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A minute under mud for fruits above

Chennai, Aug. 22: At least 105 children between five and 15 are blessed and taken around in a procession to the temple at Peyraiyur village, 65 km from Madurai town. Parents and uncles then push the children into tiny pits and fill them up with mud. Saplings are planted over them and then they are pulled out, alive.

The one-minute brush with death is a bizarre ritual that marks the culmination of a 10-day festival to propitiate the village deities. Among the huge crowd that gather to watch the “burial” are a minister, C. Durairaj, and the panchayat president.

The representative of the state is not apologetic about being a mute witness to a life-threatening rite. “As a member of the community, I was invited and I just came,” Durairaj retorts.

The ritual takes place every five or seven years to appease the village goddesses — Muthukuzhi Mari Amman and Kali Amman. Kuzhimaatru Thiruvizha (literally meaning change of pits) — as the festival’s climax is known — is a well-orchestrated rite that begins at dawn with the priest visiting the families who have a “vow to fulfil”.

Detailing the ritual, sources said, the priest sprinkles “holy water” on the children chosen by the families for the “virtual burial”. It puts the children into deep slumber. The children, both boys and girls, are wrapped in yellow cloth and taken out in a procession, like a deity, by their maternal uncles.

Small, shallow pits are dug by the children’s relatives in a plot facing the village temple. The “offerings” are interred into the pits and their maternal uncles gently shovel in the mud.

“The near-burial does not even last for a minute, and after a sapling is symbolically planted amid pin-drop silence, the pit is quickly uncovered,” the sources said. The children are pulled out and another priest smears them with sacred ash that is believed to rouse them.

“So far, not a single untoward incident has been caused by this festival,” the panchayat president is reported to have told the local media, which were allowed to witness the ritual for the first time this year.

Usually, Peyraiyur cuts itself off from the outside world during the festival. In fact, the Madurai district collector has sought a report, saying it was the first time such a thing had happened during his tenure in Madurai. But a police official said the ritual has been going on for decades.

The sources gave various versions of the ritual’s symbolic significance. It could be a fertility rite or the villagers could be re-enacting the death of “an incredibly gifted girl child”, who they believe was snatched away years ago by the deities at the tender age of five.

It is a celebration of the girl child with each household in Peyraiyur vying with others to give their children as “offering” in that girl’s memory, they said.

Strangely, female infanticide rates are very high in the neighbourhood of Madurai, particularly in Theni district where the girl child is abhorred.

The “offerings” could be for anything from thanking the deities for answering a couple’s prayer for children or even for a good crop, particularly in a dry year, the sources said.

Though the OBC Thevars is the dominant caste in the belt, the festival involves the entire village folk, the sources pointed out.

Psychologist Anuradha Oberoi has an explanation. “The fact that nobody in the village questions such a belief or practice in vogue for several centuries and nobody dares to stand out against it indicates that they will be shunned by the entire village for non-compliance,” she said.

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