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La possession en Asie du Sud

Jackie Assayag
Gilles Tarabout


Soil, self, resistance: late-modernity and locative spirit possession in Kerala

« Modernité tardive » et résistances : le sol et le soi dans la possession au Kerala

Yasushi Uchiyamada


La possession/affliction est ici envisagée dans son rapport à la notion de lieu – en l’occurrence, celui de castes de bas statut. Ce point de vue renvoie à la continuité et à l’interaction entre personnes, kuṭumpam (groupe de filiation) et sol, dans un Kerala « de la modernité tardive » ou les anciennes modalités de bornage sont soumises à un ensemble de nouvelles règles aboutissant à mélanger ce qui, autrefois, ne pouvait l’être. La consubstantialité de la personne, du kuṭumpam et du sol, qui s’exprime dans les rituels funéraires, entre en contradiction avec les pratiques actuelles qui consistent à établir des relations en termes de peuple, d’État et de propriété privée. Les nouveaux riches sont venus occuper les franges du village, auparavant habitées exclusivement par des Intouchables et réputées dangereuses, ou errent fantomes et divinites malveillantes. L’étude de cas relatée ici présente la femme d’un prêteur d’argent Īḻava, dont le corps était possédé par des ancêtres Intouchables. Dans cette thématique, j’ai recours à divers récits d’affliction et de possession par des esprits, comme à une « fenêtre » donnant un aperçu des multiples processus de démarcation qui sont constitutifs de la personne, du Soi, et du territoire dans le contexte de la « modernité tardive ».

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1Kathleen Gough’s “Cults of the dead among the Nāyars” (1959) is an excellent work on possession in Kerala. In her paper, Gough talks about the cults of what she calls ‘alien ghosts’ of Untouchable serfs of the Nāyar taṟavāṭu (matrilineal descent corporation). ‘Alien ghosts’ haunt the taṟavāṭu’ s land and cause to Nāyars misfortunes, such as madness, barrenness, cattle deaths. Shrines of ‘alien ghosts’ are built in the garden and propitiated, either annually or when the taṟavāṭu is struck by misfortune. The Nāyars cannot propitiate the hostile ‘alien ghosts’ themselves, however; the propitiant is the ghost’s own caste, often a Pulaya or a Paṟaya, who gets possessed by the ghost. The ghost may declare satisfaction or order further offerings. Gough notes, “[the propitiant] may also take the opportunity to voice any grievances harbored by taṟavāṭu’ s low caste servants against its kāraṇavan" (ibid.: 258). The propitiant received fees after the ritual and grain during the festival.

2During my fieldwork, I have greatly benefited from Gough’s description of the cults of the dead. Yet, having worked among Untouchables, it occurred to me that Gough’s representation of the cults of ‘alien ghosts’ has a bias towards the high-cast view. Malayāḷi Hindus from Nampūtiri Brahmans to low-caste Īḷava, except for autochthonous Untouchables and tribals, regard themselves as immigrants (Uchiyamada 1995: 79-101). For this reason, it sounds misleading to designate as ‘alien ghosts’ the ancestors of former agrestic slaves (or ‘soil slaves’) that haunt lands of Nāyars. They are ‘autochthonous ghosts’. Although Gough’s sociological and psychoanalytic analysis is useful in explaining possession by ‘alien ghosts’ from the point of view of intra-lineage and inter-caste conflicts and hostilities, it side-steps specific aspects of spirit possession. I, therefore, shall present here a place-centred exegesis of spirit possession, which would supplement place-blind representations of possession in South Asia.


3The Malayāḷi notion of bādha, as used by Untouchables in Allappuzha district, refers to (although not exactly) both (a) spirit affliction, and (b) ritual and ecstatic possession. I shall quote a passage from my fieldnotes, so as to give the reader a first insight of how the notion bādha, as well as its verb form bādhikkuka, was used by my former Untouchable neighbours:

  • 1 Oral testimony of Kuṭṭiyamma on June 29, 1993.

... whenever we perform something [i.e. pūja] here [in the lineage grove], after possessing the body (śārīrattil bādhicca śēṣam), [the deity] tells us about the matters of our lineage (kuṭumpattile kāyrankaḷ paṟayum). After that, [it] departs from the body (śārīrattil ninnu māṟum).1

4Here are mentioned four ‘stages’ of an institutionalised possession process: induction, possession, oracle, and exit. What I hope to lay stress on is not the logic of possession process per se, but the special relationships between place and possession. In this case, the institutionalised possession takes place at a certain time in a lineage grove (kuṭumpa kāvu) which is imbued with malevolence and life force.

5Kuṭṭiyamma, a Pulaya woman in her late-fifties, was explaining to me the extraordinary power of the grove (kāvu), which was located at the centre of a virilocal Pulaya settlement. At that time, I was enquiring about the superhuman life force (śakti) of the lineage kāvus of former ‘soil slaves’ in a village I call ‘Nāgarājanāṭu’ in southern Kerala. Deities that inhabited this particular kāvu were Bhadrakāḷi, the lineage goddess, and Pulaya ancestors.

6Although Kuṭṭiyamma told me about possession of lineage members by the deities in gender-neutral terms, gender differences were articulated in the ways in which people performed pūja at their kāvu. Senior male members of the Pulaya descent group were privileged in having the authority to ‘induce’ their lineage deities via performing pūja. Bhadrakāḷi and the ancestors possessed the bodies of these men and talked through them. This voluntary and institutionalised possession was a means to communicate with the protective and benevolent lineage deities, as was widely practised among Untouchables and hill tribes in Kerala (Morris 1981; Ayrookuzhiel 1983). Women, on the other hand, were not allowed to draw near the lineage kāvu during their menses. They were not permitted– except at the age of pre-puberty and post-menopause–to approach the sacred place when pūja was performed (cf. Gough 1959: 246). The notion of bādha was used by my former Untouchable neighbours in such a way as to signify both what anthropologists have understood as ‘possession’ and as ‘affliction’. As will become clear later, the blurred distinction of possession and affliction points to Untouchables’ strong attachment to their land/soil.

7Gold makes a useful distinction of non-possession, positive possession, and negative possession. According to this classification, the great gods do not possess, whereas lesser and local deities do possess. Within these lesser deities, benign deities are the agents of‘positive’ possession, whereas malign spirits cause ‘negative’ possession. The ‘negative’ possession is, then, paraphrased as ‘affliction’ (Gold 1988a; see also Erndl 1996). According to this view, the distinction of possession and affliction is based on the nature of the possessing beings. Yet, as Gold argues, malevolent spirits may be transformed into a benevolent deity through rituals (1988a: 35). Moreover, the nature of possessing beings is perceived differently by differently positioned subjects. For instance, the lineage deities of Untouchables are benevolent deities from the point of view of the lineage members. Nevertheless, high-caste neighbours usually see these deities as malevolent demons (Uchiyamada 1995: I06-08). For these two reasons, a clear-cut distinction of possession and affliction is not necessarily clear cut.

8Levy, Mageo and Howard (1996: 17) use ‘proto-possession’ and ‘full possession’ so as to distinguish the former from a spirit’s assault which does not necessarily entail full control of the ‘victim’ by the spirit. Similarly, Lewis (1989 [1971]: 63) notes: “what begins as an illness, or otherwise deeply disturbing experience, ends in ecstasy.” For a heuristic purpose, I shall provisionally distinguish ‘proto-possession’ and ‘full possession’ as two aspects of bādha. I shall also extend the Western notion of possession and occasionally make it signify an undifferentiated possession-affliction mixture, the concept of which is similar to the Japanese term tsukimono (Komatsu 1994). The former is more consonant with the view of the high-caste people. In contrast, many Untouchables seemed to use the notion of bādha in both ways (cf. Kapadia 1995).


9Now I shall turn to three cases of spirit possession. The first is voluntary and institutionalised possession of a senior male member of a descent group by a divine agent. The second is involuntary and spontaneous possession of a young woman by a demonic agent which was later transformed into a divine one. The last is involuntary and spontaneous possession of a young woman by a demonic agent which was later exorcised.


  • 2 I am grateful to Gilles Tarabout for bringing the notion of tuḷḷal to my attention.

10When a lineage deity entered (bādhikkuka) the body (śāriram) of a senior male member of the Pulaya descent group, he jumped and danced. In this context, jumping (tuḷḷal) is a manifestation of the existence of the divinity in the body (cf. Neff 1987; Erndl 1996).2 The former head (mūppan) of Kuṭṭiyamma’s husband’s lineage is remembered to have ‘jumped’ as he performed a pūja in the lineage kāvu. According to the present mūppan, his predecessor hopped on one leg and moved extremely fast between the kāvu and paddy fields. As he jumped with his one leg during the pūja, his figure is alleged to have become invisible. The former mūppan is thus remembered as the master of divine jumping. In contrast, the neighbouring high-caste Nāyars remembered this former ‘soil slave’ (mūppan) as a ‘sorcerer’ (mantravādi) who had the power to manipulate demonic beings. The same superhuman agent that possessed the body of the Pulaya mūppan was seen as divine from the point of view of Pulaya descendants, but was conceived as demonic from the point of view of their high-caste neighbours. Untouchables and the higher-caste people, thus, have different views about possession (Kapadia 1995). These different views, in turn, are related to the older division of labour and to the spatial manifestation of social differences. It is, therefore, important to note that the distinction between the divine and the demonic is not an absolute one, but a relational one (Uchiyamada 1995).


  • 3 Oral testimony of Kuññamma on April 15, 1993.

11Kuññamma, a Pulaya old woman with matted hair, is a ‘sorcerer’ (mantravādi). She is believed to possess an ability to manipulate the magical power of a well-known Syrian Orthodox heretic, Fr. Kaṭamaṟṟan. She once told me that the spirit of that man possessed (bādhikkuka) her in her youth; in her own words: “[it] possessed me when I was young” (ceṟuppattil enne bādhicciṭṭuṇṭu).3 Pāppi is a male mantravādi who, too, is a devotee of Fr. Kaṭamaṟṟan. As I asked Kuññamma about the magical power of Pāppi, she replied “piṭi avite illa” ( “There is no grasp”). By this she meant that, in contrast with her own case, Pāppi is not effectively ‘grasped’ by Fr. Kaṭamaṟṟan. As the latter’s spirit possessed (bādhikkuka) Kuññamma’s body when she was young, it has now a strong grasp (piṭi) over her, and she has responded to Fr. Kaṭamaṟṟan’s grasp by devotion; she has turned the experience of the initial possession by the demigod into devotional love (cf. Obeyesekere 1978; 1981); she has given up rice and become an ascetic. Following Gold (see above), it is possible to argue that Kuññamma’s initial ‘negative possession’ was later transformed into ‘positive possession, ’ at one level. Yet, Kuññamma’s family, especially her brother who has a respectable ‘government job’, thinks that her devotional love for Fr. Kaṭamaiṟṟan is shameful. From he brother’s point of view, Kuññamma is still afflicted by the demigod.


12Lakṣmikuṭṭi is a former Nāyar neighbour of mine in her forties. She had suffered from spirit affliction that involved frequent spirit possession for five years, after she had married and moved to her husband’s house. The following is a summary of her story about the demonic spirit affliction and possession.

  • 4 Oral testimony of Lakṣmikuṭṭi on January 17, 1993.

One night as I was asleep, I had the feeling that somebody was standing in the darkness. I was extremely scared. That is how it started. Before this incident, our relative who lived in Pavumba died after giving birth to a baby girl. She was seventeen when she died. I thought it was her ghost I saw on that Friday night. When it disabled (vallāte) me for the first time, I was distressed (kaṣṭam); I was frightened (bhayam). My husband’s relatives told me later that my body made a strange movement. They beat my body so as to exorcise the bad spirit. But it stayed in my body. The disability comes (vallātu varuka), makes me faint (tilaruka), and destroys me (vīruka). I got possessed repeatedly for five years. The Brahman priest of the Nāgarāja temple was unable to exorcise the spirit. A Kaṇiyān astrologer was brought in; he found that it was Pāvumba-Kāḷi’s curse that had caused the fearful possession (bhayankara upadravam). This was twenty-two years ago. The astrologer went to Pāvumba-Kāḷi temple and sacrificed a fowl. After that, I was cured. It was my enemies who destroyed us. We suffered and suffered. We even had to sell ashes from our hearth for survival.4

13Lakṣmikuṭṭi was a victim of sorcery. She was possessed by the fearful Pāvumba-Kāḷi, a deified Untouchable Kuṟava concubine of a Brahman priest, who is believed to have killed herself by cutting her throat in the forest of Pāvumba. The young Kuṟava woman was pregnant when she committed suicide, and there-fore the demigoddess is believed to be extremely powerful and dangerous (Uchiyamada 1999).

14There are important differences between Lakṣmikuṭṭi’s experience of spirit possession and the first two cases. Firstly, the Nāyar woman did not use the notion of bādha as the Pulayans did; instead she uses the notion of bhayankara upadravam, ‘fearful possession’. Secondly, Lakṣmikuṭṭi ‘feared’ the spirit that possessed her; whereas in the first case, the lineage deity was induced by the mūppan to possess his body. Possession, in this case, is a technique to communicate with benevolent lineage deities who are concerned with the wellbeing of the lineage members. In the second case, the spirit of Fr. Kaṭamaiṟṟan initially afflicted Kuññamma, who rather than fearing him, has devoted herself to the demigod. Thus, the initial affliction was transformed into devotion; whereas in the third case, the vulnerable victim was ‘distressed’ (kaṣṭam) by the spirit she ‘feared’ (bhayam). Lakṣmikuṭṭi was a young bride who lacked ‘mental power’ (manaśakti), and hence, was vulnerable to the ‘attack’ (upadravam) of the malevolent spirit (Taraboutn.d.: 10-12; Neff 1987: 69; Kapadia 1995: 129). The demigoddess ‘came’ (varuka) into the body of the vulnerable victim and stayed there for five years, which caused the possession/illness. Eventually the victim’s possession/illness was cured by a Kaṇiyān astrologer who sacrificed a fowl at the shrine of the demigoddess who had been sent to Lakṣmikuṭṭi by her enemy.

15What I am concerned with in this paper is the fourth type or the locative spirit affliction/possession (hereafter I shall use affliction/possession and ‘possession’ interchangeably). The underlying presumption of this model is an understanding of the South Indian person in terms of person-descent group (kuṭumpam) continuity and person-soil continuity and interactions, or combined together person-kuṭumpam- soil continuity and interactions (cf. Srinivas 1952; Daniel 1984; Uchiyamada 1995; Hornborg 1998). In what follows, I shall present a place-centred ethnography of spirit affliction/possession in Kerala as a ‘window’ which provides a glimpse into the ways in which person-kuṭumpam-soil continuity and interactions constitute a Malayāli self. This seems to be necessary, for people in South India in general, and the low-caste people in particular, have a peculiar emotional and bodily attachment to their ancestral land. There are numerous studies which approach possession as performance (Kapferer 1983; Blackburn 1986; Gold 1988a; Erndl 1996). There are a number of studies which use psychoanalytical approach to possession (Gough 1959; Obeyesekere 1978, 1981; Kakar 1990). In my view, locative aspects of possession are as important as performative and psychoanalytical ones; yet, existing studies of possession tend to underplay its locative aspect. In this paper, I therefore, make a modest attempt to supplement the pre-existing psychoanalytical, sociological, performative, and political-economy approaches to spirit possession with a place-centred one.


16The setting is post-land reform rural areas in Allapuzha district and its adjoining districts in Kerala. Between the early nineteenth century and the 1960s-70s (when the famous land reforms were implemented) the region has experienced unprecedented changes in people’s relations with land/soil, which was related to wider modern processes. This was the period when person-kuṭumpam-soil connectedness and consubstantiality (see below) were gradually subjugated to the modem bureaucratic logic of people-state-land relations, the process of which was culminated in the land reforms, which was the exemplary modernist project implemented by the Kerala state. According to the dominant modernist narratives, the land reforms turned the ‘landless agricultural labourers’ into owners of dwelling sites (Jeffrey 1992). This process, however, resulted in the dispossession of ancestral lands from ‘landless agricultural labourers’, according to various stories narrated by the latter (Uchiyamada 1995).

17As the land became a saleable commodity during the nineteenth century, which coincided with the official abolition of slavery, when ‘soil slaves’ were officially liberated from land, the higher-caste people began to move into the marginal areas, and became legitimate ‘owners’ of the land. Many new landowners, who were unrelated to ancestor spirits in the land/soil, continued to respect avakāśam (right) of the former occupants of the land. When they did not, there was a high risk of suffering from ‘possession’ by ancestors of the former inhabitants.

  • 5 CPM/Communist Party (Marxist) activists have destroyed coconuts planted in reclaimed lands in many (...)

18In 1992-97 (during which period I have conducted an eighteen-month fieldwork in 1992-93 in Nāgarājanaṭu and revisited it for six weeks in 1996 and three weeks in 1997) people’s everyday life seemed to be exposed to, and entangled with, late-modern processes. For instance, the paddy field, which was considered as the source of wealth until the conclusion of the modernist land reforms, lost its economic and symbolic value by the early 1990s. Wealth in Kerala was, by then, coming from the rich Gulf countries in the form of foreign remittances, which were deposited in high interest savings accounts. The new rich bought shares rather than land. Paddy fields have been filled and turned into coconut gardens, and then into real estates at an unprecedented pace.5 By 1996, it became possible to subscribe to a local cable TV service with a monthly payment of one hundred rupees. Women wearing a churidar (punjabi dress), a baseball cap and riding a Kinetic Honda scooter, which was the exemplary image of modem and active Malayāḷi women, were sometimes seen in the junction. By 1997, North-American style villas, in addition to Arabian style ones, were emerging on the newly-filled paddy fields at the margins of the village, which was once considered as a dangerous place where unhappy ghosts wandered.

19The late-modern boundary processes are cacophonous with those of older forms. In the older boundary processes, gifts (dānam) which contained malevolence were supposed to move unidirectionally from the centre to the margins of the village, whereas paddy moved in the reverse direction from dangerous and fertile puñcas (low-lying waterlogged lands which flood during the monsoons and harden during the summer) to the centre. These older forms of boundary processes anxiously and repeatedly constructed the sacred geography of the village in which a purer centre was separated from dangerous and polluting margins. The late-modern disjuncture between culture, economy, and politics (cf. Uchiyamada 1995: 296; Appadurai 1996) is the context of this tale of ‘possession’ and resistance.


20On the backside of the bungalow, in which we rented two rooms from an absentee Syrian Christian landlord in 1992-93, there were six tiny huts of Untouchable squatters along the road. One belonged to Lakṣmī, a Paṟaya widow and basket weaver, who seemed to be poorer than any other Untouchables in the village. Other huts belonged to five Pulayas: Jōsaphu, a fat jackfruit-leaf seller; his relative Kuññukuññu, a short and busy agricultural labourer; Jōsaphu’s remote relative Poṭiyamma (Dust-Mother), a single mother of two grown-up sons and one daughter; Poṭiyamma’s older half-brother Kuññaccan, who was slim, swift and reputed to be hardworking, but childless (I shall come back to this point later); and Poṭiyamma’s younger brother Poṭiyan, a physically frail man who lived in a double-bed-size shed with his wife and two children. There was no well, no latrine, and no space between their huts and the road. The domestic activities, such as drying clothes and processing food, as well as voices, smells and bodies overspilled into the road and to the neighbourhood. During the hot and dry summer months of February, March and May, when there were no rainfalls to wash away the odour, the area where they squatted stank with a smell of old urine. I sometimes witnessed a few Syrian Christian women covering their nose with the end of their sari as they passed through the place, where domestic space and public space overlapped.

  • 6 Except for Lakṣmī and Kuññaccan, other squatter families were not landless. Jōsaphu had ten cents o (...)

21My landlady, who called the squatter families ‘thieves’, told me that the Untouchable squatters should leave the roadside because they had land elsewhere. According to her explanation, the squatters were occupying the roadside for convenience, and not due to landlessness. This may well be one of the reasons why they squatted where they did.6 Yet, there were at least two other important reasons why these Pulaya squatters were occupying this particular roadside. One is that the roadside they occupied was in the vicinity of their ancestral land from which they were evicted in 1967; and as Pulaya families were emotionally, even consubstantially, attached to their ancestral land, they had been squatting in its vicinity. The second reason, which is related to the first, is that the constitution of Pulaya families was so deeply embedded in the nexus of kinship relations and various local networks, that when they were evicted from their ancestral land they found it difficult to find works, secure loans, favours and helps, and hence, to survive in the new dwelling site. Kuññaccan even found a kāvu of former inhabitants in his new dwelling site. Fearing the consequences of disturbing ancestor spirits of unknown and unrelated people, and also taking into account the lack of social networks to fall back on for survival, he immediately sold the land and occupied the roadside not far away from what he sees as his own ancestral land and lineage kāvu.

22In the following section, we will visit a Syrian Christian church during its annual festival, in which Hindu women play a significant role. One possible way of making sense of the event is to interpret it in terms of religious ‘syncretism’. This I shall not do. Rather than focusing on religion literally, I shall look at the particular land/soil (in which multiple religious symbols and metonyms are anxiously inscribed, embodied, re-inscribed, and re-embodied), from the point of view of person-kuṭumpam-soil continuity and interactions.


23In the evening of January 20th, St. Stephen’s Orthodox Church at Palimood junction was packed with worshippers and spectators. The front gate of the church was decorated with tricolour illuminations; there were about twenty stalls on both sides of the gateway, displaying plastic toys, cheap jewellery and ornaments, saris and mundus, almanacs and other religious books, posters of popular saints, cooking utensils, vessels and other sundries under unshaded bulbs. Untouchable drummers from Ochira, which is famous for its grove temple, were beating drums in exactly the same manner as they would do at Hindu temples. At a distance, in the same churchyard, was a music troupe of converted former Untouchables. They played ‘Western music’ with drums, trumpets and clarinets; the tunes did not sound ‘Western’ however. The beat of drums, illuminations, and glaring bulbs of the stalls lured more and more people, including myself, into the churchyard.

24It was around six in the evening. In front of the porch of the church stood a group of neatly-dressed former Untouchable Īḻavas. They were the members of the Puttanvīṭu family. Four trunks of banana trees, with marōṭṭi shells cut into halves and attached, were erected in front of the church building: this type of oil lamps is used by the Hindus during the temple festival of the village goddess Bhadrakāḷi, and during Ōṇam celebrations which commemorate the return of the demon king Mahābali and ancestors from the nether world to their former homes. At dusk, the womenfolk of the Puttanvīṭu family lit these Hindu-type marōṭṭi shell oil lamps quietly in front of the porch, as male members and children of the Īḷava extended family looked on. When these lamps were silently lit in the quiet corner of the chaotic and clamorous churchyard, the three-night church festival which celebrated the 158th anniversary of the foundation of St. the Stephen’s Church at Pallimood junction was inaugurated.

25A Syrian Orthodox merchant family founded St. Stephen’s Church at the south side of Pallimood junction in 1835. The place on which the church was erected, formerly belonged to the Puttanvīṭu family. On this land there was a lineage temple of the Īḷava family, most likely in the form of a lineage kāvu, in which the goddess Bhadrakāḷi was ‘seated’. The powerful Syrian Orthodox merchant forced the Īḷava family to surrender part of its ancestral land, demolished its ancestral house, and had the church built by Kuṟava coolies. Although the Īḻavas were driven out from the place, śaktis of Bhadrakāḷi and Īḷava ancestor spirits remained in the soil. St. Stephen is now regarded by some Untouchables as brother of the village goddess Bhadrakāḷi, who in turn is believed to be the elder sister of the lineage goddess of the Puttanvīṭus. To put the long story short, the land on which St. Stephen’s Church stands today embodies śaktis of St. Stephen, Bhadrakāḷi, Īḷava ancestors, and Kuṟava ancestors. They are ‘theologically’ unrelated, but are consubstantially linked by the fact of being in the same soil.

26Belumbi, a Kuṟava old woman in her seventies, who had the right (avakāśam) to sweep the churchyard and the entire junction, told me that the Kuṟavas had sprouted from the place. Candran, a Kuṟava old man in his eighties, who lived in a Kuṟava colony south of the Syrian Orthodox Church, told me that his forefathers were driven away from the north side of Pallimood junction by Syrian Christians, and had to come where they are today. The Kuṟavas are most likely to be the former inhabitants of the entire area, both north and south of Pallimood junction; at least they are believed to be the autochthons of the place. Thus, the place where St. Stephen’s Church stands today is filled with multiple śaktis and multiple avakāṣam. A member of the Puttanvīṭu family told me that they would visit the church to worship their own lineage goddess and ancestor spirits, not on Sundays as Christians would do, but in accordance with their own sense of the right time. Kuṟavas, too, told me that they worshipped their ancestor spirits in the church. It is, therefore, misleading to understand the coexistence of different deities in the same place in terms of religious syncretism, for the three sets of discourses and practices involving lineage deities of three communities do not converge at the ‘level’ of religious rituals and dogmas. They just coexist in the same locale and in the same soil.

27Vessel imagery is perhaps a useful heuristic analogy which might help us to understand how various histories, memories, ancestor spirits, and lineage deities are partially contained in this particular place, and why the place is charged with multiple śaktis. As I have discussed elsewhere, the Hindus use vessels as containers of the spirit of the deceased in mortuary rituals (Uchiyamada 1998). Although not all kinds of vessel imageries are useful for the place-centred understanding of possession, vessels buried in earth are relevant for my purpose.

A former lineage temple of Kuṟavas, which is owned by Nāyars today: Malanāṭa temple in Noornad, Kerala.

A former lineage temple of Kuṟavas, which is owned by Nāyars today: Malanāṭa temple in Noornad, Kerala.

(Photogr. Yasuchi Uchiyamada, 1997)

Kuṟava effigies at another Kuṟava temple which is controlled by Nāyars and Īḷavas.

Kuṟava effigies at another Kuṟava temple which is controlled by Nāyars and Īḷavas.

28In an old story about the origin of one of the seven Kuṟava sub-lineages, it is told that its forefather lost his ancestral land, which was located near Ochira, and came to a forest at the south of Pallimood junction during the last century. The forest was owned by a Kuṟava ‘sorcerer’ (mantravādi). The Kuṟava stranger was travelling with one hundred and one ancestors in the form of effigies. He surrendered the effigies to the sorcerer, and was allowed to live in the forest. The Kuṟava sorcerer enclosed the effigies in a bell-metal vessel which he buried in his garden upside-down to prevent the spirits from fleeing. As a result, the Kuṟava sorcerer’s śakti was strengthened. On the other hand, the śakti of the Kuṟava stranger, who had given up his one hundred and one ancestors, was weakened. Nevertheless, by so doing he established blood relationships with the sorcerer and the soil. Thereafter, the sorcerer became the priest of the Kuṟava descent group.

29What this story exemplifies is a belief and practice about person-kuṭumpam-soil relationships and their malleability. The one hundred and one effigies, which the Kuṟava stranger brought with him, which were the ‘essence’ of his uprooted kuṭumpam, were ‘replanted’ into the soil of the host kuṭumpam. The death-regeneration cycle (Bloch & Parry 1982) which had been dissected was re-established via the rite of enclosing the effigies in the bell-metal vessel and burying it in the sacred place in the forest. This ritual, I would argue, is a kind of funerary rite in the course of which the dead is ‘planted’ in land/soil–which is compatible with its bodily substance.

30Cremation pits and burial pits too are like vessels. In Kerala the deceased is either cremated or buried in agricultural land at the south side of the house. In the case of cremation, bones are picked up, cleansed and put into an earthen pot, and buried under the ‘house’jackfruit tree. The pit, which still contains bones and ashes, is filled with earth, and paddy, wheat, millet, nine kinds of pulses, turmeric rhizomes, mustard seeds; a plantain rhizome and a coconut are then planted. What is important for my purpose here is the fact that a cremation/burial pit receives not only the dead body but also seeds and rhizomes of people’s essential food. The dead body is buried in agricultural land as if it were a ‘seed’. From the body there emerges various kinds of essential food. A womb-like vessel containing bones and buried under the ‘house jackfruit tree’ as well as a womb-like cremation/burial pit that contains the potent ‘seed’, are key metaphors of human-nature continuity and person-soil interactions. The second imagery I shall employ, then, is that of an ancestor as a ‘seed’ which is sown in a womb-like pit in agricultural land by its descendants.


31One of the Īḷava women, who was seen lighting the marōṭṭi shell lamps at St. Stephen’s Church on the first evening of the three-night church festival, was married to two Īḷava brothers from the Puttanvīṭu family. For fifteen years or so when I first met her in 1992, this woman had been suffering from a skin disease, locally known as ‘black leprosy’ (kariṃkuṣṭam). She was covered with black spots and although she enfolded her body in a sari, the black spots on her feet, arms and neck were visible. My Pulaya neighbours told me that she was suffering from the ‘misfortune of land’ (vāstunṟe dōṣam) of which ‘black leprosy’ was a symptom. Moreover, her younger husband, who was a local bank manager, died prematurely. Then her elder husband, who was the elder brother of the dead one, and at the time was serving the Indian Army in Kashmir, came back to Nāgarājanāṭu. As soon as he returned home, he opened a pawnshop at Pallimood junction. In 1992-93, when I lived there, his money-lending business was prospering; their joint eldest son was working in the Gulf; their second son opened a video shop at the upper floor of the pawnshop. In 1996, their eldest son’s new concrete house was under construction. His new Ambassador, which he had recently received as a dowry, was proudly on display at the moneylender’s front garden. By the time I returned to the village in 1997, his business success was undeniable. The Īḷava moneylender owned a lucrative ‘foreign liquor’ shop in the town of Mannar. Nevertheless, his wife’s ‘black leprosy’ seemed to have annoyed him greatly. Although he told me that he himself did not believe in ‘superstitions’, he did not deny that his wife had such beliefs, and admitted that he did not stop her and her natal family from consulting priests and astrologers to cure her. Before I proceed further, I shall make a short detour to the sacred topography of the place, for, as the notion of ‘misfortune of land’ indicates, her ‘black leprosy’ can be understood only in the context of the relationships between people, ancestor spirits and land/soil. The Īḷava family’s house was located in a place from which the Pulaya squatters had been evicted in 1967.

32Poṭiyamma (Dust-Mother) once told me that her family had owned land where the Īḷava moneylender and his family live today. The summary of her story is as follows:

  • 7 Oral testimony of Poṭiyamma on December 10, 1992.

In those days, there was a soggy place (pūval sthalam). Our forefathers improved that land and made it suitable for cultivation. They had the title deed of the land written on a palm leaf; but they did not have a box in which to keep this document. So our great-grandmother handed it to our Nāyar master, who fabricated a new document on a paper and began to till the land. [...] That land was ours. Because our dead ones (cāvu) entered their bodies, they cannot he down (kiṭakkān) in the place. We did not receive money for the land. That is the reason why the dead possessed them. Their bodies have skin problems. They have spent a lot of money to exorcise the dead [...] There is a funeral pyre (paṭṭaṭa) in that land. The dead possessed them. So they offered to return us three cents of kāvu land. (An astrologer is believed to have told the Īḷava family to return four cents of land to the original owner.) We don’t need the mere three cents. We had a large property, and three cents is not enough.7

  • 8 Oral testimony of Poṭiyamma on March 30, 1993.

33The Puttanvīṭu family offered to return three cents of land to Kuññaccan and Poṭiyamma, after the family had undergone the aftereffects of Pulaya ancestors’ wrath. In Poṭiyamma’s own words: “because these dead harassed them” (ī cāvukkaḷ avare śalyam ceyyunna koṇṭu),8 the Īḻava family reluctantly offered to return part of the ‘soggy place’.

34The ‘soggy place’ was located at the western edge of Nāgarājanāṭu, where dry land dipped into waterlogged swamp (puñca) which separated Nāgarājanaṭu from Pallimood to the east. Both places were slight hills, which were protected by the Bhadrakāḷi temple and St. Stephen’s Church respectively. In contrast, the ‘soggy place’ was located in the dangerous borderlands haunted by capricious demons, giants and unhappy ghosts. This part of the area is, therefore, not considered to be suitable for people other than the former ‘soil slaves’ such as Pulayas and Paṟayas who were believed to possess a special connectedness with puñca, and to be resistant to certain dangers and pollution. During the monsoon season, rainwaters flow from the higher and central part of Nāgarājanaṭu to the lower and peripheral part and then into puñca, which becomes a large lake. The flow of the rainwater roughly coincides with the flow of sins and malevolence which are passed from higher-caste masters who live in the central part to Untouchables who live at the margins of the village. It is only recently, with the arrival of modernity, that Syrian Christians and Īḻavas, who are socially as well as geographically more mobile than other communities, began to move into the dangerous borderlands believed to be suitable for Untouchables and snakes in former times.


35“Ideally, spirits of dead relatives should go away...,” notes Ann Gold who worked among high-caste Rājpūts in Rajasthan (1988b: 78). This applies to Nampūtiri Brahmans in Kerala; while the attitudes of Nāyars towards their deceased kins are ambiguous, Untouchable ancestors ‘live’ with the descendants. Nampūtiri Brahmans cremate the deceased at the south side of the house where tubers (such as yam, taro, and tapioca), plantains, turmeric, and coconuts are cultivated. The place where the body is cremated is agricultural land; there is no separate cremation ground. Nampūtiri Brahmans sow various edible plants after filling the cremation pit on the third or fifth day after cremation. A coconut is planted at the spot of the naval, a plantain rhizome at the place where the head was, paddy, wheat, millet, nine kinds of pulses, turmeric, and mustard seeds are planted in the remaining space. Thus, the ‘agricultural land’ (kṛṣi bhūmi), which was temporarily transformed into a ‘cremation ground’ (cita), recovers its former function. When these seeds and rhizomes are planted in the pit, the spirit of the deceased leaves for the abode of ancestors, and therefore, there is no need to construct a kuryāla (small shrine) as Nāyars do to ‘seat’ the ancestor spirit. Although the theme of person-ancestor-soil continuity is undoubtedly present in the Nampūtiri funerary rite, the Brahmanical discourse emphasises the doctrine of the ‘release’ (mōkṣam) of the soul from this world.

36As compared to Nampūtiri ancestors, the dead Nāyars do not depart from their land completely. Gough, for instance notes, “those who burn the dead bury the bones and ashes in a pot under a jackfruit tree outside the ancestral house near the ancestor shrine. Some leave the bones there permanently and consider that the ghost remains near the bones and the ancestral house. Others dig up the bones after the period of mourning, dispose of half of them in a sacred river, and return the other half to the grave” (1959: 255; my emphases). “[Nāyars] believe that their forebears were sorry to die and are envious of the living. The forebears retain affection for their lands and houses and continue to be interested in tangible good things, particularly in food and drink” (ibid.: 247). As Gough has observed during her fieldwork among the Nāyars in the late-1940s, Malayāḷi Hindus, except for Brahmans, believe that their ancestor spirits reside, temporarily or permanently, in sacred places in their lands, such as the lineage grove (kuṭumpa kāvu).

37Low castes such as Āśāris (carpenters) and Īḷavas bury the deceased. The above-mentioned seeds and rhizomes are planted on the burial pit. The spirit of the deceased is seated on a kuryāla or a pīṭham. Pulayas and Paṟayas plant neither a coconut nor plantain, but only grain seeds and pulses. Kuṟavas, who are regarded as tribal people, do not sow anything in the burial pit itself. Nevertheless, the body of the deceased is buried in agricultural land, and will be ploughed into the soil one year after the burial. The spirits of Pulayas and Paṟayas are brought to their lineage grove (kuṭumpa kāvu) and will be left there. Kuṟavas move the spirit of the dead from where they are buried to their ancestral house known as the ‘palace’ (koṭṭara). Without either a kuryāla or a pīṭham to sit on, the ancestor spirits of Untouchables are either ‘wandering’ or ‘standing’ in and around their lineage kāvu or wandering near their ‘palace’.

38Because ancestors of Untouchables are strongly and immediately connected to the ancestral lands via the ‘endo-cannibalistic’ funerary rites, their claims of having avakāśam (right) in their territory is much stronger than those of high-caste people. As the image of what I call ‘fruits of soil’ growing out from the body of a deceased kin suggests, it is the ancestor who gives fertility to both agricultural land and the family. More importantly, people’s relationships with land/soil is mediated by ancestors whose bodies are ‘planted’ in the latter. In short, the one who has the avakāśam in serving the ancestor in the land/soil has the avakāśam in the ‘fruits’ of that land/soil. To reiterate, the model of person-kuṭumpam-soil interactions and continuity is a useful heuristic device to make sense of the type of land ‘ownership’ I have been discussing.

  • 9 Indian Express, Kochi, March 9, 19, 21, 25, 1993; June 24, 1993.
  • 10 Indian Express, Kochi, March 19, 1993.

39In 1993, the encroachment of tribal territories in the hills was ‘regularised’ by the Congress-lead state government.9 As the government granted title deeds to the encroachers, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the main opposition party, which was the driving force of land reforms, remained conspicuously silent. Only a limited number of Untouchables and tribal people articulated their opposition to the decision to ‘regularise’ the encroachment in public.10 A similar process was taking place in and around Nāgarājanāṭu. Kuṟavas, too, have been losing their territories to legitimate and illegitimate higher-caste landowners. Paramēśvaran, a local Nāyar farmer, was one of them. One day I saw him attending a pūja conducted at the Kuṟava ‘palace’ to propitiate Kuṟava ancestors.

40In the morning of karkkaṭaka vāvu in 1993,I attended a pūja performed at the Maññappiccērī Palace which was the ancestral house of seven Kuṟava sub-lineages in Nāgarājanāṭu (Uchiyamada 1995: 227-38). Rāman, the current mūppan of the seven sub-lineages, performed the pūja. As he was inviting his ancestors to the ‘palace’ to eat food, drink arrack and chew betel leaf and areca nut served on seven banana leaves, his body suddenly trembled. This was the point when ancestors from the seven sub-lineages entered his body. Rāman was conscious; his face was calm and seemed to be under control. Without being disrupted by ancestor spirits, except for the bodily tremblings, Rāman performed the pūja beautifully. As the legitimate avakāśi (owner) of the Maññappiccērī Palace, Rāman had the authority (ādhipatyam) to be the mount of Kuṟava ancestor spirits while performing pūja. One by one he touched the seven banana leaves with his right hand: this was an abbreviated gesture of eating, drinking and chewing. Using his own body, Rāman, thus, made the ancestors consume the offerings.

41As Rāman, who was facing east, performed pūja in front of the ‘palace’, four senior Kuṟava men including Candran, all of whom were the head of sub-lineages, stood behind him. Behind the four senior men stood Kuṟava men, women, and children. I saw Paramēśvaran, a Nāyar farmer who was now a legitimate owner, or the title deed holder, of a plot of agricultural land which was located between the ‘palace’ and a lineage kāvu of Kuṟavas, among the Kuṟava descendants. I was struck at seeing the high-caste farmer attending the pūja of ‘tribals’ which was considered to be as polluting as funerals by non-Untouchable neighbours. His positioning during the pūja publicly confirmed his subordinate position vis-à-vis the Kuṟava ancestors and mūppans in their territory. The Nāyar farmer behaved as if he were a lay Kuṟava during the ritual. I also learnt that Paramēśvaran regularly made a cash gift to the Kuṟavas. Consubstantially unrelated, he entered into exchange relationships with Kuṟava ancestors in an attempt to avoid ‘misfortunes’ (dōṣam) without giving up the Kuṟava land/soil for cultivation (Uchiyamada 1997).

42At the beginning of the annual church festival of St. Stephen’s Church, the Īḷava family receives cash or the ‘fruits of soil’ from the church every year as the avakāśi (owner) of the land. Similarly, as an avakāśi of the place, Belumbi, the Kuṟava old woman who sweeps the churchyard as well as the terraces of all shops in Pallimood junction, collects money or the ‘fruits of soil’ from St. Stephen’s Church and the shopkeepers. The Īḷava moneylender’s wife was suffering from the spirit affliction/possession precisely because the family, who had been honoured as the avakāśi of the land during the church festival, denied the avakāśam of the Pulaya former inhabitants of the ‘soggy place’. This made wandering Pulaya ancestors enter the Īḷava woman’s body and caused the long-term ‘possession’.


43Candran, who was in his eighties, was the mūppan of one of the seven Kuṟava sub-lineages. It was he who told me a number of stories about his ancestors in the Kuṟava ‘palace’ as well as about their lineage goddess Maṟutā who haunted their lineage kāvu and its vicinity. It was Candran who predicted that the Īḷava Vāṭi brothers, who bought the land of Kuṟavas, would sooner or later leave the place, for they feared the dōṣam (‘fault’) of land (Uchiyamada 1995: 231-37). In August 1993, just before I left Nāgarājanaṭu for London, Candran and his wife Cākki told me that the demigoddess intimidated the outsiders every night. The wife of the Vāṭi brothers and their joint daughter, who moved into the Kuṟava territory, were alleged to have been suffering from its dōṣam. Candran explained to me: “There may not be no dōṣam... wife and daughter have stayed there only three days. They did not lie down. [...] When evening comes women and others do not enter the place. During menstruation they do not enter the place for seven days. Such is that kind of a place.” “If a dog defecates in that kāvu, if it defecates in that land, it goes round three times. Then the dog will lie down and die. The Vāṭi brothers built a toilet in that land.” According to Candran, it was the act of constructing a toilet near the lineage kāvu that caused troubles in the home of the Vāṭi brothers. Candran told me that the Vāṭi younger brother had asked him if he knew anybody who wanted to buy the land from them. Candran was jubilant, when he laughed and said, “Ha ha ha ha ha ha...‘I have to sell, ’ said the younger brother” (Uchiyamada 1995: 235-36). I was convinced then that the resistance of the Untouchables against encroachers played out in the religious plane had some positive effects in the formers’ favour.

44Upon my revisit in May and June 1996, however, I found that the Vāṭi family was still there against my expectations. The family was now worshipping the Kuṟava ancestors and their goddess Maṟutā in the Kuṟava lineage kāvu, just as Kuṟava descendants do. Instead of leaving the place, the Vāṭi family entered into exchange relationships with Kuṟava ancestors. Through that relationship they seemed to be in the process of becoming the avakāśi of the land (Uchiyamada 1997).

45As I returned to Nāgarājanaṭu in August 1997,I was told that a scooter had hit Candran while he was walking to the market. He was critically ill and died a week later on April 19th. A Syrian Christian teenager, whose great-grandfather took a vast area of land from the Kuṟavas, was responsible for it; nevertheless, the boy was not charged for killing Candran. No compensation was paid. After all, he killed a mere tribal old man. Candran’s body was buried in the garden land of his sub-lineage where tapioca, taro, yam, and coconut were planted. There was a thick concrete slab in the garden. The letters on the slab read:

46It was the Vāṭi brothers and the neighbouring Syrian Christians, who had moved into the land of Kuṟavas, who made the concrete tomb in the garden. The concrete slab looked alien; it made it difficult to plough Candran’s body into the soil one year after the burial. I thought the slab blocked the fertility of the agricultural land and the lineage, which was supposed to flow from the dead body of Candran. It seemed as though it were the end of resistance. Candran’s daughter Kuṭṭi, however, told me that her father appeared in her dreams and talked to her every night: “Why do you look so sad, daughter? Don’t cry...” Kuṭṭi told me that she would move Candran’s soul from the concrete slab to their lineage ‘palace’ on April 19th, 1998, on his first death anniversary.

a. candran deathday 19-04-97


47“I am nothing without our lineage kāvu, said Aiyāppān, the mūppan of a Kuṟava sub-lineage. This statement seems to capture the ontologically different and emotionally charged person-kuṭumpam-soil relationships, which coexisted with and contradicted the modernist people-state-land relations. What I have presented here is a bricolage of cultural struggle over avakāśam on ‘fruits of soil’ in lands. Person-kuṭumpam-place continuity and transactions are constitutive of the Malayāḷi self. In other words, s/he is consubstantiality related with a particular territory through ‘endo-cannibalistic’ rite of ‘planting’ the dead.

48In post-land-reform and late-modern Kerala, lineage kāvus have been cleared on an unprecedented scale and at unequaled pace. Borders of Nāgarājanāṭu, which were constantly maintained by the act of dānam giving, paddy production, as well as the worship of minor deities along the never ‘fixed’ boundaries, are now becom-ing increasingly blurred by the new villas of migrant workers. Further, the older boundary processes contradict with the new revenue village borders. Recently, soil (mānnu) too has become sought after construction material. Soil is now separated from its place and sold as a commodity. The new boundary processes, thus, entail the separation of the formerly inseparable and mix-up the formerly unmixable.

49The ‘black leprosy’ suffered by the Īḷava woman is symptomatic of the contradiction I have stressed above. The ancestor spirit that caused the spirit affliction caused a blockage in fertility of a descendant of the Pulaya mūppan too (cf. Parry 1994: 226). Karamban, Kuññaccan’s father, was the heir of the last mūppan of the Pulaya kuṭumpam that existed in the ‘soggy place’. After he was evicted from his ancestral land around 1967, Karamban lived on the roadside with his three children, Kuññaccan, Poṭiyamma and Poṭiyan. When he died (before I came to Nāgarājanāṭu), his children faced a difficult problem. The south side of their hut was a road, and there was no place to bury the body of their father. Kuññaccan and Poṭiyamma converted to Roman Catholicism (Poṭiyan remained Hindu), because they were told that their father’s body would be buried in the cemetery of the local Roman Catholic Church–for the Untouchables if they converted. Thus, Kuññaccan found a solution to the problem of securing a place to bury his father’s body. Nevertheless, he believed that his childlessness was caused by the anger of his ancestors; Kuññaccan is no longer connected to his ancestral land via the dead-regeneration cycle, which, in turn, caused a blockage in his family’s fertility.

50A Pulaya woman who lived near the ‘soggy place’ was alleged to have seen the ghost of Kuññukuññu’s mother, who died of cholera. She was standing where she was buried in the moonlight, with her long hair untied and loose. Untied and loose hair of Kuññukuññu’s mother is an expression of uncontrolled śakti of the ghost in the ‘soggy place’. From the point of view of my Pulaya neighbours, it was impossible to exorcise the ‘dead’ from the Īḻava moneylender’s wife’s body, because it was the Īḻava family, rather than the Pulaya ancestors, who had to be exorcised from the soil. Nevertheless, in the long run, her illness may be cured as the Īḻava family gradually establishes consubstantial relationships with the place through ‘planting’ the deceased in the soil. In fact, the Īḻava woman’s younger husband was buried at the south side of their house. He was not ‘seated’ successfully, however, for the soil of the ‘soggy place’ was incompatible with the bodily substance of the Īḻavas. Yet, if the second and the third Īḻava bodies are buried, and grain seeds, pulses, a coconut shoot, a turmeric rhizome, and a plantain rhizome are planted in each burial pit, the substance of the soil may possibly become more compatible with the bodily substance of the Īḷava family.



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Notes de fin

1 Oral testimony of Kuṭṭiyamma on June 29, 1993.

2 I am grateful to Gilles Tarabout for bringing the notion of tuḷḷal to my attention.

3 Oral testimony of Kuññamma on April 15, 1993.

4 Oral testimony of Lakṣmikuṭṭi on January 17, 1993.

5 CPM/Communist Party (Marxist) activists have destroyed coconuts planted in reclaimed lands in many places in Allappuzha including in ‘Nāgarājanaṭu’. UDF/United Democratic Front responded by organising farmers’ procession and publicly replanted coconut seedlings. See Indian Express, Kochi, August 3, 7, 9, 11, 13, 19, 1997.

6 Except for Lakṣmī and Kuññaccan, other squatter families were not landless. Jōsaphu had ten cents of paddy field, which he had inherited from his late-father, a teacher of a Church Mission Society primary school. Kuññukuññu had ten cents of paddy field too. Moreover, his younger brother Sāmuvēl was working in the Gulf as a migrant labourer, and recently bought a seven cents of garden land to construct a new house. Poṭiyamma’s eldest son Haridās, who was serving in the Indian army, bought thirty cents of garden land with his savings. The wife of Poṭiyan had ten cents of paddy field as her dowry.

7 Oral testimony of Poṭiyamma on December 10, 1992.

8 Oral testimony of Poṭiyamma on March 30, 1993.

9 Indian Express, Kochi, March 9, 19, 21, 25, 1993; June 24, 1993.

10 Indian Express, Kochi, March 19, 1993.

Table des illustrations

Titre A former lineage temple of Kuṟavas, which is owned by Nāyars today: Malanāṭa temple in Noornad, Kerala.
Crédits (Photogr. Yasuchi Uchiyamada, 1997)
Fichier image/jpeg, 54k
Titre Kuṟava effigies at another Kuṟava temple which is controlled by Nāyars and Īḷavas.
Fichier image/jpeg, 54k

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

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