Belief
Once in 12 years, a festival is conducted in the Nettanige temple, and the main ritual is the entry of two men into the Jambri cave.

Kasaragod at the northern end of Kerala witnessed a unique temple ritual on Saturday, that takes place only once in 12 years. Two men from the Nittoni clan of Mogera, a Scheduled Caste community, have witnessed their own funeral rites alive, as part of a 400-year-old ritual.

Ananda and Babu, were selected this time from the Mogera community to enter the mysterious Jambri cave to prepare the cave for the entry of two Brahmin tantris (priests) who collect saffron soil from the cave. The ritual was associated with Mahalingeshwara Temple at Nettanige in Bellur panchayat of Kasaragod district.

Jambri cave is situated in the forest area of the Kerala-Karnataka border, and is considered sacred by the community.

Legend says that a rakshasa named Kara pleased Lord Shiva through his prayers and Shiva gifted him three Shiva lingams. Two of the Shiva lingams were placed in two temples, including the Nettanige temple. The third is believed to have been placed in the Jambri cave.

Once in 12 years, a festival is conducted in the Nettanige temple, and the main ritual is the entry of two men into the Jambri cave followed by the entry of tantris. The tantris then collect saffron soil from the cave and distribute it to the devotees as they consider it sacred.

“Through a procedure called Swarna kavadi prashnam, done every 12 years, a soothsayer selects the two men who would visit the cave. The men who are selected should have gone through all stages of a human life before they take up the responsibility. These men who are selected are called Kapadans,” explains Dhamodara Maniyani, chairman of Mahalingeshwara Temple Trust.

But this time around, one the Kapadans selected by the soothsayer, Ananda, was not married.

Since the belief is that the men selected must go through all stages of life, Ananda’s wedding was arranged hurriedly. He stayed with his wife Geeta for six days before the rituals started.

And then, the death rituals were conducted.

The Kapadans are considered dead once the rituals are complete, and are kept in a secret place - mostly, a thatched hut. The two men are then supposed to live in isolation for the next 48 days, and they spend their time in prayer.

“Some designated people arrange for food for the two of them. The Kapadans will sleep on green coconut leaves, and stay there for 48 days, unseen by anyone else. Later, on May 2, they will both enter the cave,” Maniyani says.

Before they enter the cave, the Kapadans will be part of a half-day long ritual. They will then have to spend two to three hours inside the Jambri cave.

“Nobody is allowed to know what happens inside the cave. The Kapadans are forbidden from telling anyone what they saw or what they did inside. The secret should be buried with them when they die,” Maniyani added.

When they come out of the cave, the Kapadans are considered to have had a rebirth, after their 48 days of ‘death’.

Mostly, they come out of the cave with a lot of snakeskin and the skeletons of many reptiles. And whatever they bring out is considered sacred, and buried near the temple.

The Kapadans’ return to normal life is riddled with several restrictions. For one, they are not allowed to carry loads on their heads, or plough the fields.

Since the village’s main occupation is agriculture and the Mogera community mainly does daily wage work in the fields, the Kapadans’ main source of income is therefore gone. To make up for it, the temple takes care of their expenses for the rest of their life.

Another restriction is that the Kapadans are not allowed to speak to or spend time with menstruating women. If the women in their homes are menstruating, the Kapadans are made to leave home and stay in the temple until the period is over.

“Kapadans who deviate from these rules will have to face serious problems. There was a Kapadan whom we selected last time, he got paralysed some days before the ritual and we had to select someone new. Some believe that he might have flouted the stipulated rules, which caused the tragedy,” Maniyani says.

Since the Kapadans witness their death rituals when they’re alive, no rituals are conducted when they die.

While there was only one Jambri cave earlier - the one where the community conducts the rituals and has done so for centuries - in 2009, a lot of other ancient caves were traced in the area, and villagers believe that they linked to this sacred Jambri cave.

Edited by : Ragamalika Karthikeyan