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.