In the months of January to March every year, the Devi temples in Puthupally celebrate their annual ulsavam. My memories of these ulsavams are mostly drawn from my growing-up years. The ulsavams were a riot then – the entire populace would descend on the temple, its spacious grounds becoming the venue of a public fair.
The fair was raucous – the only feel-good factor in the tiny, lazy village otherwise given to sheer boredom. Vendors selling fancy stuff, children tugging their bright humongous balloons, the busy popcorn vendor, the ice-cream stall and the festive thumps of chenda accompanied by the wail of nadaswaram created an air of bright cheer.
But the most interesting phenomenon to note was the Devi’s parra that would criss-cross the countryside in a lead-up to the big festival. The parra was a microcosm of roles – the Devi’s idol right at the front of the procession, resting on the shoulders of two assistants of the temple priest and flanked by two others with colorful umbrellas cutting out the glare of sun on the idol. They were followed by the priest himself and the Velichappad (the village-oracle), and then, the drum beaters bringing up the rear.
The procession would visit every Hindu household, and that was the only instance in a year when the Goddess visited each home. The idol would be decked up in a collage of vermilion, her red dress projecting an instant aura of power. The household being honoured with the visit would set up a reception ritual in front of the house – a lit brass lamp, with cotton wicks swimming in coconut oil, and the parra.
The term parra derives from the Malayalam word for rice measure – made of wood and lined with brass polished to high sheen, filled with un-husked rice with a tender floret of coconut stuck in the middle of the heaped rice – which is considered as the main offering to the Goddess.
I remember the air would be then awash with the smell of jasmine garlands and burning oil.
Once it started, the oracle would slowly dance himself to a higher state, as the tempo of the drums increased; the dance becoming a wild motion of vermillion, sweat and the swoosh of his sword scything the air. His shrieks and babbles would merge with the ambiance of drums and the onlookers would be slowly pulled into a state of awe and devotion, the fear of death literally put into them.
The dogs were always strangely fore-warned in this case, the distant drums possibly being heard first by them. Our dog, Robin, was a serious pretender when it came to courage and he would slink under the bed as the drums came nearer, his body becoming punier by the minute as he shrank into himself. My sister and I would find this insanely amusing as the hapless creature wondered about the appropriateness of our laughter.
Once the oracle and the drums were done with their routine, they would settle for the tender coconuts handed around by the members of the house. The assistant passed the idol on to the next waiting shoulder, as he also quenched his thirst under the unrelenting sun.
Then the procession would move to the next house, on their day-long routine of crisscrossing the local map, the drums becoming relatively inaudible as they went deeper into the countryside, away from the main road. This would go on uninterrupted, sometimes through the night, as the houses eagerly waited for the Devi’s visit.
The Devi, of course, had her own personal moments.
Every time, the Devi’s procession crossed the vicinity of another Devi Temple – there were about 3-4 temples in the area of Puthupally – she would stop to visit her sister. Now this is seriously the realm of the spiritual as we know, and the sisters were allowed to have a conversation, and while this happened in the spaces beyond human access, the oracle’s dance reached a crescendo, the poor man becoming God for that instant and letting everyone know of the divine wish of the deity.
The Goddesses, once done with their chit-chat, had their weakness endearingly revealed in their reluctance to leave each other. Until then, the procession waited with bated breath, patience being the accepted norm of the moment. The Goddess had a one-to-one, meeting all her sisters, three or four times in the space of those two months, thanks to these annual processions.
I remember those years, when the parra would be late, falling behind the schedule communicated to us earlier by the temple committee. It would be the small hours of the morning when it finally arrived, my mother sitting alone in the porch with the lit lamp, the rest of us having fallen asleep waiting. She would then wake us up, my sister and I, as we feebly protested the disturbance. Still half-asleep and confused by the frenzy developing around us, we stood in front of the Goddess, as our mother cajoled our palms together in prayer.
My distinct memory is about the golden light of the oil lamp, an ethereal glow that enveloped the entire family, as we watched the procession leave our home. All of us heaved a sigh of relief in the knowledge that the Goddess had finally visited us.
Watch the vid of the last year’s parra from Devikulangara temple, one of the Devi temples in Puthupally.