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Odiyan: The lost Assassins Of Feudal Kerala

It was in and around the 50s and 60s of the 20th century in the feudal lands of Kerala; two sects of martial artists came to emergence. The first was the Chekavars, let's say the Kerala version of the Samurai, and the second, the Odiyans, let's also say the Kerala version of Ninja. 

History doesn't favor the ones who keep themself silent in the runes, and many such practices that passed down from generation to generation exclusively orally have been lost from the world. The age-old idea, of keeping secret societies sacred and secret might be the very reason why we talk about it.

The Plot

The Valluvanad province is confined by the parts of the present Malappuram, Palakkad, and Thrissur districts of Kerala. It is the cultural capital of the state. Snake Charmers, folk singers, black magic, mystics, and wizards of scholarly grandeur, makes this land the perfect abode for the likely or unlikely superficial. The land that homes Bagavathi in a million forms, as the sun sets, turns into grounds for dark magic.

The Sanctum sanctorum which houses deities carved out of stone and bark are bread crumbs that show the old ways of lower caste worship, existed. But with the rise of the brahminical system, these lower castes were robbed of their temples. 

It is in a strange sense of unity that even to this day, god and goddesses (for example, the institution of Velichappadu) walk in the courtyards of such Tharavadus (families) in the present day of space exploration. This land has already laid its roots of fear for its dark eerie beauty that befriends you by the day and deceives you by night.

The rivalry between various Tharavadu, or between people that stretched to the extent of contract kills, became a plot for these stories. As the so-called Brahmanical system favored the upper caste, they assigned the lower caste to do their dirty work. This sudden need for great physical and mystical capabilities, which some lower caste had already inherited through bloodline, and lifestyle helped them to survive better, than others in the society. The Paraya, the Pulaya, the Paana, and the Choklear were some of the lower castes of the time. In this, some families of the Paraya caste are said to have often practiced the art of Odiyan.  

Thus Odiyan clans became more visible elements of the society.

The Artist

The artist follows his ancestral path into the mystic art of Odi-Vidhya with initiation from his early days. Enormous physique and expertise in martial arts were only a few of the talents one acquired through rigorous training. Beyond that, he was toughened, from within like nature itself. Once the sun had set, even the most familiar of the neighborhood turned into reeking darkness. One, while strolling at night may come across the scary sights of the Odiyan who may be undergoing sessions of rituals in a pyre ground or any ordinary water body, or in the worst case in his Odiyan form. 

As the Odiyan grows, he becomes the darkness of the night. 

The Odiyan was profoundly used by the upper caste to protect their lands. But they were clinical perfections for either frightening their enemies, injuring them, or even killing them if demanded. 

A story so goes of a rich lord, in the fertile lands of Valluavanad. Who to his shock found out, that a portion of his harvest was getting stolen by thieves. Like any other lord, he also assorted to his group of Odiyans and signed the contract to kill whoever was behind it. But very soon, his three sons, one after the other perished. The lord was keen to find out, what had happened to his beloved sons. But it was too late for him when the cheapskate realized, it was he who had trapped his sons. To save his last born, the lord begged, to revoke the contract, which an Odiyan clan never do. 

The Art

The Odiyan, a human during the day, works in the farmlands and households of the lords. He, like every other, needs to earn to support his family. Unlike the Brahmin who makes a living out of the mantra he has learned, the Odiyan is not a profession of respect. A tool during the day and at night, the Odiyan lurks throughout society as a cursed crusader. 

The Odiyan is infamous for his most mythical ability, an animagus, the ability to shapeshift into any animal of desire (Read Harry Potter for more animagus stories). When he receives a contract, his act begins with the search for a pregnant lady in the neighborhood. He marks her location by the day and visits by night. Because of such threats during those times, all pregnant women were asked to stay indoors after sunset. Pregnant women were also removed, from possible sights of any lower caste people for the same reason.

The Odiyan travels in the shape of any animal: a bull, a dog, a wolf, etc., and are recognized by their deformity. A three-legged dog, a bull without its tail, or a wolf with three eyes. ‘For shapeshifting into these animals or inanimate objects like the bamboo stocks, he needs special oil made from the dead fetus,’ states the present-day members of the clan who can barely remember the stories from their past about the practices and rituals that have been long lost.

The pregnant woman walks out of her home unconscious, to him who hides in the darkness. In the heat of his mantras, she is slit open and her fetus taken away. She then walks back to her bed, where she is found to have bled to death by morning. 

In other cases, when subjected to immense terror by parlor tricks and she falls for a case of premature delivery. In most such circumstances, the child is lost due to the shocks of terror that she had experienced. Once this fetus is buried, the Odiyan is out digging the burial ground to acquire the fetus. The fetus is tied to a stick above a fireplace and a special oil is extracted from it. The oil when rubbed on his ears is said to gift him with mystical powers. Which enables him to become a feisty, strong, and shape-shifting assassin. 

After fulfilling the contract, it is at Odiyan’s own risk to hide his identity, which makes it twice dangerous for people to come face to face with him on his way home. ‘A bath in steamy hot water as soon as reaching home removes the effects of the oil, and it is only after that they return to their normal lives,’ states my lucky enough uncle who had perched a tree to save himself from the Odiyan men returning home. 

The rituals, the shape-shifting, the parlor tricks, the physical training of everything comes to play, when the Odiyan sets out to scare a society in which many explicit, personas and a generation hardened by the ethnic martial arts of Kalari lived. Those who have fought the Odiyan and got away very often did not live for more than an hour. When the Odiyan finds that his prey is slipping away, he spreads poison on their lips that by the time they have made their weaker attempts at escaping will have them suffocate to death in their vomit of blood.

The New Era 

The practice of Odiyan came to an end with the emergence of technology into livelihoods, especially electricity and public light posts during nights. Many Odiyan clans have quit on their ways, while others are forced to run off due to threats made by the public. By the end of the Odiyan era, police stations had become effective, and therefore the wealthy upper castes had changed their methods to legal battles.

The stories of Odiyan now remain in between the rationalists, who believe all of it to be an exaggeration of folklore, and their present-day successors who still believe in the watchful eye of their forefathers. 

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Tags: India Indian Kerala culture odiyan superstitions history folklore black magic tradition dark myths


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