CHERUVATHUR (KASARAGOD): Ajaikumar Anchil appeared reverential and his demeanour calm but his shaky voice betrayed his frustration and anger. Standing in the courtyard of Sree Nilamangalathu Bagavathi Temple at Thuruthi, Ajaikumar — an assistant sub-inspector with Nileshwar station — was narrating a land dispute case.
He was at it for nearly 30 minutes. Hearing him out patiently were eight old wise men, who the devotees call achan. The elders, bare-chested and sporting monk-like tonsure, sat in two elevated platforms called the western gopura facing the sanctum sanctorum of the deity. The temple is also one of the four Kazhagam — administrative seats — of the Thiya community in northern Malabar and doubles up as a community court.
“Sree Nellikka Thuruthi Kazhakam is the supreme court of the Thiya community in North Malabar,” said Vinodan V V, a member of the temple’s 11-member governing council. The decisions taken at the other three Kazhakams can be appealed here. “But the decisions taken at Nellikka Thuruthi Kazhakam are binding on the feuding parties,” said Vinodan V V, a member of the powerful governing council.
The Kazhakam has 4,500 families as members spread over Kanhangad and Nileshwar municipalities and Cheruvathur and Valiyaparamba panchayats. Nine different castes and the Muslim community have a stake in the temple and members of any of the communities within the temple’s jurisdiction can approach it for arbitration, said Vinodan, who registers the complaints filed before the Kazhakam.
The court is held on ‘sangramam’, the last day of every Malayalam month. In north Kerala, Sunday was the last day of Kanni month. The first case the court heard on Sunday was from a father who said his little boy was not allowed to take part in Poorakkali, an acrobatic traditional dance ritual.
A ‘Kazhagam’ that keeps disputes out of court in North Malabar
The Poorakkali teacher was in the dock. “If my son is not allowed to learn and practise here, where will he go?” asked the father. The case appeared trivial but Poora Utsavam and Pattu Utsavam are the two biggest festivals of the temple and families take pride in participating in them. The achans dismissed the case saying his son was prohibited from taking part because of Covid restrictions. When the father argued, he was silenced by some devotees who ha d assembled in the courtyard.
“If you have come here for compromise, don’t argue,” said Prabhakaran, an elderly devotee, who sells lottery tickets for a living. The next person sought the permission of the court to cut down on a few rituals observed in his ‘Tharavad’ because they were becoming a financial burden for him. “I cannot afford to give wages to five workers to observe the rituals,” he said.
When the court started discussing, the lottery seller pipped again: “Why so much discussion? Who does all the rituals now?” The court gave its consent. The decisions taken by the achans — who are more like a jury — have to be ratified by the judge, who is the most important achan of the temple. He is the person who takes the sword of the Bhagavathi out for procession on important days, said Manoj Kumar M P, an autorickshaw driver and member of the temple council.
"The Kazhagam has been holding court for centuries. Earlier, people used to frequently approach it to settle their personal and property disputes. Now, most of the cases are related to rituals and temples," he said. Four years ago, a property dispute before the Kerala High Court was withdrawn after the achans of the temple ordered a solution, Manoj Kumar said. Ajaikumar’s case was the last to be heard on Sunday.
He was representing a family trust which wanted to build an abode to keep the sword and the ornamental umbrella of the deity on a 10- cent plot at Achamthuruthi, 2.5km from the temple. “The plot was gifted to my Tharavad years ago by the owners but a section of people claim the plot belonged to the tenant who died many years ago,” he said. The descendants of the tenant, who was also the temple’s ritualistic official, have also staked claim to the property.
“We have to hear the other side before taking a call on this,” said an achan. The representatives of the other side did not turn up at the court. Now summons would be sent to them to appear before the court. “It is not an instant-justice court. The achans take a studied call and till now, no one has defied the Kazhakam,” he said.