The Sacred And The Profane

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Riding the tide Despite taunts, Asiya devoutly lights the lamp at the snake temple every day
Riding the tide Despite taunts, Asiya devoutly lights the lamp at the snake temple every day

Though the early morning rain has stopped hours ago, the huge Pala trees with intertwining crowns spread like an umbrella over the whole compound have not stopped dripping water. Pallom, a small village in Perumbavur, Ernakulam district, is a sleepy backwater where nature seems to suggest tranquillity is a state of being.
Aasiya stands for a while near the naagathara (snake temple) holding both hands up in the air, chanting Arabic sermons. “The naagathara has a long history dating back 200 years,” she says proudly.
For the past 17 years, this elderly Muslim couple — Asiya and Abu Bakar — has been taking care of a Hindu snake temple they inherited with their property. Five years ago, the Mahallu Commitee — the governing body of the local mosque which they belong— subjected them to a social boycott, saying the family had offended the beliefs of residents by practising a non-Muslim ritual.
The couple tells Tehelka that the mere act of upholding the beliefs of the Hindus who hold this grove sacred has been anathema to the narrow-minded keepers of the community’s conscience.
For Asiya and Abu Bakar, the sudden change in the attitude of the people living in close proximity has been difficult to understand. In old age, when the help of neighbours would be a source of support and solace, they are living a life of isolation.
“We came to know about the existence of this naagathara when we inherited the property some 50 years ago,” says Asiya, 65, mother of five. “Mesmerised by the divine aura of the temple, we started worshipping it. We believe that all religions and beliefs should be given due respect. I have not found any difference in other religions: All teach us to love and respect each other.”
She says they feel highly indebted to the blessings of the serpent god in their lives. They say it was the deity who helped them miraculously escape a stampede at Mecca where they had gone for Haj in 2004.
The couple has not only maintained the naagathara well, but has ensured that the temple remains fully functional. They had also sought the help of a local Hindu priest for this. It is upon his advice, that Asiya lights a traditional lamp every day at the temple and says prayers in Arabic. The couple have also been conducting an annual ritual for the last 17 years in the honour of the snake deity.
Though the couple tried to keep this practice secret, their daughter-inlaw made it public a few years ago. “In many Muslim households here, there is a practice of lighting a traditional lamp and worshipping serpent gods,” she reveals. “But many keep it a hush affair, so the public is unaware of it. Our rituals were also performed furtively but she (daughter-in-law) made it public and warned us to stop the practice,” says Asiya. The daughter-in-law subsequently abandoned the family a few years ago and got a divorce from her husband over the issue.
After the issue was made public four years ago, the members of the Mahallu Commitee pulled down the naagathara. The couple, who were then living on a meagre income from a small teashop they run, took pains to rebuild it. The committee destroyed it again, attacked the couple and even threatened to kill them. They also vandalised their property and culled the hens and ducks Aasiya was rearing.
Soon after that, the attacks escalated. People started knocking at their door and making shrieking sounds at night. The couple approached the local police but met with reluctance to lodge a complaint. Later, they approached the Kerala High Court seeking police protection to rebuild the temple.
The temple they rebuilt with the help of police two years ago, is still intact. But the couple has been banned from using the local mosque for prayers and continue to face resistance from locals.
“After the temple was rebuilt two years ago, the local mosque people got together to work against us,” says 75-yearold Abu Bakar. “The neighbours have lodged many complaints against us that we are not letting them live a peaceful life. They even started taunting us over the way we worship the serpent god.”