My mother belongs to what you can call a typical orthodox Malayali Nair Tharavadu which in my grandmother's time was a Naalukettu and her grandmother's time was an Ettukettu. For those who are not familiar with Kerala's cultural setting, a 'Tharavadu' refers to an Hindu ancestral home. Naalukettu, and Ettukettu( which is almost like a Naalukettu doubled, nalu being four and ettu being eight) is a traditional architectural style now on the verge of extinction. Nairs are a matriarchal society and the lineage passes from Mother to daughter. Unfortunately by the time I was born my mother's family had shifted from their orginal place which was 'Nelluvaya' to Trichur. The huge joint family was broken down into nulcear subgroups leaving the age old home with its huge 'Thodi' (frontyard and backyard combined) and sarpakaavu ( a sacred grove for serpents) to remain as fragments of memories, the backdrop of the very many stories or legends that runs in my family to this day.
When I was a child a good portion of my summer holidays was spent in rummaging the memories of my aging grandmother and her mother, who is thankfully still alive, to gather bits and pieces of my fading legacy. I constantly ransacked the 'Thattumpuram' ( somewhat like an attic) of my mom's tharavadu ( which is traditional but sadly not a naalukettu) looking for anything that could link me to that long forsaken home. I know for a fact that it doesnt exist now, the Naalukettu with all its pride and glory, though the saarpakavu is still preserved with yearly rituals. But somehow it still stands, high and mighty, in my imagination and continues to be an obsession.
The stories of the legendary 'Odiyan' are plenty in my family (skip the final two generations). He has always appealed to me more than his counterparts like Chattan, Kuttichatan, Gandharvan, Marutha etc. Odiyan is an indispensable part of mallu folklore. They are supposed to be people practicing black magic which helped them to acquire the shape of animals or things. To be more precise, though they dont physically change into anything, the intended victim while looking at the odiyan would be seeing a cat or a bull or a rock or anything that the odiyan wants. The power of the odiyan was so immense that any physical contact with him could result in instant death. He could charm you as a harmless calf or charge at you as an angry bull.
I would classify 'odiyans' as hitmen of olden times. They were set up by rivaling uppercaste families and were paid for their services. The interesting hitch in the story is, while the 'marunnukootu' ie the ingredients for the secret portion and the way of preparing it was held secret by the upper castes, they themselves never performed the 'odividya' ( the art of the odiyans'). Instead they chose people belonging to the lower castes like Paanan, Pulayan and Chovan, taught them the rituals and stuff and made them do their dirty work. This was because apparently the person who practiced as an odiyan was bound to die sooner or later by his own sword.
The thing that gives me goosebumps about the odiyans is not their very concept or the eerie stories told by my grandma but the way they made their secret medicine. Legend has it that the odiyans made a secret medicine out of the fluid carrying the unborn fetus. This was mixed with some secret herbs to make some sort of an oil mixture which was then places behind the ears of the odiyan. The odiyan had his powers as long as the mixture was behind his ears. Some alternate versions however claims that the odiyans would appear as animals or things to everyone and not just his victim and that an odiyan can transform back to human only when his master or helper removed this oil from behind his ear with a special stick. What is even more creepy are claims about how these people charmed pregnant women and lured them from their homes in their sleep and slit their stomach to take the fluid. The woman would be found dead in her bed the following morning without any cut marks on her body. Creepiee... dont you think??
I would tell you a little odiyan story connected to my family now. This is about how my grandmother's grandmother died. Apparently she had a rivalry with some distant relative. Once when she had gone out to the temple pond at around 4 am in the morning she saw a calf, which kept on following her. Suspicious she skipped the bath and hurried back home. This calf kept on following her and started to grow bigger and bigger in size. The calf brushed against her and disappeared and she started sweating profusely. My grandmother's mother, ie her daughter, took her to her bed and she died that evening. There is another one about my grandfather. Once long back, while he was about 10 or 12 years old, he went to the field with this brother, who was around 8 or 9. This was again at around 5 am in the morning. They had their dog with them. When they reached the middle of the field the dog wouldnt let them move any farther. It blocked their way. After sometime they saw this huge ball of fire about the size of a man at around one feet from them. It glowed for a while and then circled the feild fast and started chasing them. Luckily they ran back home and nothing happened.
I know these stories sound silly and that the odiyans are now considered as nothing more than another manifestation of superstition among innocent village people. As time progressed, and modern education crept into villages emancipating the lower castes, things like Odiyans and the beliefs associated with it disappeared. One can appreciate a thing or a belief like this only when we consider the time when it existed and its historical backdrop. I have never met an odiyan ( or any other ghost or paranormal being) in my life and I cant say for sure that such things exist. But nevertheless the Odiyan , appearing and disappearing on rainy evenings spent in my grandmother's lap, continues to be, for me, an enigma a mystery and a childhood friend. :)