotees, screaming at them to kneel, while the initiate manages to choke down bones and corpse-ashes in roughly equal portions. While all this is going on, in a surreal twist, one of the onlookers hands me his business card. He’s an engineer, he wants me to know.

“Irulappan is a crazy (paitiyam) god,” the head priest of the Irulappan cult tells me several days later. Gone are the trunks, the saidai (black wig), and the garlands of flowers that had been hung over every idol in the temple, including that of the goddess Ankalaparamesvari, the temple matron. In the niche of Irulappan, to the left of the entranceway, the generic black statue within no longer sports the silver pieces that limned its features during festival time, nor the leopard skin denoting his association with Shiva.

“Irulappan is the same as Sudalai Madan in the south, and Mayandi (‘Lord of Illusion’) in the east,” the priest tells me. “He is the crazy son of Shiva, and like his father, frequents cemeteries and burning grounds where he sometimes eats human remains.”

He points to the wall behind him, festooned with the portraits of head priests stretching back several centuries. “This temple is very old, at least four hundred years. When it was built, this was all countryside. Now it is all city, but we keep the old forms of worship alive. I worship like my father, and he as his father before him.”

Author’s note: Transgressive forms of Hinduism featuring some form of ritual cannibalism appear to be very ancient, and center on the so-called “Brahminicide myth,” in which Shiva, in a fit of pique, lops off one of the heads of Brahma. As penance, he is cast out from civilized society, and forced to travel through India as a beggar with the skull (Skt. kapala) of Brahma attached to the palm of his hand, frequenting cemeteries and consuming human remains. The rather mysterious order of the kapalikas, alluded to as heretics in classical Sanskrit literature, seems to have adopted the habits of the outcaste Shiva rather literally, and the kalamukhas (“black faces”) of medieval south India may have done the same. In more modern times, the cannibalistic Aghori sect of Varanasi has received some fairly sensational publicity, while rites similar to those I witnessed in Tamilnadu are described (though never witnessed firsthand) by Eveline Meyer, in her surprising book on the cult of the Tamil goddess Ankalaparamesvari (the matron goddess of the temple where Irulappan was enshrined). The Tamil word kapparai is derived from Sanskrit kapala, and suggests a connection between the secret religion of Irulappan and the brahminicide myth of the kapalikas.

Editor’s note: Other posts by Steven Bonta at Via Negativa include Lament for the fisherfolk of Sri Lanka and Favorite authors on ancient history. My brother Steve recently moved back to the area with his wife and child and currently teaches English at the Altoona College of Penn State. He wrote this essay this very morning, after a spur-of-the-moment request from me late yesterday, and thus didn’t have the time to dig up any of the photos he took of the ritual in time to include them here. I think it’s plenty frightening without them, though. Happy Halloween, y’all.

In slough time

This entry is part 28 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the tenth poem in the third (“Eternity’s Woods”) section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details on this experiment in responsive reading. I’ll remove Zweig’s poems after a week or so to prevent egregious copyright infringement.


A stalk of yellow weed isolated in sunlight;
The tinge eastward toward Queens over tarred rooftops.

A wake furls slantwise across the empty river . . .

[Remainder of poem removed 11-06-05]

* * * *

The Catch

We were playing hide-&-seek. At the last moment,
I dove under a black rubberized tarp
that had been lying out back for several months.
I heard her finish the count & come looking,
rounding the corner of the house on rapid feet.

The tarp rustled from my heavy breathing.
A beetle made a racket
burrowing out from under from my right ear,
which was pressed against the ground.
She ran past, the beetle wiggled free
& everything grew still.

After a while, I heard the approach of slow footfalls.
This time, I held my breath as if
my life depended on it. The steps came up
to the edge of the tarp & stopped.
“Nobody under there,” I heard her say.

Is it better to fish without luck,
or to stretch a net & accept the inevitable by-catch?
The silence after that second attempt
has yet to end. From time to time,
a harvestman runs over my carcass on seeing-eye legs.
What mountain is this, I start to wonder,
keeping the smooth sky from a tangled earth?

For bycatch, see here. For an excellent, brief essay on harvestmen, see here.

Poetry kicks philosophy’s ass

“Hence, at the basis of the concept of self-understanding lies the fact that all dogmatic assumptions are dissolved by the inner self-production of reason, so that at the end of this self-construction of the transcendental subject it is totally transparent to itself.”

HANS-GEORG GADAMER (discussing Fichte, Hegel and Husserl in an essay called “Heidegger and Marburg theology”)

” . . . the glass house
of wit . . . ”

JOHN HAINES (“Meditations on a Skull Carved in Crystal”)

Why it makes sense to reinvent the wheel

Following in the tire tracks of Errol Morris.

1. Unique re-branding opportunities

2. Difficult to secure intellectual property rights to existing wheel

3. Chariots were, like, way cool

4. Reinventer forced to wrestle with fundamental truths about time and space, energy and motion – an unparalleled opportunity for personal growth

5. It’s time to put the “rock” back in rock ‘n roll

6. Proverbial sayings based on existing wheel have devolved into lifeless caricatures of original thought

7. Neighbors reinvented the lever


This entry is part 27 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the ninth poem in the third (“Eternity’s Woods”) section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details on this experiment in responsive reading. I’ll remove Zweig’s poems after a week or so to prevent egregious copyright infringement.

A Theory of Needs

I want what has been sliding
Toward me from the corners of the earth;
What the wind lulls along the early morning streets:
The dancing fit of history . . .

[Remainder of poem removed 11-06-05]

* * * *

Bargain (antipoem)

The lead story in the business section of the newspaper the other day said
that Halloween now generates the highest retail profits of any U.S. holiday.
The labor news section of a newspaper in a parallel universe I sometimes visit
leads with a slightly different story:

Components Manufactured in Mexico, Industry Experts Say

The article goes on to point out that Americans increasingly opt for
the convenience & everyday bargain prices available to them
in stores modeled after vast warehouses, where the economies of scale
& hefty taxpayer subsidies allow retailers
to make death more affordable than ever before.
In this alternate universe, advertising copywriters & public relations people
garner all the power and prestige afforded poets in our own society,
or griots & griottes in West Africa.
They author odes to sweet oblivion in all its disguises:
sex, drugs, saturated fats,
excitement, distraction, consumption.
We are holes, they sing. Fill us, fill us, fill us.
If I were one of them, I think I’d write a panegyric to the very fill itself,
that Clean Fill which – the crudely lettered roadside signs announce –
is always Wanted. Because in this much grimmer & grimier universe
in which I seem to be thoroughly enmeshed, all I can do is sputter
& wave my arms about like a moth stuck to the front grill of a truck.
I insist on raising embarrassingly sincere questions about, say,
the need children seem to have for some secret place –
a field grown up to thorns, maybe, or some beloved mess of trees.
An Unimproved Woodlot, the bards of the bargain would say.
Ripe for Development. Part of a tax-free
Opportunity Zone, where soon you’ll be able
to stop at the new Village Commons or Town Centre
for a Grande cup of Americano on your way to somewhere else.
A tricky place, this parallel universe: it’s hard to know
when you’ve arrived. One minute you’re there, the next you’re not.
I want to need to want to need to want, they chant, ad infinitum.
But most days that sounds like so much work! I’m glad I don’t live there –
though it can be, as they say, a nice place to visit.
There’s plenty of parking.
At the end of a long day, though, all I want is to put my feet up
for a little while before sinking into sleep,
which is, in this more humdrum & sadly impoverished universe,
still almost completely ad-free.
I need a new television, they tell me: one with High Definition,
whatever that means. I like the wildlife shows.
I don’t want to miss the minutest detail in those epic battles for survival,
those great escapes.

Credit (or blame) for this goes to a post in Creature of the Shade, which led me to James Howard Kunstler’s newly blogified Clusterfuck Nation columns for the first time in months.

The deliberately unlyrical antipoem was pioneered by the 20th Century Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, and was characterized by “a sense of the unspeakable and a comedy shout,” according to Miller Williams.

Pages from the memoirs of a lucky man

Hang on, they told me, but I didn’t. It was lovely, lying in the bed of the truck, to watch the tops of the trees passing overhead and imagine myself striding through the air on stilts like the feelers of a moth. Skating through the seamless sky: less like a Marvel Comics superhero than the one puzzle piece that just doesn’t seem to fit. That sad bit of misfortune the old-timers used to warn about: bad penny, wooden nickel, one thin dime. Shave and a haircut, we used to rap on any handy wooden surface, and pause to see who would be the first to succumb to the tension and supply the two concluding beats/bits. We called that, for some reason, the Queer Call. As if the essence of queerness lay in following the heart’s imperative rhythm instead of some disembodied Reason. But our revulsion at the prospect of being an automatic follower had other roots – and sounder ones, I’d say.


Spring and fall, our mountain was (and is) on a major migration corridor, and we spent many hours outside with binoculars, watching the hawks, vultures, and occasional eagle soar past. If any of those raptors had been telepathic, they might’ve felt our longing thoughts crowding in on crows’ wings – chasing, wheeling, diving with open beaks.


Vignette from the age of eight: After many hours, I suddenly recall the empty overturned flowerpot and the half-grown toad I had trapped inside. I race over and pick up the pot – and he takes a single hop. Well, what did I expect? Fairy tales to the contrary, a toad is never anything but a toad.


We collected things. In fact, my brothers and I opened a museum to show off our collections in the unused half of the building that also contained the chicken coop. For all the years of its operation, we fought a losing battle against the dust created by the constant scratching of forty hens and roosters in their straw bedding. It seeped through the walls and around the stapled plastic sheeting and settled on the florid conches, the trilobites, the horse skull, the antique winnowing machine, the rows of bottles we had excavated from the old farm dump. In less than a week, you wouldn’t be able to tell which whiskey flasks had been pale green and which – my favorites – had been made with that glass that turns more and more purple with age.

The one exhibit where this didn’t matter was the forest floor diorama. I had enclosed a weak spot in the shed floor with a sturdy wooden railing, then covered it with fallen leaves, a rotten log, and a couple of mossy rocks from up in the woods. I tossed in a crumpled Schlitz beer can for an extra touch of realism. This was the last stop on every museum tour, and for some reason it always made our visitors laugh.


“Say Uncle!”

“No! Get off me!”

“Say Uncle!”

“Owww! Uncle!

Now that I am twice an uncle, I often think about this.


Once, I stuffed several monarch caterpillars and a bunch of milkweed leaves into a five-pound honey jar, pounded a few nail holes in the lid, set it down on the barn floor and promptly forgot all about it. Several weeks later I had to go in the barn for some reason, and there it was.

Admit it: you’re expecting some sad ending to this story, with a stern if unstated moral. But the truth is that, by sheer luck, there must’ve been just enough leaves in the jar, and I must’ve found it on the very day of emergence, because it was filled with nothing but sunlight and the flapping of perfect, untattered, bright orange wings. I carried it outside, unscrewed the lid and stood back. The butterflies rose from the jar in quick succession, danced together for a second or two and swirled apart, like a genie unbound by any obligation to serve a human being’s thoughtless wish.

Just now

I open the Blogger “create” page and glance up from the table while it loads: snow! Fat wet flakes falling in my garden, on flowers that have somehow managed to persist without a frost almost to the end of October. With only one drooping blossom left per plant, the white shooting-star – a native of South America – suddenly looks stooped and awkward, like someone who has showed up at the wrong party, and is just beginning to realize his mistake.

behind a screen of falling snow –
drab autumn color.


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A loop of wild grapevine out beyond the Far Field might be the oldest living thing on the mountain. It’s hollow inside, so there’d be no way to date it by doing a ring count, even if annual growth rings were discernible on grapevines.

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It’s as big around as my thigh – but there the resemblance ends. I can only dream of such a rippling, braided musculature. It arches briefly through the air, splits into three, and dives back underground with the grace of a dolphin.

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Notice how the light passes right through it. I should come here during a storm sometime and see whether it hums like an Aeolian harp. Who knows what prehistoric rumors this grapevine might pass along? Whatever trees it might’ve clambered over in its youth – tall chestnuts, perhaps, or cavernous white oaks – are long gone, replaced by a younger, weedier woods of black birch, black cherry, and red maple with a scattering of red oaks. Wild grapes have done well over the last two hundred years with all the clearcuts and disturbances here, given their habit of vigorous sprouting from root and vine. Last January’s ice storm opened up the canopy once again.

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Grapevines may lack the architectural genius of trees, but their flexibility in form and function makes them more adaptable, more able to weather changes. The tendrils know a thousand ways to curl and coil and twist – a habit to which this ancient, nearly rigid section of the plant seems equally predisposed. With us, too, great age can mirror infancy. But encountering something so long in tooth and so full of complex weather, it’s difficult not to feel that one is in the presence of a common ancestor from the late Cretaceous, when the rise of flowering trees called up the very first creature with a prehensile mind.

Love: excerpts from a field guide

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Love, they would have us believe, somehow endures regardless of the season. The color merely migrates from blossom to leaf and from leaf to scalloped, over-wintering wing.

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What poets have traditionally celebrated is almost uniformly of a single species. Love when it is young and fresh indeed seems capable of making its own weather: green firmament, endless red moons.

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But love does age, like any living thing. It follows an arc. Sightless canes tap their way into the soil and take root. They become our flexible stunt-doubles; we, their brittle avatars of death.

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Love gives and gives until the tree stands bare and the ground lies thick with blowsy fruit. A doe and her grown fawn creep in at dusk and split them open with their hooves. I have stood outside after dark and listened to the grinding of methodical teeth.

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We draw together less for stimulation than for solace, now. In this damp cold season, the blues can come down, as they say, like showers of rain.

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The lucky chance that lies at the root of happiness seems all the more miraculous in the dwindling daylight hours, which by government edict we may no longer save. We fall back, trusting in the darkness that blurs and finally erases our sharp-edged grief.

The burden of becoming human

This entry is part 26 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the eighth poem in the third (“Eternity’s Woods”) section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details on this experiment in responsive reading.

Jacob and the Angel
by Paul Zweig

Like a dried husk, split into a grin,
I stood on the slope of a hill, and listened to
Something rising over the crippled acacia . . .

[Remainder of poem removed 11-06-05]

* * * *

Hiawatha and Deganawidah

A pine knot exploded, & I checked the stew.
I saw my reflection among the floating bits
of what used to be an enemy
& that false face was yours, my prophetic friend.
You had helped yourself.

I heard everything then: the hissing fatwood,
flames licking the kettle’s greasy lip.
Two or three chickadees scolded through the open door.

I have been caught like that more than once,
among the pines & yellow poplars
in the next breath after some rare animal
has passed, fur rippling, out of sight.
The air seems fully open, like an undiscovered wound.
One hears distant voices of what may or may not be
other, ordinary walkers.

I stagger; you swing down from where
you had hidden yourself
among the rafters of the longhouse
& hold me up, show me how to make peace between
the factions in my body. Heart, spleen,
the insurgent belly – these separate fires all come
from a single ember, I intone on cue.

Then to dispose of the contents of the kettle:
let us dig its grave between the roots, you say,
in the legend that has already replaced my recollection.
There was never a fresh hole at head height
that leaked slow sap in the November sun.
There was never a cannibal feast.
When next we look in the revelatory muck,
you’re already flashing the antlers behind our heads
& I can’t account for the sudden leap in time.

I give you this epic, says the omniscient narrator,
what more do you want?
The shell beads dangle from his outstretched arms.

Based on the Seneca legend recounted by Paul A. W. Wallace in The White Roots of Peace. The epic referred to is not Longfellow’s poem – a mish-mash of Iroquioan and Algonquin traditions – but the Great Peace (or Great Law) of the Iroquois confederacy, also known as the Book of Rites: equal parts epic and constitution.