We lived opposite a wooden Devi (mother goddess) temple set in a grassy plot of land under a brooding peepul tree. The temple was called Idiyadikkodu (temple of booms and crashes). You could buy and set off crackers there for good luck. Boom! Crash! Luck! Fun! Needless to say my Bangalore mother would never let us near them.
I was petrified of the fierce temple priest who would scream "Daaaaaaaaaai!! Samayam ethrayaayi?" (Hey you! Whats the time?) at my brother and I whenever he saw us. My brother, the owner of the only watch in the neighbourhood would faithfully say "Naalu mani" (4 o'clock) , which was invariably the time at which the priest caught us. And all the kids around would laugh at his slight jesuit-school accent. My brother was a good head taller than everybody so he took it with a pinch of salt. I was a lot smaller and would titter nervously and make a mental note never to go near the temple during the priest's dinnertime.
But importantly, Idiyadikkodu, among many other temples dotting the countryside, was the favourite destination of the possessed. I would watch in fascination as people (usually female ) would be brought in shaking all over and and muttering incoherently, while the priest would attempt to exorcise them. A few hours later, the shaking and quivering would stop and the possessee would go home cheerfully. It never struck me as odd. I guess to a child, nothing really is odd. People would speak casually everyday about it like they were discussing the flu or a ear infection:
Yentharappi, kandittu kore devasam aayallee? (Trivandrum malayalam: Been a while since I saw you, child)
Aan shariya. Njaayaraazhchayeennu thullaan thudangiyathaa. (Thats right, I started hopping since Sunday)
Oh, appikku thullalu pidichaa? Kshethrathi pwaayillee? (Oh did child get the hops? Did you go to the temple?)
Aan innale pwaayi, ippa ellaan shari aayi (Yes, I went yesterday, now it's ok)
Most temples and traditional Kerala houses also housed the mysterious sarpakkaavu (snake cove) - A shady corner of the garden filled with eerie stone snake figurines. A lamp would be brought out of the house every evening and placed there for the serpent gods. Rat snakes (cheras) being quite common in Trivandrum gardens, you would almost always find one coiled up somewhere near the sarpakkavu. I was never very sure if that was a coincidence or whether snakes could actually sense the security and protection that the sarpakkavu offered them.
The devi kshetrams and sarpakkavus are just two out of many, many really bizarre things that are a part of every day life in Kerala. I've seen and heard about hosts of practices, rituals and phenomena that absolutely boggle the rational mind, but seem perfectly normal to a Keralite.
While its all very well to ooh and ah about mysterious Kerala and hope that her secrets are never fully discovered, here's my issue: While on the one hand Kerala has this dubious reputation of being the centre of the dark arts of wizardry, superstition and the surreal, it also has a contrasting image of being one of the most enlightened states in India. Long before all the rest of them started clamouring for infrastructure, the socialist government in kerala had already put in roads, hospitals, schools, and small scale industy units in every remote region in the state. I rode buses and trains in Kerala watching normal people sitting opposite me read Naom Chomsky and books on Differential Calculus. But many of the same people would talk cheerfully about Gaiian social systems and the benefits of an exorcism at the chotanikkara bhagavathy temple, in the same breath.
I don't know if it's even right to reconcile these two contrasting images. Maybe Kerala does have more spirits per square inch waiting to get into people's heads. Perhaps Kerala's muggy dark weather does indeed provide the perfect foil for ectoplasmic manifestations.
Or is all the mumbo jumbo just an old fashioned excuse to go nuts for a while, as my rationalist momma would say? I honestly don't know. I do know though, that as a kid, I always secretly hoped that I'd get possessed some day too, just so I could participate in conversations with the neighbour.