Friday, October 16, 2009

The Pariah Woman and Her Twelve Children 2

Continued from part 1

Vararuchi’s world stood still. A thousand memories rushed chaotically through his mind. A whirlwind of memories. Memories of that long ago night under the tree when he had overheard the dark spirits. Memories of the court. A day that was at once bright because he was a winner celebrated by the king and everyone else and at the same was the darkest in his life. He had lied on that day for the first time in his life and lied to destroy. Destroy the life of an innocent baby. How cruel and heartless he had been. Years of wandering across many lands. Was it the first time he became a wanderer? No, the first time was when he had wandered in search of an answer the king sought. That was only forty days. And then there was the second round of wanderings. What was the answer he had sought during those wanderings? To questions about sin? About destiny? About acceptance and surrender? About purushartha? He knew it was not one question, but several questions. He had himself become nothing but questions. Endless questions. And then he had heard a voice. A voice sweeter than the sweetest notes of the veena. What was it saying? Please ask the guest to have his bath and come back, and by then everything will be ready – was it that? No, it was not that. It was something else. The voice was asking him what was wrong. Who was shaking him? Two hands were holding him and shaking him, trying to wake him up? There were questions in those eyes too – in the eyes that were staring at him. The sweetest of voices he had known – that was asking him questions. What was she asking? Why was the world going round? Why was everything whirling about? He clutched her tightly, clung to her, to the girl that was dearer to him than his life, to the girl he had married and was now his wife. And a baby screamed. Screamed in agony – a scream that he had heard a million times in his life. There was no sweetness in that voice. Pain, nothing but pure agony. Two men were holding a baby – a newborn baby – and one man had just stuck a burning torch into her tiny little head.

When Vararuchi came to, he was lying in his wife’s lap. He sat up. And then he told her everything that had happened. Beginning with the king’s question. He did not know how long he talked. Maybe hours and hours. Maybe it was only minutes. But he told her everything. Everything that led him to her. Everything that he had done to escape her.

When he finished, she was a dead woman. There was no colour on her face, no life in her eyes. All her brilliance had left her – a dead body is not brilliant. She breathed, but otherwise she was dead. She shrank back from him in horror. In horror of him, in horror of herself, in horror of life itself.

It was his decision to spend the rest of their life in pilgrimage. She and him – life wanted them to be together, destiny wanted them to be together, and they shall be together. But not in their home. On the roads, eating what life brought them, what destiny brought them, sleeping where life, destiny, took them by each evening. He wanted her with him – that is what life had taught him, she was inseparable from him.

He realized she had never been separate from him. Not from the moment he heard the dark spirits speak about her. Speak about her destiny and his destiny. He had wandered across the land for years, in summer and winter, in spring and in rainy season, under the scorching sun and pouring rain, in screaming winds. And in all those wanderings she had never been separate from him. There hadn’t been a moment when she was not with him.

And so shall it be. He shall again become a wanderer. Going where life took him, where destiny took him. And she shall be his companion in all those wanderings.


They were passing through a jungle when the pains started. She was going to give birth to their first child. “Go behind that bush and deliver the baby,” he told her. And that is what she did. She had become weak from her wanderings. Her agonies tore her to shreds – the first birth-giving. And she was no more than a little girl yet. In her teens, and almost too young to be a mother. But not a sound came out of her. She had cried only once in her life – when the torch was struck into her head. After that she had never cried. She hadn’t cried on that day either, the day Vararuchi told her about them. There was no way she could cry on that day, her shock was too great for that. And after that she had never cried either.

She did not cry as she delivered her first baby behind a bush, all alone, with no one to help her, no one to hold her hands, no one to give her strength. Not a cry escaped her. Not a whimper.

When Vararuchi heard the cries of the newborn baby, he asked her, “Does the baby have a mouth?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Then leave it there. God who gave it a mouth will also feed it.”

She left her firstborn baby there and got up. Should she clean the baby and herself?

He had started walking. She walked behind him.


When the second baby came a year later, he asked her again, “Does the baby have a mouth?’

“Yes,” she said.

“Then leave it there. God who gave it a mouth will also feed it.”

She left her second baby there and got up. He had started walking. She walked behind him.

And that is how it was with the third baby and the fourth baby and the fifth baby ... down to the eleventh baby.

Eleven years. Eleven babies. All left where they were born.

Vararuchi had admitted defeat before destiny. If destiny was all powerful, let it take care of its own, he had told himself with a vengeance. The birth of those babies were destiny’s decisions, and what will happen to them shall be destiny’s decisions too.

Vararuchi’s was not a happy surrender, but an angry surrender, a furious surrender.

The twelfth baby was born in the twelfth year. When Vararuchi heard the baby’s cries, he asked once again, “Does the baby have a mouth?’

“No,” she said. She was not going to abandon any more of her babies. She was a mother.

Vararuchi was silent.

The baby too had stopped crying.

She looked at the baby.

It had no mouth.


Vararuchi took the baby to the nearby hilltop. There he established him as a deity. Vayillakkunnil Appan, he is called today. There is a temple built for him and ritual poojas are performed for him, as for any other deity. Devotees visit the temple every day, where their wishes are granted by the all-powerful Vayillakkunnil Appan – God with no mouth, who resides on the hill.

All twelve of the pariah woman’s babies were born in Kerala, says the legend. The temple of Vayillakkunnilappan is in Kerala.

The other eleven babies were all found and brought up by different people as their children. Each of the founders belonged to a different caste, and for that reason, each grew up belonging to a different caste.

A Malayalam a verse combines the names of all twelve children.

“Melattol Agnihotree Rajakan Uliyannoor Tacchanum pinne Vallon
Vayillakkunnilappan Vatutala Maruvum Nayar Karakkal Mata
Chemme kel Uppukoottan periya Tiruvarankattezhum Pananarum
Nere Narayana Bhrantanum utan Akavoor Chattanum Pakkanarum.”

Melattol Agnihotri, Rajakan, Peruntachan, Vallon, Vayillakkunnilappan, Vatutala Nair, Karakkal Amma, Uppukoottan, Tiruvarankattu Pananar, Naranath Bhrantan, Akavoor Chattan and Pakkanar – these were the twelve children of the nameless parayi and Vararuchi mentioned in the verse.

My father had taught me this verse when I was a child and over the years, I had forgotten part of it. Last year when I was home in Kerala, I asked Father to sing that and I discovered he hadn’t forgotten a word of it. I recorded the verse in his powerful voice.

The twelfth child had already become a deity. Each of the other eleven grew up to become a legend in his or her own unique way. Stories about some of them are known to every child born in Kerala. Stories about others have been lost in the passage of time. They are lost, but they are there somewhere in the deep psyche of Kerala, in its deep collective unconscious.

Legend also tells us that in later years all the eleven children met. After their parent’s death, they came together to perform their shraddha every year – all except the twelfth child, who was a deity. Several stories are told about these get-togethers, some of which have survived till today.

Three of the children grew up to be great siddhas, saints with immense spiritual powers. Two of them belonged to the lowest of castes – Chattan and Pakkanar, both enlightened masters of the highest kind, both highly unconventional and authentic, their words and deeds reminding us of the words of the Upanishads. I remembered them when I recently wrote about Maitreyi Upanishad, the ancient Upanishad that rejects ritualism and idol worship, rejects all but the straightest path for the inner journey.

There will not be a single Kerala child who does not know the story of Naranath Bhrantan, the mad saint, one of whose stories parallels the myth of Sisyphus from ancient Greece. But with Sisyphus his eternal rolling the boulder up the hill only for it to come down when it reached near the top was a curse he had received from the gods; for Naranath, it was a teaching device, chosen by himself. Great masters have their unique ways of teaching, and this was his way of teaching. And that is only one of the many stories of Naranath that have survived. Each of them as thrilling as the others, and as enlightening.

And so does every Malayali know the story of Peruntachan, the super carpenter whose skill at his craft was mindboggling.

I mentioned at the beginning that I first heard the legend of the twelve children of the pariah woman from my father when I was a child. In subsequent years I would get the opportunity to read widely from all kinds of mythology, including ancient Greek and Egyptian mythology, Native American and Japanese mythology, and mythology from all over India. I love mythology. I love mythology from all over the world. But to me the legend of the twelve children of the pariah woman – parayi pettu pantirukulam – has remained unsurpassed in its charm.

True, the legend raises a lot of questions, some of them philosophical and existential. But we will have to wait for another opportunity to go into these questions.


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