Priests Crack Coconuts on Devotees' Heads

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August 6, 2009—Thousands gather at a temple in southern India each year to have coconuts smashed on their heads in a plea to the gods for health and success. Video.

© 2009 National Geographic (AP)

Unedited Transcript

People crowd around devotees as a priest smashes a coconut on their skull. As the coconuts break into pieces, some devotees rub their heads.

Others gather the broken pieces as a holy offering.

The ritual is performed either as a thanksgiving - after a deity has granted a devotee's wishes, or as a plea to the gods for health and success.

One woman says she did not feel a thing when the coconut was broken on her head as she was thinking of Goddess Lakshmi, the presiding deity.

SOUNDBITE: (Tamil): Revathy, Devotee: "I took part in the event for the first time. The coconut broke nicely and I am happy. A lot of people in my family, all my uncles and aunts have broken coconuts. Four of us from the family came for the ritual and thankfully, all the coconuts broke well."

Every year, on the second Tuesday of the Tamil Month of Aadi, devotees throng the Mahalakshmi temple in the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India.

The temple is believed to have been built during the reign of by Krishna Deva Raya (day-vah RYE-ah) in the 16th century.

A neurosurgery professor says hes a little concerned about the practice of breaking coconuts on peoples heads.

He says it could damage the brain, not to mention crack the skull. But the level of injury would depend on the size of the coconut and the speed at which it hits the devotee. SOUNDBITE: (English): Anil Kumar Peethambaran, Neurosurgery Professor, Government Medical college: "What happens is... there is a certain amount of tolerance for the skull beyond which it will cause damage to the skull. So, if the coconut is big and if the coconut breaks, that means that a part of the energy is dissipated and the damage done is less and if the coconut doesn't break, more damage is done to the skull."

Taking part is voluntary and devotees must be aged 18 years or over.

Many of the visitors believe that it was the British presence in India in the 19th Century that spawned the idea for the festival.

A former village council president tells the story.

SOUNDBITE (Tamil) P. Mani, Former Council President, Mettu Mahadanapuram Village: "When the British were trying to draw a railway line against the wishes of the villagers here, they found big stones just like coconuts, beneath the ground. They sarcastically told villagers that if they could break these stones with their heads, they would change the course of the railway line. The villagers broke the stones and the line was shifted."

Some of the locals say since then the ritual has been performed at the temple using coconuts, and that these rituals draw thousands.

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