When the spirits come a-calling

When the spirits come a-calling

Awe inspiring Although these spirits are benevolent and protective, they can cast their evil shadows on the community and are much like the dark spirits in Bali, says Maya Jayapal.

It was a simple nondescript structure at the end of a rutted road in the rural environs of Udupi District, about 8 km north of Barkur. 

There is no ornamentation like in the temples of Tamil Nadu, there is no marble, granite or terracotta. 

To the left, as we come into a long hall,  are garishly painted wooden statues of spectacular beasts like tigers with open red mouths ringed by fangs (hulidevaru), winged bulls, buffaloes with outstretched tongues, nagas, ekashringinandis (with one horn), Nandi raja or horse headed guardians, and fierce warriors with curling moustaches.

Humane souls

The Nandikeshwara Temple is the bhutasthana or seat of the bhutas, in Mekekattu. 

I had heard about bhutaradhana or bhuta worship in the South Kanara district (now Udupi and Dakshina Kannada) and was intrigued by the belief in the spirits of dead ancestors, relatives or even animals.

Although by and large, these spirits are benevolent and protective by nature and even intercede to mitigate the effects of monsoons or floods, they can cast their evil shadows on the community, and as such, much like the dark spirits in Bali, they need to be appeased by rituals and offerings.

The figures are made of jackfruit wood and are large and fearsome and brightly painted.

There is a dominance of red here. According to Nima Poovaya Simith in “Kanara, A Land Apart’, bhutas fall into 3 classes: spirits of totemic origin, like the pig, the tiger and the bull. 

Or they could be Hindu deities (Shiva himself is described as bhutanatha).This is an attempt to combine the two aspects of belief – the pre Hindu and the Hindu elements. The third includes deified human beings. 

I tried to find out from the priest in Mekekattu why he chose to become a priest at the Bhuta Temple rather than the regular temples. 

He merely said that his family had provided the priests for this temple for the last 207 years and he is just following the family tradition. 

He explained how the rituals in these temples are different from others. Puja is done only in the afternoon as opposed to the three times-a-day custom in the other temples. 

While the offerings of flowers, water, incense and lamps goes on, there is no abhisheka on these figures of wood. 

It seemed practical as constant immersion or anointing with any liquid may damage the wood.

Tales from the past

There are varying stories about how the temple here was established. According to some of the visitors, the Rani of Barkur  had the vision of building this temple. 

According to another version, the sage Jambukeswara who was performing penance in this region employed Nandikeshwara to protect himself. 

A tale also goes that bhutas from elsewhere  took a liking for this place and began pestering the locals for a shrine for themselves and the villagers constructed this to appease them.

Nandikeswara, who seems to be the chief deity is represented as a bull with two horns, but the figure looks powerful as his head is uplifted and tongue outstretched. 

There is a beautiful statue in the palace museum in Mysore University campus, even though the colours have faded and the wood splintered. The energy exudes even as you look. 

The other commonly seen bhuta deity is Virabhadra, considered to be the favourite attendant or gana of Shiva. 

Legend goes that he was born when Lord Shiva thrashed his matted locks on earth owing to his anger on the self-immolation of Sati. 

He is considered to be the protector of gods and destroyer of demons. He looks fierce with four arms, one of which holds a severed head. 

It is sad that the number of carvers who carve these figures have diminished considerably. To be specific, there is only one person left. 

Styles of carving

The style of carving itself is very interesting in itself. 

There are similarities among the rituals for carving and the  style of make-up in Kathakali, Theyyam and in the carving of the giant Buddha figures in Anuradhapura. 

In the makeup rituals of the dances of Kathakali or Theyyam, the defining moment is when towards the end of the ritual, the deity suddenly appears and enters the person.

In Mekkekkattu also, the eyes of the statues are carved last, after the figure is shrouded in cloth and an offering is made so that the spirit of the deity steps into the figure.

The original figures from Mekkekkattu are housed in the Museum of Folklore in the Mysore University, an elegant place belonging to the royal family. 

It is a little known museum; even the locals do not seem to know about it which is a pity as it would make for really good viewing owing to many artefacts housed there. 

It is also a matter of curiosity that in many of the old Bunt houses we visited, bhutas are venerated in a different manner. 

While the daivas have a place in a swing in the front of the house, with flowers and incense, the bhutas are in a small wooden room-like structure just outside the house. 

In one of old Bunt houses, there was a semi-circular arena-like space, with stone circular seating areas in front of the bhuta shrine, to one side of the house. 

There are bhutaradhana festivals when the spirits are appeased with the telling of tales, songs, beating of drums and cymbals and possession trances. 

I have not witnessed one and look forward to one that is specially held in a bhutasthana, in the mysterious shadows of the night. 


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