Polluting Ponkaala Premises:an Ecofeminist Reading of Narabali, Aadavum Daivavum and Naga Mandala



Abstract: The article attempts to read a ritual and three literary works relating the socio-religious institution of sacrifice and the recently evolved/evolving literary critical practice of ecological feminism. The texts analyzed here — the ritual ponkaala and three literary works — contain the motif of the male intrusion into female space/the subversion of the female power of/right to fecundity. Discussion of the term ‘pro-worldly asceticism’ much favoured by deep ecology and ecofeminism is done in relation to Vishnunarayanan Namboothiri’s ‘Aadavum Daivavum.’ Girish Karnad’s Naga Mandala also lends room for reading an ecological feminist act of subversion. The analysis of the ponkaala rite, the two poems, ‘Narabali’ and ‘Aadavum Daivavum,’ and the drama, Naga Mandala shows that mankind, in varying degree and kind, pollute/defile womankind’s fertility surges. For the preparation of this paper the writer is indebted to UGC for the sanction accorded to the minor research project on Ecoaesthetics.

 Keywords: Ponkaala rite, aadavum daivavum, ascetism, naga mandala, literary works, vishnunarayanan namboothiri, fertility rite, ecologist feminist subversion, religious institutions, vishnunarayanan, ecofeminism, ecosophy

This paper is an attempt to read a ritual and three literary works relating the socio-religious institution of sacrifice and the recently evolved/evolving literary critical practice of ecological feminism. The pre-historic pattern of sacrifice was the sacrifice of a male by a powerful and fierce goddess or queen—for example, as depicted in numerous literary works like W.B. Yeats’s A Full Moon in March and Vishnunarayanan Namboothiri’ s ‘Narabali.’ The term ‘sacrifice’ comes from the Latin sacificium, which means ‘set apart.’ So, sacrifice is something set apart for God or Goddess and the Sanskrit/Malayalam equivalent is naivedyam.

The primitive societies preserved internal harmony and strengthened tribal solidarity by sacrificial practices. ‘Sacrifice is presented overtly as a service to the gods or participation in a cosmic process, but its true function is to promote and sustain group integration, on the one side, and to maintain distinctions within the group, on the other.’(White, 4) Ecologically, sacrifice is for replenishing the earth and conserving fertility and, hence the phrase ‘fertility rite.’ All such assumptions of woman-centred societies were later upset by the advancement of man-centred ones. Marilyn French in Beyond Power: On Women, Men and Morals remarks:

Patriarchy established itself with the idea of sacrifice: only sacrifice of something precious could prove men’s fidelity to a transcendent being who demanded obedience. The sacrifices required were of those relationships most dear to men, which could undermine their commitment to the transcendent deity—relationships with their children and their women. Men were taught to view these connections as secondary, even contaminated, since they involved men in nature, body, and emotion, the very elements that were to be transcended. (564-565)

Asceticism, thus, is a male institution. This necessitates, in the context of this paper, a discussion of the term ‘pro-worldly asceticism,’ much favoured by deep ecology and ecofeminism. This is done in connection with Vishnunarayanan Namboothiri’s ‘Aadavum Daivavum.’ The texts analyzed here—one ritual and three literary works—contain the motif of the male intrusion into female space/the subversion of the female power of/right to fecundity. ‘Woman and nature are the inevitable sources of birth and subsistence for any form of life’ and ‘both are the sources and symbols of fertility.’ (Ramakrishnan, 91) This cardinal dictum of ecofeminism relates all the texts analyzed in this paper.

In spite of male domination in all walks of life, the remnants of the pre-historic, woman-centred epochs, for example, there are still very few rituals performed by womankind. Aattukal Ponkaala in Thiruvananthapuram is such a one. The subversive possibility of this ritual and mankind’s modernity-loudspeaker-centred technique by which the woman-centred rite is eclipsed to the utmost limit constitute the context of the discussion of the ritual.

Ponkaala can be simply explicated as a harvest festival or a fertility rite. It is a legacy of the pre-historical woman-centred epoch and Earth-Goddess worship. A part of what is given by Bhu-Maata Anna Poorna or Earth Mother is given back to Her in the form of golden pot offering. When the rice is boiled with the turmeric powder, it becomes golden. Ponkaala is the combination of two Tamil words: pon and kala signifying ‘gold pot.’ The second word can also be kaala, which stands for ‘garland of paddy seeds.’

The sub/altern feminist possibility inherent in this rite is evident in the rule of the custom that the ponkaala premises can be occupied only by womankind. Mankind has no entry into the yajnasala. The only deity who can produce food is Annapoorna.

The Ponkaala Goddess is an Annapoorna. Women do Ponkaala offering, in thousands of pots, filled in full with boiled yellow rice. This south Indian Ponkaala Goddess has been very particular that mankind should not pollute her premises and break the penance of her beloved devotees. Moreover, the rite has got the approval of the dominant mankind as the ponkaala offering is performed for the ‘welfare of husbands.’

Without demolishing the societal structure as a whole, womankind make a room of their own by this ritual. How this attempt, or to be more precise, the expansion of the frontiers /spheres of influence of this subversive possibility, is crippled/controlled/put in check by mankind? If ponkaala rite is subversion in the sense that it is an indirect intrusion into the male monopoly of power to perform dominant rituals, then, the male folks’ act of sounding loudspeakers around the ponkaala premises is the subversion of the female action of subversion. By resorting to the modernity’s machines, the members of bhaktajanasamitis (local associations of male devotees) make the life of female devotees as miserable as possible. As the mankind are prohibited from entering ponkaala premises territorially, they enter by air. The anti-ecological, air-polluting loudspeakers are in effect a cruel encroachment upon women’s territory, not terrestrial but atmospheric. The rooms made by women as their own, for self-expression and survival, are converted to horrible furnaces by air and fire. The penance and self-sacrifice self–inflicted become all the more excruciating as agony is imposed upon the womankind from outside. Loudspeakers pollute ponkaala premises and female rooms.

In the above analysis, it is seen that mankind as represented by bhaktajanasamitis try to subvert womankind’s attempt to revive or retrieve ecofeminist rites of the pre-historic, woman-centred epochs. Another ritual ascribed to the goddess-centred, pre-historic epochs is the sacrifice of the male-hero or his surrogate by the goddess or her representative, an oracle. The Malayalam poet, ecological activist and spiritual ecologist Vishnunarayanan Namboothiri’s poem ‘Narabali’ (Human Sacrifice) deals with that ritual.

Here, the fertility ritual is appropriated/ adapted by a ruler or leader to destroy a political rival. The political leader/ruler assumes the role of the goddess’s oracle and decides to sacrifice his young rival as if the goddess Kaali has ordained it. The first stanza of the poem describes the formalities of the immolatory ritual. The last step prior to the sacrifice proper is adorning the scapegoat, yaagapasu with the blood-red coloured flower, tetchi (ixora coccinia). All the preparations for the rite are over. The balikkallu has been cleaned. The saber for beheading the scapegoat has been sharpened and the blade shines like embers. Rice and tulasi have been showered upon the scapegoat’s head. Drum, cymbal and conch shell are sounding the music of the sacrificial rite. The ruler-oracle speeds up the proceedings. The scapegoat should be clothed with red silk so that he will be/ his sacrifice will be acceptable to the goddess.

The next stanza presents the oracle’s explanation regarding the appropriacy of selecting the sanguine youth as the scapegoat. The body of this youngman is free from dust and other kinds of pollution. Being beautiful, demanding comparison with the enticing red champaka flower, he is an ideal choice for the sacrifice. The whole clan will be replenished or rejuvenated by his sacrifice. The tribe is fortunate in the sense that the goddess Kaali has selected him as her victim. Moreover, it is he who has performed the sacrifices as blissfully ordered by the Goddess. The powerful oracle commands once again to speed up the immolatory ritual, as the libation—the act of anointing the earth with the tender and fresh blood of the sacrificed— should be performed immediately.

The goddess stands upon the altar laughing. Her seat is full of the dried adhesive blood of human sacrifices. Long pendants of skulls cover her soft and near naked body. She stares at her latest victim and welcomes him by moving her tongue. In one hand there is the sacred saber that always vibrates; on the other, there is the head of her victim. Uncombed, untied and luxuriant hair of the goddess trembles. The ruler-oracle begs the goddess to accept their/the clan’s sacrifice. The goddess, being a donator of blessings, may generously give the clan all kinds of plenty and glory. The promises of sacrifice are fertile land replenished with rivers, houses full of children and farm fields with sumptuous crops—these are the assumptions behind pre-historic, ecofeminist, sacrificial fertility rite. So once again the leader-oracle prompts to perform the sacrifice immediately.

A terrible surprise waits for the leader-oracle. The sacred saber beheads the scapegoat and the fresh blood reddens the surrounding soil. But when the hot blood collected in a plate is raised before the mouth/face of the Goddess, the leader-oracle finds that the greedy goddess gazes and goggles. Contrary to the leader’s expectation, she is not propitiated and peaceful.

Shaking her tongue violently, she demands one fresher victim. The frightening truth dawns upon the leader that the goddess beckons/signals none other than the leader as the next/fresher victim. He feels that he is caught in the clutches of a deadly tigress.This poem, written in 1970 at the time of the atrocities committed by the West Pakistan military in East Pakistan (now, Bangladesh) and the decapitations and bloody attacks organized by the Naxalite movement in Keralam, has the message that violence can gain nothing and, in the long run, it may recoil upon the organizer. The appropriation/adaptation of the ritual of sacrifice by the leader-oracle to subvert the power or popularity wielded by his young rival also backfires. In the ponkaala rite the attempt of womankind to get at least one day’s right to perform a ritual is made all the more agonizing by mankind. In ‘Narabali’ the goddess Kaali understands that the real aim of the oracle, a man, is the snatching of power, not replenishing his mother/land. In the ponkaala ritual mankind is anxious about the remote possibility of the revival of the prehistoric woman-centred epoch. The poet Vishnunarayanan Namboothiri retrieves such an epoch by describing the goddess-centred ritual and installing her in an extremely powerful seat.

The same poet has another poem, ‘Aadavum Daivavum’ (Adam and God) (Bhoomi Geetangal 10-16), where Adam subverts God’s attempt to bring him back to paradise. The poem is a dialogue between Adam and God. In the context of this paper, an ecofeminist reading, this poem supplies some significant postulations of proworldly asceticism that is favoured by ecofeminism and deep ecology.

One evening, some years after the eviction of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden god comes to Adam’s hut. Adam is surprised at the visit/visitation of God. The visitor introduces himself as God. Adam asks about the motivation or purpose of the visit. God replies that He is fed up with the solitude in heaven. He has denied himself the experience of the mirth of blooming flower buds, the maternal affection of a fruit-bearing tree branch and the touching sorrow of a loving heart. The denial of such life-giving exposures, involvements and empathy, God tells, has made him suffer the torments of demoralizing loneliness. Adam intervenes and remarks that he thought that God might have been amused at the sight of man’s hardships and sufferings on earth.

God replies that Adam has not been laughed at. Instead, God is jealous and that jealousy attests appreciation. When Adam brought forth crops and food by hard labour, ‘by the sweat of his brow,’ suffered diseases, torture and death, at first, God tells that He had felt triumphant and rejoiced, as He thought that the recalcitrant man was given an appropriate punishment. But, when the re/sourceful earth became replenished and flowering, because of man’s patience, perseverance and determination, when rapturous hopes and fruits of gratification were produced, in short, another Eden, an Eden of happiness and sorrow, was established upon the foundation of hard human labour, God felt that His flag of victory had shrunk into insignificance. God confesses that what Adam ate—the fruit of the forbidden tree—is, in fact, the sweet fruit of knowledge; and, what He is/has been eating is the bitter outer shell of it. God adds that Adam’s pride is virtuous and that his confidence/pride abates or dwindles his fire of sorrow. God appreciates his zest for life and the ecstasy/fulfillment/gratification in hard labour. God reckons that the divine curse has become a blessing in disguise and the punishment man’s path of salvation. God declares that He is ready to pardon Adam’s act of transgression and desires to invite Adam to Paradise.

Extending formal thanks to God, Adam retorts that God has not so far mentioned Eve. It was she who encouraged the first act of disobedience and enticed the punishment, or in other words, Eve has been behind all the achievements. God has to call her also back. Moreover, Adam had taken the vow—during the marriage ceremony—that he would not move without Eve. Only gods can unknot their hands; mankind, the ever suffering, cannot. In unambiguous terms, Adam reminds God that Eve is the index/apex of his life’s achievements. Without Eve even the Garden of Eden is worthless for him. God accepts all the demands of Adam. God is prepared to readmit Eve into Eden, if Adam is ready to join Him in the heavenly abode, breaking God’s loneliness.

Adam seeks God’s pardon for turning down the request. He is so acclimatized with his life on earth that he feels self-realisation as a search for discovering the true essence of earthly life. Moreover; his search for finding out the truths behind the ever-developing, ever-unfolding and ever-blooming experiences and experiments on earthly life makes Adam describe the life in the paradise as a phantasy or illusion. God declares His decision to depart and Adam wishes God peace of mind during the rest of His life.

In the analysis of ponkaala rite one can read the teleology of womankind to subvert mankind’s domination, for a day. The discussion of ‘Aadavum Daivavum’ brings out the attempt of the First Man, Adam, to question God’s strategy of not mentioning the First Woman, which is Eve. God tries to make Eve invisible as if she is not in the picture, or in other words, she has no voice/part in decision-making. The ponkaala women appropriate the taboo directed towards mankind that they should not enter the ponkaala premises. Adam adopts/adapts the oath taken by couples during religiously/ritually approved marriage ceremonies—Adam reminds God that only gods can unknot hands once joined ritually. Eve, his life-partner, has equal share/responsibility/claim in all the affairs of Adam in the post marital scenario. Adam is telling God that chastity simply does not mean paativruthyam, but also patniivrutathvam.

Girish Karnad’s Naga Mandala (The Sphere of {the influence of} the Serpent) also lends room for reading an ecological feminist act of subversion. The heroine of the main plot, namely Rani, is cruelly ill-treated by her husband, Appanna. He does not recognize her womanhood. During the daytime she is kept under lock and key and he goes away from home and keeps the company of a concubine. An old woman gives her a magical root that can fetch her love of a husband, if he eats it. A Naga (serpent, cobra) eats the root. It visits her every night in the form of her husband, Appanna. When she manifests signs of pregnancy, Appanna is angry and he appeals to the elders of the village to punish her after conducting the traditional chastity trial and ordeal. Rani chooses the cobra trial and before the assembly of the villagers, she brings a cobra from the anthill. To everybody’s surprise the cobra does not bite her. Instead, it coils around her curly hair and forms an umbrella with its hood. The elders of the village declare her to be a goddess and instruct Appanna to do devotional service to the new deity. Later, when the cobra dies she makes her son do funeral service to the ‘animal father.’

The myth of the serpent lover can be read as the invention of the female characters—the elderly woman of the village, the only one who senses Rani’s sorrow and sympathises with her. The chastity trial suggested by Appanna backfires upon the power monger, as in the case of the leader / oracle of the poem ‘Narabali.’ Rani’s attempt to lead a normal conjugal life does not succeed, as she does not win the love/confidence of her husband. She establishes her fertility/maternity only by an illicit life-partnership with the cobra. Though she wins in the snake ordeal, she does not become a ‘normal’ wife or life partner. Out of the directive of the village elders she is declared as a goddess, still denied of the delightful experiences of happy domestic life in this world. Adam in ‘Aadavum Daivavum’ prefers this worldly life to that of paradise. The action of the cobra in tempting/leading gradually into a life based on female fertility is illegal only in the eyes of male ideology or worldview. Deep ecology and ecological feminism and such schools of ecosophy look upon even the action of the snake in the Biblical myth in tempting Eve and Adam to abandon the ‘sterile’ life of the Garden of Eden, as positive/progressive. The cobra in Naga Mandala also liberates the heroine, Rani from a life of sterility and slavery. But the village elders, a male institution, doom her to the inactive and fruitless life of a goddess.

For deciphering the fertility principle—the preservation and propagation of life in this world, not the eternal life/salvation in any paradesam (the other world or paradise)—inherent in ecofeminist texts including the ponkaala rite, one has to go through some of the postulations of proworldly asceticism. Analyzing ecological spirituality, M.Deenabandhu remarks that Buddhism contains a combination of ecological ideals and ascetic principles (Deenabandhu12). Quoting from Buddhist hymns of universal benediction, he observes that the exhortation for ‘ unlimited self giving compassion towards all creatures’(Deenabandhu 12) and the recognition of ‘selfish craving as responsible for the imbalance in relationships between and among humans and nature’(12) to be the ideas of proworldly asceticism. Alan Drengson’s explication of the main principles of ecosophy enables understanding of proworldly asceticism—or in the context of this study, especially with special reference to ‘Aadavum Daivavum,’ ‘ecological asceticism.’ Drengson enumerates eight cardinal/platform principles of ecosophy/deep ecology. Of them the first three are given below:

1. The well being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent value). These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.

2. Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realizations of these values and are also values in themselves.

3. Humans have no right to reduce the richness and diversity except to satisfy vital human needs. (11)

The fertility principle of woman-centric/goddess centred rituals like ponkaala rites acquire dimensions like ‘the flourishing of human and nonhuman life on earth’ and ‘richness and diversity of life forms’ in ecosophical schools like ecofeminism. Here the emphasis is upon this world, or it is proworldly. As asceticism it may demand self-realization. But, as Drengson observes, ‘The Self to be realized for humans is not the ego self (small s), but the larger ecological Self (cap S)’ (12) Adam in the poem ‘Aadavum Daivavum’ attempts for realizing this ‘larger ecological self.’

The analysis of the ponkaala rite, the two poems, ‘Narabali’ and ‘Aadavum Daivavum,’ and the drama, Naga Mandala shows that mankind, in varying degree and kind, pollute/defile womankind’s fertility surges— in ponkaala rite the loud speaker attack/encroachment, in ‘Narabali’ the misappropriation of sacrificial rite for power, in ‘Aadavum Daivavum’ the attempt to eclipse the First Woman’s achievement and in Naga Mandala the assertion of male power and the denial of a fulfilling life to Rani.


Deenabandhu, M. (1996), ‘Five Meditations on Eco-Spirituality,’ Ecology and Spirituality, ed. Mathai Zachariah, India Peace Centre, Nagpur.

Drengson, Alan. ‘Overview of Ecophilosophy: The Deep Ecology Movement and the Ecosophy,’ <http:// www.deep-ecology.net/ writing >21 March 1999. 21 April 2003.

French, Marilyn. (1986), Beyond Power: On Women, Men and Moral, Sphere, London. 
Karnad, Girish. (1990), Naga Mandala, Oxford UP, Chennai.

Namboothiri, Vishnunarayanan. (1978), Bhoomigeetangal, National Book Stall, Kottayam.
—. (1979) India Enna Vikaram, Sahitya Pravartaka Co-op.Society, Kottayam. 2nd ed. 1989.

Nampoothiri, Vamanan. ‘Burial and Resurrection of Mother Goddess: Nationalistic Poems on Human Sacrifice,’ Malayalam Literary Survey. Thrissoor: Kerala Sahitya Akademi, (Jan-March 1997): 60-69.

Ramakrishnan, M. (2001), Ecosophy: Vision Beyond Human Vainglory, Pen Books, Aluva.
White, Hayden. ‘Ethnological “Lie” and Mythological “Truth,” ’ Rev. of Violence and the Sacred by Rene Girard. Diacritics (1978) 8.1: 2-9.

Yeats, W.B. (1960), A Full Moon in March.1935. in The Collected Plays, Macmillan, London.

VAMANAN NAMBOOTHIRI . Teaches at the S.D. College, Alappuzha. Has written many research articles.

Default image
Teaches at the S.D. College, Alappuzha. Has written many research articles.

Newsletter Updates

Enter your email address below to subscribe to our newsletter

Leave a Reply

Physical Address

304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124