Irrational remains of another day: “The Dog Matrix” (Article)


Just read this article in this week’s Outlook magazine.

Pushpa Iyengar describes a whole series of obscure rituals that persist in rationalist-run Tamil Nadu. As you will see, most of these involve women, mainly little girls. As usual.

Take a look, anyway. The article is copied and pasted here since files on Outlook’s website is hard to track back to after a while. But here is the link if you should look right away.

Pushpa Iyengar, “The Dog Matrix,”, May 3, 2010.

The ‘Rationalist’ State

  • Men marry dogs
  • Young girls marry frogs, are whipped to exorcise spirits
  • Babies are buried in the sand
  • Coconuts are broken on devotees’ heads
  • A priest sucks blood out of a goat’s throat


Recently, Tamil Nadu got an ‘ISO certification’ from none other than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. “On many fronts today, Tamil Nadu is a role model for the rest of the country,” he said. “It has attained new heights in rural development and agrarian transformation. It is the hub of India’s dynamic automobile industry, has some of the most modern textile mills and a vibrant services economy.” What the PM could also have mentioned is that if you wish to set up a software park, are looking for excellent medical care or good education, Tamil Nadu is also the place for you.

All in all, it’s a fitting reputation for a state run by parties unhesitatingly committed to rationalism—the credo of the Dravidian movement. Rationalism, indeed, should have been by now implanted in the state’s DNA, given that Dravidian parties have ruled it for 40 years. Even today, in his mid-eighties, Tamil Nadu CM Karunanidhi presides over “self-respect marriages” that are scrupulously shorn of rituals.

And yet every year in Pullipudupet village, a three-hour drive from Chennai, during Kaanum Pongal in mid-January, a girl marries a frog. This is no frog-turns-into-prince-after-being-kissed fairytale. Once married, the frog is released back into a pond, while his “bride”, usually a minor, goes back to school, and marries, much later, a man who will perhaps turn into an alcoholic, and lives unhappily ever after.

That is what happened to seven-year-old Ramana’s great-grandmother, and then to her grandmother. Like them,  Ramana was dressed up as a bride two months ago, for a ritual for which nobody—including the village priest and the headman, Raman, who  selects the “bride”—has any coherent explanation.

“She was even taken in a procession from house to house and the whole Dalit colony divided itself into two groups, with one side being the bride’s family and the other side being the frog’s relatives,” recalls Adilakshi, who was a witness to the festivities. However, the ritual, observed only by Dalits, was aborted because the police stepped in, just as the taali (mangalsutra) was to be tied on the girl. This left Ramana’s mother, Shashi, not relieved—as you might expect—that her daughter was spared this strange fate, but distraught. “Look at her,” she told Outlook, “how weak she has become ever since the marriage was stopped.”

There’s no shortage of such rituals in this so-called rational state, and marrying a frog is a comparatively harmless one when set against others, like burying babies in the sand and having coconuts broken on your head. The coconut-breaker, Periasamy, the chief priest of a temple near Tiruchi, has carried out the ritual for 23 years, and has probably mastered the knack of avoiding serious injuries. Even so, his ministrations leave some devotees bleeding from the head. In another violent annual ritual, at the Sri Achappan temple in Vellampatti in Tiruchi district, young girls are lined up by their own parents before a huge crowd to be whipped by a priest to exorcise evil spirits. Only when they cry out (after their hands are virtually split open), are they “liberated” from the spirits. In a separate annual event held recently, a temple functionary and a woman devotee took sweets out of boiling oil with bare hands, and in an even more bizarre ritual conducted last month, a temple official bit the throat of a goat and sucked its blood. Meanwhile, men have been known to marry, not frogs, but at least in one case, a dog, to atone for some obscure sin.

Official interventions have not made much difference. Ask Thadhampatti village’s administrative officer R. Rama, who was on an inspection round on July 9, 2009, at Periyathadhampatti village— about 45 km from Madurai—where every five years children are briefly buried in the sand to propitiate the deity of the Muthalamman temple in the village. “I did not see anything amiss. But after I went away, 50 children were placed on neem leaves lining pits of 4×2 sq ft, covered with a yellow cloth and the pujari jumped over them, holding the deity on his head.” An even more brazen version of the ritual was carried out in 2002. Babies were buried in the sand for a full minute at the Muthukkuzhi Mariamman temple at Peraiyur in Madurai district in a function presided over by a minister of the then ruling AIADMK.

While the resulting furore led to the banning of that ritual and the sacking of the minister, the three persons involved in the July 2009 incident are out on bail. As the NHRC has pointed out, the beliefs leading to such rituals are deeply held, and social awareness campaigns are the best way forward. But they seem to be largely ineffectual in a state which is said to be a frontrunner in education.

“The urban ethic is yet to penetrate the deep interior of the village,” explains inspector general of police Prateep Philip, who is also project director of a social organisation called Friends of the Police, and has organised ‘Social Justice Tea Parties’ to campaign against untouchability in 37,786 villages covering 1.5 milion people for the last two years. While he sets his faith on multimedia training to dispel the “shibboleths of superstition”, Ovia, a member of the Dravida Kazhagam, the original party that propounded the rational way of life, argues that superstition is actually on the rise, not on the wane. “Lack of ability, fear and greed are pushing people to become more superstitious because in today’s world they want short-cuts.”

She also points out, as many others do, that the stoutly rationalist ideas of Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy are being diluted by his very own followers. They argue, indeed, that a powerful reason why superstition and outlandish rituals flourish is that Tamil Nadu’s current leaders legitimise them by their own practices. Jayalalitha is openly superstitious, observing rahu kalam and crushing lemons under the wheels of her car to neutralise the evil eye; a woman minister in her government once famously wore a dress of leaves to propitiate the gods in Jayalalitha’s favour, while another rolled on the ground for one-and-a-half km for the same reason.

Jayalalitha’s bete noire, current CM Karunanidhi, who projects himself as   Periyar’s intellectual heir, is rumoured to wear his trademark yellow shawl to remain longer in power. The double standard followed by the party was strikingly evident when the CM did not criticise party leaders who performed pujas, and an MLA pulled a temple chariot for the long life of the CM’s political heir, deputy CM M.K. Stalin, on his birthday on March 1. As a DMK source put it: “It’s just like the way our leaders promote Tamil while all the while sending their children to convent schools.”