Kerala, once a land of many small kingdoms, stood witness to frequent wars of conquest and liberation among rival territories as land passed from one chieftain to another. My hometown Chittur, the easternmost village of central Kerala, was a prime target for invasions from the Deccan plateau. Invading armies could never resist the urge to conquer the fertile green fields and rich rain forests of Kerala. Stories of triumphs and downfalls of many such feuds are found only in the pages of history books. However, people of Chittur continue to relive the memory of their victory in one such battle in an annual festival called Konganpada.
The history of this festival is entangled in folklore. The battle is believed to have taken place in late 9th century A.D against Chola King Rajadhi Raja of Kongu country. The festival gives great importance to the mother Goddess of Chittur. According to legend, when the Kongu King attacked the village, the Goddess herself came in person and led the army to victory by killing the invading King. For many years, large crowds have assembled outside a small shine in Chittur to commemorate this victory.
The original battle lasted only twenty-four hours. However, Konganpada reenacts the various events in detail in several colorful processions, culminating in a huge fireworks display, spread over a two-week period. The main event falls on the first Monday after new moon in the lunar month of Kumbham (February-March). It is probably the only temple festival in Kerala that recreates the full story of a legendary battle.
The festival starts with Chilambu, an event recalling Kongu King’s declaration of war, and frightened people praying and pleading to the Goddess for help. People of the village gather at the Kalari (gymnasium for practicing the martial art form Kalari Payattu) of Sreekandathu family, the traditional martial art teachers to the Nayar soldiers of Chittur. After praying to the Goddess, they start practicing for Malama, an ancient folk dance performed by men. They sing songs in praise of the Goddess and her powers, as they move in a circle to the rhythm of drums.
The following Wednesday is known as Kannyaar, when an astrologer makes predictions about the impending festivities. Representatives of all local families assemble at the rice fields close to the temple. Local carpenters would have built a makeshift shrine of the Goddess with bamboo poles. Head of the Paraya caste offer prayers here and throws a small metal bell to the ground. The way the bells lands on the ground is expected to indicate how successful that year’s festival would be.
On Friday, a festival of color and joy, Kummatti is celebrated. It portrays the symbolic preparation of young warriors for the imminent battle. Young men from all over the village arrive at the temple early in the morning to receive blessings from the oracle of the Goddess (Various rituals of the temple expect, almost demand, that the empowered person go through a change from one state of consciousness to another. During Konganpada festival, this transformation from human being to Goddess takes place several times). They follow as the oracle runs to temple pond for a dip, and then returns to hoist a flag indicating their readiness to fight. Later the young men go with their leaders to Paalathulli River on the border of the village. There they make a promise to fight for the village and return home with long wooden poles (weapon for the war).
In the evening they assemble under the Banyan tree near the temple for Arippathattu, a carnival procession. They hold in their hands long poles decorated with fresh flowers. An entourage of attendants adorns the Goddess (oracle) with red silk, jewelry, and bells around ankles. With the shining sword held high, the oracle leads the procession to Poovathum Kavu the place supposed to be the battleground. The young men follow the oracle shouting Kummo-Kummo Kummatti. People full of exultation follow them with torches held aloft. At midnight the procession returns from the battleground to the temple accompanied by decorated elephants, bands and thalapoli (several young girls, each holding a small oil lamp set on a plate of rice and flowers), along with the oracle and the young men.
It is believed that soon after the actual declaration war, men were sent out to capture any strangers (suspected spies) walking the streets of the village. These strangers included two Namboothiris (Kerala Brahmins) and a villager and his wife from another village. And they were taken to the house of village head and questioned. They were let go only after they promised not to hurt the villagers or help the Kongu King. Certain families in the village hold rights to dress up as these outsiders and accompanied by drummers visit the village head’s house during the weekend. The last of this group is Arathi, a lower caste woman who was told by the invading army to take the message of war to the Goddess.
On following Monday, Konganpada begins with 101 rounds of Vedi (pop-guns) on the temple grounds. The important event of the day is another carnival like procession in the evening that starts from a shrine on the east side of the village. Ezovela, a group of lancers decked with brass breastplates, daggers stuck in waistbands and holding long bamboo poles to mimic lances, leads the procession. Following them is Thattummel Koothu, four men dressed in colorful costumes, standing on bamboo platforms carried on shoulders by several bearers. Behind Thattummel Koothu come several groups of dancers performing Kurathiyaattam and Sinki Naadakam (folk dances) as they move ahead.
Then come the drummers and pipers of Panchavaadyam (orchestra of percussion instruments). Between the two rows of drummers, strides the oracle holding a sword bedecked with chiming tiny bells. Holding a container of sacred ash, a man walks along the oracle’s side. Occasionally the oracle grabs a handful of ashes and throws at the spectators. During the reign of Maharajas of Kochi, the Nayar Brigade of the state used to escort the oracle, holding their rifles high above their heads.
Behind that comes the most beautiful spectacle of the event, the Kolam children, young boys dressed as girls and girls dressed as boys, sitting on shoulders of men. To see young children of the village dressed up in costumes and follow the oracle in the parade is believed to be the most preferred offering of the Goddess. Following the children come the three decorated elephants. The drummers and pipers render a loud serenade as the festivities come to a climax. And the riders on top of the elephants stand up and slowly wave their peacock feather fans and mohair whisks in time to the music of the band. The procession reaches the temple by dusk.
Late at night representative of the four major Nayar families of the village assemble at the house of Chittedathu family and dresses a member of this family as Kongan. Accompanied by tribal band and surrounded by shouting men holding blazing torches, he arrives at the temple on horseback for Oolavayana, reading of the declaration of war. He holds a palm leaf scroll in his hands and narrates the contents written in archaic Tamil language. Following this, rival groups run horses on the street to recreate a battlefield. A few of them feign death and their bodies are taken back to their wailing relatives. It is followed by Pothottam in which a few men rush forward to the village with a wooden head of a buffalo pretending it to be the head of the dead buffaloes of the enemy.
The Panchavaadyam, (orchestra of percussion instruments), starts performing again and after an hour another procession starts. This procession is led my four men dressed in vulture costumes standing on bamboo platforms carried on shoulders by several bearers. Grand fireworks begin after the procession reaches the temple. The next morning two men dressed as King and his chief minister arrive at the temple to thank the Goddess for her blessings and the victory in the battle. The following Wednesday villagers gather on temple grounds to see the performances of Malama and Parisa Muttu. It is believed that years ago a Muslim from a village in North Malabar came to see the festivities and later wrote a song about it. Parisa Muttu is a folk-dance rendition of this song. It is very similar to the Kolkali performed by the Muslims of North Malabar. The festivities conclude with an event called Pallu on the following Tuesday. Representatives of the four major Nayar families of the village read aloud the accounts of the festivities in front of the oracle.
Like all good things, Konganpada too comes to an end after two weeks of festivities. Everyone returns home recounting with great pleasure the antics of the participants at the festival. And twelve months later, everybody is eager and anxious again for another Konganpada.