Inside the secret court within an ancient Kerala temple

The temple is one of the four Kazhagam — administrative seats — of the Thiya (Ezhava) community in northern Malabar.
A group of men sit inside the court of an ancient Kerala temple
A group of men sit inside the court of an ancient Kerala temple
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Red flags emblazoned with hammers and sickles are placed on either side of the narrow roads of Thuruthi, a small village between Nileswar and Cheruvathur of Kasaragod district. Just like any other Communist Party of India (Marxist) prominent villages in northern Kerala, Thuruthi has its share of CPI(M) workers, sympathisers and hardcore communists, but their lives revolve around beliefs, temples, customs and religious practices. And no temple is more attached to the villagers’ daily life and beliefs like the Sree Nellika Thuruthi Kazhakam Nilamangalath Bhagavathy Temple, one of four Kazhagam — administrative seats — of the Thiya (Ezhava) community in northern Malabar. This temple is the community court, dealing with civil cases of 4500 families who come under this Kazhagam, spread over Kanhangad and Nileshwar municipalities and Cheruvathur, Padanna and Valiyaparamba panchayats.

For generations, the presence of this court was a guarded secret, only shared among families within these areas. It was only when a new temple committee took over last year that the temple court and its inner workings began to spread across the state.

What seems like a small temple from the outside opens into a spacious interior with various deities, a huge temple pond and elevated platforms in and around the sanctum sanctorum.  Every month on the Sankramam, the last day of the Malayalam month, the court will proceed to hear the civil cases that appear before it. “This is the Supreme Court of civil cases in Thuruthi," said Manoj, a temple committee member, pointing to two of the platforms near the sanctuary, covered with a clay tile roof. Looking at the opposite side, where a wooden stool (peedam) has been kept, he added, “That is where the supreme judge sits."

An ancient seat of justice

The lore around the temple dates back a thousand years, according to local residents. It is mired in legends and myths that say a goddess, who is the deity of the temple, arrived from north India in a wooden ship. Among the myths associated with the temple and Thuruthi — Bootha Ganangal is said to have helped in the construction of the temple — there is a belief that the deity was first placed in a house of two Muthassis (grandmothers). Later the sisters had a fight and one of them moved out and formed a temple. The deity was moved from the first spot and placed in the new temple.

People in the village say the court proceedings began in the temple around a 1000 years ago, however there is no record on how they started.

"This is one of the very few temples in Kerala where all castes and the Muslim community have a stake. Namboodiri, Nairs, Pulayars, Kaniyan, Ashari, Jyotsyan, Vanigan and many other castes, irrespective of their higher and lower status in the past, have received an equal stake in the temple. During temple festivals, each of them has a duty. For example, the mat woven by the Pulayar community is used on festival days," Vinodan VV, a member of the temple’s 11-member committee, said.

Referring to a Muslim family with stake in the temple, Manoj said, "The family gave their land for the construction of the temple. So a small platform was constructed for the family, so that anyone from their family can come and sit inside the temple at the platform. They sponsor the salt for Annadhanam (meals offering) during Perungaliyattam, a temple festival, which happens once in 12 years. Lakhs of people are served per day during Annadhanam. Salt has the most important role in food. That is why they are sponsoring it.”

On Perungaliyattam day, some representatives of the family will dress in black coats and black dervish hats, and sit on the platform (Kizhakke Nada) dedicated to them on the west side of the temple. The family is treated with vettila pakku (Betal leaf and pan), just like the Achans of the temple.

A majority of the cases are land and property disputes within families. "Hundreds of civil cases were solved here. Many were happy that they did not have to spend a lot of money on court and lawyers. The out-of-court settlement here was much better. Even Muslim families here in Thuruthi used to come for settlements," Manoj said.

Inside the court

In the practice known as kodathi (court), there are eight judges, including a chief judge called Achanmar. Even outside the temple, the village residents address them as ‘Achan.’ Nandakkavalachan, which means the Achan who holds the Nandakaval, a holy weapon of the temple deity during festivals, is the chief judge.

Within the temple, there is a platform on the west side facing the Sree Kovil, the sanctum sanctorum. On the Sankramam days, when the temple court commences, on the one side of the platform, eight Koottayis, named Thekkar and Vadakkar, are representatives of the court. They play the role of advocates. On the other side of the platform, the eight judges will be seated. Two temple priests, five velichapad, temple committee members and a few others associated with the temple will also be present. The complainants and the accused have a position to stand in front of the platform, while women have a separate position, opposite to where the men stand.  The chief judge will sit on a wooden pedestal near the sanctum sanctorum, in the opposite direction of where the trial is conducted.

Sitting on a wooden arm chair, in a small tile roofed hut made of laterite stone, Bhaskaran, the chief judge, the Nandakkavalchan of Nellikka Thuruthi Kazhakam told TNM that he lost count of the number of cases solved in the court since he took charge decades ago. He also explains how one has to submit a complaint in the court. "The complainants will take a lent (fasting, by avoiding certain food) for a day, men will take bath in the temple pond and women will take bath at home, come to temple and give the complaint in writing to the priests, or temple committee members. Some keep their complaint near the sanctum sanctorum," he said.

The complainants will also have to bring witnesses to confirm their claims. They read their complaints to Thekkar and Vadakkar, in front of temple committee members, after which Thekkar and Vadakkar will explain the issue to judges. They listen to all the arguments by the complainants and the defendentants. If the accused person on a team is not present, the Kaaliyan Karavakkaran (who brings buffalo milk to the temple every morning) will be sent as a messenger asking the accused to be present during the next hearing.

"When the conflicting teams come together, both sides will be heard by the judges. They will discuss the issue with concerned parties, temple committee members and Koottayikkar. Finally, they will reach a negotiation term. The judges will approach my chair to inform me. I will decide whether to pass the decision or to withhold it and decide later after another hearing," Bhaskaran said.

Vinodan says there is an importance to delivering these verdicts in front of the sanctum sanctorum because of the significance of people’s religious beliefs. "It is a different atmosphere. Justice delivered in a spiritual environment. People believe in Achanmar," Vinodan said.

Bhaskaran said, "It is the spirituality inside me that gives out the verdict. I will have a feeling inside me about what is right and wrong. But sitting in my home, I may not decide anything as I am a normal person. But on that day, I feel special powers inside me."

Property dispute cases but rarely family issues

The temple court deals with a number of cases that mostly revolve around property disputes and domestic issues. However, the committee does not reveal more than a minimum amount of details on the discussion. “It is our belief not to disclose the details of the cases that are discussed in the temple court. We don't even discuss them in our homes. Once the court is adjourned, the cases will not be discussed among us outside the temple," Vinodan said.

Everyone who gathers in the court can express their views, including senior devotees, committee members and other stakeholders. Ideally, the court should adjourn within 90 minutes. 

Vinodan recalled how a land dispute case, which had reached the Supreme Court, was later discussed and concluded with an out-of-court settlement in the Nellika Thuruthi Kazhakam temple court in the 1970s. "We have a legacy in out of the court settlements. Judges are fully aware of the laws. They will also consider ethical, humanitarian aspects in each case," he added.

The temple court also makes an effort to ensure justice for women. “In cases related to women, we try to make sure the verdict comes in favor of them. It’s not easy for them, being from the village, to take their fight for justice to court,” he added.

He recalled that a few months ago, a man approached the court and said his wife was in an illicit relationship. “The couple appeared before the court together. Since there are temple committee members and senior devotees who know this couple well, we were sure that the doubts of the man were incorrect. We had discussions over two sittings and finally the verdict noted that the woman was innocent,” Vinodan said.

People also complain to the court temple when they cannot participate in temple rituals or wish to be excluded because of a lack of funds. 

Disputes around property are commonly tried in the court. Even policemen and authorities in high positions have come as complainants in these cases, as recently as November and December. The current prominent case in front of the temple court involves a famous Tharavad (ancestral residence) in the area.  "The ownership of this Tharavad and other properties were illegally taken by one of the relatives. Now other stakeholders have asked for their share. The issue is going on. In the next one or two sittings, the decision over this will be taken," Manoj said.

“I had been in court over a land dispute with our neighbour. They had acquired some part of our land claiming to be theirs. Within two sittings, it was solved and we got our land back. After that, the neighbours did not have any enmity either. We believe that all problems taken to the Kazhakam court will have a solution,” Sarada, a villager from Thuruthi, said.

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