This is a Kerala folk tale is about Akavoor Chathan who was one of The Unique Twelve. He was called Akavoor Chathan because he served the Akavoor family. He lived at Akavoor Mana the house of the Akavoor family.
One day the head of the family told Chathan that he wanted to take a dip in the waters of the holy River Ganga.
“And why do you think you should do it?” enquired Chathan of his master.
“I have committed a sin. I have desired the wife of another man. According to the sastras, my sin will be forgiven and washed away if I take a dip in the holy waters of the Ganga. You must also come with me as I do not wish to travel alone to these strange lands.”
So master and servant set out. Along with his belongings Chathan also packed a wild gourd. When his master saw this he was curious to know why. Chathan, like his brother The Madman of Naaraanathu had quirky habits and was known for his eccentric behaviour.
“I’ll tell you when we get back.”
It was a journey of several months as Chathan and his master were residents of Kerala and the Ganga River flowed through the northern parts of India. After journeying for long the pair reached the Ganga River.
The master had a holy bath in the river. Chathan went along but he did not have a bath. But he dipped the wild gourd he had carried in the holy waters. The master had a bath in all the holy waters close to the place of pilgrimage. Chathan went along but never had a bath anywhere. But he was careful to dip the wild gourd in all the holy waters.
The master had noticed Chathan dip the wild gourd everywhere but being used to Chathan’s eccentric ways he had kept his mouth closed.
After the journey both master and servant reached their home and the master was extremely happy at having performed his penance and came to think of himself as absolved of all sins.
He performed a great yagna to please Chitragupta, the assistant to Lord Yama, the god of death. Chitragupta was the one who kept accounts for Yama. In his huge volumes, he wrote down every deed performed by every human. All deeds either went into the left column of the page or the right column depending on whether they were good or bad. And it was Chitragupta who decided whether a deed was good or bad – punya or paapa.
So it made perfect sense to please him since he was the person who totaled the left and right columns when a human died and decided whether your score was positive or negative. If it was positive, it meant that your good deeds or punya outweighed the bad ones or paapa and you would be assigned to heaven. On the other hand if your bad deeds outweighed the good ones you would end up in hell.
After performing the yagna, Chathan’s master declared himself absolved of all sins. He was very happy and pleased with himself.
On the day after, Chathan took out the wild gourd that he had carried with him and dipped in all the holy waters and cut it up and made a curry using it. Now, the wild gourd is a vegetable known for its bitterness.
The master sat down to have lunch. His wife served him the different curries along with rice on the plantain leaf and sat down beside him to have a chat. The master took one mouthful of the curry which looked very appetizing and almost spat it out.
“What is the vegetable you have used in this curry? It is so very bitter. How do you expect me to eat it?” said the master in annoyance.
“I don’t know what vegetable it is. It was Chathan who diced it and made the curry. Ask him,” said the wife.
So the master called Chathan and questioned him. “What was the vegetable you used in the curry?”
“I used the wild gourd,” said Chathan looking very innocent.
“You fool! Don’t you know that the wild gourd is a bitter vegetable?”
Chathan seemed very surprised. “Oh is the wild gourd still bitter? I thought it would have turned sweet by now.”
“Are you mental?” asked the master. “How can a wild gourd become sweet? It is its nature to be bitter.”
“You know master, it was the same wild gourd that I had carried with me on our pilgrimage and had dipped it in all the holy waters. Since the waters are thought to wash away sins, I thought they must also have the power to wash away the bitterness in the wild gourd.”
The master understood that Chathan was actually making fun of him for thinking that he had been absolved of his sin. Ashamed of himself and wanting to know what really should be done, he asked Chathan, “What should I do to atone for my sin?”
“Are you really prepared to do what I advise?” asked Chathan.
“Yes, I am,” said the master with steely determination.
“Okay, then. Here is what you should do. Since you desired a woman who was the wife of another man, you should have a life size iron statue of a woman made. Then you should invite all the people of this land and in front of them confess the sin you have committed. The iron statue should be heated till it turns red hot. After telling the assembly why you are doing so, you should embrace the red hot statue.”
“Agreed,” said the master and went about making arrangements.
He went to the blacksmith’s and ordered for a life size sculpture of a woman to be made. When it was ready he hired town criers to inform the people of the land. At every market and temple tank and wherever a crowd could be seen the town criers announced, “The master of Akavoor Mana has invited you all to bear witness to an act of penitence that he is going to perform under the Great Banyan Tree. This will take place on the first full moon night of the next month. Please assemble with all your kith and kin.”
Soon the first full moon night of the new month came by. As the sun set behind the blue of the Arabian Sea, a large crowd gathered under the Great Banyan Tree in great anticipation. Each and every person wondered what sin the master of Akavoor Mana had committed.
Soon the doors of the gatehouse of the Mana opened and the master came out accompanied by his ever faithful Chathan. The blacksmith and his assistants had already readied a huge fire and the life size statue of a woman was slowly turning red as it lay on the burning logs.
The master faced the crowd which had suddenly grown silent.
He said, “I have called you all here to bear witness to my act penance for a sin I committed. I desired a woman who was the wife of another man and cast my lustful eyes on her. Hence today, I’m going to punish myself by embracing this heated iron statue.”
Then he advanced towards the red hot sculpture. The whole crowd watched in horrified silence as he came nearer and nearer. When he was about to embrace the burning figure, Chathan held his hand and said, “Master, you need not perform the embrace. You have now truly absolved yourself of your sin.”
All the people gathered there agreed with Chathan and said that he had been forgiven because he had truly repented.
To know more about The Unique Twelve and other folk tales please visit the Folk Tales section of this blog.