Aati-kalenja 'Bhoothas's

A bhooth" for most Indians mean a ghost. But for people of South-Kanara District in Karnataka, their bhooth or bhootha as pronounced in local parlance, could very well be a dancer in flesh and blood smeared with ash and make-up to look as bizarre as possible, with blood-red patterns on his torso, face and hands in an attempt to depict a symbolic representation of any of the deadly diseases, that arrive with ash and make-up to look as bizarre as possible, with blood-red patterns on his torso, face and hands in an attempt to depict a symbolic representation of any of the deadly diseases, that arrive with the onset of rains to bring death and destruction to the common people.

For someone who grew up in this coastal district of which Mangalore is the headquarters, encountering these bhooth as was nothing extraordinary. Especially during the Hindu month of Aashada which marks the end of summer and the beginning of the South-West monsoons, invariably the breaking out of epidemics is feared by the villagers, who have our the years woven around these happenings their myths and folklore, like they have around every aspect that touched their day to day life.

The legend I recall has it that Lord Shiva once encountered some of these bhoothas and entreated them to leave the area. This plea having gone unheeded, the resultant deadly combat between them lasted for yugayugas(ages), with neither side emerging victorious. The other gods intervened and a truce was declared, wherein it was decided that the bhoothas would remain locked up in temples for eleven months of the year and would be allowed to venture out only during Aashada. The myth is sustained by people by erecting tiny temple structures outside their villages, that were kept locked throughout the year. The locks were opened only on the first day of Aashada with much ceremony accompanied by drum beats and wailing of women and children.

On the night of the full moon when the bhoothas are released, the villagers participated in group drinking of a brew prepared from the bark of palm trees with the belief that this ritual would drive away the evil spirits. In actual fact scientists have found medicinal properties in this brew, that provides a certain amount of immunity against contracting infections that may spread due to abundance of stagnating rain water.

For the Tulu speaking local people, Aashada is Aati and from it is born the ritual of Aati-kalenja that aims at appeasing the gods to ensure that all diseases visiting the village during the month are driven away. Women sweep their houses before dawn and wait for the Kalenja procession of a dozen odd villagers who take turns every morning to visit households singing religious songs. The bhoothas accompanying this procession accost members of each household who in turn throw balls of ash at them in a mock battle, making the bhoothas take to their heels. The performance is then repeated at every house.

The evil month of Aashada would instill fear amount the people of the area to such an extent, that no marriage was conducted during this month. Even sexual activities were given up, with elders sending their daughter-in-law back to their parental homes, lest they conceived during this inauspicious period. For us as youngsters though, being totally devoid then of the knowledge of any of these adult matters, the sight of the mustachioed and beart bhoothas of Aashada in their terrifying colours and masks under caps made of areca spathes meant yet another source of entertainment, which I hope is still around for youngsters of today and will not be allowed to disappear from the local culture built up over centuries of myth and lore

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Copy Right © Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sec-23, Gurgaon-122002. You can interact with the author at http:// www.maxwellperira.com and maxpk@vsnl.com




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