our valluvanad was one of the final frontiers for western civilization. A land of immense beauty inhabited by people with strange traditions and practices which could at best be called Paganism . Hinduism which used to be practiced here identified itself more with the plethora of indigenous beliefs  than with the Vedas. Though Tippu Sultan’s invasion and the subsequent British rule did expose us to the world outside , we remained in our small universe happy and content.  Hence till the 1970s most of this region was untouched by modernity therefore unlike the rest of Kerala we still have Tharavads , sacred grooves called pambin kavu , velichapad and of course the rich mythology inherited from our ancestors . Odiyan and the stories associated with it is a major part of our folklore .

odiyan were the professional assassins (yes!) hired by landowning nair/ ezhava families to kill members of the families whom they thought were their rivals . Being an agrarian society most of the rivalries had to do with land disputes . The succession issues with in the families were also settled in this manner. Odiyans hailed from panar,pulayar and choklear communities (untouchable castes)  .  People belonging to these casts were well known for their physical stamina  and was feared for their worship of tribal deities which were considered more powerful than the local gods and goddesses. It was believed that DURMANTRAVATAM (Bad rituals and practices) gave them powers which could be matched only by a seasoned MANTRIKAN (powerful magicians).

the powers

As the folklore goes , the odiyans used to apply an oil obtained from killed human fetus  on their ear . This was supposed to give them powers to assume forms that they desired. They never changed into the forms or object they intended to be,  but created a sensory illusion on his prey. Odiyan would assume the shape of a bull or a cat or  even rocks and lay on the route that the victim routinely uses at night .when the victim approaches he would transform instantly and kills the prey within seconds .

The question that popped in my mind was , why go to such lengths to kill someone if he could be stabbed or shot like the assassins do these days. The reasons told by my grandmother were :

1.Most of the able bodied men at the time had kalari training from a young age hence it would have been difficult to over power them other than through a ruse.

2. The operations were covert so the people who arrange the assassin did not want themselves to get involved in the mess.

3. Odiyans were experts in disposing off their victims , leaving no trace .

The tactic used to over power the victims was the element of surprise .  The odiyans may take the form of a bull but there might be some sort of deformity to it . For example it might  appear three-legged or tailless which could amuse the onlooker and would make him go for a closer examination .  This gives the odiyan enough time to mount an attack and kill the prey as he approaches .  unfortunately these deformed bodies could be their undoing . A seasoned mantrikan or a Tharavad elder could easily recognize the anomalies the odiyan mounts on the senses and act accordingly to uncover the bluff.  There is a story about a well known mantrikan who was returning home at night when he encountered two bulls . He soon realized the trap , pronouncing some spells to counter the odiyan and overpower his charm , the mantrikan tied the two bulls together and took them to a riverine nearby and washed their ears . With the oil washed off they retook their human forms and begged the mantrikan for forgiveness.

the oil

The illusionary power of odiyan comes from the oil they apply on their ear. It was derived  from the amniotic fluid of an unborn human fetus. The targets were young women during their first pregnancy.  Odiyans like any pulaya or pana men of the time worked as serfs at large tharavads.  During the day time while at work they would identify their victim and mark her off with a sign which would be inscribed on the walls of the tharavad . At night , the pulaya or pana would return as odiyan and using his spells  make the woman walk unconsciously in her sleep to a predetermined spot where the he would be waiting for her . The woman would be split open with sharpened knifes made of bamboo and the fetus taken out . The fetus is then from a bamboo pole to harvest the fluid while the woman would walk back home to her room where she would bleed to death.The amount of oil obtained would be only a few drops but it could last  for a handful of odi tricks.

The history of Malabar is obscure before the advent of the British . The odiyan belief could have its roots in the tamilakam period of Kerala history when tribal practices played a major part in religious beliefs of the people.  Sangam literature talks about a magical force that resides in all objects – living or non living called ANANKU . During that period  panans and parayas (who were the untouchables then too)  were enthrusted with rites and rituals to appease the ananku . A person with uncontained ananku was considered powerful , making the guardians of ananku dreaded beings . The concept of odiyan taking up different forms could be attributed to the presence of ananku in all beings. Like many of the sangam traditions ananku might have metamorphised into the whole odiyan tradition over time. But unlike most of the tamil practices which became part of vedic religion it remained in the fringes , away from brahmanical strong holds hidden in the foothills of western ghats.

what happened to them

Valluvanad still believes in Odiyan and there are many deaths that are attributed to odiyan seva ( even one case was reported last month) . But in reality, With the modern education, the western lifestyle and more importantly the emancipation of panars and pulayars there are no takers for the job. More over their patrons found new ways to settle disputes and the odiyan died out without revealing many of its secrets like many other Indian traditions.