Macabre tales: A history of human sacrifices in Kerala to please the gods

The recent case of a suspected human sacrifice in Kerala's Elanthoor village has brought forth forgotten crimes of the past and put a spotlight on the blood-soaked history of ritual murders.
Representation for sacrifice ritual
Representation for sacrifice ritual
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Twenty five years ago, in Elanthoor, the same village in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta where the police uncovered a case of human sacrifice last week, another very gruesome story of child sacrifice was reported. Aswani was only four-and-a-half-years-old when she was found murdered as part of a child sacrifice ritual to find hidden wealth. The sacrifice was performed by her father, a homoeopathic doctor, and two of his three wives. All three of them were sentenced to life. Shashiraja Panicker, the father who killed his toddler girl inflicting burns on many parts of her body, died in prison last month. Several stories of similar sacrifices had emerged in  the 20th century. Kerala, hailed for its high literacy rate and renaissance history, does not seem to be immune to such superstitions and practices of black magic.

Manorama’s archive shows a paper cutting of Aswani’s mother (first wife of Shashiraja) watching over her daughter's body, injured and burnt. Shashiraja Panicker had three wives, said the report, and the second and third wives had been his accomplices in the killing of the child. The second wife, Seena, was charged as the main accused for suggesting that the evil spirits in Aswani’s body should be removed by burns for them to retrieve their ancestral wealth. Shashiraja was the second accused and his third wife Sukumariyamma the third accused.

K Harikrishnan, who was then the Sub Inspector of Police of Aranmula, remembers that the body had over 25 wounds. He told Manorama News that most of it came from burns and that the torture must have been carried out over three to four days. The officer said it was surprising then to discover that such an act came from a doctor. But instances of similar sacrifices from other parts of the country have proved that education does not stand in the way of superstition, even today.

Aswani's mother near the child's body / Manorama report from 1997

Last week, in Elanthoor, the body parts of two middle-aged women Padmam and Rosily were discovered in the compound of a couple, who allegedly practised black magic, on the advice of a man called Shafi. The women were allegedly offered in sacrifice to bring more prosperity for Bhagawal Singh, an Ayurvedic healer, who had the image of a progressive Leftist, writer and a rationalist. He was allegedly aided in the crime by his wife Laila. The Singhs and Shafi are the main suspects in the case which has dropped a big question mark on Kerala, a state known for its progressive ideas and renaissance history.

Not that rituals of sacrifice were unheard of. However, animal sacrifice was more common in Kerala. Manu Pillai’s book Ivory Throne talks of animal sacrifice which was carried out in places of worship until it was formally banned by the regent queen of Travancore Sethu Lakshmi Bayi in the 1920s. He points out that human sacrifice used to be performed at one point in time, at the Panayannarkavu Devi Temple near Mannar. “In fact there is a legend that when one day a girl was about to be offered, the goddess spoke and said it was no longer needed. The girl and her descendants known as Adissans became the temple's priests (and still control it I think), and human sacrifice came to an end at Panayannar. Similarly, many temples where hook-swinging was (and maybe is even now) done. It is believed that the practice was introduced as a replacement to human sacrifice. Hook-swinging became a symbolic form of human sacrifice, that is, just as cucumbers became substitutes for live animals,” Manu tells TNM.

Historian A Sreedhara Menon’s book Cultural Heritage of Kerala mentions a section on black magic and sorcery, but does not include sacrifices as a ritual. It talks of mantravadis (black magic practitioners) who claim to remove evil influences in humans or properties with mantras and ceremonies.

However, in his book Triumph and Tragedy in Travancore, he mentions "dubious methods" allegedly used by the junior maharani - one of the two princesses who were adopted to the Travancore royal family in the late 19th century —to stop her cousin, the other princess, from taking over as regent rani in the 1920s. It was necessitated by the death of the ruling king of the time, Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma, when the next male in line for the throne was only 12 years old and therefore underage. Since the boy, Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, was the son of junior maharani, she thought she should rightly be the regent queen, says the book. 

Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and Sethu Parvathi Bayi / Courtesy -

It refers to a letter dated February 22, 1927, written by the British Resident Lieutenant Colonel CG Crosthwaite to Sir CC Watson, political secretary to the Viceroy, in which "mysterious puja, black magic conducted in the palace by some namboodiris under the personal supervision of the (junior) maharani and her three brothers" is mentioned. The letter refers to the performance of animal sacrifice, "20 to 25 rats being caught and brought to the venue everyday". It also mentions "rumours of an attempted human sacrifice that fizzled out, thanks to the vigilance of the public."

The object of the puja was three-fold, the letter says: "to secure the end of the regency by the death of the senior maharani, that the maharaja himself be kept in temperamental subjection to his mother and family as long as possible so that his mother herself may become regent, that the maharaja may by means of this puja be brought through mental derangement completely under the domination of his mother and relations." The resident also makes another observation, according to Sreedhara Menon's book, that "whatever we Europeans may think of black magic there is no doubt that this has been going on, has very seriously affected the palace household and is beginning to be known outside that circle."

The rumours were also mentioned in the book of Lakshmi Raghunandan on Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, says historian MG Sasibhooshan. Sacrifices were made once upon a time, for the sake of finding treasures, to make bridges stronger, and some to destroy a state itself, he says. “Even now, in the Guruvayur temple, shatru samhara pooja (ritual to eliminate the enemy) is performed, and that is when we have a Communist-led Left party in power. It is sad that these murders have now happened in Elanthoor, which is a place where Mahatma Gandhi had visited (in 1937). It is where Gandhian (and social reformer) K Kumaran hailed from and the Mahatma came on his invitation.”

Watch: Dhanya Rajendran show on Human Sacrifice

Sasibhooshan says that even though animal sacrifice was banned by the regent queen in the 1920s, there have been instances of it many decades later. He witnessed one himself in 1973 at the Melamcode Devi temple in Thiruvananthapuram, when he was a student. “I saw a car stop by and I was asked to clear the place. They claimed they had a puja to perform. Being young and curious back then, I hid behind a tree a little far away and observed what was going on. That’s when they took out a little live goat from the dickey of the car. It was for sacrifice. Since it was illegal, many such sacrifices were done in secrecy,” says Sasibhooshan. 

Animal sacrifice appears to be a continuing practice. It is reportedly conducted as part of certain Theyyam performances like the Wayanattu Kulavan in North Malabar.

Old legends

Artist T Murali, who has written about 1,200 years of history of human sacrifice in Kerala, in a Facebook post, says that the Kodungallur Kurumba Kavu was a centre of human sacrifice. The many flags in the shape of headless people hung in temple premises as part of a festival points towards this, he says. “It is not just temples that worship Kali which had human sacrifice, but temples for other goddesses too,” says Murali. According to him, this was done as a warning to Buddhists who "tried to reclaim temples taken over by Brahmins. Proof for this can be found in Thirunelli temple near Mananthavady and the Thrikodithanam temple in Kottayam,” he says. It is the Brahmin supremacy which led to the ritual of human sacrifices, alleges Murali. 

Adding more examples, he mentions a ritual of women beating to pulp tender coconuts shaped like human skulls as an offering to goddess in Kali temples, as explained in the books of Kanippayyur Sankaran Namboothiri. Finally, Murali writes that human sacrifices were also conducted to bring women who belonged to oppressed castes as slaves under the control of the dominant caste. There were also instances of sacrificing a child or a worker walking alone by pushing them into pits, when a dyke is broken during rains in Kuttanad or a bridge gets built. 

Human sacrifices from the last century

A report in Mathrubhumi, dated October 12, that draws from their archives, lists more stories of sacrifice from the past. The first of these in independent India happened in Kattakada of Thiruvananthapuram in 1955. A 15-year-old boy was strangled to death as part of a sacrifice by a black magic practitioner and another person. The accused were caught when they were taking the body in a sack to bury it.

The next year, another human sacrifice was made in Guruvayur, venue of the famous Krishna temple, for the sake of an elephant called Radha. Krishnan Chetty, an elephant lover, wanted Radha to be cured of an illness, and killed his friend Kashi who was sleeping in the temple premises, as part of a sacrifice. When he was punished to life at the Kozhikode sessions court, Krishnan Chetty made the bizarre argument that an elephant was a big creature and Kashi was only a man and there was no real use in men remaining alive.

In 1973, another case of child sacrifice was reported in Kollam when a fellow villager Azhagesan stabbed his neck in front of a deity for “pleasing the gods”. Devadasan was a six year old student of the Sankarodayam LP school. Azhagesan was sentenced to death by the Kollam sessions court. Ten years later, a case of attempted human sacrifice was recorded in Wayanad, says the report. Aranmula natives Lekshmi and her son Ramachandran were punished by a court for trying to kill Kelappan, a teacher of a primary school in Erumadu.

There is more. In 1996, in Kayamkulam, a couple called Vikraman and Thulasi, brought a six year old girl named Ajitha home, when she was returning from school. On the advice of a sorcerer called Murugan, they made a cut on the child’s body to get her blood for the ritual and stuffed cloth into her mouth to stop her screams. The saddest irony is that the couple made the sacrifice so they will be “blessed with a child”. In 2004, another child was found murdered in Palakkad, in suspicious circumstances pointing towards a ritualistic sacrifice, but the perpetrators were never found. The kid, a four year old boy, was taken from the side of his sleeping parents at the Pattambi railway station. On the railway line were the yellow marks of tamarind, used for performing such rituals. The boy’s body was found without limbs at a pond near the Bharathapuzha River.

Cases in recent years

It is not certain if these early cases were proved beyond doubt to be made as part of human sacrifice. The 2017 Cadell case was first thought to be a part of ritual sacrifice for satan worship. Cadell Jeanson Raja, a 30-year-old who did a course in Artificial Intelligence from Australia, also claimed that the murders had to do with his experiments in astral projection. Later it turned out to be vengeance for being neglected as a child and Cadell was found to have mental health issues.

Cadell, arrested in 2017

More recently, in 2021, a woman was accused of murdering her six-year-old child in Puthuppally of Palakkad, to make the gods happy. Shahida tied his legs and stabbed his neck as part of a human sacrifice ritual, as per the First Information Report.

Kerala Kaumudi report also highlighted cases of ritualistic murders. Three of them are from Idukki: a homemaker called Sophia killed by her husband and relatives in 1981 in Panamkutty; a school student murdered by his father and sister in Mundiyeruma the same year for finding treasure; and a sorcerer and his family in Vannapuram killed by his student Aneesh, who wanted the powers of the man.

Retired Director General of Police A Hemachandran, who was involved in drafting the Kerala Exploitation by Superstition Bill in 2014, says that though he has not come across actual human sacrifice, there were cases when people died as a result of black magic performed on them. He mentions three cases: a woman who died after being kicked by a sorcerer in Karunagappally in 2014; another death due to black magic in Mavelikkara around the same time; and the third case of a woman who died as a result of witchcraft in Ponnani the same year. Five years later, yet another victim's story emerged from Karunagappally in Kollam. Thushara was tortured, starved and kept in a spell of black magic by her husband and family until she died in 2019.

In cinema

Sacrifice stories were also depicted in cinema. Sreekumaran Thampy’s 1987 film Amme Bhagavathy shows little Shalini playing a child who is abducted by a man (Innocent) she knows, to be “offered” as sacrifice during a sorcerer’s ceremony. The man is after a treasure and the sorcerer (played by Janardanan) promises he would find it if the child was killed in sacrifice. 

Still from Amme Bhagavathy / Credit - Millenium Video Vision

Midhunam, a 1994 film starring Mohanlal has a lighter take on sorcery, which involves two women of the house burying a copper pot as part of black magic and screaming out aloud when a tantri, who comes to find out who did it, declares that the heads of the doers will soon explode. No heads exploded. 

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