Native Religious Practises: Keda Vettu

(A word of caution: this blog post, adopted from an old blog post of mine, is about animal sacrifice as practiced by the agrarian communities in the villages of Tamil Nadu, India. If it is not your thing, give it a miss.)

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What do you think they do in villages if their cattle fell sick one after the other and some of them died even after expensive medical attention? They do not blame the vets who do their job. They blame the Gods who fail in their duty. The Gods blame the villagers back for the terrible neglect that they are under. It is a complex, rural, bickering relationship. It is also time for sacrifice to expiate the Gods.

It is half past ten in the morning and the sun is shining brightly in a blue, cloudless sky. The temperature is not too bad for the month of aadi thanks to last night’s rain. Entire human population of the village, numbering about fifty, is gathered at this small temple that is standing in a consecrated clearing right in the middle of the village. Everybody is wearing their bright, festive clothes. An impromptu stove is made of three rocks that were lying there for this very purpose and pongal is being made in an earthen pot. Wet sticks produce a lot of smoke as they burn.

The rectangular temple structure is facing east to open field and is surrounded on other three sides by large neem and tamarind trees, a lot of vegetation, and a prehistoric-looking water well with modern pumping set-up. A middle aged village priest who is wearing a saffron vetti and no shirt is arranging stuff for poosai with practiced motions. His teenage son who is in similar attire but is wearing a wrist watch is clearing the temple floor off fallen neem leaves. The fertile ground I’m standing on right now outside the temple complex is still largely wet. Two men bring a somewhat curious goat to the temple and tether it to the nearby tree. Today is Keda Vettu or goat sacrifice to Karupparayan Sami, the guardian deity of the village, after a gap of three years.

Things start to move quickly now. Pongal is ready. So is the priest for poosai. His son, the no-nonsense junior priest, who is done clearing the temple floor comes out and shouts the readiness to the villagers who are sitting outside in groups engaged in small talk.

Everyone assemble in front of the deity and the poosai is underway. Karupparayan Sami is in new clothes and neem leaves decoration. His raised arivAL, ready to slay demons, is decorated with kungumam as if to be dripping blood. The sacrificial goat, wearing araLi flowers and sacred ash, is brought up in front of the deity just outside the temple and its permission is sought for sacrifice. The permission takes some time coming. The junior priest is persuading the goat by pointing out the flawlessness of the poosai arrangements that is supposedly reflective of the village’s devotion and by sprinkling liberal amounts of turmeric water on the goat’s head. The goat is still unmoved. Some anxious moments pass before the goat finally gives its consent by shaking its head furiously. A chorus of kulavai sound is made by the womenfolk.

The whole consent-getting this repeated again. And again. It is custom to obtain the goat’s permission three times before sacrifice; and each time the goat gives its consent, the kulavai sound is raised with much gusto. I walk in the mud to take some pictures on my phone.

The sacrifice itself is over before I could take a good look. One swift downward motion of the arivAL and the goat’s head is completely severed and falls on the ground with a thud. Everyone, including the kids, watch the sacrifice transfixed. The blood violently gushing out of the goat’s body that has suddenly lost its head is nonchalantly collected in a small vessel by the junior priest (his wrist watch is gone by now, leaving behind a lighter skin in its place). It is to be mixed with rice and offered to Karupparayan Sami later. The severed head of the goat is placed on the ground facing the deity. (The rest of its body is taken away and its meat is to be made into 11 equal parts. One for each family in the village.) Flies gather on the spilled blood that is slowly turning pinkish black.

The poosai resumes. The priest standing on the raised platform near the deity is making a passionate appeal in his high-pitched, earthy Tamil to Karupparayan Sami that the village is at His mercy and that it is His duty to be ever vigilant to protect the livestock from diseases, crops from pests, and humans from ill-fortunes. Various kinds of offerings (bloody and not so bloody) are made to the guardian deity. A realization strikes me that I’m witnessing an ancient ritual. For a moment I thought I’m transported thousands of years back and got a glimpse of a scene preserved in the subconscious cultural memory. An unbroken thread running through generations of men and women for thousands of years stringing them all together with certain rights and duties and values. Is that what they call Dharma? The sudden sounding of bell abruptly brings me back to present.

The priest does the aarthi. The villagers pray with their eyes closed, palms together. I may be imagining it, but Karupparayan Sami looks kind of pleased. The cattle of the village might live.

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