When Ali Mappila Becomes Ali Chamundi

Though religious rift and antagonism was hardly felt in the normal life of this region in the past or present, the tradition of theyyam seems to maintain subtle expressions of communal unrest.

Published: 22nd April 2022 02:53 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd April 2022 02:53 AM   |  A+A-

Ali Chamundi at Arikkady Bhagavathi Temple, Kasaragod

Ali Chamundi at Arikkady Bhagavathi Temple, Kasaragod (Photo| Folkland Kerala)

In sharp contrast to the general perception of religious harmony as conceived in the rites of theyyam, an event of excommunication from the region of theyyam in the wake of an inter-religious marriage was reported recently both in print and visual media.

One report said, "... revolutionary background and strong presence of the CPM have always given the place [Karivellur, Kasaragod] an aura of progressiveness. But N Vinod Panickar, a poorakali-marathukali exponent of Karivellur, has been facing a sort of ostracism as he is prevented from performing at the temples in the village. The reason: his son has married a Muslim girl." (TNIE, March 16).

Religious rift and related antagonism was hardly felt in the normal life of this region in the past or present. On the contrary, the tradition of theyyam seems to maintain subtle expressions of communal unrest. Its symbolic expression runs through almost all other Muslim deities in theyyam, though they are few in number.

One of its glaring examples was discussed earlier in these columns (Religious harmony: The Muslim in Theyyam Reassessed, Mar 19). Another important case in point is the transformation of Ali Mappila into Ali Chamundi.

Among other deities, Ali Chamundi is also part of the annual theyyam festival called kaliyattam in the Arikkady Bhagavathy Temple at Kumbala in Kasaragod, a place acclaimed for religious harmony. The legends that speak of Ali's deification narrate that he hailed from the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

Ali Mappila (the Malayalam term for Muslim) settled in Arikkady village as a rice trader. As the legend goes, with his prowess both in martial arts (kalari) and black magic, he enjoyed free rein for catering to his own vicious interests, particularly lustful assault on women.

The fact that he could not be killed as he wore an amulet with magical power to protect himself from premature death had left the village under ever-lasting danger. But the Goddess Chamundi swung into action. Disguised as an enticingly beautiful woman, Chamundi moved to a pond and began to take bath. The lustful Ali followed her to the pond and dashed down the water by accepting her invitation to have jalakreeda (water sport) with her.

Obeying her, he removed the protective amulet from his body; the same moment she transformed herself back into the ferocious Chamundi to vanquish him. Before the final act, the Goddess made him repent for his atrocities. His repentance was rewarded by offering him a place for worshipping Chamundi, the chief deity of the Arikkady shrine, as her obedient devotee.

Various versions of this story are retold with slight differences in details. However, the main narrative thread remains more or less the same - the lustful Ali being vanquished by the Goddess.

It may be presumed that this narrative is a mythicised version of a shocking event that probably took place at a certain point of time in local history. As a version goes, Ali raped a beautiful girl of a reputed household in Kumbala while she was taking a bath in the nearby pond; in the following moments, she killed Ali and herself.

Unlike the inscrutable myth of the Mappila-Karimchamundi theyyams discussed in my last column, here the narrative is clear - fight between the good and bad, and the former finally emerges triumphant. However, what makes it more interesting is the fact that the historical event was transformed into the mythological world; in ritual context, the mythological is again brought back to the historical present.

The individual tragedy was reappropriated and developed into a symbolic language of myth and ritual for reviving collective sentiment. As Emile Durkheim says elsewhere, "The traditions whose memory this mythology perpetuates are expressed in the way the society imagines the man and the world … The rite, then, does and can only serve to support the vitality of these beliefs, to prevent them from fading from memory—that is, in short, to revive the most essential elements of the collective consciousness. By this means, the group periodically reanimates the feeling it has of itself and its unity; at the same time, the nature of individuals as social beings is reaffirmed … One is more certain of one’s faith when one sees its relation to the distant past…"

If we think in this direction about myth and its ritual context, the deification of Ali does not seem to symbolise religious harmony; rather it symbolises the Muslim as the inimical Other in order to reanimate the (Hindu) community's "feeling it has of itself and its unity".

The personification of the spirit of Ali therefore may be seen not as a deity, but as an obedient servant of Chamundi the village worships. A sub-shrine devoted to Ali as a later addition to the Arikkady temple offers historical proof. Coupled with this, it may be seen that the bare-chested, black-faced (black magician) Ali with a fez cap (for religious identity) has a repulsive look. It denotes 'he looks exactly like the real'.

If the rituals pertaining to Ali and many other similar deities assume the form of worship, it is a complementary effect; they play around the idea that the Muslim transgressors were tamed and converted into (Hindu) deities, but their fundamental function is to be commemorative. Its latent text sometimes resurfaces as in the event cited in the beginning.

(The writer is an art critic & author. Teaches art history at the College of Fine Arts, Thiruvananthapuram and can be reached at chandrantv67@gmail.com)


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