Memories of Karkadakam

Today is the 1st day of Karkadakam, the last month according to the traditional Malayalam calendar. The Malayalam calendar is called Kollavarsham (Kollam Era) and accordingly we are in year 1188. Though Medom is the first month according to the astronomical calendar, the 1st of Chingam (the next month after Karkadakam) is considered as the beginning of the New Year after Kollavarsham was adopted as the regional calendar.

My childhood memories of Karkadakam are that of non-stop rains. It rained, and rained and rained. I remember, while travelling by public transport to school, the roads used to be covered with water along  with the  paddy fields on both sides. There would only be sheets of water and it was hard to distinguish what what was road and what was not! By the time we reached school, we would be dripping wet. And we remained so for the whole day. School timings were from 10.00 am – 4.00 pm and a change into real dry clothes would be possible only after reaching home by about 5.00 pm! Probably it is those tough experiences that has made us take life head on.

Karakadakom is known as Kalla Karkadakom, meaning a black month – an inauspicious one. No auspicious event would be held – the weather was never conducive for that. The month also brought in its trail copious rains, troubles and travails to the peasants who just depended on farming and agricultural produce. The incessant rains rendered them with no work. And that meant no money. The damp weather forced people to be indoors. This was also the time when people fell ill. So, Karkadakom brought in its wake poverty, illness, and hardships. It is to beat this negativity in the air that temples and homes reverberated with the chant of Ramayana. Prayers were recited to clear the cobwebs in the mind and bring clarity and serenity to the soul. Karkadakom thus also got the name, Ramayana month. It is also believed that Maharshi Valmiki completed penning that immortal epic in this month.

Another memory is that of a massive operation clean at home. This happens on the eve prior to the first day of Karkadakam. All families were into agriculture in our small village of Pallavur in Palakkad. We were no different. The cleaning operation was a tradition. Our home, including the granary, would be cleaned meticulously. This was symbolic of  removing Chetta, (Jheshta Bhagavathy) who was considered to be the presiding deity of all that is dirty and decadent. We would then put it all in bamboo winnowers called Murams. There was no trace of plastic those days! Everything from grocers came covered in newspaper. Throwing away these biodegradable materials to the uninhabited parts of the huge compounds or outside it was accompanied by chants, “Chetta go, Shibothi come” (Chetta po, Shibothi vaa). Shibothi seems to be the the truncated version for Sree Bhagavathy, a semantic change that was necessitated by the excessive length of the word. And Sree Bhagavathy was worshipped as the harbinger of everything that is good and prosperous – especially in the wake of the new year being round the corner – in Chingam, which also brings the wonderful egalitarian festival of Onam. The entire month of Karkadakam sees the worshipping of Sree Bhagavthy, the Goddess of Prosperity. Lamps are lit in the morning and evening in the Machu (household shrine).

Palm 2
A view of the fields behind our home

Then gradually rains became scant. This year of course has been an exception. Paddy fields are all being filled in and converted into house plots. We have sold our paddy field too as it has become very difficult to manage – with practically no labour available to do farming chores. And today as I sit here in the date-palm fringed land, I cannot but long for these renewing practices we had in the past, in my home town which is fringed with palms of a different kind – the Borassus flabellifer, the Asian Palmyra palm.

Palm tree 1                                          The Borassus flabellifer, the Asian Palmyra palm

Today, things are very different. I really don’t know if all homes in Palakkad engage in removing Chetta and inviting Shibothi. My mom meticulously does it. I am so grateful she does it – at least our children are familiar with all the traditions we have had and she has never let it slide into a mere ritual. And it is my resolve to continue to engage in them in years to come too so that these nurturing practices don’t die a gradual death.

The Glory Of Pallavur

My first memory of Pallavur, my maternal village dates back to the late 60s when we moved in from Valparai, in the Anamallais. Those were times when the naxalite movement was gathering steam and a few landlords received letters of threat. As a child, it amused me to hear adults talk in hushed tones about those letters written in ‘blood’. Pallavur, a tiny village southeast of Palakkad, was then a non-descript hamlet with dusty, pot-holed roads. Though located at an almost mid-point on the Kollengode – Alathur road, there were hardly any buses plying down the road. Life was quiet, the place serene. Truly time stood still.

Occasional hustles and bustles lent quaint allure to this charming rustic life. These were when the traditional festivals were celebrated with caparisoned elephants, pomp and splendour at the Tripallavurappan temple – the Aarattu in March – April & the Seventh Day Navaratri festival. These are held to propitiate Lord Shiva, the presiding deity. Mentioned in history as one of the 108 Shiva temples of Kerala, it is believed that Khara (of Ramayana fame) installed the idol by his teeth. Hence, the name Pallavur. No toddy or liquor shops are seen within two kilometres of this temple. Something uniquely divine indeed.

The precincts of this temple saw the Pallavur Trio of Appu Marar, Manian Marar & Kunjukutta Marar begin their journey of acclaim, catapulting Pallavur into limelight with their temple tala ensembles of Chendamelam, Thayambaka & Panchavadyam. These are highly developed forms of art with Panchavadyam leading the rest by virtue of synchronization of different instruments in different pitches into a thrilling crescendo of percussion music. It is only in Kerala that we find such a wide array of percussion instruments in use.

The Kanniyar Kali was another great draw. Coinciding with the holiday season in May it invited the migrants to get back home for the festivities. This thorough rustic folk art form is performed only in certain pockets, to the east of Palakkad district. With its fast moving steps, lively music, lyrics laced with humour & satire and accompanying drum beats, it was wholesome entertainment for people before the advent of the electronic media.

The seventies & eighties found Pallavur taking a giant stride in the path of progress. The CBSE School run by Chinmaya Mission made its presence felt in the educational scenario, easing the travails of many students who had to travel 8-10 kilometres struggling against inadequate transport facilities. The visits of Swami Chinmayanda, his impressive entourage and his brilliant lectures left lasting impressions in the minds of people.

The shortest route from Palakkad to the lush Nelliampathy hills via Pallavur opened in the nineties. This expanded Pallavur’s horizons further. With asphalted roads, came more transport facilities. The Pallavur Trio standing head and shoulders above the others, were keenly sought after for festivals. Awards and accolades came in search of them. And every time their names were printed in the vernacular and English media, Pallavur lapped it all up with immense pride.

We waited eagerly for our local festivals to hear and relish the magic of the fingers of our favourite Trio. Appu Marar, the eldest, was a genius of his own kind. While performing Panchavadyam, he managed with ease, the Thimila or Edakka. At the Elanji Thara Melam, during the Thrissur Pooram festival, he revelled at the Chenda. Well-versed in Karnatic music, he displayed fine musical sense and rhythm. Crowds went into rapture while hearing him play the 1960s evergreen Malayalam hit ‘Thechi Mandaram Tulasi’ in Edakka. Keenly interested in Sopana Sangeetham, he played the Edakka mellifluously as accompaniment. A perfect guru to his younger brothers, he watched with joy and pride their immense success.

Manian Marar was also quite adept at many of the temple percussion instruments like his elder brother, but made a mark with his expertise in the Thimila. Kunju Kutta Marar, who had a wonderful sense of humour, on the other hand was unsurpassed at the Chenda. Chenda is considered to be an ‘asura vadyam’ but the Pallavur brothers, gracefully infused music into it.

Today, Pallavur is teeming with life. Every three minutes, a bus plies up or down the road. The verdant paddy fields, once a sight to behold, are a rarity. Houses have sprung up, blotting the landscape. Agricultural produce has dwindled and coconut produce halved. Cable television has entered homes but pay channels are yet to make inroads. Agraharams, around the temple are without the Brahmin populace; many have gone in search of greener pastures.

And the Trio, on whose glory Pallavur basked, is there no more. Death snatched all the three within a span of 18 months, the last being Appu Marar, who passed away on 9th December, 2002. By then, this Mela Acharya had regaled his audiences for 47 Thrissur Poorams and 60 Nemmara Velas. Their void can never be filled up. But Pallavur will continue to savour the glory of these stalwarts – for they have lent our village’s name for the style they created – the Pallavur style – and left it for posterity. Pallavur and the lovers of these temple arts are sure of it to stand the test of time.

(This piece was written in December 2002 when a sense of loss overpowered me – as a tribute to the Pallavur Brothers, on Appu Marar’s death.)