There’s order, there is logic. And, there is emotion. Lekshmy Rajeev is at one moment a serious writer, putting out facts in order, and in the next she turns into an emotional devotee of her beloved Devi – the goddess Attukal Amma. Between every few lines, she utters fervently she cannot think of living for a second without feeling Devi’s presence around her. Her voice cracks as she narrates the story of the goddess, as sung in the Thottampaattu – an oral ballad – at the Attukal Bhagavathy Temple. That had started it all, that song that Madhu Asan, a member of the lower caste, would sing for 10 days at the temple. Going deep into that song had revealed things that would make her an enemy of some and a victim of years of harassment.
Lekshmy’s book on her beloved goddess had, to the least of her expectations, become a subject of controversy. ‘Attukal Amma – The goddess of millions’ was not written for that. It is a book of deep faith, devotion and years of well-researched facts. “Problems began when I found that there is no connection between Devi and Kannaki, as it has been popularised by the media for years,” Lekshmy plunges straight to the issue that’s been gnawing at her for years. “I didn’t know it either. It was during my endless discussions with Madhu Asan that I came to realise it. Like everyone else, I too had assumed that the Thottampaattu was based on Chilappatikaram, an epic written by a Jain monk, Ilango Adigal, during the Sangam era. But at the end of seven months of my research, I asked something about Kannaki and Madhu Asan asked me who she was. It was a huge shock.”
That’s when she began a more extensive research and met Dr N. Ajith Kumar, an authority on the Bhadrakali cult. “I realised that Chilappatikaram was written based on Thottampaattu. And Thottampaattu is about goddess Bhadrakali. Only in Kerala, she is worshipped as the daughter of Lord Siva; everywhere else she’s his consort. But then no one reads Chilappatikaram, no one listens to Thottampattu, but the media and the temple website, without any evidence proclaim Attukal Amma is Kannaki .”
Chilappatikaram was written by a king and later translated into many languages while the primitive Thottampattu was never written down and belongs to the lower strata of the society. So obviously the former became popular. There are similarities between the two, Lekshmy points out. The song tells the story of Bhadrakali as the adopted daughter of King Vadakkum Kollam. Lord Siva gives her in adoption to him, and a son to the King of Thekkum Kollam. The two marry as 11and 16-year-olds.
“Devi doesn’t like marriage, she wants to remain a virgin, while Kannaki, the heroine of Chilappatikaram, is a chaste wife. When Devi’s young husband is beheaded for a crime he had not done, she wails for him before she resurrects him and takes revenge on his murderers. Kannaki does this too. But while Kannaki is a human being, Bhadrakali is a goddess. And because we know when the Sangam era is, Kannaki is traceable, written within 2000 years. Bhadrakali has been there as protector since the time man could fold hands and pray. I am glorifying that primitive goddess with my findings, and my book.”
So then why did she face so much opposition from the temple trust. “Caste,” she explains in one word. The trust is run by members belonging to a particular community. She adds, “it is not a community or the entire trust that has been against me. Most of them liked me but a few, especially one person, was particularly antagonistic.” He made life difficult for her from the time she began work on the book.
“He would abuse me verbally, calling me names, secretly at first. But before him were two trust secretaries who have been really supportive. Jyothish Kumar who let me start the work in 2012. I completed it with his support. Then came Bhaskaran Nair, who is the most dedicated and honest trustee I have seen. He’s been working there for 54 years, and had at first shouted at me. But later he realised the merit of the book.” And one day, when the man who abused her burst into Bhaskaran Nair’s room and shouted at her, the former asked him to leave.
But she went to the police only after this Pongala, when after many hours of standing in queue she was told off by a temple trustee for coming there. “I broke down then and there and the next day went to the Fort station to make a small complaint. I haven’t gone there after it. Neither did I go to the temple for months, till my book came out.” The men who wrote her off wouldn’t give her the answers. They’d stick to the Kannaki myth, but when she asks where in the song (Thottampattu) it says so, they are mute. Another valid point she raises is about the prominent rituals of the temple all being conducted by people from the lower caste.
“The temple had existed for centuries but the temple proclamation Act, allowing the entry of people from the lower caste came into being only in 1936. So how did they come to perform these rituals?” She then raises another point about labelling the temple as the Sabarimala of women. “That was originally the Mandaikadu Temple in Kanyakumari, where women go with ‘thirumudi.’ And few men come. In Attukal temple, even the first offering is made by a man – Madhu Asan.” But then it is the new generation who took over the trust that shows this kind of ‘ignorance,’ she says.
The older generation was an affectionate lot. While she suffered this torture, support had come to her from many quarters. Writer K. Satchidanandan wrote: “The book explores the connections among women’s psyche, religious archetypes and empowering rituals.” It was writer Anees Salim who suggested she name the book Attukal Amma. MP and author Shashi Tharoor said it is a must-read for all interested in Kerala temple history.