KOCHI, India — When I get to the goddess temple, the last thing I want is to meet a public relations officer.
I’ve traveled from Los Angeles to India to report on religion and politics in the country’s looming 2019 elections. A couple days into my short, university-funded trip, a country called the “land of stories” has produced nothing but dead ends.
At the 800-year-old Chottanikkara Devi Temple outside the city of Kochi, I expect to interview a government official. The state of Kerala uses temple management boards to oversee publicly owned Hindu worship centers. I need a high-ranking board member to comment on a religious controversy at another site. Instead, I get handed off to Meena Jayraj, a spokesperson.
She reminds me of a former boss when I produced P.R. videos several jobs ago. Jayraj is wise from years of experience and skilled with people. That’s what scares me. I worry she’ll mind-trick me into puff pieces, and I’m already losing confidence in the story I came to cover. It’s my own fault. Overly ambitious and underprepared, I’m struggling to find my way in Kerala, the one place in south India I don’t have any extended family.
Jayraj invites me to lunch in the dining hall. I don’t have time for this, but it’s bad luck to refuse prasad, temple food. The red matta rice and creamy sambar soup on my plate have already been offered before an image of the goddess, seeking her blessings. This meal is holy. And now my journalism is in conflict with my Hinduism.
Jayraj tells me the temple lore. I’m still on guard. But it becomes clear she believes every word she’s saying. Judging by the lines of devotees filing in and out of lunch, she doesn’t need my help to promote temple tourism.
In the legends of the Chottanikkara village, multiple images of the devi, or goddess, self-manifested where the temple now stands. At the large religious complex, stone walkways and wooden structures connect and mark these sacred spots. Depending on the time of day, temple-goers worship the central statue as Saraswathi, Lakshmi or Durga, three aspects of one supreme being, the female God in the Shakti branch of Hinduism.
Like the goddess with many names, the state of Kerala juggles its identities. With its secular politics and a public education system producing a 93 percent literacy rate, religion still thrives in the state. Reason and faith coexist here.
The appeal of the Chottanikkara temple has only grown in recent years. Visitors flock here from neighboring states and from the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, according to Jayraj and other temple authorities. Even non-Hindus, who aren’t allowed in the inner sanctum, can sit in the outer courtyard and pay the temple priests to perform the guruthi pooja. Why would they do this? The nightly ceremony is said to cure mental illnesses. When conventional medicine and therapy fail, some turn to the goddess.
Two minutes into lunch, Jayraj says something to make me stop chewing mid-mouthful. “Come back tonight,” she says. Through her glasses, her eyes are steady, her neck anchored toward me. “And all your negative thoughts will go away.”
I can’t decide if she means the generic “you,” as in anyone’s negative thoughts, or if she’s reading my mind. Does my face give away my frustrations as a reporter? As a 40-something grad student making a mid-career shift?
Depression, the main problem (along with schizophrenia) that’s treated at Chottanikkara, runs in my family. I think I’ve avoided that gene. I am discouraged, maybe, but not depressed.
If anything, I suffer, however mildly, from a half-remembered sadness common to Asian Americans, what Neo-Freudian cultural theorists call “racial melancholia.” Disconnected from the “motherland,” I feel like a guest in someone else’s house, wherever I am.
How can a temple fix that, except as a diversion?
I follow Jayraj to her office across from the main shrine and ask her how the devi helps people with mental health issues. She gives a recent example.
A few weeks ago, a twenty-year-old woman arrived from Bangalore with her mother and father. The parents told Jayraj their daughter was hearing voices and had stopped eating. Psychiatric treatment hadn’t helped, they said. The woman was about to drop out of medical school.
Five days in the temple changed everything, Jayraj says. On the priest’s orders, the woman woke at 3:30 every morning and followed a regimen of chanting, prayer and meditation, ending with the guruthi pooja each night. Now, she’s a “new person” and, most importantly to her Indian parents, back in college. They’ve called Jayraj twice to thank her, she says.
Over the course of the afternoon, I hear similar stories from temple priests and volunteers, but I have to see the guruthi pooja for myself.
“I’ll come back another night,” I tell Jayraj on my way out, still thinking I have better, more urgent leads to follow elsewhere.
When I return, I wait in line to enter the inner sanctum. Adorned in a white sari, the golden statue of Durga waits at the end of the walkway. A warm smile runs across her sculpted face. I’m told this is her maternal form, blessing believers with her grace.
But as darkness falls, Durga has a fierce twin at the far end of the temple.
I descend a sloping staircase to a separate shrine for Bhadra Kali, an alter ego of the goddess, where the guruthi pooja will take place.
In myths, both Durga and Kali fight to defend heaven and earth. But Kali is the more violent and morally ambiguous warrior. She slays demons that the male gods cannot handle and demands blood sacrifices from her devotees.
Kali’s idol is smaller than Durga’s. A wide space in front is fenced off for tonight’s ceremony. Through the dim lamp light and the distance, I can’t see her face clearly. I think she’s scowling, but maybe I’m projecting my expectations onto her.
Every evening, the doorways to the shrines are opened so that the Durga and Kali statues can gaze at each other across the temple complex. A divine face-off, the two halves of the goddess balance their peaceful and warlike energies, according to devotees.
I sit cross-legged on the floor to the left of the Kali shrine. The families paying for the ceremony are front and center. At 8:30, the proceedings get underway, but only 40 of us are present. That number will grow to a couple hundred by the end of the evening. Even at sacred events, Indians like to show up late.
A man draped in a salmon-colored dhoti leads the audience in the “Lakshmi Narayana” hymn, a litany of the goddess’s nicknames. I find out later the singer’s name is Bhaskar. With no formal training, he sounds like a fusion of James Taylor and Stevie Wonder. The CDs of religious music sold at temples never sound this good. The singers never hit the mids and highs with this much range. Bhaskar needs his own record deal, or at least a booking agent.
After each verse, the crowd joins Bhaskar for the chorus:
These divine names pair the goddess with her husband Vishnu (“Narayana”) and praise her in four manifestations: Amme, the mother of all life; Devi, protector of the world; Lakshmi, provider of wealth and knowledge; and Badre, destroyer of the universe.
The call-and-response lasts a half-hour, while assistant priests set up a variety of tall and short deepas, pointy brass candle holders. They add ghee, or clarified butter, to keep the flames at a steady blaze. A banana tree stands inside a square pit to the left of the platform. Behind the pit, an offering of coconuts, rice and small fruits rest on beds of banana leaves.
So far, the ceremony doesn’t feel that different from the typical Vedic rituals for the male gods—a lot of chanting, lighting lamps and offering flowers or food. For sure, the music relaxes and soothes me. But how does that help people with more serious, deep-rooted problems?
When the singing ends, the mood changes. I realize that we must be done worshipping the goddess in her “peaceful mother” form. It’s Kali’s turn.
Two men with beards running down to their chests walk out and sit by seven large copper pots, staggered on the ground in front of the shrine.
The head priest is the older and grayer of the two men. Lines of white ash and a red circle of kumkum powder mark his forehead. He looks like a mystic from an Indian comic book. He’s not messing around.
He begins to manipulate the items around the pot, snapping twigs in a fluid motion. In between, he washes his hands and ceremonial instruments with water from a large conch. Unlike the prayer services I’m used to, the priests say and chant nothing, or if they do, their lips don’t move.
The elder priest starts to offer the contents of the copper pots into the pit by his feet. Each vessel is filled with guruthi, a mixture of water, red dye, dirt and flowers, meant to mimic the flesh and blood of the animals that Kannappa, the medieval forest dweller believed to have founded the Chottanikkara village, would offer to Kali.
In one myth, Kannappa wants to sacrifice a baby doe, his daughter’s pet. The daughter asks him to stop killing animals and offers herself in the doe’s place. Kannappa relents, but soon after, both his daughter and the deer pass away mysteriously. Later, two stones representing the goddess Lakshmi and her husband Vishnu appear in the spot where the child and animal had died. Today, these stones are cordoned off and worshipped in a corner of the temple.
Bhaskar, the singer, may have disappeared, but the night’s music is far from done. A band of percussionists takes over. Three tabla drummers and a cymbalist begin a slow, staccato rhythm while the priest continues to stir and offer portions of the pot to the fire. It’s like experimental music, purposely disorienting, but I start to get into it. The elaborate performance of it all is new territory for me, but old for India; this is a Tantric ritual of conjuring and summoning.
From the crowd of people to my right, screams and cries of women pierce through the music. A young woman in a blue sari sways where she sits among the families who have sponsored the pooja. Near her, a middle-aged woman in purple stands up and thrashes her long, curly hair in a circle. Another woman dances with her eyes closed. Things are getting weird. Has Kali taken over, chasing the spirits out of these women?
On other trips to India, I’ve seen people in a trance, claiming possession by gods or goddesses. It was terrifying. I’m not close enough to these women to look in their eyes, to test their conviction, or my own.
The drumming accelerates to the point of frenzy.
My pulse is many beats behind. Somehow, all the excitement calms me down. My mind, normally restless, is locked into the music and the screams. The anxiety and pressure I began my trip with has moved outside of me.
Another thirty minutes pass. Two more performers come out and blow a pair of horns on bowstrings. The drumming comes to a crescendo as the priest’s surgical movements quicken. He empties the remaining pots with a fury, hurling the mud and red water into the pit until all the contents have been dumped out. A drop of red paste splatters on my leg. I taste it. No flavor.
The twirling, thrashing and screaming women have gone quiet. They’re hidden behind their families and the onlookers crowding around, anxious to get the prasad from the pooja. I don’t know if the women are “cured” or if they still have more work to do at the temple.
Across the way, I see a girl in white, maybe 11 or 12 years old. A spectator like me, she doesn’t stand with the people who sponsored the event. She is sobbing — howling really, like a coyote caught in a bear trap. Either she is traumatized, or she’s feeling the secondhand effects of the therapy, an emotional release.
Afterwards, Anil Namboodiri, one of the temple priests, tells me “you have to stay for five days” for the full experience.
I ask him if the pooja is only for women. Can boys and men benefit as well?
“Sure,” he says, “you can sit for it, if you’re having mental problems.“
I assume he’s teasing me. I say “OK” with a smirk.
He corrects me sharply. “Don’t laugh. You could have them.”
Like Meena Jayraj, he’s either a telepath or an exceptional marketer.
Negative thoughts can easily penetrate the subconscious, Namboodiri tells me. Most problems come from the outside, when we let other people manipulate us, he says.
In a “land of stories,” I know I should investigate and interrogate what I’m hearing, following the way of the Western academic, the way of the journalist. For a while, I leave it alone.
Later, I call up Seema Lal, a Kochi-based psychologist, looking for any science to supplement my Hindu faith. Lal suggests that, on the one hand, a lot of temples promote these cures now, and it can become a way to make money. On the other hand, many people have said the routine and ritual at Chottanikkara made them feel better, and the results matter more than their reasons. In a 2017 study, other psychologists have concluded that Chottanikkara’s methods can be an effective part of a holistic approach to mental health issues.
Praying and chanting “is not causing physical harm,” Lal says, “and it’s cheaper than medicine, so why not?”
I ask Lal about the women in a trance state. Was that real?
The external stimuli from the music and ritual action can bring about a catharsis in the patient, Lal explains. For women in very traditional, repressive families, it might be a chance to express themselves freely, since the goddess will take the credit (or the blame).
“Suddenly, you get this freedom to just be,” Lal says. “Some people find it very liberating.”
As a man who grew up in a laissez-faire house in suburban New Jersey, my experience of the ritual can’t test Lal’s theory. But that night I still felt the power of Kali-Durga, the balance of chaos and order, the longing and love from a community of believers in a doubtful present.
Maybe it was dumb luck that the political story that brought me to Chottanikkara never panned out. Maybe it was the goddess, calling me home.
Krishna Narayanamurti is a Dornsife Fellow at the University of Southern California. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing, with a graduate certificate in religious studies. His articles and poems have appeared in The GroundTruth Project, The Northridge Review, and elsewhere.