In Kerala’s monumental leap towards modernity there are certain perplexing paradoxes. One such thing is the Malayali’s unwillingness to let go of his tight embrace of myth, superstition and religiosity. This is why more than 100 people died after a fireworks display went awfully wrong in the southern part of Kollam district neighbouring the capital Trivandrum.
Apart from a show of piety, temple festivals are the state’s cultural lifeline. Though its motherboard is religion itself, the festivals keep alive a sub-culture of music, storytelling, one-act plays, mimicry and more. Most such singers, actors and drama troupes travel from one temple to the other in these festival months entertaining the lower classes for whom songs of unrequited love, cheap humour and double entendre – delivered no doubt from a stage close to a temple – are enough recompense for a daytime spent in shouting slogans for revolution. While some of these actors and stand-ups make that incredible leap into cinema and stardom, the rest sing and perish in the periphery of temples, whose dark nights they light up with their lyrics.
Where else but in Kerala will you see well-known fireworks artistes, locally known as vedikettu asans, in great demand for fireworks contests like this one – called kamba kettu. These contests have in their repertoire rockets that reach the heavens and shower flowery blessings on the crowd below. Then, there is the Suryakanti, a cracker, which delivers a ear-bursting sound on its way up but gives up at its apogee its arsenal of delight in the form of huge sunflower-shaped fireballs, which is received with much applause around the crowded villages of Kerala.
It is one of these Suryakantis, which forgot the flowery role it was destined for, and twisted its way into the fireworks armoury after its iron casing got bent sideways, turning the whole place into a temple of doom. Fifteen thousand people had landed up at the Puttingal temple for the last day of the festivities ahead of Vishu, the new year festival on April 14. Over 100 people died in the conflagration that ensued. “People from all over the district had gone there for the fireworks display,” said Mathew Jacob, a retired veterinary doctor. “Even families from where I stay in Ashtamudi, on the eastern party of the district [were present].” Forty people who died were from neighbouring Trivandrum.
Kazhakootam Surendran, one of the two fireworks contractors who handled the pyrotechnics at the temple, learned his skill from a legendary guru Kazhakootam Arjunan. He has been plying his trade for 30 years. His business has now passed on to his children one of whom lost his palm early on, according to Malayala Manorama. Surendran and his son are injured and in hospital, and it is almost certain that a bright spark in the industry will now no longer be able to ply his trade of lighting up the dark sky.
Now as Kerala mourns the death of over 100 innocent people, it is clear that no one can be blamed directly. Such temple festivals operate outside the purview of the law. For instance, this fireworks display did not get sanction from the young, brave district collector Shainamol, who refused permission but was clearly overruled. It got sanction from the collective conscience of a population, which has one foot pushing ajar the door of modernity with the other still stuck deep in the muck of myth and superstition.
So Kerala society itself is caught in a tandava dance, which has inbuilt in itself the postures of creation and dissolution. A ban on any festival programme will soon assume a communal colour, and local Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leaders will be quick to pounce on it to make a political point. This is especially so during election season, with the almighty Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah himself camping in the state. Kerala has a huge population of fishermen. Similarly, there are many who love to fish in troubled waters here.
Many other temples have cancelled their fireworks displays scheduled for this week but they are bound to return soon. Many religious leaders, including Amritanandamayi have called for a ban on fireworks contests, but Kerala’s home minister expressed his helplessness in sending the police to temples.
A temple festival derives its succour and popularity from such macho displays. Where else would there have been close to 10,000 people even at 3 am at a local temple? This macho show of casteist and material wealth is the subtext of such temple festivals. The budgets of festivals, number of elephants, number of firecracker bombs that would burst are all part of the pre-festival build up. There is competition between the Ezhavas, a backward community that comprises about 60% of Hindus in the state, and Nairs – upper castes who form the second-largest Hindu community. For instance, if a Nair gentleman sponsors an elephant, an Ezhava gentleman, quick on the draw, will contribute one himself. This just adds to the scared tuskers who line up at many temples for hours even as bombs burst in the background. Similarly, the fireworks competition could also result in similar rivalry between these two castes.
If such casteist crassness, along with competitive evangelism is at the root of such festivals, local myths and traditions and superstitions form the façade. Funds for these extravagances are mostly extorted from shopkeepers and the public. People pay up and then land up to hear the noise.
Nairs form 30 per cent of Kollam, and Ezhavas close to that. Both these communities signed their modernising memos early last century. As far back as 1880, a group of Ezhavas demanded admission to college and government service. Such a modernising attitude and the formation of its social educational outfit, Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana, in the 1920s helped them immensely. Nairs followed soon enough forming the Nair Service Society. But even after all these years, their politics centre around certain temples and its festivals, and sometimes around colleges. We all know that neither of these castes will allow such fireworks displays to be stopped permanently.
After having given the world its first elected Communist ministry, Kerala is emerging as the religious capital of the country. The Sabarimala temple will soon be as sought after a pilgrimage spot as Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh. Kerala will get its third saint when Mother Alphonsa will be canonised later in the year. Christians and Muslims form close to 50% of Kerala’s population. So, for Hindus such temple festivals are more than just festivals – they are religious assertions, and loud crackers hold deeper meanings. This is perhaps why some churches too have started fireworks displays during their festivals, where miracles too are on offer.
The Puttingal temple got its name from a local myth about blood flowing out of an ant hill (putt in Malayalam). Now blood has really flown across the landscape, and let us hope that the demons have had their fill.