Beliefs around Karkidakavavu rituals in Kerala

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The monsoon Malayalam month of Karkidakam has the new-moon day reserved for the propitiation of the dead ones—as per the Hindu calendar followed by the people of Kerala. It's a usually rainy occasion when men, women, and children pay offerings to late members in their family or close circle of relatives. The belief goes that the rituals performed on the day gives peace to the soul.

The rites are done privately inside houses or small congregations around the local temple tanks, but much of it is defined today by huge gatherings of the devout alongside the rivers and sea of the coastal state. The staple food of rice is what is primarily offered as food in a symbolic gesture to the departed near and dear ones.

Quite a few of Kerala's temple provide facilities for this religious ritual that cuts across castes, gender and age. Customarily the participants of balitharpanam, as the rite is called, need to have avoided meals the previous night in observance of what is called orikkal (a Malayalam word meaning 'once,' which is indicative of the only time one eats a solid meal that day). The rituals are, typically, undertaken as per the guidance of the priests who are proficient in conducting them. One has to bathe first and remain wet-clothed till the rituals are performed.

The performer has to wear a ring knotted with the coarse darbha grass-blade down one finger of the right hand. On a cut piece of plantain leaf, he or she subsequently places hand-moulded mounds of cooked rice. That is complemented with condiments such as sesame, sandal-paste and chosen sacred flowers. The entire matter is then taken to the water body, where the devotee submits it the late soul before taking a dip yet again.

All of these rituals are steeped in the Hindu belief that the late soul either reaches heaven and merges with the almighty or that it enters another body to begin yet another cycle of life.

The new-moon day of Karkidakam, going by conventional belief, is when dead souls wake up. The belief also says that one month is just one day for the dead soul. What for humans is a year is 12 days for the departed ones. It’s going by such calculations that Karkidakavavu becomes the ideal day for the propitiation ceremony, also considering that its morning hours are graced with special blessings from gods such as Vasu, Rudra and Aditya.

Non-performance of balitharpanam invites the wrath of the departed souls, as per Hindu beliefs. According to the faith, Karkidakavavu is the day when the departed souls visit their homes on earth. To receive them, the households ready a dish called vavada, made of rice, jaggery, coconuts, cardamom, dry ginger and green gram.

Among Kerala’s major centres of Karkidakavavu balitharpanam ritual are Parasurama temple in Tiruvallam (Thiruvananthapuram), Papanasam (Varkala), Srirama temple at Vennimala (Kottayam), Chelamattam (near Perumbavur in Ernakulam district), Siva temple at Aluva, Nava Mukunda temple at Tirunavaya (Malappuram district), Papanasini at Tirunelli (Wayanad district), Sri Sundara temple at Kannur, besides the shrines at Trikkunnapuzha, Tiruvilwamala, Aranmula, Kollam and Tirumoolavaram.

This year's Karkidakavavu falls on July 31.

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