Religion and Moral Lessons in South India Folklore

Contemplating on the theme of “folklore,” I recalled a scene from my new release, Crooked Lines, where Sagai, one of the two main characters, has hitched a ride on back of a bullock cart in South India to get to the orphanage where, as a young seminarian, he will spend a few months caring for children at a run-down orphanage.

Along the way, Sagai happens upon a Hindu folklore tradition. This scene below was taken from a true scenario that my husband had experienced as a young seminarian in Tamil Nadu, South India in the early 1980s. This scene offers a peek at South India Folklore-Theru Koothu. (which means street play).

Sounds of singing, flutes, and drumming whirled in the night air along with aromatic holy ash, incense, and burning oil. Sagai scooted the suitcase behind his back and sat up. An elephant blessed children with its trunk. This wasn’t the Christian orphanage, but a Hindu temple entrance.

Sagai rose to his knees. At the other entrance, a shop front displayed bowls of red powder and garlands, offerings to the deity.
Over the din, he yelled. “Why did we stop?”

“Road block.”

He stood on the back of the cart, curious about the crowd beside the temple. Gaslights propped on pillars cast a glow over a musical troupe. Actors and actresses in dramatic make-up and elaborate colorful costumes watched the musicians.

images (2)The folklore tradition–Theru Koothu–was a street play performed in a junction, in open air, to teach a moral lesson to the community.

When the musical interlude ended, musicians retreated to a wooden bench. Actors and actresses took center stage and the bullock driver leaned back and crossed his arms.

A man dressed in king’s finery sat on a gold painted throne in the middle of the street.

“Lord Rama, we do not want you to take a soiled wife.” One of the actors bowed before the makeshift throne.

A scene from Uttara Ramayana! He knew this play very well, already half over. When Rama returned to Ayodhya after killing the demon king Ravana and rescuing his wife, Sita, he was crowned king. However, Rama’s subjects rejected Sita as their queen because she was no longer pure.

“But as king, I must perform many rituals and in all of them, the presence of a wife is required.” Lord Rama raised his hand under the gas lamp glow.

untitled (21)The street scene ended with a compromise. A golden effigy of Sita was placed next to Rama as he performed necessary rituals.

After the scene, a clown ran into the street, a custom to digress from the religious theme to a present village issue. It seemed the headman had some moral issues of his own. The clown lampooned him for taking advantage of certain village women.

The driver, not so interested in the moral lesson, clicked his tongue and snapped the ropes. The bullocks headed down a new road. So, not a road block after all, but an entertainment break. Sagai leaned back and stared up into the night sky, wondering what lay ahead for him in Andimadam.

Later, in that same chapter, after caring for the orphans in Andimadam, Sagai takes the children to the town center where  Christians perform a Vasagapa–a street play that involves the entire community (even Hindus). This is based on a true event that occurs each Holy Week in this small Tamil Nadu village. Here’s a look at that scene from CROOKED LINES:

On Maundy Thursday, as the church bell struck twelve, Sagai and his youth group stood on the parish steps. Residents from surrounding villages, Christians and Hindus alike, arrived as the scene opened in the Garden of Gethsemane. A few boys gasped and grabbed onto Sagai’s arm when the frightening Roman soldiers arrived to arrest Jesus, taking him to the Sanhedrin to Pontius Pilate.

When they tied Jesus to the pillar, Balu wiped his eyes. The brutality, so well performed, ripped through Sagai’s heart as if he were the one being flogged. Feeling each lash, he held back tears, as his body flinched. The women and children didn’t control their emotions. Gasps, sobs and wails penetrated the solemn night.

At dawn, Sagai and the boys entered the chapel to sit in silent adoration before the Blessed Sacrament–the Body of Christ. At noon, the way of the cross began. A few who’d been fasting, swooned in the street as they followed Christ’s last steps on earth. Sagai also felt weary, but bore his discomfort as penance for the heavy weight of his own sins, especially his struggle with blind obedience and his occasional revulsion against superiors.

Along the way, villagers served water and buttermilk from clay pots. By the fifth station, Jesus grew weary and fell. Impatient, the soldiers pulled Simon of Cyrene out of the crowd and ordered him to help carry the cross. Sagai kept his eyes on Jesus, how he suffered, yet continued on towards his death–for a purpose.

He breathed a prayer. Jesus, let me also help carry your cross by carrying the crosses of others. Let me be Simon. Make me strong, Lord. This path toward priesthood is long and difficult.

Soldiers pressed Jesus’ arms onto the large wooden cross, and holding down his hands, seemed to press nails into His flesh. A heavy hammer fell with a clang. Metal on metal. Metal into flesh and wood. Children held their hands over their mouths and over their hearts, women and men gasped and cried out loudly. Many fell to the dirt, wailing.

The fourteenth station, where Jesus was laid in the tomb, brought everyone back to the church. Sagai stood with the boys, staring at the stripped bare altar. In complete silence, they surrounded the cross as though sitting around a coffin.
During the meditation on the last seven words of Christ from the cross, one the orphans tugged on Sagai’s arm. “Did my sin cause Jesus’ death?”

“All of our sins did.”

Balu and his friends lowered their head as the boy lay prostrate before the cross and wept. “Oh, Jesus. I am so sorry.”

Most fell to their knees crying as if they’d lost a loved one.

The Passion narrative continued. Like a typical funeral procession, the body–a life size statue of Jesus, encased in a glass box, was carried to his burial place. Women fell in the street, struck their chests and cried out loud. He could not be a stoic participant any longer. Emotions bubbled up, choked in his throat, and along with the boys he wept openly.

Sagai and his group returned to the village Saturday night for the liturgy of the Paschal Vigil and the joyful celebration of the Resurrection. The sad faces of the previous days were filled with peace and joy. Dancing and shouts of hallelujah filled the streets.

Every culture and religion has an identity in folklore. In South India religious beliefs are a huge part of folklore that is often appreciated by those of all faiths.

Writing Prompts:

1. Study your region for folklore
2. Is it rooted in religious beliefs? How?
3. Identify the message being taught in the folklore.
4. Consider a message or a moral you’d like to convey.
5. Write your own folktale, adding your own twist and message and imagine it being acted out like a play.

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