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.

Favorite authors on ancient history

It’s Summer Book Week at Via Negativa. Since I’ll be gone part of the week on vacation myself, I decided it would be an ideal time to consider what constitutes the perfect summer read. I’ve enlisted the help of my family to put up posts while I’m gone, and also do a little guest-blogging.

Over the last few years, my brother Steve has been making an intensive study of ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine history, finding many parallels with our own times. Here’s his annotated list of favorite authors on (and mostly from) that period. I’ve refrained from including Amazon links, since many are available in multiple editions and translations.

In general, I prefer culling history from original sources wherever possible. This list is therefore top-heavy with the works of Greco-Roman historians, and is by no means inclusive. It is also more an author list than a book list, since I have found reading the works of the best historians, ancient and modern, to be a the most rewarding approach (also, it’s a sneaky way to slip in more than the recommended maximum of ten titles!). Included are two modern historians, J. B. Bury and Steven Runciman, whose exceptional scholarship fills in much of the gaps of Byzantine and Medieval history, owing in no small measure to their interest in subjects not popular with many other historians (witness Runciman’s works on the Sicilian Vespers and the Bulgarian Empire, for example).

Some might be disappointed that I have excluded Gibbon. While the unabridged Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is often an edifying and informative read, Gibbon’s undeniable command of his material is unfortunately surpassed both by his ego and his inept conclusions. In addition, Gibbon was an uncritical champion of empire as a benign and civilizing influence, a premise I reject without apology.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War: The first book of descriptive history, Thucydides’ masterpiece is a timely parable on the pitfalls of imperial hubris. The famous Funeral Oration of Pericles highlights the glories of Athenian society at its apogee, while Thucydides’ accounts of the ruthless Athenian subjugation of Melos and the disastrous and unwarranted invasion of Sicily highlight the follies of hegemonic overstretch.

Herodotus, The Histories: This famous work by the “Father of History�? is a must-read for its entertainment value as well as its genuine historical interest. Sandwiched between riveting accounts of Greek heroics at Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Platea in the long Greco-Persian conflict, are fascinating if improbable cultural, geographical, and faunological digressions, such as the fabled gold-digging ants of India. Also of great interest is Herodotus’ account of Achaemenid Persian history and culture.

Appian, Roman History: This lesser-read Greek historian of republican Rome is palatable to an informed modern audience because his accounts of various Roman wars of subjugation (the Iberian wars and “Mithridatic�? wars against independent Pontus, e.g.) are marked by the author’s obvious sympathy for the vanquished tribes. In addition, Appian is the only continuous source for the tumultuous period from the Gracchi to the rebellion of Spartacus, an era that saw Rome for the first time convulsed by civil war and ravaged by the despotism of Marius and Sulla. Appian shows better than any other author how Rome morphed from a republic into an autocratic empire in the space of a few generations, and lays much of the blame on Rome’s incurable love for militarism and territorial expansion.

Plutarch, Lives: Plutarch’s timeless character studies, while of dubious historical value in places, nonetheless offer priceless glimpses into the way that Romans in the 2nd century AD were apt to regard their semi-legendary past. Particularly attractive is the biography of Numa Pompilius, Rome’s second king, who made peacemaking his top priority. For his entire reign, Rome was at peace with her neighbors. Pompilius supposedly founded the College of the Fetials, a priestly caste charged with investigating the facts of any international dispute, to determine whether Rome had a grievance legitimate enough to justify going to war. Plutarch’s larger-than-life biographical sketches have been credited with helping to inspire the chivalric code.

Sallust, The Jugurthine War/The Catilinarian Conspiracy: Sallust’s two brief extant works are usually bound together and make for a quick, rewarding read, in spite of Sallust’s preachy tone. The Jugurthine War was a late first century BC conflict against a wily Numidian usurper in North Africa who dared to challenge the Roman right to dictate terms to the Africans. Rome finally captured Jugurtha and subdued his rebellion–but at a price. The two generals who secured Jugurtha’s downfall, Marius and Sulla, quarreled over receiving credit for the outcome, and became bitter rivals. Their enmity led a few years later to the awful civil wars that tore the republic asunder a generation before Julius Caesar, and led to the slaughter of thousands of Roman partisans. Sallust’s other work is one of several accounts of the celebrated conspiracy of Lucius Catiline and his confederates in the Senate, a conspiracy that was discovered by chance and exposed by Cicero. Julius Caesar himself was quite possibly one of the conspirators, or so Cato, Cicero, and the historian Appian all believed. The downfall of Catiline cemented Cicero’s reputation as the greatest statesmen of his age and, with Cato, Brutus, and Cassius, one of the last spokesmen for the old Republic.

Tacitus, The Annals/The Histories: Tacitus, Jefferson once opined, is not to be read but to be studied. This finest Roman historian is our best source of the traumatic events of the early imperial period spanning much of the first century AD. In his economical style, Tacitus describes the intrigues of Tiberius, Messalina, Nero, Galba, Otho, and many other polititicians and rulers of this turbulent period of western history.

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars: This scandalous set of biographies of Caesars from Julius to Domitian accuses most of Rome’s early despots of monstrous personal crimes. From the well-known aberrations of Nero and Caligula to the personal depravity of Tiberius and Claudius, this book is a depressing but probably fairly reliable illustration of the corrupting influence of absolute power.

Anna Comnena, The Alexiad: Anna Comnena was the daughter of the very capable Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus, whose task it was to rebuild the state after the disastrous defeat to the Seljuk Turks at Manzikert and the subsequent political turmoil. Though somewhat hagiographic, as might reasonably be expected from an adoring daughter, this is the first known work of Western history written by a woman, and is easily the most readable of the Byzantine chronicles. Aside from the endearing personal touches, this book is noteworthy for its detailed account of the use of the Byzantine secret weapon, Greek fire, and for Comnena’s lengthy discussion of the Bogomil heresy. She describes Comnenus’ efforts first to convert, and then to exterminate, the Balkan-based sect that later gave rise to the Albigensian movement in Lombardy and Languedoc.

J. B. Bury, History of the Later Empire, from the Death of Theodosius I to Justinian: John Bagnell Bury, an eminent English historian of the late 19th and early 20th century, was almost single-handedly responsible (along with Vasiliev) for restoring the image of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire, an image which (outside of the Orthodox world) had languished in opprobrium ever since Gibbon’s dismissive treatment of this greatest Medieval European state. Generally considered Bury’s most definitive work, History of the Later Empire carefully examines the history, culture, and economics of the Eastern Empire (and of neighboring states) during the fifth and sixth centuries AD. Other works by Bury carry the history forward through the reigns of Heraclius, Irene, and other noteworthy rulers until the tenth century. As a historian, Bury far surpasses Gibbon for his impartiality, attention to detail, and avoidance of ego insertion.

Steven Runciman, The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus and His Reign: A more modern English historian, Steven Runciman, was one of the most erudite people ever to write history. Runciman seems to have known most of the languages of Eastern Europe, as well the classical and standard research languages, not to mention Turkish, Arabic, Armenian, and various other Middle Eastern languages. He was thus ideally positioned to write the many superb historical, cultural, and religious studies of Byzantium for which he is remembered, and of which the above-named is perhaps the best but by no means the only one worth reading. Lesser-known books of tremendous value include The Medieval Manichee (a history of heresy from the early Gnostics through the Cathars, and containing much material to be found nowhere else on less-studied heretical movements like the Paulicians), Byzantine Civilization, The Fall of Constantinople, History of the First Bulgarian Empire, and The Sicilian Vespers (a fascinating account of a Medieval intrigue between the thrones of Byzantium and Aragon to bring about the downfall of the ambitious hegemon, Charles d’Anjou). Runciman is also justly celebrated for his three-volume History of the Crusades, still considered the definitive work on the subject.

– Steve Bonta

Lament for the fisherfolk of Sri Lanka

From October 2000 to July 2001, my brother Steve was in northwest coastal Sri Lanka gathering material for a dissertation (Negombo Fishermen’s Tamil: A Case of Contact-Induced Language Change from Sri Lanka, Cornell University, 2004). He worked extensively with the inhabitants of a small, Catholic fishing village a few miles from the city of Negombo. Last night he sent the following e-mail, with permission to publish it here.

The news just gets worse and worse. It appears that most or all of the people who were my research subjects and my friends during my stay in Sri Lanka are dead. Negombo was hit quite hard, and the people whose language and lifestyle I documented lived in frail cadjun [coconut-leaf] huts within meters of the high water mark, on the sands of the beach. They knew nothing but God, family, and fishing, and have not, to my knowledge, dropped bombs on anybody or fought any wars on drugs or mass-produced pornography and land mines; yet they are all apparently dead and we remain. Not only that: I could not have gotten my status-conferring, income-enhancing Ivy League PhD without their help, whereas they got along just fine without mine – yet they are gone and I linger on, PhD and all.

Nor can I take any consolation in their being “human beings just like us,” because they aren’t like us, not at all. They have the same DNA, they have many of the same passions, to be sure. But they also have no comprehension of our wisecracking, self-absorbed cynicism; they are (though it sounds cliche to say it) blessed with a certain childlike absence of guile. They place community above all other things and choose not to trouble themselves with the world’s problems. They do not live their lives in “I can give you 15 minutes of my valuable time” mode, ever. They always treated me like a dignitary and usually insisted on preparing excellent seafood dinners, which they couldn’t afford. There was never any suggestion that they were ashamed of their humble living quarters. Their huts were always clean, and their clothing always neat. I paid to help them build a cistern of their own (an untold luxury) in the sand behind their hut. It consisted merely of a 15-foot deep hole lined with metal, but it gave them fresh water for washing and drinking for the first time, ever. I fancied that, in buying them a well – not to mention a pile of clothing and household goods I got for them right before my departure – I was repaying them in part for helping me achieve my ambition.

Now the well and the household goods, as well as the houses and inhabitants, are probably gone, along with those of tens of thousands of others like them, all alike in their poverty and simplicity, all utterly unlike us. Maybe the old, abominable racial theories are correct, in a perverse and unanticipated way, for there really do seem to be two completely different moieties of the human race: the one, perpetually lapped in comfort, snugly insulated from the brunt of mother nature (most of the time), and able and willing to unleash hellfire and bombnation on the other half at the slightest provocation, real or imagined; the other, perpetually under the yoke of the first, always fodder for the cannons, chaff for the economic downdrafts, grist for the millstones of mother nature.

Anyway, enough hyperbole. Suffice it to say, I’m really bummed about this. Call it survivor’s guilt or whatever, but there can’t be too many people out there who’ve seen their PhD subject matter obliterated.

Steve Bonta
27 December 2004