I’m writing this on a train. We booked our tickets last minute yesterday. Luckily, all that was left was the AC carriage which has comfortable seats and more leg room than any train in the UK! We’re travelling north from Varkala to Shoranur, the journey takes about 7 hours but only cost us the equivalent of £8 each.
Whilst waiting for our train, a shanty town was waking up opposite us. A man walked nonchalantly across the tracks brushing his teeth, heading to the free water fountain on the platform.
The train and the carriage are relatively quiet save for the frequent calls of ‘coffee, coffee, coffee’, ‘chai, chai, chai’, ‘masala dosa, samosa, omelette’ when sellers pass by. It’s around 8.30am, the low morning sun is shining through our window. We woke up at 5.45 to catch the train, after having fallen into bed at 1.30am. I’ve tried to sleep with the aid of an eye mask but I’m unable to stop thinking about the events of yesterday.
We had been told that there would be a festival in Varkala, featuring elephants. It’s currently festival season for the Hindu population of Kerala and we’ve read that they are great to experience, if you can find one. Expecting decorated elephants and maybe some dancing, we headed into town, we had no idea what we were in for.
We caught a Tuk-Tuk to Temple Junction for 4pm, as instructed. There was no sign of anything remotely festival like, no crowds, no decorations, no elephants. We started to ask around and one shop owner pointed us in the direction of a small temple about 5 minutes walk away.
When we arrived at the temple there was a crowd outside and many flower decorations. However, it was still a lot smaller than we expected. There were a few other Westerners around and after some discussion with the locals we realised that all the temples (there are a lot of small ones in each town) were celebrating today in different areas. The elephant and procession walk around from one to the other throughout the day, making it hard to get to the right place at the right time. Throughout the discussion people kept mentioning the festival and then poking their index finger against their cheek, I assumed this was something to do with how the elephants were chained up.
A little stumped at what to do, we stopped for a snack at a small cafe; red onion fried bhaji and banana fritters. There was a Tuk-Tuk parked outside and we tentatively asked if the driver knew where the elephants were. The helpful driver made a phone call to some omniscient person and asked a few questions (something the drivers do frequently to find out information.) He informed us that the elephant was about 6km away at a small village where there would be ‘drama.’
Whizzing through the still hot country side, the driver had loud and heavy drumming blasting from his speakers, we were excited. We arrived at the small village of Perettil. There were men, women and children lining the road. Something was definitely about to happen. We walked along the road to the end of the crowd where there was a decorated shrine with incense and things sort of like candles burning, something we had seen before, waxed wicks alight in a pool of oil. There was also long, thin bits of metal with pointy ends. Some young men sheepishly stood around the shrine.
There were some British people there also, we talked to one woman and asked her what was happening. ‘This is a Murugan festival’, she said ‘the piercing festival.’ It became clear that the long pieces of metal were going to pierce several young boys’ cheeks, through the mouth, in some sort of ritual. This is something I had never heard of before and also would never expect from what we have read about the festivals. It certainly took our excitement/nervousness up a notch.
About 20 minutes after our arrival, drumming started. The drummers gathered around the shrine. One of the boys I had seen earlier was standing, now with wet hair and dark black around his eyes. I was taking photos and filming. Another set of drummers arrived behind us and began whacking a different beat. It was loud and chaotic, everything I would have imagined such a ritual would feel like.
The boy brought his hands up to his mouth in prayer. The drumming intensified and the crowd moved closer. The boy was swaying as if in a trance, his eyes closed. Men guided him to the centre of the drummers. The bendy metal arrow, about 2 meters long, was being prepared. As it got closer to his cheek the men around the boy started screaming. The drums banged hard. The boy dropped his hands from his mouth and looked up to the sky.
The men inserted the arrow, after a few seconds of pushing, which felt like an eternity, it struck out the other side. They slid it through his mouth until he was in the centre of it. He raised his hands to hold it either side. He was swaying with the constant drums. White powder was applied to his wounds. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. This was something you heard about rural tribes doing, something you saw in documentaries. All around women and children were smiling, drummers were celebrating.
Then the procession began. The boy was lead by his helpers, a couple of boys of similar age, and began walking along the road. One boy picked up more of the arrows and carried them with the parade. One set of drummers followed. There were men with massive cone shaped decorations, about 2 meters high resting on their heads, elaborately painted dancers and trucks with odd plastic, mechanical manifestations of Gods, all in the parade. The second set of drummers joined the procession and the crowd began to move down the road. We passed a side road and stopped in our tracks. There was a huge elephant, much bigger than we had seen before, with massive tusks, waiting to join the end of the march.
He had huge gold necklaces around his neck and a head dress, behind which sat two riders. We walked alongside the elephant. Surprisingly, there were about 20 festival organisers with lanyards directing traffic and controlling the crowd. However, it was still extremely chaotic with vehicles passing in both directions beside the giant animal.
We learned that we were walking to the entrance of a small temple. Along the road, all the houses had tables with burning incense, candles and offerings of bananas, sweets and puffed rice for the elephant.
The crowd was bigger at the temple and we watched from a distance as more young boys were pierced. The procession then turned around and walked back towards the village, the pierced boys being helped with their long, weighty-looking arrows. They were all swaying to the beat of the drums, some looked close to unconscious.
By this time, we were exhausted and over-whelmed, but, when we looked at the pierced boys, we realised we couldn’t really complain. Along the road, the drummers and the boys stopped for a rest. The boys’ helpers splashed them with water and put their ears close to their mouths to check they were okay, constantly holding them up by the back of their lungis.
Further up the road, we sat in the shade as the parade carried on. One family gave us their offerings of bananas and hard, sugar-cube like candy. We were extremely grateful, it was still hot and we probably looked as tired as the pierced boys. Every person smiled at us and many waved or spoke to us, they seemed happy that we were enjoying their special festival.
We learned that this was the culmination of 5 days of festivities. The procession was to walk around the entire area so that each home will have been blessed by God. The boys would lead the entire away, slow step after slow step. Their pain was a sacrifice for God. They had been on a special diet for one month before the festival. We noticed other boys in the crowd that had circular scars each side of their mouths. Boys from 12-20 were pierced at this festival every year.
The parade had passed us by and we asked where it was going. We were told they were headed to the villages’ big temple up the road so we began walking that way. We arrived at a grove of trees which had colourful lights through them. The trees lead up to a summit of a small hill. There was a set of small steps and a set of larger ones (elephant steps.) Encouraged by the locals we climbed up to the temple.
We have visited two temples so far, the one near Kumarakom and another one in Varkala. They aren’t temples like you would expect, rather than a building they are simply a walled off area of land. Inside there are various shrines with small locked doors, each shrine for a different God. This temple was also laid out in a similar way.
As we approached the temple, we could hear a man singing through speakers. We took our shoes off at the entrance and went inside. We saw the man singing into the microphone. We were having a look around when a few people started gathering near the central shrine and praying. We were encouraged by the temple guard to join them and before we knew it we were taking part in some sort of special service. We stood in the line of people praying and raised our hands to our mouths.
The door of the central shrine was opened and we were all allowed to look inside where a depiction of a God had been covered in flowers and burning candles. A man lit a candle from one of the flames and took it around all the people. We followed suit and waved our hands in the flame before raising them back to our mouths. We were then given water to splash on our heads and brown paste to mark our foreheads and jugular notches.
After this we were given fried snacks from the temple guard and shown around the rest of the shrines, which all had their doors opened. We then found out that the parade was still doing its rounds of the area and that the festival would culminate here around 10pm. It was now getting dark so we decided to get a Tuk-Tuk back to Varkala for some dinner before returning to the temple later. We were both simultaneously humbled and shocked at our unexpected experience.
We returned around 10.15pm but the parade had still not reached the temple. Our Tuk-Tuk driver asked some locals and was able to take us to where they had gotten to so far. We got out beside a small temple, we could hear the drumming in the distance. It was pitch black by now and the road was lit with dim street lights and car lights. People were waiting outside the temple and their houses for the procession. Then, in the distance, we saw the boy who was pierced first, staggering towards us. All the pierced boys and their helpers stopped outside the temple for a rest. When the pierced boys needed to sit down, their helpers slowly lowered them to the ground and then allowed them to rest against one of their backs.
In the darkness, and with the visible exhaustion of all involved, the festival seemed a little more scary. Standing on the edge of the road watching felt very strange. However, the smiles from the onlookers kept reinforcing that all was okay and that our presence was welcome.
As the rest of the parade was catching up, we saw another, longer arrow being prepared. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere came 4 young boys in orange lungis. The same drumming began as the boys were lined up. The first boy was pierced and then walked along to the end of the arrow, the second, third and fourth boy were all pierced onto the same metal spear. I hate to use the expression, but, it was literally like pieces of meat being pushed onto a kebab stick. It was difficult to watch. The four boys walked in unison, attached by the arrow through their mouths.
The procession then began the 15 minute walk up to the temple. The rest stops became more frequent as the boys became increasingly tired. At the shrine where the festival began the two drumming groups stopped and proceeded to have a sort of ‘drum off.’ Each trying to make their beat heard loudest. The drummers danced along to their rhythms, throwing their drums into the air. Each rhythm was more climactic than the last. The crowd of men was going crazy as the women and girls stood by and watched. As the boys staggered on ahead, the drummers continued for about 15 minutes.
Finally the boys, the drummers and the elephant reached the temple. The boys were hoisted up each step by their helpers. They all circled the shrines several times before coming to a stop. After having been pierced through the mouth and walking barefoot for around 8 hours the boys’ arrows were finally removed. The boy who was pierced first had to wait to be the last, and when it was pulled out he, unsurprisingly, fainted.
After 10 minutes they had all recovered but still seemed dazed. After a hectic day, the festival ended rather calmly. A light, slow drum beat echoed out into the night. The full moon was overhead. A flag was lowered from a mast outside the temple.
Still in amazement at what we had seen, we boarded a Tuk-Tuk, waving goodbye to the now recognisable faces of the parade. Once back, we immediately fell into bed and into a deep but short sleep. I still can’t believe we managed to stumble across this festival, it’s definitely an experience we’ll never forget.
It’s been almost 3 weeks since we arrived in Kerala and, especially after this, I am beginning to understand the way of life here. There is a big sense of community and a natural instinct to help others out. At times it may seem chaotic or like no one knows what’s going on, but people are patient, calmly knowing that things will work out. People aren’t highly strung and no one really minds about anything. It may seem dangerous and unsafe but people are robust, careful and kind. The generosity and welcome that we received during this special event is indicative of the core values of these people.