Awe-inspiring rituals associated with death in Malabar

Pitru karmas: Nakshatra doshams related to death and their remedies

In the past few days after my father’s passing over I have been introduced to a whole new dimension of Hindu cultural and spiritual belief dedicated to the service of our pitrus (forefathers). These beliefs, customs , rituals vary from region to region and community to community. However, they are bound by the same bedrock of belief that is the place of importance given to ancestors who are considered one level above God in terms of customs designed for propitiating and serving the ancestors or pitrus.

It is believed that the pitrus are the first to protect and bless the family; without propitiating them and doing the needful karmas (rituals in local parlance) that lead them to moksha at Mahavishnu’s abode in Vaikunt no amount or extent of other rituals for appeasing Gods will be of any effect.

Time, tithi (date), nakshatra (star), rashi (planetary position), varam (weekday) at time of death are some important parameters which are taken into consideration by astrologers while divining on death and  pronouncing the pitru karmas to be performed by the family for the shanti and ultimately moksha of the departed soul. After death the nakshatra at time of death is used for astrological divination purposes instead of the one at time of birth.

Based on various permutations and combinations of the above different types of runabandhanas and doshas are said to have accrued for which the family and children of the departed are required to perform region specific vidhi karmas for removing the bandhanas and doshas.

One of the major rituals is panchak dosha when the last five nakshatras of the Hindu calendar month are involved for which specific vidhi karmas are prescribed.  Another type of  pitru dosha involves some nakshatras which are said to cause nakshatra Bali dosha or aganaal or kari naal dosha in Malayalam for which karmas are prescribed to be performed within the 13 days of pula or ‘pollution of immediate family’ after death.

In this post I am attempting to note down all I heard read/experienced in terms of vidhi vidhaans needed to be performed to remove the agannal dosha and clear the path for the departed soul to reach Mahavishnus padukas in Vaikunta which is the soul journey’s ultimate goal.

The rituals related to aganaal or nakshatra bali dosha parihara varies from region to region and community to community however consistently it does involve the concept of bali. This ritual is not a vedic ritual and for lack of a better word comes under asuric ritual (though main vedic gods such as Ganesha and Mahavishnu and Parameshwara Mahadeva are also invoked). Tuesday or Friday are the chosen/ preferred days for these rituals.

The opinion among believers of pitrus that a parihara needs to be done when any of these nakshatras are involved is undisputed across Indian subcontinent..(though we had our own set of liberal, anti bali, forward thinking modern voices within the family who were vociferously against such rituals especially being done at ancestral home)  this particular dosha is said to arise when the soul did not ease into death quietly, and leaves with a tussle or struggle. This can happen when the soul is not prepared to accept it’s their time or when the soul has intense attachments or unfulfilled dreams or dispondencies and wishes or some deep sadness or discontent or unhappiness and thus tends to resist Yama Deva/death and his dhootas/messengers.

Lore says this tussle during the taking of prana or life force from the body results in some weapon of the dhootas like the dandha or pasha (coir) being dropped and left behind after some days the dhootas are sent back to the earthly plane to retrieve the same; they may or may not find their instruments/weapons and may in the journey end up taking another soul -member of the family to Yam loka or their frequent visits in search of their weapons may cause disturbances in the family especially to children such as health issues, fear of the unknown, financial setbacks and ill luck; also the departed soul is said to be stuck or lost in the nether world unable to find their way/or acquire the required energetic form to reach higher lokas such as pitrulokas or moksha at Vaikunta, hence a parihara ritual is mandated to clear the dosha and clear the path to moksha.

In the first 12 days after death the soul is said to go through a process of creating it’s body akin to human embryo does in the womb part by part it builds its ethereal/astral body which can be used to travel to the higher world’s after the 13th day; more or less in the same image as they had before death and this process most likely takes place in the ancestral home of the departed or at a site which was very dear to the person or frequently visited by the person before death.

The parihara karma for agannal is very elaborate takes three to five hours and is preferably done at ancestral homes (standalone independent homes it’s difficult to perform). These rituals in apartment blocks as it involves several rites done at midnight including making loud feral noises, banging of doors and windows, walking into each room and corner space for clearing the space and which culminates in a bali being performed) ..the main deity is Guligan a form of Shiva also known as ‘Kalan’ or ‘Keeper of time’ or death in local lingo ..(I think other close forms are Kaal Bhairav ).

The rituals are performed by a particular community who themselves need to prepare with fasting and dress up in a specific way. The ritual involves preparatory setup being done using tender palm fronds, the bulbs of banana stem, several raw dhanyas (grains) and dravyas like raw rice, polished rice, puffed rice, jaggery, raisins, sugar cubes, green gram, etc., which are offered to the deities. A particular very arty form of umbrella is created using tender palm fronds and colored scarlet using mixture of turmeric and choona/limechalk.

First the ritual is initiated by invoking Ganapati inside the house through elaborate rites. After this, the second phase of the ritual commences where various activities which otherwise are not allowed during normal times are performed such as cutting nails and hair late at night, rubbing of large knife used to break coconuts with sickle shaped knifes used to cut fishes, knocking together a bunch of dry long palm fronds which was used as torches of yore against the defronded coconut stem, cutting bettle by keeping it on the padi or threshold block at the bottom of the doorframe and so on.

The karmis (priests or performers) and men of the house perform these tasks while going around the lower and upper storey of the house clearing the space of negative energies, hidden Yama doots by making loud noises and performing these forbidden tasks and by sprinkling bhasma or holy ash for every step taken in each and every nook and corner.  The karmis and the men then go around the entire house creating a protective ring or bhandhana by tying a long string or thread all round the house . This is to protect the people inside the house while performing the last segment of the rite which is done either in the southern side of the front courtyard or in the south side of the house where Guligan Bhagwaan along with other retinue God’s and Yama doots are invited and propitiated through various offerings.

First a process of removing evil eyes from all the members of the household is performed involves creating small fist sized bundles of various dravyas held in plantain strips such as black mustard, salt and red chilli in one bundle, a second bundle containing some raw husked rice grains, coin a third bundle with a bit of coal from the cooking hearth, dry palm frond and bit of medicinal stem in another bundle and so on, all these bundles are placed in a round earthen pot and sealed with plantain leaves as lid later the karmis will take this pot and set it out in a  water body.

The figure of a man is created on the floor inside the house using raw grains and again various rituals are performed including offering a betel leaf with betel nuts which is placed in the mouth of the figurine. Bali karma is performed by the descendents including by daughters by offering raw grains nine times ritualistically. The main person of the family chosen to perform the last steps undergoes various shudhi karan/purification process (a type of nazar uttarana or removing black eye) which is quite elaborate and exhaustive, all this while the main Karmi is invoking the blessings (in a rustic sing-song kind of tribal Malayalam) of main deities such as Mahavishnu, Mahadeva, Guligan, Bhairava, God of prosperity etc and seeking their permission to carry out the final steps of this ceremony. Guligan Bhagwaan is invoked and led out of the house into a square ritual ground cleared In the south side of the courtyard.

The Southside of the courtyard is prepared by creating a four squared box with inner stem of banana, torches made from five iron rods with cotton strips dipped in oil are speared into the ground all around the square, plantain leaves are kept within the squares and various raw grains are heaped as offering to Guligan and accompanying Gods. Guligan is said to be seated in the elaborate fan like structure which is taken from inside the house and kept in front of the square. Womenfolk are asked to stay within the house while various rites are performed after lighting the iron torches outside. The proof of the effectiveness of the ritual was the sudden chorus of  howling dogs (who had kept quiet the previous two hours)  from nearby houses at about 1:30 am and the sudden hush that descended all around. Even the trees and branches seemed to have suspended their murmuring in the breeze do heavy was the air. The karmis  immediately pointed out the signs and proclaim the success of the ritual as the Gods associated with death had come and their  presence was being sensed by the neighborhood dogs who have the innate ability to perceive Yam doots or Kalan.

Finally, the men folk of the house are also  are asked to step inside the house and bang the main door shut with a resounding crash and bolt it from inside. All the electric activity is completely switched off and the Bali performed using a rooster in the south side  of the house.  The headless rooster is thrown over the two storey  house in such a manner that it has to land in front side of the house. The karmis go round the house three times banging violently each and every door and window all the while making feral sounds , clanging, banging,  scratching sounds trying to break into the house. Finally, the signal to open the main door is given and the main karmi stand there with the fan like structure lit with fire waving it from inside the house to outside requesting /demanding Kalan to leave the house. The assembled household showers the burning fan that acts as the seat of Guligan or Kalan with raw rice and gives their permission to leave the house with all the negativity that may have arisen due to aganaal dosha.

Later, the main karmi looks at the position of the carcass and shares the ‘lakshanas’ example if the neck side is on the north side then it means certain karmas need to be done to propitiate mother goddess or the family Gods, if it’s in the east the soul has departed peacefully blessing the descendents, if the feet is in the west it indicates the departed soul left with extreme sadness and is still very sad. If the neck is to the south then it is said to portend ill-omen and several protective remedies need to be done by the family, etc. A smaller divination is also done using coins which were hidden in the copper vessels kept upside down in the four squares in the courtyard.

The concluding steps involve winding down Ganapati setup inside the house, removing every trace of the ritual by the karmis and walking away without seeking permission to leave.

The ritual is done late at night and typically goes on till 2 am. One of the elements is the singsong chant by the main karmik being able to produce  abrupt loud commands that would  make most people  jump out of their skins. One of the proofs for success of the ritual is  the howling of the neighborhood dogs right on cue during the later steps when Gulshan or Kalan is invoked outside the house along with his retinue signaling the presence of invisible entities (dogs are associated with Kaalan,  Kaal Bhairava , Shri Parashani Muthappan of which my father was a great believer). All this is done with the intent of clearing the path for the departed soul to moksha by breaking the birth and death karmic cycle which is the ultimate objective.

A cousin gave an apt example: When we switch of a fan or any electric appliance it takes a little more time to reach zero, similarly a lifetime of vaasanas (habits, likes and dislikes, way of thinking, character), karmic baggage, memories, all that built up energy and momentum, etc., cannot suddenly disappear or be made zero because the body has ceased breathing or been destroyed through cremation or burial process. The duty of the family through these rituals is to help the departed soul leave on a path with no attachments or karmic bondage and thus move towards moksha or reach a state of purna (completeness).

If you dig a little you will find pitru rituals are followed across Indian subcontinent by both rich and poor, in fact most ancient cultures like Egyptians, Israelis, Chinese, Tibetans, etc., all have some form of ritual done for propitiating the dead and departed. The ritual we performed was of very small nominal cost no expensive stuff. Most stuff was cut from the backyard such as plantain stem, leaves, coconut stem, leaves and raw grains. Many people who object to one bali (sacrifice) of a rooster (which is later taken by the karmis and cooked and eaten) are non-vegetarians in their diet and are okay with several chicken being killed for a curry or biryani while serving food to guests in the name of the departed. As you know I have turned vegetarian more than a year ago but refrained from objecting to an activity I have little understanding on. There is already a controversy going on debating pro and cons of Bali after the Tripura judgment. Without understanding the belief systems and the energy at play who are we to negate or comment.  This is a non-Bramhinical non-Vedic ritual performed by people of a certain community though main Vedic Gods are also invoked, where it matters people make time and put in effort even in modern times to ensure the best for their loved ones even the recently departed. My father, too, with his defence background had strictly told no rituals but he did participate in a different ritual for his elder brother where Shri Parashani Muthappan was invoked through elaborate dance ritual  – that was love for his brother. Similarly, when we were told of the dosha accrued to the next generation and to the departed we thought of going ahead with good intent.

People who berate the ancient rituals use remotes and mobiles and many appliances which work on frequencies invisible to human eyes just because scientists have been able to build the right instruments for harnessing the radio and microwave frequencies we see its application and see it work still invisible to us we only see the end results. Similarly I would like to believe the life force energy, soul, ethereal/astral body, deities are energy frequencies but of  a more rarefied nature yet to be figured out on a scientific scale (though quantum physics, string theory etc are getting close) that will someday be tapped by human instruments but till then it’s the immaterial matter – nature endowed ‘mind’ which can be used through meditation to sense these invisible forces or energy frequencies. The departed don’t need any propitiating they are still of human essence. It is the higher entities which are propitiated through these very regional rituals. The  spirit being referring to is ‘Kalan’ or Keeper of Time aka Death.


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