'Is it not a crime to physically harm children?'
'Piercing children with needles is a crime.'
IMAGE: One ritual that is part of the Pongala festival is Kuthiyottam, in which an iron hook is pierced into young boys. Photographs: Kind courtesy R Sreelekha
The Attukal Bhagavathy temple is often described as the Sabarimala for women.
Attukal Bhagavathy is said to be the divine form of Kannagi, the heroine of Chilappathikaaram.
The legend says that Kannagi, on her way to Kodungallur in central Kerala after destroying Madurai to avenge the death of her husband Kovilan, stopped at Attukal.
The women of the area welcomed her with Pongala, made with rice, jaggery and coconut.
From then on, on a specific day every year, women made Pongala as an offering to the Goddess.
In the old days, the Pongala preparation was restricted to the immediate premises of the temple, but today it covers almost 25 km around the temple.
In 2009, Attukal Pongala even entered the Guinness Book of World Records for the sheer number of women (2.5 million) who participated in the preparation on the festival day.
One ritual that is part of the Pongala festival is Kuthiyottam, in which an iron hook is pierced into young boys.
The ritual became a talking point before the Pongala ritual, which takes place on March 2, when Director General, Prisons, R Sreelekha, the first woman Indian Police Service officer in Kerala, wrote a heartwrenching blog post describing the ritual cruel.
"I cannot accept this cruelty; it violates a child's rights," Sreelekha tells Rediff.com's Shobha Warrier.
You have been offering Pongala at the Attukal temple for many years. When did you notice the inhuman aspect of Kuthiyottam?
I have been doing Attukal Pongala as an offering to Attukal Devi whenever possible since I was 10 years old.
I knew about Kuthiyottam for young boys, in which they were brought to the temple to do some penance. But I didn't know their flanks were pierced with a needle until a year ago.
Last year, when I went to offer Pongala, I saw my personal security officer there. He said he had brought his son for Kuthiyottam.
The boy was depressed and weeping; there were at least a thousand children there.
I asked my security officer why his son was so sad and he said it was because he was away from his family.
I am told the boys have to stay in the temple premises for a week. They could meet their parents only during the first two days. The next five days would be extremely tortuous for the children.
They have to take a dip in cold water three times a day in a dirty pond.
They are allowed to wear only a loin cloth and have to sleep on the floor.
They get to eat very measly meals.
And they are supposed to prostrate before the goddess 1,008 times in those five days.
I saw adults standing and blowing a whistle while the boys prostrated.
At the next whistle, they would stand up. It was just like the police drill.
On the last day, they are decked up with a crown, jewellery, flowers and make-up.
Then they are taken in queue to a place where nobody, including their parents, is allowed.
Here, surrounded by some temple trust people, an old man asks each boy to raise both hands and pierces a hook on both sides of his body.
When the needle is pierced, the child screams!
Later, I managed to get pictures of children weeping and crying.
You will see that the hand of the person who does the piercing is covered with blood.
I do not know how hygienic the whole thing is.
Immediately after this, the boys are made to walk for about around more than a kilometre to an Ayyappa temple where a puja is performed.
From there, they walk back to the Attukal temple where the hooks are taken out and somebody smears ash on the wound.
I came to know that several boys go back with a severe infection.
A doctor who practises near the temple told me that, every year, he gets at least seven to eight cases of boys suffering from fever and severe infection after doing Kuthiyottam.
He has approached many people with a petition to stop this practice, but nobody was willing to listen.
You are a believer yet you took this issue up...
(R Sreelekha, left) I am an ardent believer.
As far as I am concerned, traditions and customs are fine. I don't object to them.
My question is: Why can't they do Kuthiyottam symbolically?
Is it not a crime to physically harm children?
Piercing children with needles is a crime.
Can the police stop this under the Prevention of Cruelty to and Protection of Children Act or something like that?
Yes, the police can stop it.
The authorities can stop it.
The child welfare committee can stop it.
Unfortunately, nobody is trying to stop it.
In fact, I have been talking to several people since I came to know about the cruelty involved in this process. But nothing has happened till now.
Though I collected the pictures, I was very hesitant to talk about this. Even my husband told me not to start a controversy.
Still, you wrote the blog post...
The thought March 2 was fast approaching and children were again going to be subjected to this torture did not let me sleep.
It was as if somebody was telling me to write the blog to make the public aware about the cruelty involved in this ritual.
I believe that creating this awareness is equal to offering a thousand Pongala. (External link: You can read the blog post here)
So, one afternoon, during the lunch break, I posted it.
Do you think people didn't want to speak openly as it involved a ritual?
After I wrote the blog post, many people told me they knew about this, but didn't want to speak openly as it might hurt religious sentiments.
I was surprised.
Some old people told me that it was just a ritual and didn't hurt.
I am not sure how many parents know about the full ritual before their child is subjected to it.
I cannot accept this cruelty; it violates a child's rights.
It is a crime that is happening right in front of everybody. It should stop.
Some temple authorities are speaking on television, saying they are not forcing parents to do Kuthiyottam...
Let me answer this with a question.
Nobody forces anybody to rape. Nobody forces anybody to murder. Does that mean rape and murder are not crimes?
Do you think it is due to blind faith that parents make their children undergo such a barbaric act?
I think it is a common practice in certain areas; they pray to God for a male child and promise he will do Kuthiyottam.
They pray without knowing what exactly the ritual is.
The parents pay Rs 7,500 to the temple for their child to go through this penance.
I don't think any parent will give this much money to physically harm their child.
This is happening at a time when capital punishment is not allowed in schools. Parents can take the school to court if the children are physically harmed.
We register cases if a child is hurt within the family too.
So what gives the temple the authority to physically harm children?
Can anyone file a petition against this practice?
A similar practice was followed in a temple in Chengannur (also in Kerala) and the high court had issued an order to stop it.
Based on the high court order, the police authorities and the district collector issued an order to stop the ritual that was followed there.
Despite this, 24 children were brought to the temple by parents that year and they did the ritual. The police registered cases against the parents. This was in 2013 or 2014. The temple has now stopped the ritual.
Can you file a case against the parents?
If the police come to know about this, they can.
I am an observer and DG, Prisons; I have no locus standi in this. I can't do anything but the police can and should. I am creating awareness so that something is done to stop this.
When I return to the police force, I will put an end to this, that is for sure.
Some people feel only Hindu rituals are questioned.
This has nothing to do with religion. It is not related to religion at all. This is related to children and cruelty to children.
On March 2, when Pongala happens, in what way are you going to protest?
I have already made my protest and it is now for the others to take it up.
I am not offering Pongala this year.
My conscience tells me not to offer Pongala until this barbaric practice stops.
I don't think Attukal Amma wants any child to cry and shed blood.
WARNING! The images that follow are disturbing; user discretion is advised.
IMAGE: The boys who do the Kuthiyottam have to stay in the temple premises for a week.
IMAGE: They are supposed to prostrate before the goddess 1,008 times in those five days.
IMAGE: They are allowed to wear only a loin cloth and have to sleep on the floor.
IMAGE: On the last day, they are decked up with a crown, jewellery, flowers and make-up.
IMAGE: An old man asks each boy to raise both hands and pierces a hook on both sides of his body.
IMAGE: When the needle is pierced, the child screams!
IMAGE: Immediately after this, the boys are made to walk for about a kilometre to an Ayyappa temple where a puja is performed.
IMAGE: Several boys go back with an infection, says DGP Sreelekha.