It is a land of hideous rites. No outsider could be blamed if that were his first impression of India. Peyraiyur village, 65 kilometres from Madurai town, boasts a temple whose deities apparently demand propitiation by a one-minute burial of children in mud. This bizarre ritual is the culmination of a 10-day festival of propitiation and purification, and is performed on children between five and 15, who are treated like mummified dolls before and during the “burial”. The affectionate concern of elders for the children’s “welfare”, the matter-of-fact manner in which the maternal uncles pat the mud over the little wrapped-up bodies, be it for a minute, the casual acceptance by all, even a minister, that a special community ritual is perforce “innocent”, all represent the sugar-coating over a monstrous callousness towards the young. This is not surprising. The most hideous rites that are performed in the land, for purposes such as purification, salvation and deification, are remarkably one-sided: their objects are most often women and children. Evidently, the weak are the more blessed, since they are considered the best vessels for the propitiation of the gods and the betterment of their communities. A child may be buried for a minute, or a woman burnt on her husband’s pyre, inhuman cruelty is never the issue.
It would be superfluous to cite India’s terrible record in the sphere of women’s and children’s rights. The connections are obvious. What is more sinister perhaps is the way superstitions work. In this particular case, for example, the question of children’s rights is turned inside out. Traditional superstition informs the structure of the mind in such a way as to make people actually believe that the rite being performed is good for the children and pleasing to the deities. It is a very special kind of ignorance that blocks out the obvious: the perception of children suffocating under the mud, and the necessary trauma accompanying and following this. Like all obscure and pain-generating rites unquestioningly followed by a small group in a particular region, the origins of the “burial” story are vague. Celebration of a gifted girl untimely dead was one of the options offered, fertility rite was another. The gifted girl story rings strangely in an area known for its rate of female infanticide. However, there is also another noticeable feature this time. The ritual, special to the village, had so long been performed in seclusion. The village would shut out the outside world for ten days. But this time the media was allowed in, and some officials in neighbouring areas first heard about the traditional ritual. The change could be the result of a greed for media space. But more possibly, it was the result of a desire to win some of the privileged attention being granted to obscurantism in recent times.