Version classiqueVersion mobile

La possession en Asie du Sud

Jackie Assayag
Gilles Tarabout


Seepage of divinised power through social, spiritual and bodily boundaries

Some aspects of possession In Kerala

Dissémination du pouvoir divin à travers les frontières sociales, spirituelles et corporelles : quelques aspects de la possession au Kérala

Caroline Osella et Filippo Osella


Au Kerala, les personnes, les esprits et l’environnement sont presque toujours mutuellement perméables, sujets à influence réciproque et en interaction fluide, en dépit de la domination de l’élite qui promeut la fermeture comme valeur supérieure. Nous avons observé trois expériences de possession au Kerala ainsi qu’un cas contrasté – une expérience d’évitement de la possession – afin de mettre en lumière les correspondances et glissements entre les discours sur les corps physiques et sociaux. Les orifices corporels « agissent » comme des « voies de passage » liant le Soi a l’environnement et au cosmos. Les individus ne sont pas uniformément perméables, ni les points de rencontre neutres : certaines de ces « voies de passage » sont considérées comme ayant des affinités avec différents types de pouvoir divin. L’ethnographie montre comment différentes parties du corps sont privilégiées ; elle suggère aussi la perméabilité des orifices associés à diverses sortes d’expériences : les types d’individus impliqués ; le degré de contrôle exercé sur le possédé ou son autonomie ; la nature et l’environnement du pouvoir spirituel qui pénètre ; les évaluations positives ou négatives de l’expérience de la possession dans le cadre plus large de la société.

Note de l’auteur

We have received generous financial support for various periods of fieldwork and writing-up for the period from June 1989 to September 1996 from: the Economic and Social Research Council of Great Britain; the London School of Economics; the Leverhulme Trust; the Nuffield Foundation; and the Wenner-Gren Foundation. We have been affiliated to the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala; to the Madras Institute for Development Studies, Chennai; and to the Centre d’Études de l’Inde et de l’Asie du Sud, Paris. We are grateful for comments and advice (even if not always heeded) upon earlier drafts of this paper to: Jackie Assayag; Iain Edgar; David Gellner; Isabelle Nabokov; André Padoux; Gilles Tarabout; Yasushi Uchiyamada.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Cf. definition in the introduction to Crapanzano & Garrison’S edited collection: “any altered state (...)
  • 2 A phrase often used is ‘tuḷḷal kiṭṭi ’ or ‘tuḷḷal vannu’, where tuḷḷal implies ‘jumping, frisking, (...)

1In this paper we approach the question of the nexuses between society, the environment, the Hindu pantheon, persons and the body by means of some thoughts on possession in rural Kerala (South India); we use the term ‘possession’ to refer to a wide range of phenomena involving altered states of consciousness –voluntary and involuntary, embracing deities and ‘demons’, major and minor spirits, subject to negative or positive evaluations: states lexicalised in Malayalam as forms of tuḷḷal,1 albeit emphatically not of the same order2 (cf. Gold 1988: 39; Kramer 1993: 240). The data have been collected during three periods of joint residence in a rural area of Southern Kerala, totalling a three years’ fieldwork.

2Valiyagramam (pseudonym) is a mixed grāmam (village; rural settlement) in which class differentiation has been considerably exacerbated by the recent impact of migration to the West Asian Persian Gulf countries and by economic liberalisation. The particular zone where we work is characterised by a rapidly expanding middle class, a small and declining elite, and a substantial and increasingly impoverished working-class sector, comprising many who work precariously as casual day labourers. Villagers are also divided–and stratified–by samudāyam or jāti, community or caste. Hindu families of traditionally high-caste status (such as Brahmans and aristocratic Nāyars) live largely in the village interior near to temples; other communities (Christians and lower-caste Hindus) live scattered around the village. Residential areas are divided between a few colonies, neighbourhoods inhabited by single communities, and mixed areas, by far the majority. Members of Dalit castes–Pulayans and Paṟayans–continue to live in segregated areas, at the edges of the paddy-fields; they are still overwhelmingly employed as labourers, moving into areas such as house-construction or inland fishing as the agricultural economy continues to decline. Caste and class still tend to correlate here, but it is fundamental to understand that Kerala, with its long history of dense international connections and high level of participation in the global economy and political order, cannot be consigned to the fictive ‘pre-modern’ world of romantic anthropology. We will also insist in this paper upon the possibility of moving outwards from local ethnographies towards a wider comparative framework.


3Instances of possession, while common in the area, are unevenly spread throughout various sections of the community. Some categories of people succumb all too easily to possession; some never become possessed. Possessions also involve different types of people being taken by different spirits who enter the body via different orifices, with varying degrees of control over the process. We will argue not for an exact homology or correspondence of social, physical and spiritual hierarchies, but for some general tendencies towards correspondence, examining articulations–albeit loose–between bodies physical and social. We have chosen to present just three cases to describe and analyse.

  • 3 See Tarabout 1992 for some difficulties with classifying deities; we will, nevertheless, make some (...)
  • 4 E.g. on Śivarātri, groups of men possessed by Śiva may perform āḻi tuḷḷal, ‘fire-walking’ (more des (...)

4The first case we present is of a type of possession which we tend to find limited to menfolk of the low to intermediate Hindu castes: voluntary and controlled possession by a Puranic3 deity of a part-time religious virtuoso–an ardent devotee–involving a standardised public display, often as part of a larger procession taken out around a locality from a temple or shrine. Boys as young as nine or ten and men as old as their sixties perform these types of spectacular possession trance-dances, usually in groups. While we describe kāvaṭi āṭṭam, there are many other types of possession similar to this both in style and in terms of the social group which performs it.4

  • 5 E.g. when a household sets up a temporary shrine to Bhadrakāḷi in preparation for a major vow; e.g. (...)

5The second case–again a voluntary and controlled possession, but here by an autochthonous deity within the space of the home compound–is especially associated with women and with Nāga or Sarppam, the snake deities who guard fertility and access to land. In this case, there is no spectacular display or public dance, possession being marked by a more or less gentle rocking movement, and contained to a more limited space. Women may mark many occasions in this way:5 female possession, marked by dancing before a household shrine, is a sign of a deity’s presence and pleasure. We have seen small girls of seven, older married ladies in their forties, and grandmothers in their seventies, all embody deities in this way.

  • 6 For comparative material on South Asia, see e.g. Obeyesekere 1981; Kakar 1982: 15-116; Kapferer 199 (...)
  • 7 In particular we will not discuss the specifically Kairali institution of the veḷiccappāṭu, the swo (...)

6The third case we describe–unexpected, involuntary and uncontrolled possession by a fierce or ambivalent deity or malicious spirit–is something which theoretically may befall anybody, but which in practice tends especially to happen to women–particularly to young women.6 Both for reasons of space, and because it is already very familiar within Indian ethnography, we will not describe here the routinised voluntary possession of a religious specialist generally understood as healer (Gellner 1994: 31 ff.; see e.g. Harper 1957; Morris 1981; Kakar 1982; Gellner & Shreshtha 1993; Tarabout 1999).7

7There are many axes of differentiation of the vast range of possession phenomena: spontaneous and involuntary possession of ordinary folk by ambivalent or openly malevolent spirits requiring exorcism (e.g. Ong 1987); voluntary and willed possession of religious virtuosi by benevolent or ambivalent spirits offering information and power, commonly in the arenas of healing and manipulation of luck or love (e.g. Sharp 1993). Much literature describes a common trajectory whereby the first type of possession is gradually converted to the second, spirits domesticated and tamed or put to social use (e.g. Boddy 1989); this may involve the possessed undergoing personal transformation into a specialist medium or instructor (e.g. Gellner 1994). Literature can be interpretative: possession as instrumental, a means of claiming voice or exhibiting individual resistance (e.g. Lewis 1971; Moore 1993); possession may be seen as pathological, culturally specific, and channelled expressions of psychic disorder or cultural conflict as articulated through the projecting idiom of troublesome spirits (Kakar 1982; Obeyesekere 1981, 1990). Recently possession has been seen as a form of subaltern knowledge, condensed history enacted mimetically, and often implicated in colonial and other projects of domination (e.g. Comaroff 1985; Kramer 1993; Stoller 1994, 1995). We will take up this interesting idea that possession may be a form of communication via mimesis, communication which refuses or is unable to articulate itself in discourse, turning to Taussig (1993; 1997) for our understanding of the processes of mimesis.

8While it is commonly accepted in the South Asian possession literature that involuntary and negatively valued possession–our third case–most commonly befalls the marginal, we South Asianists have not gone much further in terms of relating social context and social milieu to possession phenomena. We believe that given recent advances in ethnographies of possession outside of South Asia, we can fine-tune the picture a little. In order to begin this process, we will present cases of possession differently located along a broad continuum of socially sanctioned and managed versus unsanctioned and uncontrolled possession behaviours. Yet more light can be thrown upon these phenomena by comparing them with the contrast case of non-possession.


9We have argued elsewhere that socio-political projects of attempting to fix local knowledges about the ‘nature’ of persons, understood non-dualistically as embodied nexuses of mind-body-spirit, requires in hierarchical societies a strongly hegemonic project (Osella & Osella 1996: 62-63). Knowledge about persons, status and the social order is coded into talk about the body. In ‘possession talk’ and ‘body talk’, we find Malayāḷi value and social hierarchies mapped onto spirit hierarchies and meeting in the bodies of persons. Gender, age and caste articulate in hierarchies between bodies (male over female; mature over immature; high caste and wealthy over low caste and labouring poor) and within bodies (evaluations of bodily orifices; privileging of the head over the feet).

  • 8 E.g., a member of an upwardly-mobile ex-untouchable caste would firmly aver, as a general statement (...)

10In Kerala, popularised versions of the sāṃkhya triguṇam system, the pan-Indian hot/cold opposition, Hindu tantra, the germ theory of disease, colonial ‘racial science’, Darwinist-inspired discourses on heredity and ‘fitness’, and informal Ayurveda-in-practice mesh to weave knowledges about the body which show high degrees of conformity and apparent consensus, shot through with underlying tensions between tendencies towards ambivalence and heterodoxy.8 We propose to lay aside this familiar problem for the moment by shifting focus onto just one aspect of bodily knowledge and technique: the question of the degree of the body’s open-ness or closed-ness.

  • 9 This is linked to, but is a more sophisticated analytic construct than, the embodied ‘habit’ referr (...)

11In following this trajectory, we have found useful the concept of ‘habitus’, taken from Pierre Bourdieu’s wide-ranging studies of the processes of the social production and reproduction of common-sense knowledges. We turn initially to habitus as ‘embodied history’–a generative structure existing in mind and body alike, born of accumulated knowledge and practice and contributing to the production of practices, such as a particular ‘bodily hexis’, located within identifiable social milieux (e.g. Bourdieu 1990: 52ff., 69ff.; Wilkes 1990: 116ff; Bouveresse 1995). The habitus, then, far from being a purely mentalist mind-set or ideology, is inscribed within the body and within transmitted practice. It generally passes on unarticulated, transmitted via socially situated common sense and by non-verbal communication and the ‘codes’ of gesture and posture.9 This concept accords well with Malayāḷi body knowledges, which truly do reach tacit consensus on the fact of non-duality of persons and on the existence and importance of samsa guṇam (environment), qualities being transmitted through physical proximity to others.

12The concept of habitus also becomes a useful one for us to pick up because possession is both differentially socially located and is par excellence an embodied practice. Here we can pick up Bourdieu’s proposal that elites reproduce and preserve exclusivity by means of closure (see e.g. Bourdieu 1979). The desire for closure, embodied and enacted in the elite habitus, is then not so much mapped onto the physical body (as a Durkheimian interpretation would have it: e.g. Durkheim 1979) as objectified within it. Closure at the top of a society is then not only ideological, tending towards closure of discourses, nor is it only linked to group closure, but it is also embodied and enacted in attitudes towards the physical body, commonly expressed as a desire for sealing. In other words, a preference for closure among social elites is expressed not only in social practices and material culture–endogamy; secret societies and membership clubs; closed front doors and houses with boundary walls–but also in bodily praxis–‘closed’ ways of using the body, such as keeping knees together; eating with the mouth only slightly open; avoidance of physical proximity, and so on. ‘Openness ’ then becomes equated to vulgarity and low status. Boddy, writing about aristocratic Somalis, contrasts their determined closing and sealing of the female body, the family, the household space, with the practices of lower-class gypsies who leave women and spaces ‘open’ (Boddy 1989: especially 47ff.). By way of contrast, Taussig’s Latin American ethnography (1997) shows how the low class and the poor manipulate aesthetics and techniques of ‘open-ness’, notably in the practice of possession, arguing convincingly (following Bataille) that elite attempts at closure–by stemming flows, circulation and metamorphoses–are futile.

13In Kerala, we find an open/closed dimension strongly articulated and highly developed within formal knowledge-systems such as Brahmanic Hinduism and Ayurveda (cf. Marglin’s 1977 assertion that Hindu ‘purity’ is more like wholeness and perfect closure). While relative orientations towards closed-ness and open-ness do–as the wider ethnographic record leads us to expect–tend to correlate to caste and to class, the elite view tends to dominate, such that closure is widely claimed to be preferable to open-ness: because knowledge-production is an elite activity, any society’s body of knowledge about persons may reflect a bias towards the elite view; because low castes must work to maintain distinction from those even lower than themselves, they necessarily need (pragmatically) to practise closure against the latter. We would argue that practices such as low-caste endogamy do not necessarily imply commitment to values of closure: ethnography of low-caste groups commonly suggests considerable ambivalence around questions of commitment to dominant elite values (e.g. Deliège 1992; Vincentnathan 1993; Parish 1996). Among non-elite groups in Kerala, we commonly find acceptance of the factual existence of the body’s open-ness, together with uses of the body (e.g. tolerance of close physical proximity, expansiveness of gestures) identified by Bourdieu as antithetical to ‘closed-ness’. Within a dialectical logic, open-ness as a value and as an embodied practice simultaneously exists in wider society and is sometimes manipulated and used: while the dangers of ‘open-ness’ and a preference for ‘closed-ness’ may often be expressed, open-ness is–as ethnosociology has shown us–a cultural fact (e.g. Daniel 1984; Marriott 1990; Trawick 1992).

14To summarise, within local cultural forms themes of closure, sealing and impermeability versus open-ness, connection or articulation are continually played out. The orthodox Brahmanic ethos which disparages the processes of the mundane world and which seeks to replace imperfect open-ness and connection by perfected spiritual closure may seem to be dominant. In certain arenas, however, oppositional views of the world as a valued and densely connected open system in perpetual flux come to the fore. Some discourses are ambiguous and are open to be used by either side. Possession is an important arena of contestation, in that its very existence challenges, as Taussig (1997) argues, attempts to contain or monopolise the sacred, while enacting a challenge to the dominant insistence upon bodily closure. Officiants and participants of all forms of invited tuḷḷal are always non-Brahmans; the latter enter the scene only as powerful exorcists in cases of unwanted tuḷḷal. With these tensions and tendencies in mind, we now turn to look more closely at the body.


  • 10 The orthodox Ayurvedic view is that the body has twelve types of srōtās, channels of circulation en (...)
  • 11 Cf. Dirks 1987: 66 on boundaries and entrances to the village.

15The external body has many places where outside influences can enter and affect/alter the body, hence the self–most especially bodily orifices. That skin is porous is considered self-evident: “Sweat comes out so obviously things can go in,” people told us, when discussing the efficacy of oil treatments. “Every hair on the body grows out of a hole,” one Ayurvedic practitioner explained; “these holes run deep into the body.”10 These orifices act as gateways, entrances and exits to and from the body.11 All villagers agree that spirits and śakti (power) enter and exit from the body through its various holes, and that there is a hierarchy of holes, the ucci in the head being unequivocally nalla (good) and the anus citta (bad); holes in-between are ambivalent. Exorcists explain that minor deities or evils may enter and exit via nose, mouth or ear; major evils travel through the anus. Leaving aside pores and counting up the number of larger bodily orifices, people usually came to nine, ten or eleven (ucci, eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, navel, anus, vagina). One priest arguing for nine elucidated, “The ucci doesn’t count as a hole for possession; bad spirits can’t come in because it’s a good hole.”

  • 12 Gundert associates the word with the root ucca, noon or high point of the sun; we were offered a fo (...)

16If you are caught outdoors during monsoon with only a newspaper, which part of yourself do you shelter from rain? In Kerala it must be the ucci. To protect oneself it is not necessary to open out the newspaper and attempt to cover the whole head; a small square will suffice to cover the part at risk, which is a very small hole. Gundert translates ucci as ‘crown of the head’ (1989: 122 col. 2); villagers locate it a little further forward, in the spot where the fontanelle is found in babies, and all insist that it is not merely a place, but a hole (cf. Kakar 1982: 197).12

17The ucci is the most important of the series of holes in the body. It is the one on which water is poured when taking the daily bath, and which should then ideally be sealed afterwards, by rubbing it in rasnadipoṭi (highly perfumed medicinal powder made of crushed herbs). It should always be protected, as it is the route par excellence through which water may enter the body, and furthermore is a holy place. When new-born babies are given their daily oil massage and bath, new mothers are taught to pay particular attention to putting oil on the baby’s ucci, “to protect and seal it; if you put oil there disease won’t come.” We attended some Christian baptisms during fieldwork, and were struck by the attention paid by priests to putting oil and ash (sealing and drying agents) onto the babies’ uccis (cf. Carstairs 1957: 77ff.).

  • 13 Culmination of worship, when a holy camphor flame is lit, offered first to the deity and then to th (...)
  • 14 In Nabokov’s Tamil ethnography (1997: 209, 218, 242), ambivalent or malign spirits do actually sit (...)
  • 15 As a further example of possible displacement, villagers are clear that the reason why men must go (...)

18Brahmā or Paraśakti (undifferentiated godhead), the divinity present in all living beings, ‘sits’just above the ucci. When the holy flame is passed around after dīpārādhana,13 it is ‘taken’ in both hands, breathed in through the nostrils and passed, using the palm of the right hand, over the ucci. If you wish to swear an oath, you do so with your right hand above your ucci. If a man succeeds in awakening and raising his kuṇḍalinī (the compacted energy, visualised as a coiled serpent at the base of the spine), the thousand-petalled lotus which hovers over his ucci is said to blossom and open, linking up with ādiparaśakti, undifferentiated godhead. For unrealised souls (i.e. almost the entire population), the ucci is a place of vulnerability, to be kept sealed. It might be thought that the UCCI’S vulnerability is a function of its sacredness, but ethnography suggests otherwise: we found that the ucci is impervious to penetration by malignant forces and spirits, unlike the nose or vagina, for example. It is an unequivocally positively valued orifice, one to which no malignant or ambivalent spirit would ever be attracted.14 Failure to protect the ucci will result not in possession but in illness, usually a jala dōṣam or common cold. We have not found the concept of the ucci much mentioned in ethnographic literature. C. Fuller (1992: 66 and personal communication) points out that in Tamil Nadu the pūja flame is taken to the eyes, and suggests that some of the powers and attributes usually placed by Hindus in the eyes are ‘displaced’ in Kerala.15

19Let us now move to consider some occasions on which spirits enter the body via these various entrances and exits, or portals.

types of tuḷḷal: some ethnography

i – murukan, invited, comes in through the ucci

  • 16 Never women, in contrast to the Malaysian case; Collins 1997.
  • 17 Since our focus here is neither to examine validity of claims for, nor to identify the status of th (...)

20On certain festival days, principally on Taipūyam (feast day for Murukan/ Subrahmanyam) and Śivarātri (feast day for Śiva), boys and men of any caste except Brahman perform kāvaṭi āṭṭam, a possession-trance dance from one major temple, around the village, and on to another major temple (cf. Tanaka 1997; Collins 1997). Most performers belong to manual and agricultural labouring sections of ex-untouchable avarṇṇa castes or to lower (peasant rather than aristocratic) sub-sections among the sāvarṇṇa Nāyars. Devotees may be boys, young or older men.16 After a period of purifying austerities and a night spent in the temple, devotees take up a heavy decorated arch, go into trance, and move out to trance dance through the village and on to another major temple, where the arch is removed and left. Arches, which cover the head and sit upon the shoulders, are constructed of wood with paper stretched over, and may be decorated with coloured paper, streamers and flowers; some have a weighty kaḻakam (a pot containing flowers) on top. They generally have peacock feathers (representing Murukan’s vehicle, the peacock) tucked into the sides. Devotees may optionally pierce the upper body and face with śūlams, fine skewers or ‘spears’, a form of power-generating ascetic austerity and self-sacrifice. According to informants who had participated, possession is induced by the rhythmic dances, performed to special drumbeats, and by putting on the decorated arch which sits on the shoulders, its apex just above the ucci.17 The details of kāvaṭi are not relevant here (see e.g. Tarabout 1986: 196ff; Tanaka 1997: 94-96, 174-75; Collins 1997 for descriptions), except to note that during performances, limes and a little bhasmam (sacred sandal ash, vibhūti) are put onto the face to ‘cool’ devotees and prevent overheating. We also particularly note the positioning of the weighty and cumbersome arch, that it lifts the person’s centre of gravity, and that possession always ceases instantly when the arch is removed by helpers. The possessed is not conscious and not able to remove the arch himself; his friends remove it, upon which he usually goes rigid and then faints (exactly as described by Gell 1980).

  • 18 Deities in Kerala are either ‘wandering’, a dangerous and undesirable state, or ‘seated’: in a temp (...)

21In kāvaṭi, where special attention is paid to the head and shoulders, and where heavy head-gear or shoulder-burdens are used, our interpretation is that the deity is induced ‘to sit’ (irikkuka) on or just above the ucci.18 The deity then takes control of the body from the upper body, using the ucci as a portal. In other words, we suggest that what is being mimetically enacted and communicated here is the idea that the will of the person is temporarily sacrificed to the deity. The actions of that person’s body are controlled not by their own centre of will–located, like the centre of gravity, somewhere around the middle of the body–but by the centre of will of the deity. Murukan, a calm male Puranic deity normally resident in the dēvalōka, is unequivocally ‘higher’; the devotee’s new centre is located higher than the stomach, above the head. The person’s actions here are then being controlled from ‘above’, simultaneously a physical and a metaphysical location. Use of peacock feathers similarly suggests that the ‘possessee’ is taking on the role of vehicle to the god, who then ‘rides’ above him.

22This process of controlled possession by one of the ‘higher’ and non-ambivalent Puranic spirits through temporary and controlled opening of a male ucci at a temple premises, can now be contrasted with what happens firstly in possession by a ߵ lower’ deity, such as Nāga/Sarppam (snake), and secondly in involuntary, uncontrolled possession.


  • 19 Black, white, green, red and yellow, made of e.g. turmeric, burnt paddy husk, calcium or powdered r (...)

23In sarppam tuḷḷal (serpent possession), drawings of snake deities (e.g. Nāga Rāja, king of the snakes) are made by Puḷḷuvans (an ex-untouchable community sometimes associated to ‘tribals’, whose jāti occupation is ‘snake grove protectors’). A carefully bordered and bounded drawing (kaḷaṃ) is drawn under a canopy (pantal), made by sprinkling five coloured powders on the ground (cf. Tarabout 1986; 1997).19 Production of this picture takes several hours and brings the deity to a place: it is at once an embodiment of the deity; a place (like Bhadrakāḷi’s pīṭḥam, ‘stool’) where the deity will be attracted to come and sit; and a means of trapping, luring and enclosing power (see Trawick 1992: 119,185). At the end of the long drawing process the deity is present in the picture, embodied in the coloured powders, and is covered over with white cotton or red silk cloths until it is time to bring the deity forth. Let us now briefly describe the annual sarppam tuḷḷal at a village tantric āśram.

  • 20 A patch of land at the edge of the house compound, representing the wild forest, populated by serpe (...)

24The kaḷaṃ snakes are drawn in a pantal transformed by decoration into a symbolic sarppam kāvu or snake grove,20 facing a small shrine on the east side where bundles of areca flowers are placed. A group of Puḷḷuvans sits at the south-east side, playing and singing puḷḷuvan pāṭṭu, songs which are attractive to snakes. After pūja, the āśram ’s swāmi removes the cloth to reveal the kaḷaṃ and positions himself at the north-east corner. A group of pre-pubescent girls, led by an older woman, enters from the eastern shrine behind the pantal; all are dressed in yellow, a colour which is cool yet still fertile, and all are heavily smeared (especially faces and palms) with a yellow paste based on turmeric and milk, ‘food for snakes’. The girls take the lamp flame amidst women’s ululations, and take blessing from swāmi, who smears their faces and throats with more turmeric paste.

25As the pūja materials are cleared away, the older woman hands each girl some areca fronds. The group moves to stand solemnly in line on the west side, facing the main shrine and holding the fronds up in front of their faces, while the Puḷḷuvans sing songs for Nāga Rāja (King Cobra) and another group simultaneously begin to play pāmbu mēḷa instruments (horn and percussion snake music). The girls begin to make rounds of the kaḷaṃ–following the older woman in a line–and are soon dancing the basic tuḷḷal (possession) dance, consisting of hop ping slowly from one foot to the other while swaying side to side to the rhythm of the snake music being played by the Puḷḷuvans. As they tuḷḷal, they bring the areca up to their faces and then swish it downwards; some bits of areca are dropped and scattered; each time they arrive at the south-east corner, more areca is handed to them. As the dance becomes less orderly and tuḷḷal becomes more intense, the music crescendoes, marking the signal for the climax of the ritual.

26Gradually, the girls begin to break their ordered circle, moving inwards on to step on the kaḷaṃ, and bending forward to rub out the picture with areca fronds. First they rub out the snakes’ tails, then bodies, and finally become more and more disarticulated as the snakes’ heads disappear in clouds of multicoloured dust which stains the girls’ yellow clothing. Onlookers and helpers continually pour clouds of turmeric powder and many litres of coconut water over the girls to ‘cool’ them, because getting possessed by Nāga is an extremely heating process, much more so than a ‘higher’-level possession such as kāvaṭi. Finally, the drawing is completely obliterated, the music suddenly stops, and the girls either collapse to the floor or carry on frantically dancing. All are picked up and carried away for recovery by helpers. That some girls may at this point attempt to climb trees ( ߵ like snakes’) shows that they are completely possessed. Unlike kāvaṭi, which predictably ends abruptly when a helper removes the dancer’s arch, sarppam tuḷḷal is less predictable. It is sometimes more difficult to dislodge the deity from the girls, as we can see from the fact that some are carried away kicking, to be brought back to normal later.

27Sarppam tuḷḷal is said to be a tantric rite bringing prosperity and fertility. It is performed in houses, at family snake groves (kāvu), and in a tantric āśram, but never around major temples: by contrast, the whole point of kāvaṭi āṭṭam is to dance from and to a temple. Again, contrasting with kāvaṭi, in snake possession no headdress is worn, and the head is completely unadorned: we suggest that the ucci plays little part here. The facilitators of sarppam tuḷḷal–the ‘props’ corresponding to kāvati’s arc–are the areca fronds held up in front of the face and the powder kaḷaṃ underfoot. The bodily stress here is upon music, colour and dust around the face, which leads us to propose that in this case, the deity does not ‘sit’ above the ucci, but enters the girls’ bodies through their eyes, ears, nose and mouth by means of the music and powder-drawing.

  • 21 While Brahmins and Nāyars may perform pūja to Nāga, the groups especially adept at working with Nāg (...)
  • 22 Thanks to Daniela Berti for pointing out that nāgas or snake deities are widespread in India and no (...)
  • 23 In this it reminds us of the rising kuṇḍalinī śakti, visualised as a coiled serpent who uncoils and (...)

28Sarppam or Nāga is considered ‘low’ in the local hierarchic pantheon: autochthonous, it is local, even familial, and very hot (quick to anger); people claim it as ‘Dravidian’ rather than pan-Indian; its major priests are untouchables and tribals;21 in temples, it usually sits in the external ring of peripheral minor deities, outside of the śrīkōvil (sanctus sanctorum). For Malayāḷis, it belongs to a ‘little tradition’ (cf. Gold 198: 41).22 Because of Nāga’s greater proximity to human persons (it normally resides in the same lōka, domain, i.e. this world, rather than the dēvalōka, the higher world inhabited by the superior deities), it does not need to descend in order to possess. That Nāga does not hover, like Murukan in kāvaṭi, above the unambiguously pure and sacred ucci, but prefers (and is able) to enter the body via more ambivalently valued orifices, would be appropriate to its understood position. The daily closeness of humans and nāgas (who live in household shrines or compound kāvus rather than in enclosed and separate temples) leads to a higher degree of affinity or connection between them, which then means that their compatibility is greater than that between humans and ‘higher’ deities; nāga and human are close enough in the pyramid of Being to make direct and intimate connections with each other. Moreover, as a snake deity, Nāga actually creeps along the ground: it is embodied in a powder drawing on the floor, trampled during the possession ritual by the feet of the girls. Nāga, then, we suggest, ‘rises’ from below in order to possess.23

29Nāga’s especial influence explicitly operates in the spheres of this-worldly luck: fertility and prosperity. Uchiyamada (1995) notes that Nāga is especially concerned with locality and right to land; a pamphlet for Mannarasala temple, dedicated exclusively to nāgas, claims as its special domains of influence “wealth, prosperity, fame, recovering health, protection from poison, curing disease, and protection from damage” (Uchiyamada 1991: 22) and is most famous for its special pūja for infertile couples; in the Valiagramam āśram where sarppam tuḷḷal is done annually, Mumbai businessmen come seeking business luck and money. We conclude then that worshippers of Nāga bind themselves to the this-worldly ends disparaged in elite renunciatory discourses.

30We will now turn to our last case: here we deal with the situation in which a malignant or disgruntled spirit unexpectedly enters the ambivalently valued body of a victim–a person of marginal social status–via an ambivalently valued and lowly placed orifice (remember, never via the ucci) and, ‘sitting’ right inside the person’s centre of will, completely displaces it with its own, requiring strong action by more powerful agents if it is to be expelled.


  • 24 This may be a peculiarity of our ethnography. Locally (and linked to the dominance of Ayurveda?), a (...)

31The commonest local diagnosis in cases of possession by evil forces is that a malign spirit which was lurking in the pond or river (or sometimes one of the ‘soggy’ places around the paddy fields; see Y. Uchiyamada, this volume) has entered the victim while bathing. Not everyone at every time is susceptible to possession: remember that in local discourse when a malevolent or ambivalent spirit unexpectedly enters a human body, it is able to do so because it finds an already present weakness, a less than perfect mind-body set, a breach in the boundaries providing a suitable gateway. Firm boundaries do not exist between the semantic domains covered by ‘health’, ‘religion’, ‘luck’ and so on (Parry 1991). Rather, spiritual, mental, physical and material well-being are coterminous, the breakdown of any one being expressed in the totalising concept of dōṣam. A feedback circuit exists whereby those with less perfect, less protected and more permeable bodies have less perfect mind-souls; this leaves them open to further imperfection, be it their own likelihood to sin or their vulnerability to possession, which then further alters and impairs their body, and so on (cf. Bharathi 1993: 345 on the liminality of the possessed). To a strong person without existing dōṣam, or a person whose body is sealed, pond or river water presents no threat and is highly beneficial, better for bathing than well-water: outside of contexts of drinking and cooking, river or pond water is more highly valued than well-water. That the malign spirits which possess people are never found in the well, but always in this naturally occurring water, is another aspect of the contextual and highly ambivalent nature of the sacred (cf. Das 1977; Tarabout 1992).24


32Ponnamma, a 21 -year-old unmarried Īḷava girl, went to visit her mother’s natal village. On return to Valiyagramam she was seized by a series of fits. Much later, the astrologer, having ascertained that she had taken a river bath while in her mother’s place, made the ‘classic’ diagnosis: possession by the spirit of a suicide who had drowned in the river. But on the morning when her fits began, nobody knew what for certain was the cause. The action taken by the family was immediately and roughly to seal Ponnamma’s body: her father brought temple bhasmam and roughly shoved a large pinch into her mouth, another on each eyelid and on her throat, and vigorously rubbed the remainder into her ucci. Bhasmam is a sealing, protecting and drying agent which is also extremely cooling. Ponnamma’s brothers held her on the floor and sat around her, holding her down (she was at this point flailing on the ground and shouting abuse); they tied her legs together at the ankles and knees. ‘Tying’ (keṭṭuka) means fixing, controlling and containing–when a priest exorcises a wandering spirit and brings it to a family temple, it is called ‘tying’ it; when a woman is joined with a man at marriage, this is marked by him tying a thread around her neck, and she is then said to have been ‘tied’ (see e.g. Uchiyamada 1999; Kapferer 1991; Boddy 1989: 109ff.). Tying the legs–and particularly the knees–together acts to lock the lower body, closing vagina and anus. With all bodily orifices sealed, then–whether by drying or tying–the spirit became trapped in Ponnamma, and could not wander freely from body to body creating havoc, but had to wait for a priest for release.

33Just to be safe, only family men–relatively impermeable–dealt with Ponnamma. No women approached Ponnamma, staying outside her room and only occasionally peering in through the doorway to note her rolling eyes and protruding tongue, and suggest that Bhadrakāḷi was present. As we have suggested, it is clear that rather than demonstrating a mechanistic and exact homology of corporeal, divine and social hierarchies, we are dealing here with matters of generalised tendencies and affinities, in which questions of control are at the forefront (Gellner 1994: 40); an uninvited Bhadrakāḷi in the body of a young girl is an entirely different proposition from Bhadrakāḷi locked in a box and carried by mature men (Shulman 1980).


  • 25 Cf. Sharp 1993: 131 for photo of a woman with raised fists, possessed by a ‘boxer’ spirit and see T(...)

34Elliamma was seized dramatically by a yakṣi (troublesome female spirit) on her wedding night. It was after midnight when she sat suddenly bolt upright on the marriage bed to face her bridegroom, hands raised aggressively into fists at her chest ’like a boxer’, her face fixed in a hostile expression; she stayed like that without moving or speaking.25 Eliamma’s husband Chandran, stricken with panic, called his family into the room and they all spent the night there together, nervously watching their new bride. As is usual in cases of unwanted possession, nobody went near Elliamma for fear of being attacked, since she had obviously been grabbed (piṭiccu, ‘seized’) by a very angry and aggressive spirit. In the morning, Elliamma’s family was called while Chandran’s father went to the Śiva temple priest, explaining the situation and warning him about her combative posture. The Brahman promised to come later that evening after his temple duties were over.

35At the last minute, the latter decided as a precaution to take with him his son-in-law, a fat and strong young man renowned for his skills in exorcism. When the pair arrived, the whole family was astounded and told that one hour ago ‘Elliamma’–or rather, the yakṣi–had spoken her only words since the night before: “My father-in-law and his son-in-law are coming to tie me up.” The family and the priests were thus warned of the yakṣi’s power, by this evidence of her ability to see and know exactly what was going on in another place. She was obviously in firm control both of Elliamma’s body and of the situation.

  • 26 Honorary title for priests.

36Not surprisingly, Tirumeni26 could not get the spirit to speak or leave. Eventually, after many karmmams he asked for himself and his son-in-law to be left alone with Elliamma. He wheedled the spirit, “This is such a thin and unhealthy looking young girl, but my son-in-law is fat and strong. Why don’t you come into his nice healthy body instead?” The spirit did so, and then obligingly revealed its origins as a young woman who had committed suicide in the village pond, whereupon it was dispatched onto a rūpam (a small piece of metal), later to be disposed of (cf. R. Freeman, this vol.).

  • 27 It is highly unlikely that Elliamma was aware ofVedic symbolism of agni-sōma, which explicitly link (...)

37Once released, Elliamma told Tirumeni that on the wedding night she had lain on the bed and watched the moon outside the window as she and her new husband were talking. Later, she had felt a ray of light come from the moon into her body, and at that moment the possession had come on. To Tirumeni’s questions, she revealed that the marriage had been consummated, and that it was at that precise moment that she had seen a flash of light, and felt the moon’s ray. The yakṣi had obviously taken advantage of a sudden breach in the body’s defences. Elliamma also told that Chandran worked in Bombay, and that she was expected to leave Valiyagramam and go there to live with him, which she did not want to do.27 Tirumeni was unable to persuade her that she would get used to living in Bombay, and within a month a divorce was arranged.


  • 28 See e.g. Lewis 1971; Sharp 1993; Skultans 1987; Boddy 1989; Gellner 1994; Parry 1994: 230; Castillo(...)

38As the wider ethnographic record makes clear, it is especially the fate of the bodies of women to mark the shifts of power, boundary and subjectivity which are evoked in possession, the female body being a site par excellence where, as Taussig puts it, “scenarios involving the staging of hidden innerness” can be marked (1997: 195).28

  • 29 The peculiarly masculine nature of boundary-shift fears has been located by some psychologists in t (...)
  • 30 In Varanasi, according to Parry (1994: 232), “Pregnant and menstruating women, mothers in labour an (...)
  • 31 For example, men commonly gave as the reason why extramarital sex is permissible for them, but not (...)
  • 32 That young women like Ponnamma and Elliamma do not, unlike the untouchable Puḷḷuvan priests who ser (...)

39Compare the vagina with the ucci. That it is very often women who fall prey to uncontrolled possession is, we suggest, not simply because–as many men would have it–women have weaker minds and hence less self-control and resistance than men; nor only–as some locals claim–because women have one extra orifice, hence one extra breach in their bodily boundaries. The very nature of the vagina as it is commonly represented suggests that it is a particularly weak boundary: when masculist and elitist questions of boundaries come into play, the vagina will be at the forefront as representative of everything that threatens closure (e.g. Boddy 1989: 47ff.).29 Womb symbols are generally ambivalent: in Boddy’s Sudanese ethnography the threats of leaking, open-ness, dispersal, vulnerability and pollution posed by the womb are dealt with by sealing via pharaonic circumcision and other means such as astringent smoke-baths. In Kerala, while the ucci is kept closed with oil and medicinal powder, the womb (especially the wombs of those of childbearing age) cannot be closed; this leaves it decidedly open, vulnerable, and hence subject to ambivalent or negative evaluations.30 These evaluations may have several aspects: firstly, a vagina is unequivocally female and may therefore be expected to suffer from an excess of the weakness and lack of control widely associated with women and with female things (see e.g. Babb 1970; Gellner 1994: 39): for all informants, all women are more open and permeable than all men. As one schoolteacher lamented, “The girls are like wax; they take things in easily, but they don’t hold them in their minds. The boys are like marble; you have such trouble getting knowledge into them, but once it’s there, it sticks.” Secondly, the vagina is an orifice which is routinely and violently broken, in sex and birth, occasions associated with pollution (cf. e.g. Parry 1994: 168). The breaking of the vagina in defloration becomes a moment of especially intense danger (Osella & Osella, fthcg. b). Lastly, the vagina appears to be widely devalued, in that we have very often heard it spoken of in negative terms, as a dirty and uncleanable place31 or as an ever unsatisfied gaping hole–rapacious, insatiable, and even life-threatening in its engulfing power to drain dry a man’s ‘strength’ (cf. e.g. Daniel 1984, ch. 4). In elite and dominant discourses, the vagina–the very opposite of purity and closure–becomes a metonym for woman.32

40We have so far claimed that open-ness and closed-ness are enacted by women and men, by young and old, by low-status and high-status. Woman, we are suggesting, is a special case of open-ness; young reproductive woman, an extreme embodiment of it. To follow this further, let us now consider the negative case: that of the high-status, mature, Brahman male.


  • 33 We speak of course only of males: Brahman women, who do not undergo initiation, are technically not (...)

41In contrast to woman stands Brahman, who is unquestionably male: Brahmanhood is synonymous with maleness. All Hindu sāvarṇṇa babies are born as Śudras: Brahmanhood is conferred on males only by virtue of performance of a succession of ṣōḍaśakriyas or saṃskārams (‘perfecting’ and ‘cleansing’ life-cycle rites), the most important of which–upanayanam, or taking the sacred thread–is explicitly a second birth, in which a Brahman male birther– the guru – replaces the original female-effected birth, the latter seen as polluted and mundane (Kaelber 1978; Smith 1986). Brahman men seek autonomy by developing and incorporating śakti within their own bodies. They seal themselves (ritually and medicinally, using rasnadipoṭi and oil), preventing both leakage and contamination from outside influences. Brahmans also seek continually to increase their levels of self-control (cf. Tapper 1979: 27). As children they are taught to avoid displays of strong emotion, to follow strict rules of hygiene, and to develop physical and mental discipline via routines such as early rising, prayer, pūja and yogic exercise.33 Most Brahmans presented the rules and restrictions which govern their lives as utilitarian measures building up the individual’s strength and resistance against external negative forces, armaments in the battle to render the body-self impervious.

  • 34 This is not to deny that individual Brahmans may be extremely worldly; such Brahmans are generally (...)
  • 35 In the esoteric realm of tantric Hinduism, commonly articulated and practised by Brahmans, imperfec (...)

42Moreover, Brahmanhood’s orientation towards Hinduism is broadly renunciatory, in opposition to the this-worldly Hinduism of the masses.34 The most extreme practices of Brahmanic and renunciatory Hinduism centre upon raising the śakti from within rather than seeking it from without, and on replacing imperfect human reproduction with miraculous spiritual self-birth.35 Women are necessary for the community’s continuance, but the personal and ultimate life goal of every adult male Brahman should be not the reproduction and status increase of his community, but his own personal attainment of mōkṣam or mukti. Even the worldliest of Valiyagramam’s Brahmans, such as temple priests or local government officers, generally take an ascetic turn in later life, turning inwards towards their own households and returning to ‘true’ Brahman-ness and the pursuit of liberation through tantra.

  • 36 Themozhiyar, described by Trawick (1992: see e.g. 73) is one such ‘renunciatory householder’: he tr (...)
  • 37 In daily meditation upon the iṣṭadēvata (personal god, chosen freely), Brahman men practice looseni (...)

43This goal of final release is achievable only by escape from the bonds of worldly attachment; it therefore has a strong renunciatory cast. In this discourse, renouncement is an emotional reality available even to the householder enmeshed in worldly responsibilities (cf. Madan 1987: 39-40).36 We found this goal of renunciation-within-the-household widely practised and articulated among Brahman men (also among many of the eldest Nāyar men). The fundamental factor is said to be the degree of attachment: women, children and low castes are argued to be most attached. Brahmans and men less so. Detachment, in this elite discourse, is associated not merely to spiritual maturity, but to maturity in its more general sense. That detachment is a pervasive positive elite and high-status value, in no way limited to those who adopt the formal social position of ‘renouncer’ (saṇnyāsi), is then clear.37 Here we turn to Urban’s (1997) comparison of French Freemasonry and South Indian tantra (Malayāḷi Brahmans follow tantric Hinduism, albeit generally of the right-handed path) to note that: detachment, following Bourdieu, is a function of the elite habitus, linked to closure; and that detachment is also characteristic of elite practice which seeks outward conformity to the appearance of the mainstream householder while inwardly (secretly) holding it worthless.

  • 38 We have very rarely seen a (young) Brahman carrying the jīvitam on the verge of possession; in thes (...)

44At festival times, Brahman priests carry the Goddess out from the temple, high above their shoulders, and around the village on a heavy wooden palanquin, a jīvitam (lit. ‘living, quickened’). They perform an energetic dance to the temple drumbeat which looks like a slightly more sedate version of the tuḷḷal performed by the possessed in kāvaṭi (non-Brahman villagers usually prefer to interpret the jīvitam’s movement as Devi herself dancing or playing inside the box). Sometimes, if Bhadrakāḷi is particularly lively or playful, her bearers will run with the palanquin or swing it almost horizontally as it rocks from side to side. But those involved are emphatic that they are simply dancing for the pleasure of the Goddess, that they never lose consciousness; and they apparently do not (cf. Gellner 198 8: 138).38 It is certainly true that Brahmans themselves remove the jīvitam and immediately begin to chat calmly or chew betel, unlike possessees, who invariably fall down in a dramatic faint and have to be carried away by helpers. Brahmans then maintain perfect autonomy and detachment even during the energetic performance of carrying the jīvitam. This contrasts with performers of kāvaṭi–who need helpers to remove their arch thereby ending possession– and of sarppam tuḷḷal—who may not even return to normal when the music and kaḷaṃ disappear, but have to be carried off still kicking or restrained from climbing trees.

  • 39 Cautionary tales were told about men of great spiritual power, locally famous Nambūtiris or church (...)

45There are several aspects to this jīvitam “performance which is not a possession”: firstly, Brahmans generally (but, for an interesting exception, see Tarabout 1992; 1997) tend to deal with the ‘higher’ forms of deities, those not ‘wandering’ but ‘seated’ in large mainstream temples, who are less likely to take violent or unsolicited possession of a person; secondly, the śakti of a Brahman can be considered as so great that it would be dangerous if brought into conjunction with the śakti of a deity–the consequences of such a merger would be explosive;39 thirdly, and most importantly for our argument here, the Brahmans’ control is such that it enables them to resist possession should they be at risk (cf. R. Freeman, this vol.). As Tarabout (1997: 271) states, “Il existe ainsi un homologie entre le contrôle de soi et le pouvoir sur les dieux...” We suggest that crucially, Brahmans–members of a hyper-masculine elite whose selves have been perfected by initiation rituals–embody sealing, closure, and that ultimate degree of fixity, mastery and detachment which refuses to allow the self to be permeated or transformed by external influences. In the jīvitam performance–carrying a heavy and disequilibrating palanquin on their shoulders; accompanied by temple drummers and music; running around the outside of the temple premises or dancing through the streets–in short, drawing upon the aesthetic and ritual forms commonly associated with possession–, they enact in full view of the wider community, who stand watching the spectacle, their superior difference and hermetic natures, exactly by the absence of possession despite severe provocation. Comparing the ecstatic trances of kāvaṭi and sarppam tuḷḷal with the energetic dance of jīvitam, we see in all three forms of disequilibrium, music, drums, bodily pain and endurance, a heightened spiritual atmosphere: but the Brahman never surrenders his will, never loses his composure, never overheats, never allows his body to be entered. He remains accurately described as self-possessed.

* *

46Cool Brahman men contain within themselves and conserve their power, seeking self-sufficiency, while hot women, ex-untouchables, and low-caste ritual specialists scatter and disperse their power and blessings (cf. Gellner 1994: 40). In this sense, women and those of the lower castes are social, while Brahmans are not: the former make mimetic contact and articulate–with each other, with the deities, with the natural environment–while Brahmans remain distant and closed off from this world and the various creatures inhabiting it, open only to the highest and most abstract level of spirit, paraśakti.

47Brahmanic techniques of perfectibility–rooted in formal (often textual and often high register, i.e. Sanskrit) discourses–and possession–rooted in non-Brahmanic practice–tendentially belong to two different social milieux, aesthetics and ways of knowing. Possession as an event involving and evoking bodily permeability challenges elite orientations towards closure and the dominance of elite discourses proposing bodily closure as superior, hence necessarily desirable, reminding onlookers instead of the open nature of the human body and the connected nature of the articulatory universe; meanwhile possession’s mimetic, a sensuous way of performing cultural knowledges and histories, challenges the enforcement of discourse (e.g. Stoller 1995; Taussig 1997; Kramer 1993: 246ff.). It refuses even to articulate itself as counter-discourse, but prefers to make a riotous display of disarticulation. The practices of possession–running through the village, skewer through the cheeks; flailing on the ground, swearing and spitting; rolling in the dust, hair flying–all act violently and dramatically upon the body, the forcefulness of their physical effects insisting upon the veracity of the alternative or counter-reality appealed to.

48Brahmans and those who practise possession must accommodate each other’s viewpoint in some way. In Brahman orthodoxy as expressed in private (cf. Gellner 1988: 138; Parry 1994: 226ff.) there is little room for possession phenomena: it is commonly dismissed as superstition, or as fake (cf. Tarabout 1997: esp. 2721T.). Parry (1994: 234) writing on Brahmanic discomfort with possession, notes that “high-caste respectability combines with masculine pride” to prejudice against the extraversion implied in possession and exorcism, involving physical and social practices (such as revelation of shameful family secrets disclosure) incompatible with high-caste reticence (which we could also gloss, in our terms, as self-closure). In everyday practice however, most Brahmans find that they must accommodate minor spirits and leaking or wandering fragments of power: they can deny neither the fact of bodily permeability nor, eventually, occurrences of possession. Brahmans publicly acknowledge the existence of possessions and perform exorcisms for those who are involuntarily taken, seeking to stem the flow of power and to maintain monopoly control over its use and manipulation; meanwhile, spectacles such as kāvaṭi are tolerated although bemoaned as vulgar (cf. Gellner 1988: 138; Collins 1997).

  • 40 As noted by Weber, this tension often manifests itself in the appearance of different forms of prie (...)

49The Brahman dilemma is the common priestly one of needing, if they are to maintain their own position, signs of the divine in the world, but wanting to keep a monopoly over mediating access to this divine.40 But, as Taussig (see e.g. 1997: 74ff.), following Durkheim and Bataille, repeatedly notes, the sacred cannot be contained: it leaks, flows, circulates, and defies containment. In possession, the priestly relationship is short-circuited, as devotees make direct and bodily contact with the sacred.

50At the same time, low-caste religious virtuosi generally accommodate Brahmanic orthodoxy through avoiding possession by such unambiguously ‘low’ spirits as Yaksi, and by (publicly at least) seeking out Puranic deities such as Murukan. Possession is then tamed by being subjugated to divine and social hierarchical orders: Yakṣi cannot be welcomed and must be exorcised; the uncontrolled possessions of young women are denied the potential of elder men’s religious virtuosity. As the social body is mapped onto the human, we see several hierarchies merging and becoming blurred into each other here, as partial homologies are made and as domains slip into each other (such as the familiar micro/macro cosmos: see e.g. Subbarayappa 1966; Beck 1976; Shulman 1980: 90; Zimmermann 1987: 164,221). Local taxonomies of possession then domesticate events by making them articulate with corporal and social hierarchies, these hierarchies themselves rooted in Brahmanic knowledge. In this way, low-status practice is ultimately subordinated to high-status knowledge, through framing of experience.

  • 41 In this connection, we note that female anthropologists sometimes express that they feel on the ver (...)

51Kerala, with its semi-urban settlements and its heavy involvement in external migration and the purchasing of consumer goods, is, like Japan (Davis 1980), Malaysia (Ong 1987) and the USA (Macklin 1977; Brown 1991), indisputably part of the modern world. The brief continuum of possessions which we have presented here, and the ways in which they articulate with (embodied) social hierarchies, contribute–we hope–to a widespread shift from the practice of constituting categories such as ‘modern’ and ‘non-modern’, then geographically locating them, pointing instead towards an understanding that phenomena such as possession and magic need to be dis-located and re-situated globally, a process which will possibly lead to horizontal distribution within certain social strata throughout the globe. As Kramer (1993: 49) puts it, possession phenomena represent “... an acknowledgement of an alien power, whose demands the individual must in the end obey against his own conscious will.” Perhaps one interesting starting point in mapping possession phenomena against social hierarchies is to pose the question, “Who has or does not have the potentiality and will to get possessed?”41 Regarding Kerala (and other Indian) data, it will certainly be interesting to pick up recent approaches found useful in Africa and Latin America and to ask, “What is being mimetically enacted here? What or whose hidden histories are being brought into the open?”*



Babb, L. (1970), “Marriage and malevolence: the uses of sexual opposition in a Hindu pantheon”, Ethnology, IX, pp. 137–49.

Beck, B. (1976), “The symbolic merger of body, space and cosmos in South Indian ritual”, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 10 (2), pp. 213-43.

Bharathi, S. B. (1993), “Spirit possession and healing practices in a South Indian fishing community”, Man in India, 73 (4), pp. 343-52.

Bloch, M. (1986), From Blessing to Violence: History and Ideology in the Circumcision Ritual of the Merina of Madagascar. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Boddy, J. (1989), Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women, Men and the Zar Cult in Northern Sudan. Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin Press.

Boddy, J. (1994), “Spirit possession revisited: beyond instrumentality”, Annual Review of Anthropology, 23, pp. 407-34.

Bourdieu, P. (1979), La Distinction. Critique sociale du jugement. Paris, Éd. de Minuit.

Bourdieu, P. (1990), The Logic of Practice. Cambridge, Polity Press. (Orig. ed. 1980.)

Bouveresse, J. (1995), “Règles, dispositions et habitus”, Critique, 579/580, pp. 573-94.

Brown, K. (1991), Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Caldwell, S. (1996), “Bhagavati: ball of fire”, in J. S. Hawley & D. M. Wulff, eds., Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley & Los Angeles, University of California Press.

Carstairs, G. M. (1957), The Twice-Born: A Study of a Community of High-Caste Hindus. London, Hogarth Press.

Castillo, R. J. (1994), “Spirit possession in South Asia: dissociation or hysteria?” Part 1: “Theoretical background” & Part 2: “Case histories”, Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry, 18, pp.1-21/pp. 141-62.

Codd, J. (1990), “Making distinctions: the eye of the beholder”, in Harker, Mahar & C. Wilkes, eds., An Introduction to the Work of Pierre Bourdieu: The Practice of Theory. London, Macmillan Press, pp. 132-59.

Collins, E. F (1997), Pierced by Murugan’s Lance: Ritual, Power and Moral Redemption among Malaysian Hindus. Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press.

Comaroff, J. (1985), Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance: The Culture and History of a South African People. Chicago & London, University of Chicago Press.

Crapanzano, V & Garrison, V (1977), eds., Case Studies in Spirit Possession. London, Wiley.

Daniel, V (1984), Fluid Signs. Being a Person the Tamil Way. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Das, V. (1977), Structure and Cognition: Aspects of Hindu Caste and Ritual. Delhi, Oxford University Press.

Davis, W. (1980), Dojo: Magic and Exorcism in Modern Japan. Stanford, Ca., Stanford University Press.

Deliège, R. (1992), “Replication and consensus: untouchability, caste and ideology in India”, Man, n.s. 27, pp. 155-73.

Dirks, N. (1987), The Hollow Crown. Ethnohistory in an Indian Kingdom. Cambridge, CUP.

Dumont, L. (1959), “Possession and priesthood”, Contributions to Indian Sociology, III, pp. 55-74.

Durkheim, E. (1979), “The dualism of human nature and its social conditions”, in K. H. Wolff, ed., Émile Durkheim. New York, Arno Press.

Fisher, S. (1973), Body Consciousness. London, Calder & Boyars.

Fuller, C. J. (1979), “Gods, priests and purity: on the relation between Hinduism and the caste system”, Man, 14, pp. 459-76.

Fuller, C. J. (1992), The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.

Gaborieau, M. (1975), “La transe rituelle dans l’Himalaya Central: folie, avatār, méditation”, Puruṣārtha, 2, pp. 147-71.

Gell, A. (1980), “The gods at play: vertigo and possession in Muria religion”, Man, 15, pp. 219-48.

Gellner, D. N. (1988), “Priesthood and possession: Newar religion in the light of some Weberian concepts”, Pacific Viewpoint, 29 (2), pp. 119-43.

Gellner, D. N. (1994), “Priests, healers, mediums and witches: the context of possession in the Kathmandu valley, Nepal”, Man, n.s. 29 (1), pp. 27-48.

Gellner, D. & Shreshtha, U. S. (1993), “Portrait of a tantric healer: a preliminary report on research into ritual curing in the Kathmandu valley”, in G. Toffin, ed., Nepal, Past & Present. Paris, Éd. du CNRS.

Gold, A. G. (1988), “Spirit possession perceived and performed in rural Rajasthan”, Contributions to Indian Sociology, n.s. 22 (1), pp. 35-63.

Gundert, H. (1989 [1872]), A Malayalam and English Dictionary. New Delhi, Asian Educational Services.

Harper, E. B. (1957), “Shamanism in South India”, Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 13, pp. 267-287.

Irigaray, L. (1985), This Sex which Is not one. Fs. tr. C. Porter & C. Burke. Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press. (Orig. ed. 1977.)

Kaelber, WO. (1978), “The ‘dramatic’ element in brahmanic initiation: symbols of death, danger and difficult passage”, History of Religions, 18, pp. 54-76.

Kakar, S. (1982), Shamans, Mystics and Doctors: A Psychological Enquiry into India and its Healing Traditions. Delhi, Oxford University Press.

Kapferer, B. (1991 [1983]), A Celebration of Demons. Exorcism and the Aesthetics of Healing in Sri Lanka. Chicago & London, University of Chicago Press.

Kramer, F. W. (1993), The Red Fez: Art and Spirit Possession in Africa. New York, Verso. (1st ed. transl. 1987.)

Lewis, I. M. (1971), Ecstatic Religion. An Anthropological Study of Spirit Possession and Shamanism. Harmondsworth, Penguin Books.

Macklin, J. (1977), “A Connecticut Yankee in summer land”, in V. Crapanzano & V. Garrison, eds., Case Studies in Spirit Possession. London, Wiley.

Madan, T. N. (1987), Non-Renunciation: Themes and Interpretations of Hindu Culture. Delhi, OUP.

Marglin, F. Apffel (1977), “Power, purity and pollution: aspects of the caste system reconsidered”, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 11 (2), pp. 245-70.

Marriott, McKim, ed. (1990), India through Hindu Categories. Delhi, Sage.

Moore, E. P. (1993), “Gender, power and legal pluralism: Rajasthan, India”, American Ethnologist, 20 (3), pp. 522–42.

Morris, B. (1981), “Hill gods and ecstatic cults: notes on the religion of a hunting and gathering people”, Man in India, 61, pp. 203-36.

Nabokov, I. (1997), “Expel the lover, recover the wife: symbolic analysis of a South Indian exorcism”, JRAI, 3 (2), pp. 297-316.

Obeyesekere, G. (1981), Medusa ’s Hair: An Essay on Personal Symbols and Religious Experience. Chicago & London, University of Chicago Press.

Obeyesekere, G. (1990), The Work of Culture: Symbolic Transformation in Psychoanalysis and Anthroplogy. Chicago & London, University of Chicago Press.

Ong, A. (1987), Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline: Factory Women in Malaysia. Albany, NY, University of New York Press.

Osella, C. & Osella, F. (1996), “Articulation of physical and social bodies in Kerala”, Contributions to Indian Sociology, n.s. 30 (1), pp. 37-68.

Osella, C. & Osella, F. (forthcoming a), “Points de vue malayali sur l’inné et l’acquis”, in V. Bouillier & G. Tarabout, eds., “Le Corps en Inde”. Paris, Éd. Kailash.

Osella, C. & Osella, F. (forthcoming b), “Contextualising sexuality: young men in Kerala, South India”, in L. Manderson & P. Rice, eds., “Young People, Sexuality and Courtship in South and South-East Asia”. Chicago.

Parish, S. M. (1996), Hierarchy and its Discontents: Culture and the Politics of Consciousness in Caste Society. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.

Parry, J. (1991), “The Hindu Lexicographer? A note on auspiciousness and purity”, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 25 (2), pp. 267-85.

Parry, J. (1994), Death in Banaras. Cambridge, CUP.

Samuel, G. (1990), Mind, Body and Culture: Anthropology and the Biological Interface. Cambridge, CUP.

Seth, P. (1995), “The initiation of a temple velichapadu”, India International Centre Quarterly, 22 (2/3), pp. 115-31.

Sharp, L. A. (1993), The Possessed and the Dispossessed: Spirits, Identity and Power in a Madagascar Migrant Town. London, University of California Press.

Shulman, D. (1980), Tamil Temple Myths. Guilford, NJ, Princeton University Press.

Skultans, V (1987), “The management of mental illness among Maharashtrian families: a case study of a Manubhav healing temple”, Man, 22, pp. 661-79.

Smith, B. K. (1986), “Ritual, knowledge and being: initiation and Veda study in ancient India”, Numen, 33 (1), pp. 65-89.

Smith, B. K. (1988), Reflections on Resemblance, Ritual and Religion. New York, OUP.

Spencer, J. (1997), “Fatima and the enchanted toffees: an essay on contingency, narrative and therapy”, JRAI, 3 (4), pp. 693-711.

Stoller, P. (1994), “Embodying colonial memories”, American Anthropologist, 96 (3), pp. 634-8.

Stoller, P. (1995), Embodying Colonial Memories: Spirit Possession, Power and the Hauka in West Africa. London, Routledge.

Subbarayappa, B. V (1966), “The Indian doctrine of five elements”, Indian Journal of the History of Science, 1 (1), pp. 61-67.

Tanaka, M. (1997), Patrons, Devotees and Goddesses. Manohar, Delhi.

Tapper, B. E. (1979), “Widows and goddesses: female roles in deity symbolism in a South Indian village”, Contributions to Indian Sociology, n.s. 13 (1), pp. 1-31.

Tarabout, G. (1986), Sacrifier et donner à voir en pays Malabar. Les fêtes de temple au Kérala (Inde du Sud): étude anthropologique. Paris, Publications de l’EFEO, vol. CXLVII.

Tarabout, G. (1992), “Quand les dieux s’emmêlent. Point de vue sur les classifications divines au Kérala”, Puruṣārtha, 15: Classer les dieux. Des panthéons en Asie du Sud. Paris, Éd. de l’EHESS, pp. 43-74.

Tarabout, G. (1997), “Maîtres et serviteurs. Commander à des dieux au Kérala (Inde du Sud)”, in A. de Surgy, A. Padoux & P. Lory, Religion et pratiques de puissance. Paris, L’Harmattan ( “Connaissance des homines”), pp. 253-84.

Tarabout, G. (1999), “‘Psycho-religious therapy’ in Kerala as a form of interaction between local traditions and (perceived) scientific discourses”, in M. Carrin, ed., Managing Distress. Possession and Therapeutic Cults in South Asia. Delhi, Manohar, pp. 133-54.

Trawick, M. (1992), Notes on Love in a Tamil Family. Oxford, University of California Press (1st ed. 1990).

Taussig, M. (1993), Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. London, Routledge.

Taussig, M. (1997), The Magic of the State. London, Routledge.

Uchiyamada, Y. (1995), “Sacred Grove (kāvu): Ancestral Land of ‘Landless Agricultural Labourers’ in Kerala, India”. Unpublished Ph. D. dissertation, London, The London School of Economics.

Uchiyamada, Y. (1999), “Two beautiful untouchable women: processes of becoming in South India”, in S. Day, E. Papataxiarchis & M. Stewart, eds., Lilies of the Fields: Marginal People who Live for the Moment. Oxford, Westview, pp. 96-116.

Urban, H. B. (1997), “Elitism and esotericism: strategies of secrecy in South Indian tantra and French freemasonry”, Numen, XLIV (1), pp. 1-39.

Vincentnathan, L. (1993), “Untouchable concepts of person and society”, Contributions to Indian Sociology, n.s. 27 (1), pp. 53-82.

Wilkes, C. (1990), “Bourdieu’s class”, in Harker, Mahar & C. Wilkes, eds., An Introduction to the Work of Pierre Bourdieu: The Practice of Theory. London, Macmillan Press.

Wolff, K. H., ed. (1979), Émile Durkheim. New York, Arno Press.

Zimmermann, F. (1987), The Jungle and the Aroma of Meats: An Ecological Theme in Hindu Medicine. Transl. London, University of California Press. (Orig. ed. 1982.)

[Pamphlet]: Moozhikkulam Chandrasekharan Pillai (Mal. orig.), Engl, transl.: 1991 Dr. Ayappa Panikker. The Serpent Temple Mannarsala: The Great Mother. Thiruvananthapuram, Manasa Publ.

Notes de fin

1 Cf. definition in the introduction to Crapanzano & Garrison’S edited collection: “any altered state of consciousness indigenously interpreted in terms of the influence of an alien spirit” (1977: 7). Cf. also Gold (1988: 39): “There is [...] ethnographic justification for viewing all spirit possessions as [...] linked phenomena.”

2 A phrase often used is ‘tuḷḷal kiṭṭi ’ or ‘tuḷḷal vannu’, where tuḷḷal implies ‘jumping, frisking, tremor, dance, possession’ (Gundert 1989: 474 col. 1); kiṭṭi and vannu are past perfects of kiṭṭuka and varuka; respectively ‘to obtain, reach or act’; and ‘to come, arrive’.

3 See Tarabout 1992 for some difficulties with classifying deities; we will, nevertheless, make some broad/crude distinctions rooted in local distinctions (e.g. between ugra ‘fierce’ and śānti ‘calm’ deities).

4 E.g. on Śivarātri, groups of men possessed by Śiva may perform āḻi tuḷḷal, ‘fire-walking’ (more descriptively, ‘dancing through embers’); during the men-only Sabarimala pilgrimage season, young men especially perform pēṭṭa tuḷḷal, when brightly-coloured powders are thrown around and rubbed into the hair and clothes of bystanders/onlookers; a feature of festivals at Pulayan (ex-untouchable) temples is often kōlam tuḷḷal, which involves–usually the eldest–men transvested as the goddess Bhadrakāḷi, possessed by her and dancing through the neighbourhood.

5 E.g. when a household sets up a temporary shrine to Bhadrakāḷi in preparation for a major vow; e.g. when a household with its own kāvu (serpent grove) holds its occasional large-scale sarppam pūja.

6 For comparative material on South Asia, see e.g. Obeyesekere 1981; Kakar 1982: 15-116; Kapferer 1991; outside, see e.g. Crapanzano & Garrison 1977; Lewis 1971; Comaroff 1985; Ong 1987; Boddy 1989; Kramer 1993.

7 In particular we will not discuss the specifically Kairali institution of the veḷiccappāṭu, the sword-carrying oracle of the Goddess linked to a particular temple (Tarabout 1986: 276ff.; Seth 1995), an apparently waning tradition in this geographical area thirty years ago which appears to be on the comeback, with many local temples re-instituting it. The veliccappaṭu, always male and generally from the ex-matrilineal Nāyar or Īḷava castes, qualifies for his position not through religious virtuosity (charismatic authority in Weberian terms) but through institutional fitness, or legitimation through appeal to principles of descent or the political will of the group he belongs to (cf. Gellner 1988).

8 E.g., a member of an upwardly-mobile ex-untouchable caste would firmly aver, as a general statement, that environment takes precedence over heredity, while displaying decided preferences for ‘mixing’ in arenas dominated by higher castes, but revert to arguments about ‘bad blood’, immutability of ‘natures’ and the importance of ‘sticking to one’s own’ when discussing members of other, ‘lower’, ex-untouchable castes (Osella & Osella, fthcg. a).

9 This is linked to, but is a more sophisticated analytic construct than, the embodied ‘habit’ referred to by Stoller (1995: 28).

10 The orthodox Ayurvedic view is that the body has twelve types of srōtās, channels of circulation ending at the skin, which may be visible or invisible (see e.g. Dash 1989: 28).

11 Cf. Dirks 1987: 66 on boundaries and entrances to the village.

12 Gundert associates the word with the root ucca, noon or high point of the sun; we were offered a folk-etymology, possibly drawn from Hindi, as “high-point, like a mountain top.”

13 Culmination of worship, when a holy camphor flame is lit, offered first to the deity and then to the worshippers, ārtī in Hindi; see Fuller 1992: 65.

14 In Nabokov’s Tamil ethnography (1997: 209, 218, 242), ambivalent or malign spirits do actually sit on the head, and enter the body via a lock of hair. It seems that the Tamil body differs significantly from the Malayāḷi (I. Nabokov & C. J. Fuller, pers. comm.).

15 As a further example of possible displacement, villagers are clear that the reason why men must go bare-chested to temple is that they take the śakti and blessing of the deity through the chest; women take it through their bindu (third-eye spot). In Tamil, ucci translates as both ‘crown of the head’ and as ‘knot of hair’ (I. Nabokov, pers. comm.).

16 Never women, in contrast to the Malaysian case; Collins 1997.

17 Since our focus here is neither to examine validity of claims for, nor to identify the status of the altered state possessees claim to experience, we do not intend to address debates within the anthropology of consciousness or within psychology regarding techniques of trance and the nature of such altered states. See e.g. Castillo’s 1994 literature review and theoretical discussion of the appropriateness of interpreting possession states through dissociation theory; see also Collins’s discussion (1997, ch. 6) of trance literature and theory. We simply note the role of drums and a heavy arch in kāvaṭi (see e.g. Gell 1980 on the role of disequilibrium in inducing altered states, and Gaborieau 1975 on the role of music).

18 Deities in Kerala are either ‘wandering’, a dangerous and undesirable state, or ‘seated’: in a temple or shrine, on a stool, in a picture or drawing, and so on (see articles by Y. Uchiyamada and R. Freeman, this vol.).

19 Black, white, green, red and yellow, made of e.g. turmeric, burnt paddy husk, calcium or powdered rice.

20 A patch of land at the edge of the house compound, representing the wild forest, populated by serpents, autochthonous beings and real owners of the land (see Uchiyamada 1995 for fuller descriptions).

21 While Brahmins and Nāyars may perform pūja to Nāga, the groups especially adept at working with Nāga–those having avakāśam (hereditary rights) and bandham (a special relationship, essentialised and often spoken of in kinship idiom) are the Scheduled Caste Puḷḷuvans.

22 Thanks to Daniela Berti for pointing out that nāgas or snake deities are widespread in India and not actually peculiarly ‘Dravidian’, despite South Indian ideologies.

23 In this it reminds us of the rising kuṇḍalinī śakti, visualised as a coiled serpent who uncoils and rises as its power is activated.

24 This may be a peculiarity of our ethnography. Locally (and linked to the dominance of Ayurveda?), a very strong distinction is drawn between ‘natural’ water and well-water. Polluted wells, those in which people have committed suicide, spirit-infested wells and so on are a common feature of other ethnographies, but not ours. We never heard of a well suicide, possibly because abundance of water means that wells are extremely shallow. (Preferred suicide methods are hanging [males] and taking poison [females].)

25 Cf. Sharp 1993: 131 for photo of a woman with raised fists, possessed by a ‘boxer’ spirit and see Taussig 1997, passim for descriptions and discussion of the rigid and closed, death-like postures of pre-possession.

26 Honorary title for priests.

27 It is highly unlikely that Elliamma was aware ofVedic symbolism of agni-sōma, which explicitly links hot fire and cool moisture, sun and moon, or of elaborations on this theme. However, she would have been aware of the (local) ethnophysiological fact that a large part of woman’s Śakti (associated with bodily heat) is lost when her virginity is taken; this fact would also have accorded with her feelings of powerlessness with regard to the question of moving to Bombay (cf. a similar case in Freed & Freed 1964, cited in Castillo 1994: 143).

28 See e.g. Lewis 1971; Sharp 1993; Skultans 1987; Boddy 1989; Gellner 1994; Parry 1994: 230; Castillo 1994: 152.

29 The peculiarly masculine nature of boundary-shift fears has been located by some psychologists in the self-body-image. Precisely because women’s bodies change shape, shift, open, and leak more than do men’s, women, it is argued, develop a more flexible sense of boundary and a greater tolerance of shift (see e.g. Fisher 1973; Irigaray 1985).

30 In Varanasi, according to Parry (1994: 232), “Pregnant and menstruating women, mothers in labour and those who have recently given birth are particularly vulnerable” (to unwanted spirit possession). This we might expect, as categories of women whose wombs/vaginas are at that moment particularly ‘open’.

31 For example, men commonly gave as the reason why extramarital sex is permissible for them, but not for women, that they can ‘get up and wash it off’ afterwards, whereas women cannot, being then permanently and internally defiled by the act.

32 That young women like Ponnamma and Elliamma do not, unlike the untouchable Puḷḷuvan priests who serve Nāga, manage to derive some limited benefit by insistence upon and acceptance of the social value of a special relationship with ‘lower’ spirits, but instead tacitly accept possession as a sign of dōṣam, is an indication both of the power of the dominant renunciatory discourse, and of women’s relative powerlessness in the realm of public signification (cf. e.g. Kapferer 1991; Spencer 1997; Nabokov 1997; this all contrasts strongly with, for example, ethnographies of Sudanese zār possession cults: e.g. Lewis 1971; Boddy 1989). While in Nepal, as in many other places, the possibility exists of a transformation from periphery to centre (Gellner 1994: 38), in Kerala, peripheral possessions are commonly exorcised. Peripheral possession in Kerala is generally negative, at best ambivalent–evidence of a pathological lack of detachment.

33 We speak of course only of males: Brahman women, who do not undergo initiation, are technically not Brahmans. ‘Brahman’–the elite, sealed, closed person presented here–is quintessentially male.

34 This is not to deny that individual Brahmans may be extremely worldly; such Brahmans are generally degraded. Those working as priests outside are of lesser status (non-inheriting younger brothers, junior branches) than those who only perform pūja for the benefit of their own household. In line with Dumont’s insistence that dharma is split from artha, the ideal for Brahmans and the pinnacle of Brahman-ness is actually non-engagement with the world in favour of concentration on personal spiritual improvement (Fuller 1979; 1992: 18; Parry 1994: 228).

35 In the esoteric realm of tantric Hinduism, commonly articulated and practised by Brahmans, imperfect natural or human endeavours are twinned with and replaced by perfected, controlled, divine endeavours (cf. e.g. Smith 1988). If a man’s sexual fluid is conserved, it is said to be further distilled and refined, and turned into the purest and best form of śakti, kuṇḍalinī śakti: the material for human fertilisation and birth is diverted towards projects of self re-birth.

36 Themozhiyar, described by Trawick (1992: see e.g. 73) is one such ‘renunciatory householder’: he tries to minimise the bonds of attachment, lessen his own dependence, and develop his individuality and self-sufficient androgyny (e.g. ibid.: 36, 74) as essential parts of his spiritual journey.

37 In daily meditation upon the iṣṭadēvata (personal god, chosen freely), Brahman men practice loosening these emotional bonds, which in old age will then be cast aside entirely (cf. Fuller 1988: 33). As Shambhu Nambutiri explained, “In daily mediation I must forget my wife, my family, my job–everything that is dear to me–and learn to consider them all as nothing, as merely aspects of Mother’s play” (ammayuṭe māyā, the Goddess’s illusion). “Then I can concentrate only on Dēvi. At the same time I repeat ‘Ōm’. which is actually three syllables: A-U-M. It means birth, death, pause. This is the cycle: birth, death, pause; then another birth, another death, a pause, and start all over again. By doing this I learn how to break that cycle.”

38 We have very rarely seen a (young) Brahman carrying the jīvitam on the verge of possession; in these cases, he is swiftly replaced and not allowed to return. The incident is a shaming one for him.

39 Cautionary tales were told about men of great spiritual power, locally famous Nambūtiris or church priests, who had become permanently insane as a result of drawing too close to the deities.

40 As noted by Weber, this tension often manifests itself in the appearance of different forms of priest, differently legitimated (see e.g. Dumont 1959; Gellner 1988). Following Taussig, we suggest that an apparently pragmatic division of sacred labour (between institutionalists and charismatics) masks a failed monopoly. Gellner (1994: 43) notes that in Nepal, a decline in priestly power led to an increase in mediums; “as priestly power has declined [...] new religious opportunities have opened up for the laity.”

41 In this connection, we note that female anthropologists sometimes express that they feel on the verge of becoming possessed themselves while ‘participant observing’; e.g. Caldwell 1996: 199; Collins 1997.

© Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 1999

Licence OpenEdition Books

Cette publication numérique est issue d’un traitement automatique par reconnaissance optique de caractères.
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search