Garudan Thookam or Eagle hanging is a fascinating yet shocking ritual art form where devotees dress up like Garuda (eagle) literally hang their bodies in the air with their backs clenched on by hooks.
It is mainly performed in temples of Goddess Kali, the one known for her fierce wrath that destroyed many demons.
For the rituals the performers first dress up as Garuda – an eagle, also known as the vehicle of Lord Vishnu, and dance in the temple premises to appease the angry Goddess.
As per a legend Garuda was sent to quench goddess Kali’s thirst for blood after she slew a demon named Darika and the dance ritual symbolizes the same.
After the dance performance those devotees, who have been undergoing special abstinence period before the performance day, are hanged on shafts by hooking on the flesh of their backs.
Then these hanging men or symbols of Garudas are taken around the city in specially designed carts or vehicles also known as Thookavelli, which supports the horizontal shafts.
It is a grand procession where 40 to 50 men are hung on the shaft with hooks piercing their back. The colorful procession accompanied by traditional Chenda drum players is witnessed by thousands of spectators who cheer the devotees for their extreme level of self-torture devotion
The ritual is usually performed by devotees who want to express their gratitude towards Goddess Kali for solving problems in the lives. The ritual is exclusively performed by men only, who have to undergo a strict penance of 41 days before the performance day.
They are mentally and physically prepared to get on to the hooks during their penance period by sticking to abstinence from meat, intoxicants, and s$xual activities, and their bodies are rubbed with special oils every day.
The ritual of Garuda Thookam is usually performed during the night in the temples dedicated to Goddess Kali and it is performed during the Meena Bharani festival or Kumbha Bharani festival, which usually falls in the month of March-April. The Garuda Thookam of Travancore and Kochi are the prominent ones.
The performance at Elamakavu Devi Temple in Vaikom, Varanad in Kottayamm district is of the most famous ones, where the Garudans – the hanging devotees are taken in illuminated boats on the river following a three-storied floating makeshift temple of Goddess Kali.
The ritual is also performed at various other temples in the state like at the Pallikkalkavu Bhagavathi temple in Kottayam district, Kottekkavu Bhagavathy temple, and Araynkavu Devi temple in Ernakulam district and Irapuram Devi temple near Permbavur.
Kerala is a well-connected state and can be reached by road, by train, and by air. One can reach the capital Thiruvananthapuram or Kochi by flight and then opt for buses, private taxis, or autorickshaw to reach the temples.
Make sure to check with some local temples regarding the exact dates of the performance before booking your tickets, so that you don’t miss out on the actual act.
Also, keep in mind the weather during the period can be quite humid. Since the ritual is witnessed by thousands of spectators be wary of large crowds. Respect the local culture and their beliefs and you are set to witness an extraordinary feat of devotion.