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Master sculptor Kanayi Kunhiraman’s Yakshi at Malampuzha dam

My childhood had many influences which stoked my imagination and creativity. One of these was the ‘paravan’, the person whose job was to clamber up the coconut trees and drop coconuts. After going up and down a few trees, he would sit down and relax, chewing a combination of betel leaves, areca nuts, slaked lime and tobacco. Although I had strict orders not to associate myself with him, I would find some excuse to meander in the vicinity and join him because he was a treasure house of stories, mostly of the eerie variety, populated with demons and yakshis.

His favourite and often-told story involved one yakshi who would travel at midnight from the Thirunakkara temple in the centre of Kottayam town to a shrine at Ambalakadavu in the western part of the town. While on this trip she would rest for a while on the ‘Paala’ tree (Alstonia Scolaris, Saptaparni) at the edge of the compound of my ancestral house. I had spent many late-night occasions to spy on her through a vantage point, a window in our kitchen.

In the Kerala folklore, Yakshis are residents of Ezhilampaala (Pala) and Karimpana (Palmyrah palm). The doyen of Malayalam literature, C.V Raman Pillai has created the character, a yakshi named Kalliyangaattu Neeli in his celebrated novel Marthandavarma. The same character takes up a different name, Panjavangattu Neeli in Malayalam folksongs and folklore.

In the popular culture of Southern India, Yakshis are depicted as bloodthirsty female ghosts with a tragic legacy of betrayal in their past life in the human form. My Google research led me to a beautiful story by Keerthana Suresh (1): “The actual origins of Yakshis are obscure and antiquated and it is claimed that they predate Vedic times. Aside from the ghoulish characterization, Yakshis were believed to be nature deities signifying trees, rivers, and hills. They were later incorporated into Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism during Vedic times and were known to be guardian-type deities to the Gods and Goddesses of the upper echelons of Hinduism. Their new servitude status is the result of widespread Brahmanization which led to appropriation and assimilation of indigenous culture into the dominant Hinduism fold. Thus began the devolvement of Yakshis, much like the fate of the Valkyries, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Djinns, which were also usurped by dominating religions. The misogynistic and casteist downfall of Yakshis into demonic and evil female spirits was then popularized in Kerala literature starting from Kottarathil Sankunni’s ‘Aithihymala’ to Malayatoor Ramakrishnan’s ‘Yakshi’.”

I wrote the following poem in the summer of 2013. It was inspired by the reminiscences of my childhood and the stories which stoked my youthful imagination.

Alstonia Scolaris, Saptaparni to you and meof lenticellate branchlets and scented night blooms,of seven-fingered leaves in imperfect whorls,haunt of the Yakshis while they prowl in the night.

The leaves nodded to me and spoke of the nightof a recent visitation when she sat on these branchesbreaking her journey from temple to temple,hair flying in the wind, eyes pools of death.

She told the stories of blood, lust and destruction,of maniacal desire and many faces of deathto the wind, which shivered and wailed in the night,and came back and whispered them to the leaves.

The leaves trembled in a frenetic frenzy, satiated,yet asked for more stories of blood, lust and destructionto the wind, which, by this time was howling, whirlingand thrashing the branches in uncontrolled fear.

The leaves whispered to me while I was leavingof their hope for another night of visitation,trembling with expectation of what it would bringand what it would mean to be satiated with fright!

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