Odiyan – The Shapeshifter Clan of Kerala Folklore

Karimpuzha Raman, Columnist

Valluvanad was a prominent feudal state in the late medieval times in Kerala. The area was also renowned for its cultural heritage and folklore, riddled with myths and stories of the supernatural and unnatural powers. This is also true of my native – Karimpuzha, a little village in Valluvanad. My family’s tryst with Karimpuzha began when my great grandfather moved to Karimpuzha to start a school, which was the only school of that time in the vicinity. This earned him respect and adoration of the people, who referred to him as “Mash” (master/teacher). Consequently, our house became a Master Madom. All sets of people came there to meet him and get their problems settled, and to draw upon his rich and diverse experiences. He shared his life experiences with his sons, which subsequently got passed down to us. One such experience of his I shall narrate below.

A late night, my grandfather was coming back from work, when while walking through the field, he saw an Athani (a hurdle/obstacle) in front of him, which had not been there previously. Suddenly, he heard a voice – “Thampuran, I’m waiting for someone else, not for you. Please take a different path”. My grandfather had only heard about “Odiyan”; for the first time, he had seen one in the shape of the hurdle. This story piqued our interest as kids, and we demanded to know more about these Odiyans. Our ancestors then gave us the following explanation.

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Odiyans were professional killers hired by the predominant community of landlords to assassinate their rival clans without any evidence. The word “Odi” means to break, and Odiyans operate by breaking the neck of the opponent, leaving no evidence of murder. During the older times in Kerala, these killings were orchestrated due to the rivalry and differences of opinion of the higher castes. People in those times believed in black magic, superpowers and unnatural elements. In the feudal society of those times, the landed class behaved very badly to their tenants and the working class. Severe disabilities were imposed on the untouchable castes like the Panans and the Pulayans. These people, in turn, used to worship evil Gods and engaged in Odiyan seva to gain unnatural powers. This gave them the power to assassinate their enemies, and also to render such services for their bosses for a price. Odiyans are shapeshifters, assuming a different shape from the original. To do so, they prepare a paste/oil made of a mix of different herbs and a killed human fetus, which they then apply on themselves or their earlobes to change their shape. As per their wish, Odiyans can assume a shape of their choice – buffalo, dog, athani etc. They then wait by the side of the road for their victim. The abnormal forms of the Odiyan – six-legged buffaloes, three-eyed etc. terrify the victims who remain rooted to the spot. The Odiyan seizes this opportunity to attack the victim and overpower him. It was on this basis that in earlier days, pregnant women were cautioned to not leave the house at odd hours. Also, Panans and Pulayans were not allowed to come near the vicinity of the pregnant woman. They usually identified a pregnant lady in the morning and at night near the so identified house. When the lady unconsciously walked towards them, they surgically opened the womb using bamboo or sharpened knives and extracted the human fetus for their use to make the Odi oil. The lady would then bleed to death in her bed, and the cause of death would generally go unascertained. The oil so made from the extracted fetus would last for a few Odi tricks.

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The Odiyans also carry poison with them as a plan B, so that if at all they fail in their primary act of breaking the neck of the victim, they put the poison on the lips of the victim to kill him. We were told one of the old cases where a family practicing Odi vidya attempted to kill a lady, which failed. They then put poison on her lips and killed her. This case became quite popular and the investigation was successful leading to the conviction of the Odiyan man (due to use of poison), who was hanged to death.

Even now the villagers of Valluvanad and North Kerala believe in Odiyan and their unnatural powers. But in the modern world driven by technology and the mad rush of an urban lifestyle, there are far greater dangers to be wary of than the Odiyan.