Personal agency of a child vs. Imposed religious practices

Trigger warning: physical abuse, violence and torturous practices

Through this week, the Chettikulanagara temple in Alappuzha, Kerala, has preparing to conduct a ritual called ‘Chooral Muriyal’ as part of a ten-day Kumba Bharani. The festival is set to take place on Feb 22, 2018. At least twenty-four children are set to be subjected to the ritual.

Through Chooral Muriyal, the child is pierced on either side, midrib, with a needle. Strands of gold are inserted by a master. The children are then made to walk to the temple, accompanied by devotees, music and slogans. Once they reach the temple, the elders pull the string from the wound and offer it to the temple. The children themselves are brought from underprivileged families, sometimes in exchange for money — a clear manipulation of class dynamics at play.

Here’s the catch: the practice was banned by the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (KeSCPCR) in November 2016, and indicated that it was a form of child abuse. The Kerala High Court upheld the ban.

And yet, the temple is insistent about carrying it out.

What is patently a case of child abuse and violence against a child’s personal agency is being carried out without any respect for the law. We spoke to our friends Sonal Kapoor and Jaswinder Singh at Protsahan, and here’s what they had to say. “As per the fresh updates coming in from Kerala HC, the court has refused to review the ban imposed on the ritual by Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (KeSCPCR). According to news reports from Deccan Chronicle, the court has ordered the district administration and district police chief to take penal action against the temple authorities if they went against it. Meanwhile, the Convention is all set to defy the order. It’s president M.K. Rajiv said 24 children were taking part in the ritual. “There were 13 Kuthiyottam this year, and only three were in and around of Chettikulangara and the rest out of the district,” he told a press conference, feigning ignorance about the court order. The POCSO Act does not define this as Child Abuse, as per our understanding on the matter. However, proper legal advice on the matter is not available with us at the moment. The worst part in this developing story is that a sitting Rajya Sabha MP, Suresh Gopi was one of 14 devotees who offered a Kuthiyottam where two kids get subjected to Chooral Muriyal with pierced midrib and paraded with religious fervour. The boys aged between 8 and 14 years get training from Kuthiyotta Kalaris’ run by Kuthiyotta ashans (teachers). Photographic evidence from the day with Mr. Gopi in the picture is available on Deccan Chronicle website. (link).

Chooral Muriyal is practiced / performed as part of the larger ritual of Kuthiyottam, an important offering to the deity. The ritual itself is a symbolic human sacrifice in an attempt to appease Goddess Kali. Legend claims that the origin of kuthiyottam is from blood sacrifice to please the ferocious Goddess Kali, and some sources suggest that the ritual has been toned down over time, perhaps under the influence of Buddhism. Per the ritual, those who vow to offer Kuthiyottam adopt two or four pre-pubescent boys, and they are meant to be symbolically sacrificed to the deity. The boys are adopted on the day of shivaratri and are brought to the house of the person offering the sacrifice, where a shrine of Kali is constructed. On the day of the practice, the boys are bathed and dressed up like kings, and then Chooral Muriyal is performed. The name comes from Chooral (cane), as cane threads were used earlier and muri (cut). The boys are then taken to the temple and accompanied by a procession. The ritual takes place in front of the goddess, and the completion of the ceremony is seen as the ritual death of the boys — meaning that they cannot take part in the ritual again, in the future.

Article 19 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child states that state parties must “take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence.” India is a signatory to the Convention, and also guarantees constitutional measures to protect the interests of children — and while the government and the judiciary work hard to enforce these norms, there are those that use religion as a basis to continue such practices.

Join Protsahan and us to call for the end of the practice through this petition.