The lamp is lit. Plantain leaves are laid out. Then, they arrive – people, both young and old. As they gather around, a solemn silence befall. The voice of the priest takes over. His instructions are followed religiously, for Karkidaka Vavubali is one of the only days when prayers and food are offered to the forefathers. The ritual ends with a customary dip in the river.
We are at Ivor Madom on the banks of the Bharatapuzha. It's one of those unique places where thousands gather for this ritual. And as you know, the Bharatapuzha is to Kerala what the Ganga is to India. In fact, it is called ‘Dakshinaganga’ or the Ganges of the South. And naturally, the banks of this river have many stories to tell. The tale goes back to the time of the Pandavas.
The legend: The Mahabharata War was fought, not for territorial gains, but for the extermination of enemies. A battle of good over evil. On both sides, heroes massacred old friends and close relatives. After the end of it all, the five Pandava brothers were distraught, and wandered all over, seeking peace and assurance that the souls of their dead relatives attained rest. And during the course of this wandering they ended up here.
The Pandavas offered the last rites to the spirits of the slain, their own kin, including cousins, sons, brothers among others. From then on, Ivor Madom near Pampady on the southern bank of the Bharatapuzha near Thiruvilwamala became legendary as a place where the living finds solace for the dead. Ivor Madom means the ‘Hermitage of the Five.’ The Pandavas established another temple here, dedicated to their friend, philosopher, guide, and God, Sri Krishna, in his guise as Parthasarathy, the charioteer of the third Pandava, Arjuna. The great immortal saint, Veda Vyasa himself is said to have sanctified the place.
Cemeteries: This place is a citadel of cemeteries. It has been estimated that more than one and a half lakh cremations are conducted every year. There are establishments that arrange for all the rituals associated with the obsequies. After cremation, the mourners bathe in the river that cleanses all their sins, like how they do in river Ganga. The establishments provide for the ritualistic meal prescribed for the mourners. Many arrange funds for conducting “poor feeding” the year round.
Vavu Bali: Any day is good enough for bali (the offering of food to the soul of the dead) here, but Karkidaka Vavu (the new moon day in the Malayalam month of Karkidakam) is special. Thousands in excess of the normal hundreds flock here that day. The river is comparatively fuller after the monsoons, and special contingents of religious functionaries are available. Among the places held sacred for the conduct of Vavu Bali, Ivar Madham at Pampady, Thiruvilwamala is pre-eminent.