"The boy you see in the photograph is my son and both of us are willing to go through the seven days of separation that Kuthiyottam ritual demands. I am a believer, and I want my son to grow up following those same religious beliefs."
This is what Suchithra Sreekumar, the mother of a young boy from Kerala's Thiruvananthapuram, wrote on Facebook recently. She was reacting to a photograph of her son standing on a railing and weeping, clicked and shared by Jithesh Damodar, a photographer with Kerala Kaumudi. Jithesh had put a caption that the photo showed the situation of young boys who will perform the Kuthiyottam ritual in the Attukal temple.
While Suchithra’s concerns about the privacy of her son being violated are indeed valid – what about the rights of the child in deciding to follow religious rituals that are distressing to them? How much control do parents have on the bodies of their children, and how far can they make them do religious rituals that are potentially dangerous?
Kuthiyottam at Attukal Pongala
As lakhs of women in Kerala take part in the famed Pongala conducted as part of a 10-day festival at Attukal Bhagavathy temple, several hundred young boys are separated from their families for the Kuthiyottam ritual.
In the ritual of Kuthiyottam, young boys between the ages of 8 and 12 who are considered to be the "soldiers of the goddess", stay at the temple for seven days to undergo "penance." At the end of the seven days, the boys are decked up and an iron hook is pierced through their flank, and the blood that comes out is believed to be an offering to the goddess.
The Attukal temple website explains the ritual as: "For the purpose they have to pass through rigorous physical and mental discipline such as sleeping in mat, observing strict diet restrictions, staying in the temple etc. Kuthiyottam performed by boys with the hope that the Goddess almighty would be pleased to bestow on them beauty inward and outward, health, wealth and happiness." (sic)
The controversial ritual has been in the news recently after DGP (Prisons) R Sreelekha questioned the decades old practice, and called it cruelty towards children and child abuse.
"Yes, recite mantras and obey blindly their leaders too. They are not allowed to see their parents during this time. And on the final day, each of them will be decked up with yellow cloths, garlands, jewellery and make up on face including lipstick and made to stand in a queue for their last unexpected torture. An iron hook, tiny though it is, will be pierced into their skin on their flanks. They scream. Blood comes out. A thread will be symbolically knotted through the hooks to symbolise their bond with divinity. Then hooks are pulled out and ash roughly applied on the wounds! All this for temple deity! Parents may feel relieved that their boys will now grow up to be disciplined kids and do well in their studies. Will the kids too feel the same? And how will our dear Attukal Amma be feeling?" Sreelekha wrote in her blog.
However, several parents have defended the ritual, claiming it is part of their religious belief, and pointing fingers at other religions to justify their actions.
Drawing a line
But child rights activists say that religion and belief cannot justify every act, and that parents must draw a line when it comes to taking decisions regarding their children’s bodies and their lives.
UNICEF Kerala-Tamil Nadu region chief Job Zachariah tells TNM that a lot depends on whether the child’s fundamental rights are being violated by the parents.
"In the case of children, if any of the decisions taken by their parents do harm to them or violate their rights, then that is where the limit lies. It is the same principle that works in the case of vaccination. When a parent refuses to administer vaccines to their child, they are violating the child's right by doing so,” Job says.
On the Kuthiyottam ritual specifically, Job says that parents shouldn’t exercise their power to decide for children when their decision can put the child in harm’s way.
In situations like these, the state is entitled to intervene, Job points out.
"Take the example of a father who prevented his wife from breastfeeding their newborn baby citing religious beliefs. The police booked him for violating the child's right. So when a parent fails to prevent a violation from happening, the state should ensure that it intervenes," he adds.
What if children ‘consent’?
Several parents argue that their children have not objected to taking part in the ritual and that the ritual was for the good of the children. To this, Job says: "Children won't complain, even if they do not like what is being done to them. We have conditioned them like that. Even when parents beat their children to teach them discipline, the children don’t complain.” That doesn’t make it right, he explains.
He asserts that instead of looking at the ritual as ‘religion’, it must be dealt with as a social evil so that the best interest of the child can be protected.
Shobha Koshy, the Chairman of Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights says that the commission will look into allegations that the ritual violates the children's rights. She says that parents cannot get away with subjecting their children to such practices, claiming that their children have consented to it.
"More often, children cannot make decisions, they are unable to understand what is right and wrong. Will these parents, who claim that their child has consented to the practice, be okay if the child makes a decision on his own that the parents do not agree with? Say a child gets married at the age of 12 and defends it saying he did it out of his own accord, is that an acceptable argument? To what extent does the child understand the consequences?" she asks.
The issue of a child's privacy
Both Job and Shobha Koshy agree that publishing a photograph in which the boy is identifiable is not justified.
They feel that although the photograph was used to expose a violation, the child's identity has been jeopardized in the process.
"In situations like this, the photo could have been taken in such a way that it does not reveal the identity of the child. Say for instance, a photo of a child begging in the street is published to expose the social evil, but even then, it is not essentially right to have the child's face in it, although it is for a good cause," Job points out.
Echoing his thoughts, Shobha shares an incident from Kannur, where the photo of a child in need of money for treatment was massively shared on social media.
"The dignity of the child has to be protected always. In the case in Kannur, although people came to know about the child's condition through these messages, we urged people not to use her photograph," she says.