our valluvanad was one of the final frontiers for western civilization. A land of immense beauty inhabited by people with unique traditions and practices which could at best be categorised as animism . 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 for a much longer period. Hence till the 1970s most of this region was relatively untouched by the seeds of modernity unlike the rest of Kerala . This helped us preserve our Tharavads , pambin kavus, the tradition of velichapad at bhagavathy kavus and of course the rich mythological universe of our ancestors . One of the integral part of this mythology is the supernatural world inhabited by Odiyans and practitioners of Odiyanseva .
Odiyans were the professional assassins (yes!) hired by landowning nair/ ezhava families to kill members of rival clans without leaving any evidence that could link them to the murder . Being an agrarian society most of these rivalries were based on land disputes or succession related issues .The Odiyans hailed from the untouchable castes like the panars,pulayars or the choklears who were also the family serfs. They were well known for their physical stamina and was often feared for their patronage of powerful tribal deities . It was believed that DURMANTRAVATAM (worship of these gods) gave them powers which could be matched only by a seasoned MANTRIKAN (powerful magicians) and hence could be used against lesser mortals.
According to the folklore , the odiyan used to apply an oil obtained from killed human fetus on their ear lobes , which gave them powers to assume forms or shapes that they desired to be . In reality they never changed into the objects they intended to be, but created a sensory illusion on their prey making them more vulnerable to a mortal blow. For example the Odiyan would assume the shape of a bull or a cat or even a granite rock and stood on the route that the victim routinely uses at night .As the prey approached this unfamiliar sight on a familiar terrain he would at first be amused and would try to remove it from the path. Seeing his target getting closer the Odiyan would transform instantly into his human form , overpowering and killing the prey instantly.
The question that may pop up is , why go to such lengths to kill someone if he could be stabbed or shot at plain sight ?. The reasons according to 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 arranged 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 forms the Odiyans took were abnormal .For example the bull that appeared in front of you might be a three-legged one or a tailless one which could amuse the onlooker . This gives the odiyan enough time to mount an attack and kill the prey as it approached .
These abnormalities could also be their undoing . A seasoned mantrikan or a Tharavad elder could easily recognize these anomalies 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 . Realizing the trap , he pronounced some spells to counter the odi vidya and to overpower the odiyan’s charm . Then he 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 which was eventually granted.
The illusionary power of odiyan comes from the oil they apply on their earlobes . It is said to have been derived from the amniotic fluid of an unborn human fetus which was killed in the womb. Their targets were young women in their first pregnancy. During the day time while at work as the serf they would identify their victim and mark her off with a sign which was 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 he would be waiting . The woman’s womb would be surgically opened with sharpened knifes made of bamboo and the fetus taken out . The fetus is then hung from a bamboo pole to harvest the fluid while the woman walked back home to her room where she would eventually bleed to death.The amount of oil obtained from one child would be too little ,may be 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 . The 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 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 ?
Even today Valluvanad believes in Odiyans and their magical powers with many mysterious deaths still being attributed to odiyan seva ( latest case being reported last month) . But , With the advent of modern education and westernised lifestyles coupled with the social emancipation of panars and pulayars there are no takers for the job these days. More over their patrons found new ways to settle disputes thanks to the robust judicial system , forcing the odiyan seva to die out over a period of few decades without revealing many of their secrets like many other Indian traditions.
If you are interested in knowing more about the institution of velichapad press on the link below