The Velichappadu, Followers of Kali are “revealers of light” or oracles, or in plainer English, mediators between the deity and its devotees. They are known to predict solutions to issues (personal or professional) for devotees, after being possessed by the deity Bhagavathi. They flock to an annual religious event which commemorates the goddess Bhadrakaali’s victory over the demon Daarika.
People in the Indian state of Kerala and beyond, have enormous respect for these mediating oracles when they’re in their trances. Although they use incomprehensible words in articulating their counsel and abrupt gestures, their assistants convey their prophesies to the devotees.
It was one of the most intense photographic experience I’ve had in a long while, even surpassing the intensity of the famous Kumbh Melas. The seeming abandon with which the Velichappadu injured themselves by repeatedly striking their foreheads with their swords was disturbing at first but, in due time, I realized that their companions and assistants prevented really serious injury to themselves and to others.
The velichappadus, men and women, wear bright red cloths draped around their bodies and also smear their body with turmeric powder. They wear heavy waist belts decorated with bells, and hold heavy sacred swords of different sizes, shapes….some curved and also studded with small bells.
They perform a frenzied dance, slowly building up to trances, and repeatedly slash their foreheads with their swords. They make sacrificial offering of their own blood to the goddess Bhadrakaali. The velichappadus and throngs of devotees dance the temple chanting lewd songs in praise of the goddess.
The annual religious event is also unique for its sexually explicit songs, meant to appease the goddess. The songs deal with the sexuality of the goddess and humans, and praise sex as part of natural life; all the while denouncing sexual hypocrisy, especially of upper caste women. The songs make it clear that sexuality is not only natural, but is also present in all castes.
Sometimes these ritualistic songs are so obscene that the town people prefer to stay indoors, and try to avoid hearing these profanities.
I must’ve traveled to India over 25 times since 1998, and criss-crossed in length and breadth. However, I have never seen or attended a religious event of the emotional intensity and visual magnetism as the Bharani festival in Kodungallur.
It’s not easy to photograph for almost three full days amongst hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of red-clad velichappadus who perform self mortification acts by repeatedly hitting their heads with ceremonial swords until blood trickle down their foreheads, then daub the wounds with turmeric.
Some of the velichappadus appeared to be under the influence of various substances, as evidenced by dilated pupils…but most were not. They provoked their own trances by continuously swaying side to side to the tume of drums and clacking sticks, and by their own chants.
Many of the female velichappadus exhibited violent trances, and for an unknown reason to me, hung their tongues out until reaching a point of intense fatigue and dehydration. Their attendants carried bottles of water, possibly laced with electrolytes or similar.
Shooting with a wide-angle lens meant that I was too close for comfort to this particular velichappadu, but his attendants were vigilant that I wasn’t harmed.