They wander from one festival ground to the other, often earning less than a thousand rupees a day.

The futures not so bright for these palm readers at major festivals in KeralaShantha, palm reader from Kozhikode
news Culture Sunday, April 17, 2016 - 19:36

As I make my way past the large crowd gathered at the Swaraj Round on the eve of Thrissur Pooram, the largest temple festival of Kerala, invitations hit me from the sidelines to come and learn all that my palm can reveal.

Around me, some passersby respond— sometimes with curiosity, and sometimes with reluctance at the possibility of having their secrets spoken out loud in public. Others, ever the sceptics, walk away in rushed steps with a dismissive wave of their hands. To my side, calling out the invitations are palmists, a perpetual presence in temple festivals. Traditionally, palm reading is practiced by the people of the Kuruva caste for a living.

In Kerala, palmistry had for long enjoyed quite a popular place in popular culture. In popular films such as Kannaki or Yodha, palm readers play important roles in the lives of the other characters. But the situation today is not quite as rosy for this profession that is in the twilight of its popularity.

Shantha, from Kozhikode, is among the many palm readers who sit lined up against a wall. She has, in front of her, a small-lighted lamp, some cards and a parrot in a tiny cage. Shantha belongs to the Kakkalan caste, or the Kuruva caste as it is known in northern Kerala and this is her sixth year at Thrissur Pooram.

These palm readers wander from one festival ground to the other, often earning less than a thousand rupees a day.

“We are traditionally palm readers and I learnt it from my father. Our lives are like the wind, sometimes here, sometimes there,” Shantha says, looking up at the people expecting one of them to stretch out a hand with a Rs 50 note in it.

She says her children are not interested in taking up this traditional occupation and have long since moved on to other jobs. “My only son is a daily wage worker. I feel sad at times that there is nobody to take this tradition forward, but I cannot blame him because of the uncertainty and low income,” she says. 

Karthyayini started following her parent’s footsteps at the age of fifteen, by taking up the traditional occupation of her caste. At the age of 56, she plans her schedule well in advance. “I check the calendar for upcoming temple festivals and that’s how I travel. Sometimes I go to places based on hearsay,” she says.

Karthyayini hails from Thenjippalam in Kozhikode district. “The spot where actor Jagathy’s car accident happened is just a kilometer away from my house,” she says, for people who have difficulty spotting her hometown on the map. Karthyayini remembers the time when she was young and would finish all the chores at home to leave at ten in the morning and go from doorstep to doorstep offering to disclose people’s prospects. In Thenjippalam, Karthyayini used to have regular clients.

“The women and children of the house are more interested in getting their palms read. They always want to know more about their married life, the kind of husbands they’ll marry later in life and the number of children they’ll have. When I go to different places for temple festivals, I spend another day going to nearby houses as well,” she said. 

Like Shantha, Karthyayini is also upset that her family tradition of palmistry will end with her, as none of her sons even learnt it from her, and have never expressed any interest in learning.

Asked about why there are more women palmists than men, she says, “Men go in search of other jobs, they work as daily wage workers at construction sites. They are never completely interested in this occupation. Even when I took it up, my elder brother, who went to school till the 7th standard, went away in search of other jobs”.

“At big temple festivals like this, we are lucky to earn a thousand rupees. But in smaller towns and smaller festivals sometimes it is difficult even to earn two hundred rupees. But the government grants help us in sending our children to school,” says Karthyayini of her caste group, who are classified as a Scheduled Caste.

Thanka’s next stop is at Angadippuram temple festival. Hailing from Thenjippalam, she says that a decline in interest among Muslims has hurt the popularity of palmistry. “Earlier, plenty of Muslims used to come to me, which has now decreased. Hindus also come, but most of them are now interested in computer jathakam (horoscopes)”, she complains.

Gopalan, who is among the few male palmists at the ground says that when he started off in the 1970s, there were plenty of men who took up the occupation and that many have since died, while others moved on to other jobs. He denies that demand for palmistry has declined and says, “Humans everywhere in the world, at all times are curious about their future. Decline would be when the youngsters of our caste refuse to take this forward, leading to people from other caste getting into palmistry. And this is happening now”.

As Karthyayini gets her first customer of the evening, I move aside to give space to a 20-something woman who studies the parrot in the cage but decides that she wants her palm read instead of letting the parrot chose a card for her. When the woman holds out her right hand, Karthyayini quickly brushes it aside and takes her left hand. She turns to me and says, “Girls’ fortunes are hidden in their left hand”. All she needs from her customer is the answer to one question — “What’s your star sign?”

After that, with years of experience and practice, she only has to glance at the palm once in a while before reciting the woman’s present and future in a practiced tone and with great pace. The woman’s face lights up as she recognizes points that ring true and at other times her twisted eyebrows say that she is attentively listening to Karthyayini.

For those that sit down to listen Karthyayini’s or the other palmists’ predictions, it doesn’t entirely matter whether what they say will turn out to be entirely true. "We all want to know what lies ahead in our lives, without having to wait for it. In that case, we tend not to mind a few mistakes they make. For some people, it is part of the package deal of the festive spirit, " says Gokul Das from Irinjalakkuda who says he listened to a palm reader pronouncing his future for a whole five minutes. 

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