Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.
-Edgar Allan Poe
It had been an easier job than I imagined. No violence, no alarms, no nothing. The fierce Karupu Rayan, the ancient village guardian deity, seemed to be ironically kind on me. The Karuppu Rayan temple was almost pre-historic and located in the middle of the Gudalur Forest and was accessible only through a small foot track through the rainforest. The God or Rayan’s fierce faced idol must have been a few thousand years old and worn with offerings of ghee and numerous abhisheks through the ages. The equally ancient banyan tree almost covered the little shrine with its gnarled branches. Towards the end of the clearing was an altar which had a flat rock in the centre and an iron trident which normally had one lemon each impaled on its each spike. The altar was used for animal sacrifices (and some say for human sacrifice until as late as the 1950s). The rock was dark and stained by the blood of the numerous animals (and humans) decapitated there.
No one dared to venture to the temple after dusk due to the presence of a large number of tigers, leopards and wild elephants in the forest…..and as per the urban legend even for some unknown sinister reasons. It was said that anyone who dared to disturb the Rayan in his slumber after dusk and tread on her holy ground was never seen or heard off again. It was also said that he was the patron deity of thieves and forest brigands who had spread the story so that they could safely take refuge and check out their booty in peace. Whatever the theory, people did not want to take a chance and generally avoided the place after dark.
The annual fair of the temple was always held in the second week of November and this year it was no different. The annual fair had just got over just a day ago and the space was littered with garbage, a remnant of human presence.
The Rayan’s ornaments were priceless and were held safely with the zemindar of Gudalur except for 14 days of the year, 12 days of the fair and 2 days hence up to the next full moon when the final sacrifice was done and the accouterments were returned back to the safety of the zemindar’s armoury from the temple where they were decked on the Rayan’s idol. It was generally unguarded during the night baring a padlock put on the temple door because of the simple reason that for centuries, no one could even dare to think of disturbing the rayan during night, let alone dare to touch either his idol or the jewels.
It was this fear of the demon-God in people and their faith that he could take care of himself that made my job so easy. Of course I too must confess that the very aura of the place at night played on my nerves too but two swigs of fresh toddy cleared my mind of unnecessary fears and added steel to my tingling nerves.
The ambient light was bright, it being a day before the full moon. A blow of the crowbar brought down the old padlock and I could clearly see Rayan’s gold and silver ornaments decked in diamonds and rubies of ancient origin, glistening as though they had a life of their own as a beam of silvery moon light fell upon them. I quickly removed all the accouterments and stuffed them into the gunny sack I was carrying. However, the fearsome primordial form of Rayan with big protruding eyes, fangs jutting out at the edges of his mouth and a garland of human skulls did give me the creeps and I wanted to leave the sanctum sanctorum as early as I could. All I could think of the blissful life I could lead with Lakshmi, the girl I loved, after disposing of my priceless booty.
I quickly checked the chamber to make sure nothing of value had been left behind and hefting my sack, which was rather heavy by now I went out of the small temple. I was actually sweating profusely and was relieved when a cool waft of breeze blew and cooled not only my warm body but also my frayed nerves.
Suddenly there was a commotion in the thicket to my left and a number of birds went flying out of the trees as though disturbed. I realized that they were actually not birds but bats which had been disturbed from their perches high up on the trees and the rocky outcrop towards the North of the clearing. I quickly hid myself behind some bushes and observed the whole scene for more than ½ an hour to make sure that no one was around.
The bats finally settled down and so did my throbbing veins. I hefted the gunny sack and after actually apologizing to Rayan under my breath (I don’t know why I did that) I moved down the track into the darkness of the forest onwards to a life of riches, love and freedom.
I knew the forest like the back of my hand and did not need any map or lights to negotiate it. The ambient light was good enough for me to find my way about. I should be at the river back in an hour I thought to myself. I had placed a small row boat at the river which would take me down stream and across and far-far away by the time people realized what had happened.
I was nearing the river bank as I could hear the frogs croaking and the smell the dankness of rotting vegetation. There was also a distinct putrid smell in the area, which seemed somewhat familiar. It was the smell of bat droppings, a distinct smell normally associated with caves and dark spaces. Apparently quite a few bats inhabited the crevices in the ancient trees which lined the river bank.
Yet again, it was either me or a monkey or something else that disturbed the bats and they started squeaking and flapping around the trees. Suddenly, the din of their squeaking grew louder and the sound of flapping wings rose to almost a crescendo. I immediately took cover behind a large tree not wanting to take any chances and decided to move once the disturbed bats settle down and the cause of their disturbance also leaves.
I must have dozed off for a few minutes, but got up with a start as something whirled past my ear and lightly brushed my face. I tried to focus in the darkness where just enough moonlight was shimmering in for me to be able to just about discern the shapes of the trees and bushes. The trees were all dark forms against a dim silvery background.
Were my eyes playing trick on me? I swore I could see one of the looming shadowy forms of the trees move albeit very slowly. I decided I must not let panic settle in at this stage and held on to my ground and tried to focus into the darkness once again. But the dark form was indeed moving and seemed to be coming closer. The form was huge and now I could hear a distinct whirling and flapping sound as though a numbers of wings were flapping simultaneously.
I decided, I had enough of bravado and decided to make a run towards the river bank with was less than 200 yards away. I did not like the look of what was happening. I ran with the gunny sack on my back. The golden bowl and a few other utensils that I had picked up from the temple made a light clanging sound as I ran as fast as I could towards the river. The whirling sound also increased. Suddenly my toe struck the gnarled root of one of the ancient trees and before I realized, I was sprawled on the ground. Luckily there didn’t seem to be any major injury and hence, I tried getting up rubbing my bruised knees and elbows and felt around for the gunny sack which had fallen on the grass nearby. As I went to pick up the sack, the whirling sound which seemed very close now suddenly changed to the sound of a thousand bats squeaking together and as I looked up, it was a huge black form roughly of human shape but composed of hundreds of bats as though they were tied together by some invisible force. The form then engulfed me.
The sunlight seemed to hurt my eyes. Where the hell am I? I wondered. I opened my eyes to realize that day had dawned and I was near the temple once again. There were two people talking near the temple, one of whom recognized as the head priest.
“Someone tried to rob the temple again last night…see the lock is broken” said the priest to the man pointing towards the broken lock. “Is anything missing?” asked the man. “Surprisingly no….I have rechecked three times. We seem to live in bad times- this kind of thing happens almost every year now but never has anything ever been found missing from the temple. I trust Karuppu Rayan is quite capable of protecting himself” replied the priest smiling and added “I will get the locks changed immediately.”
“By the way this place smells quite a bit” said the man. “It is the bat droppings. Their numbers seems to be increasing every year” said the priest. “You are right. They say that they are blessed by Rayan the Lord of the forest and in turn, they protect him” said the man.
I suddenly realized that all the while I was actually looking down upon the two men and seeing everything upside down. The sunlight had started hurting my eyes badly and I needed a dark crevice to rest now.