When Arivarasu returned from the fields that night, his wife told him about the arrival of the Koravas. A large group of them had settled on a nearby hillock that connects to the neighbouring Avalooru, and had brought with them about six hundred heads of pack buffalo, which would yield valuable dung for the fields and the hearth.
Arivarasu climbed the hillock the next morning, a little anxious about the Koravas – people always said that they were a wild and dangerous lot – but the headman and his friendly tribe soon put him at ease. They brought out their good tobacco, offered him some heady arrack and allowed him to carry back as much dung as he wished. Indeed, over the next few days it seemed that the Koravas had taken a liking to Arivarasu – he always received the lions share of the dung, and was allowed to walk around the Korava camp, chatting with the women and children, listening to the colourful stories that men told at dusk over drink.
One day the headman told Arivarasu about the great Korava fertility festival, and that as a close friend of the Koravas, he was invited. He spoke of their mighty Kula-Deivam and how she watched over his wandering tribe. He reverently, almost fearfully – in the manner of divulging a powerful and guarded secret told Arivarasu about how the Goddess had guided him, transforming him from a starving waif to the head of his community, with a score of cattle. There would be a great feast, and much merriment after the pooja.
That night, Arivarasu told his wife all about the goddess of the Koravas, about her power and compassion for her people, and how with the intercession of the headman, some of that good fortune could reflect upon him. Oh how fortunate he was to have met the Koravas on the hillock that day, and how he would never have to sweat in those fields again.
The evening of the next day, Arivarasu donned his finest clothes – the ones he used on the most special occasions, and carried with him the family jewellery, his father’s gold ring and the little black saligram that had remained in his family for generations. Before he departed, he asked his wife not to stay up waiting for him.
At dusk, when Arivarasu reached the hillock on which the Koravas were camped, preparations for the festival were already underway. The Korava women donned jasmine and children ran about helping the men erect a rough pooja pandal by the sacred fire. An old, red eyed and wild haired priest sat near the flames, chanting in a language Arivarasu did not recognise, and though he looked nothing like the benign temple priest of the village, he was clearly a man of great power.
Nearby a group of women were cooking – the smell of spiced mutton lingered in the air, and though Arivarasu’s wife would have a fit if she ever found out that he ate meat, he had discovered a taste for it. Spicy mutton went down well with arrack and how the arrack flowed that night at the Korava camp! Arivarasu soon found himself happily floating, carried along by the merriment, the drink and the excellent company. He laughed cheerfully when they hoisted him, and continued to cheer when they carried him across the camp. He did not notice the change in the demeanor of the men who bore him on their shoulders, and when it turned somber, did not realise that he was being made to stand in a pit that was as deep as he was tall.
Arivarasu was barely conscious when they filled in the pit, burying him up to his neck. He was slurring as they asked for his forgiveness and to intercede with the Goddess on their behalf. All around him the camp was being dismantled, and the women and children were moving down the hill and into the forests, and they carried with them his family jewellery, his father’s chain and the saligram, but he did not know that.
During those final moments, Arivarasu saw his friend – the headman of the Koravas, kneel down close beside his face, and stroke his hair lovingly, as a father would his child. He asked for his forgiveness and said that his goddess demanded blood. Was it not his responsibility to propitiate that fearful divinity and to keep her wrath at bay, away from the people that he led? He whispered that it was a great honour to be offered up to the goddess, though Arivarasu did not hear any of this and the headman did not know if his words were heard. This was the ritual, and he repeated what his ancestors did.
When the last rite was completed, the Koravas herded the buffaloes into a thin column, and walked them over Arivarasu’s limp, lolling head, a rain of hooves stamping him down into the earth, while his body remained intact, buried in the soil – a deep rooted plant with a fearful, bloody blossom – exposed at the top.
It was a few hours to dawn and the headman was the last to leave. He reverently placed a ball of dung on Arivasu’s head and in it he pressed down a little clay lamp, which he lit and then he walked down the hillock and merged into the darkness.
When the villagers found the body the next day, the lamp was still smouldering and nothing on the hillock suggested that the Koravas had even camped there. Indeed the runners who were sent out could not find the Koravas or their cattle, and none of the surrounding villages had even seen them pass.
Visitors to the village in later years would be told that the lush verdant hillock nearby, used to be a barren brown mound before, and that the emerald oasis atop that black basalt hill, was guarded by a vengeful Muneeswaran – a Kaaval Deivam, who was once a man.
This story is inspired by an account from an obscure, hundred year old book called – Omens and Superstitions of Southern India. The case of the human sacrifice was recorded in the late 1800s by the head of the Government Museum and of the Ethnographic Survey of the Madras Presidency – Edgar Thurston, as narrated to him by one C. Hayavadana Rao.
Arivarasu and the final moments of his sad life are imaginary, though the the events are based on the book and also my own experience from a midnight Korava sacrifice that I attended at the edge of a village near Mahabalipuram, a few years ago.
I saw the wild eyed Korava priest adorn a buffalo with Kum Kum, turmeric and flowers and observed as he slit it’s throat and got down on his haunches and dipped his head into the exposed mass of flesh and lapped up the warm, bubbling blood that was streaming out of the still moving, mutilated neck.
In his book, Thurston claims that the Koravas have replaced human sacrifice with animals – goats or buffaloes, largely through the intervention of the British rulers, though WIlliam Jackson makes no mention of this aspect in ‘The rituals of a Gypsy Tribe’.