I’m sure you’ve seen ninjas on the screen – assassin covered in all-black throwing shurikens and doing crazy back flips. Though the popular depictions and myths about ninjas are exaggerated, there are historical accounts of such warriors in medieval Japan. And guess what, Kerala had its own group of ninja-like assassins too – the Odiyan.
Folklore talks of professional assassins in the Valluvanad region of Kerala, who would be hired by landlords of the region to assassinate their rivals. But what made these assassins special is their capability to shape-shift. It is said that the odiyan could transform himself into any form he desired – a bull or a rock, for example. They gained this power by applying Odithailam, oil obtained by killing an unborn foetus. They would obtain the amniotic fluid from the wombs of young women in their first pregnancies. They would use spells to draw these unsuspecting women from their houses at night and cut open their wombs to extract the fluid. Both the woman and the foetus would die in the process.
It is believed that they would apply this oil to their ears, and go into a trance-like state for hours, at the end of which they would be able to shape-shift or create the illusion that they’ve transformed themselves.
Odiyans are said to have carried out their operations in the night, using the cover of darkness to their advantage. The odiyan, in his disguise, would wait for his unwary victim. It is also said that the odiyan in his transformed state would have some peculiarity – if he’s an animal, a limb would be missing, and so on. This would induce curiosity in his soon-to-be victim, drawing them closer. The odiyan, skilled in martial arts and dark magic would kill the poor soul in one swift move.
Now all this might sound like a bunch of superstitious beliefs, but so do stories about ninjas. Over time, we’ve come to realise that the myths about ninjas drew inspiration from the truth. The ninjas were masters of disguise – wearing clothes and camouflage that would let them hide in plain sight. They used smoke-bombs to appear as if they vanished into thin air. They used poisoned darts to kill in stealth. All of which have been mythicised over the years. This is probably what happened to the odiyan too.
The people panar, pulayar, and choklear (communities who were said to practice Odiseva) of erstwhile Valluvanad might have been extremely fit, and might have mastered the art of disguise. As labourers, they would have been able to infiltrate better; as opposed to a prominent warrior who would be recognised soon. All this must have led to this group of expert assassins being hailed as supernatural and therefore, transcending from history to mythology.
Unfortunately, we might never really know.
Did I miss out on something about the Odiyan? Are there books or sources that you would recommend to explore the historical side of the Odiyan? Let us know in comments.