The ‘Sarpa Kaavu’, literally meaning ‘The Shrine Of The Serpents’, stood in a dense cordoned area of about six thousand square feet in the northwest side of our huge ancestral house in ‘God’s own country’ of Kerala.
The Sarpa Kaavu always evoked a strange, fearful reverence in all of us. It was believed to be the abode of the spirits of the celestial serpents. Silent, majestic and overwhelmingly huge trees - the kind that one would find in the monsoon forests of Kerala, filled the Sarpa kaavu. In the middle of the Sarpa Kaavu was a massive banyan tree that was probably a few centuries old. At the base of this tree was a stone platform raised to about three feet, on which were placed several consecrated stone images of multi headed cobras with their hoods raised. Prayers were offered in the Sarpa Kaavu every evening during sunset and a wick lamp made from dry coconut shell was lit and placed in front of the stone images of the chief presiding deities of the Sarpa Kaavu namely Nagaraja (the Serpent King) and Sarpa Yakshi (the Serpent Fairy). Special rituals were conducted every Friday to appease the serpent deities in the Sarpa Kaavu. It was believed that if the regular rituals and worship were missed or discontinued on any account, the curse of the celestial serpents would fall upon the male members of our family resulting in grave calamities in their lives, and then, specific ceremonies would have to be performed for expiation. There were several stories carried over generations to support the belief. There was a great grandfather who died of a mysterious skin ailment… he developed scaly rashes on the texture of his skin followed by high fever within a week of defiling the Sarpa Kaavu - he had allowed a tribal from a ‘lower’ caste to enter the Sarpa Kaavu to cut firewood for his kitchen. Again, there was a great grand uncle who remained childless for a long time even after his third marriage and an oracle told him that it was because he had incurred the wrath of the serpents as he had once entered the Sarpa Kaavu without having a bath. He immediately did the needful by conducting a ritual of expiation for his transgression, as prescribed in the scriptures. The serpents were pleased… and within a month… all his three wives became pregnant!
None dared to go near the Sarpa Kaavu after dark. From a distance, the dark image of the cobras with their raised hoods reflected by the dim flicker of the wick lamp in the wilderness was an awesomely eerie sight. My grandmother always maintained that there were thousands of celestial serpents present in their subtle forms in the Sarpa Kaavu and they were all invisible to the human eye during daytime. With the onset of darkness, some of these serpents were believed to appear in their reptilian forms and inhabit the branches of those huge trees. At the break of dawn, they would return to their invisible dimension of existence. They were the serpents that guarded the lives of our family members and antagonizing them was considered the sacrilege of the highest magnitude.
I used to go along with my folks to our ancestral house to spend the summer vacations during my school days. Those were the days that we looked forward to every year to temporarily relieve our starving souls from the incarceration of machinated metropolis life and indulge in the surplus of nature’s pristine bounty that lay splurged in unabashed abundance in the innocent bosom of our native place… and the innocent hearts of its natives. I personally looked forward to those days of endless games that I played along with my cousins of the same age in the huge orchard that was next to the Sarpa Kaavu. There used to be repeated warnings from my grandmother to avoid venturing into the Sarpa Kaavu. Her animated narration of the stories associated with it tickled my mind that was ever thirsty for the mysteries of our world and beyond, and ever since then, the Sarpa Kaavu always held a thought arresting fascination in my life.
Nothing much had changed when I visited my grandmother at our ancestral house years later, after I had started to work. I had invited a friend of mine to come along and spend a day with me there. The monsoon had just set in. Our ancestral house looked as medieval and regal as it had always been, unsullied by the pace of modernization. The two marble lion cubs, proudly bearing the stains of pigeon droppings on their heads still welcomed us at the huge entrance gate. The wet sand near the walls of the house, as always, got lined with tiny perforations made by the droplets of rainwater that fell from the grooves of the red mud tiled roof slope. The big shiny black grandfather clock that needed winding twice a day still stood majestic at the corner of the main hall like it had spread its roots into the depths of our foundation. The Bush radio that had successfully completed it’s fiftieth year of assembled existence and faithful service still adorned the wall mounted stand in what we referred to as the ‘radio room’, from where it continued to serve the sole purpose of its life by receiving the signals of the 8 PM local news broadcast for my grandmother. The cattle shed, as always, was carpeted with hay straw and wet dung and there was no change in the number of its inhabitants either - two cows, one calf and one buffalo- all of a newer generation. Fishes and turtles could still be spotted on the surface of the clear waters that filled our pond during the monsoons of a last hundred years. There was also the solitary kingfisher that hovered with the rain clouds over the pond, occasionally swooping down on a catch, and causing a silent ripple in celebration of life. The huge, dark and dusty storerooms where we played ‘dark room’ continued to stack the surplus mangoes, jackfruits and coconuts. No… nothing had changed whatsoever and it was amazing how time stood still in these parts of the world… and of course, the male servants were still considered irreverent if they wore their shirts in the presence of their masters, and for the same reason, the servant maids of the house also never wore anything on the top to cover their blouse and modesty…and human beings from other communities still had no permission to enter the house… It was amazing how time stood still in this part of the world!
My colleague was a ‘government certified’ backward community member – a fact that I had to hide from my grandmother if he was to expect any courteous hospitality. He held no personal hard feelings about this, as he was reasonably mature to understand the traditions where we came from. My grandmother was extremely pleased to have us at home. She went out of way to make my friend comfortable and showed genuine interest in him by asking him a lot of questions about himself and his family…and she ended up making him feel uncomfortable parrying them. I, however, ensured that she did not get much time with him. I took him around to show the house.
Towards the evening I took my friend for an energizing swim in the cool waters of our pond. After refreshing ourselves, we realized that we had a whole evening ahead of us to kill time. We contemplated on our plan of action. Our thinking was almost always on the same wavelength. Without much of a trouble we struck perfect harmony in deciding that the evening would be incomplete without a drink to celebrate the monsoon weather. Now the question was how to organize it? Going to the local toddy shop was out of question as it was a small town and it would be only a matter of a few hours before the news reached my grandmother and that would mean trouble. So we decided to have the drink within the house premises. Again, we needed to find a place within the premises where we wouldn’t be caught. Although the house was big, it housed a lot of inmates, including the servants. Keeping the lights switched on in our room till late in the night would attract their attention and invite their curiosity. The only place that we could think of where there was minimum chance of getting caught was the Sarpa Kaavu as no one ever ventured there after sunset.
When my friend came up with the idea, I was initially hesitant. It was not the fear of serpents anymore – my exposure to a youthful league of rationalists and their ideologies had taken care of those blind beliefs. My worry was my grandmother. Drinking was sin enough in her eyes. Drinking in the sacred Sarpa Kaavu and even that with a person from a ‘backward’ community was inviting ostracism. When my grandmother got annoyed, the serpents in all the worlds could not match her fury. However, with the clock ticking away into the evening and no other options available, we decided to take a chance at the Sarpa Kaavu.
I took one of the servants into confidence. His name was Velu. He had practically grown up in our ancestral house and was around the same age as I was. His mother was one of the senior servants of the house. I knew that he enjoyed a drink as I could sense occasionally, the smell of toddy when he came close. I gave him some money and asked him to buy a bottle of rum and some small eats from the liquor shop nearby and smuggle it into the Sarpa Kaavu and wait for us there. I offered him a handsome tip for the service and warned him that the matter was to be kept strictly in secret. Although he was scared initially, he agreed when I pushed the tip into his hands.
Later that night, after listening to the radio news, my grandmother had a quiet dinner with us. My friend and I ate light as our night was just beginning. Grandmother was the least suspicious. After dinner, she wished us a good night and retired to bed. When we were sure that she was asleep, we slipped slowly out of the room where we were to sleep and headed for the Sarpa Kaavu. At a distance, we could see the flicker of the wick lamp beckoning us. It was covered by a small cylindrical glass case meant for sheltering it from the rains. Soon we were in the Sarpa Kaavu, right in front of the Cobra hoods. The night was cloudy and chill. The silver gleams of moonlight streaked through the edges of the dark, heavy clouds and pierced down between the leaves of the massive trees that swayed to a quiet and gentle breeze. The Sarpa Kaavu stood in serene grandeur and dark silence – a silence that took a lot of courage to face - a silence that seemed to warn against the shenanigans of free will - a silence that seemed to hold on leash, the fury of the worst hell waiting around the corner. In this unnerving silence, for a moment, I lost hold of my mind, and a vague fear gripped my heart…and then… I heard the voice of Velu. He was waiting behind a tree with a bundle containing the bottle of rum, some plastic cups, a bottle of water and a packet of hot ‘beef fry-Kerala style’, all wrapped in a plastic cover.
All fears vaporized into the thin, cold air of the night as we opened the ‘bundle of joy’. I offered Velu to join us. He refused shyly at first, but once the bottle was opened and the smell of the spirit hit his nostrils, his pretensions took leave of him. He sat with us and I encouraged him to lift open and peep beyond the thin curtain of residual feudalism and understand that the base passions of mankind saw no distinction in class, creed or lineage. We spent a couple of hours there polishing off the rum while discussing the Sarpa Kaavu amongst various other topics. Velu had a lot to say of the Sarpa Kaavu and the myths surrounding it and it made fascinating listening. He did not exactly live in the fear of the Serpent Gods, which explained his drinking with us… but he wasn’t completely unfettered from the deep-rooted beliefs either. Suddenly we felt a movement in the bushes. My friend who had carried a torch with him turned the light on and we saw what looked like a long rat snake slithering into the bushes. The expression on Velu’s face changed. He became panicky. I told him to relax. It was after all normal to find a snake in the wilderness. But he seemed convinced that it was one of the Snake Gods displeased at our act of sacrilege. My friend and I tried our best to convince him of the foolishness of his belief. We tried explaining to him that there was no need to fear these harmless reptiles and that the root cause for the reverence and worship of snakes in our culture was the fact that they helped the farmers by feeding on the rodents that destroyed the crop in the fields. But no amount of explaining could help. We decided finally to get back to the house as it had started to drizzle. Velu was murmuring hysterically to himself as we walked back, and my friend and I enjoyed a hearty laugh over it.
After leaving Velu at his quarters, we quietly went back to our room without disturbing anybody and got into our beds. I drifted to sleep putting to rest any disturbing thought that may have risen in my mind that night. Occasionally, I awakened to the noise of thunder and stared out of the window into the dark night… and there at a distance, I could see the cobra hoods in the light of the dim flame, as the wick lamp flickered away in the silent drizzle.
We had to leave the next morning. My grandmother was a little upset that I was leaving and more upset when I refused absolutely to carry back with me the giant sized jackfruits that she wanted to stuff into my bag. She, however, insisted that my friend and I carry back the packets of fried tapioca and banana chips that she had specially bought for us. I searched her face for any trace of knowledge of our little transgression the previous night but was relieved to not find any. We took leave of my grandmother. The servants were all present to give us a farewell…all except Velu.
A week later, I received a letter from my grandmother. She was furious. The words in her letter seemed like they were written with acid instead of ink as I could sense the fumes in her words. She had come to know of our late night adventure at the Sarpa Kaavu. Velu - that imbecile had ratted on us. He had developed high fever and hysteria the day after we had our little session. He suffered hallucinations. Snakes repeatedly appeared in his dreams. He was certain that he was a victim of the serpents’ curse. He confessed his misdeed to his mother hysterically who in turn reported the matter to my grandmother hysterically and thus put my neck on the block.
I did not feel bad about my grandmother’s shelling in the letter. It was after all, her concern for me that made her react that way. She had consulted a priest about my misadventure and he had told her that my life was in grave danger. According to him, the wrath of the Serpents Gods was now directed entirely towards me and some great misfortune was to occur in my life within the next three months. In the closing notes of her letter, she softened a bit and cautioned me to be extremely prudent in everything I do, at least for the next three months. I was asked to avoid traveling as much as possible. She advised me to avoid numbers that added to ‘4’ or ‘8’. She also advised me to avoid starting any venture during certain hours of the day as they were considered to be inauspicious. She gave me a list of colours to avoid. There was a long list of ‘do’s and don’ts’. As much as her protectiveness and concern moved me, I was amused by her naivety. I decided that I should once and forever liberate her from these blind beliefs, which I thought were the biggest shackles that bound the progress of our society and the country at large.
I sent her a reply that I was indeed sorry to have defiled the sanctity of the Sarpa Kaavu and begged her forgiveness for my indiscretion. But I added that my apologies were to her and not to those reptiles. I wrote to her that I failed to see those stone carvings as anything more than just that. I explained to her the rationale behind my thinking. I also wrote to her that I was taking this opportunity to prove to myself and anyone else who may be concerned that my view was the right one. I thanked her for all the advice that she gave, but made it clear that from that day onwards, for a period of three months, I would do exactly the opposite of everything that she had advised me to follow. I promised her that at the end of three months, I would come and meet her, hale and hearty as ever, and then she would realize that she had all along been traveling through life wearing blinkers.
There was no response from my grandmother. I sensed that she was upset. However, I stuck to my agenda. For the next three months, I deliberately chose numbers that had their digits adding to ‘4’ or ‘8’ for any purpose - be it a bus ticket, a seat at a cinema hall or a raffle ticket. I chose those ‘inauspicious’ hours of the day to start every important project. Some of them failed and they were meant to fail anyway. The others were resounding successes. I dressed in all those colours that I was advised to avoid. If I didn’t have clothes in any of those forbidden colours, I purchased them. I walked under ladders. I did everything that I was forbidden from doing. The fight was not against my grandmother anymore. I was on a warpath with destiny. I knew that this was important to me. The outcome of these three months would charter the course for the rest of my life. It was my ‘free will’ against the sordid shackles of ignorance that fettered generations for ages beyond time.
It was the last day of the third month and I was in perfect health and spirit. During the last three months, I had completed a few successful projects and even received huge monetary incentives at work. Life couldn’t have been better. It smelt like a rose garden. The only few times that things looked down a little were when I suffered from bad hangovers from the late Saturday night parties. All traces of the dark clouds of fallacy were cleared from my mind and I felt as light and liberated as a chicken feather floating in the warm summer breeze. I had booked my train ticket for the night to go to my ancestral house. I had to meet my grandmother and if possible, that priest - that human vulture that fed sumptuously on the innocence and insecurity of his brethren. It was an overnight journey. I knew that when I woke up in the train the next morning, I would have found my ‘religion’. Yes…‘religion’ – that man made concept for his
relief…yes…my ‘free will’ shall be my religion.
I got into the train and asked the person who sat at seat number ‘8’ if he would mind exchanging his seat with mine. He obliged as his seat was on the side and didn’t give him much leg space…not that it gave me much leg space either, but I managed to sleep well. When I woke up the next morning, my heart filled with euphoria. I had won in the end. I had conquered destiny…or to rephrase, I confirmed that ‘I alone was responsible for my destiny’…and for a moment…those words seemed to weigh heavy on me. But, that heaviness was soon lost in the exhilaration of victory as the train approached my native town. I got down at the station and hired a cab. I couldn’t wait to see my grandmother…couldn’t wait to give her a new perspective to life…to help her view it my way.
On reaching my ancestral house, I was disappointed to not find my grandmother there. I was told that that she was in the Sarpa Kaavu. I wondered what she was doing there so early in the morning. I left my bag in the hall and rushed to the Sarpa Kaavu. From a distance, I could see that there was some activity happening there. As I got closer, I saw the Sarpa Kaavu lined up with hundreds of lit wick lamps. The huge tree trunks were circled with floral decorations. The stone images of the cobras wore a red look with the paste of wet vermilion applied over them. There was a group of priests, chanting sacred hymns in unison while performing certain rituals…and then… my eyes fell on the frail frame of my grandmother. She stood there by the side of the priests with her eyes closed and palms folded in devout reverence. When she opened her eyes and saw me, her eyebrows lifted in surprise. She then signaled me to wait till the ceremony got over. That took about an hour, which dampened my enthusiasm a little.
When it was over, my grandmother came and hugged me tight. She looked tired and felt weak. She had tears in her eyes when she looked at me and told me how happy she was to see me safe. She told me that she had been praying for my well being and had been on a ritualistic fast of plain fruits and water for the last three months. She had been conducting a special ceremony in my name every morning in the Sarpa Kaavu for the last three months to appease the Serpent Gods and to ensure my safety.
She then turned and faced the cobra hoods. Folding her palms, she thanked the serpent deities for accepting her prayers and offerings. She asked me to thank them too…and for a moment, I hesitated as I thought of my free will. I turned around… and then…I saw her moist eyes...I gave up.
I offered my thanks to the serpents.
And then again, I thought of my ‘free will’.
‘My free will’…???