In the year 1979 Skylab, a NASA Space station crashed into the earth in some remote location. But before it happened, at that time there were tons of rumor circulating around Bhubaneswar. Folks speculated the Skylab striking on the capital city of Odisha, ending the KALI YUGA (the mythical age of Sin), followed by the advent of SATYA YUGA (Age of Righteousness).
Fortunately, Bhubaneswar survived to see another day with the continuance of the KALI YU-GA. But it wasn’t the end of rumor-mongering. Soon followed another one, purely local and unrelated to NASA. An ASURA and ASURUNI (Demon and Demoness) the couple had been sighted in the dense forest of Koraput district of Odisha. Survivors of the TRETAYA YUGA (the age of Lord Ram), the demon couple and their two kids were reportedly nabbed by the local forest officials.
Put in a cage, carried by a huge truck and guarded by burly Military men they were supposedly on the way to the local zoo NANDANKANAN. The rumor was strong enough to drive people in droves, lining up the national highway extending from Khurda to Khandagiri, so that they can have a glimpse of the ASURA clan. I also believed the same and in spite of being laughed at by elders at home, I wanted to accompany my friends who biked all the way to Khandagiri to get a glimpse of the demon family.
Odisha has its tryst with rumors and history bears the testimony of it. Nearly 150 years back in the summer of 1876, a rumor started circulating in the coastal belt of Odisha. It was about a mythical disease named SURUKUMUr3RI which nobody had ever seen, yet everybody heard about it. The disease supposedly originated in Madras and after taking over the entire coromandel coast, it was slowly encroaching Odisha.
The symptoms of the disease were pretty unusual – its tentacles spread from toe upward to torso. Once it reaches the waist, the disease was beyond cure unless the prescribed dose is administered on time. The person would turn pitch black and was destined to die a painful death within the next three hours.
By August of 1876 the rumor was rife in Cuttack, Khurda, and Puri – the heartland of coastal Odisha (Bhubaneswar was then an insignificance township) that Surukumuri was epidemic in Berhampur where the SARKAR, alluding to the British administration was distributing the medicine for its cure. Earlier that month details the cure was published in the UTKALA DIPIKA (The Lamp of Odisha), an Odia magazine published from Cuttack by Karmaveer Gauri Shankar Ray on its letter to the Editor’s Column section.
The prescription drug for curing the dreaded Surukumuri was weird. Procure a black female goat that shouldn’t be pregnant. It should be completely black from head to tail, tip to toe with no white spot. Feed it with grass and twigs but don’t give it any water to drink. Then slice its stomach open and carefully take out the food just eaten by the goat, followed by spreading it out, making sure no-fly seats over it.
Then dry the mixture and grind it using stone. Store it in small sachets. As soon as the symptom starts with pain in the toe, administer the dosage with a small amount of water. If consumed within a couple of hours of the symptoms setting in, you have a greater chance of survival. Otherwise, you are toast and even the trinity combo of Hindu Gods of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwar can’t save you.
Cuttack became the epicenter of the rumor which traveled fast in all directions like a 7 plus Ritcher Scale magnitude earthquake. Thousands of goats were slaughtered in the span of a couple of months. The demand skyrocketed in coastal Odisha, so much so that a goat which usually costs a few Anna (pennies), was now priced at 1 Rupee, a stupendous amount those days. Due to the shortage of the animal in the Urban area, they were procured from rural areas to compensate for the demand.
Rumor mill kept on chugging and soon reached Balasore. The juggernaut of this superstition was so powerful that even the Vaishnavites, strictly vegetarians who abhorred meat ate the medicine fetched from goat’s entrails. It was powerful enough for the British now to take steps to address the issue as it was serious beyond their amusement. Messengers on horses accompanied by HAADI (a scheduled caste) drummers were recruited to travel through coastal belt shouting on top of their voice not to give ear to these baseless canards.
But it hardly worked. It is said – “Never believe anything until it is officially denied”. The fact that the British government tried to control the rumor gave more credence to it. Thankfully the rumor was contained in Balasore before it could cross the border and reach Calcutta. Bengalis who then considered Odias as illiterate buffoons didn’t believe in this superstition. Though the news of Surukumuri traveled to Calcutta, the rumor stopped right there as the panic refused to set in.
Cuttack, the heart and cultural capital of Odisha at the time was also the capital of rumor factory churned out at regular intervals. One was about our Hindu God HANUMAN who would come and destroy any home who forgot to draw CHITA (art design) in front of their house.
Another one was associated with DHINKI (Rice crusher) which most households carried those days. Rumor had it – if one hears the thumping sound of someone pounding the rice cruncher in the middle of the night, one shouldn’t make the mistake of getting curious and asking “Who is there”! If so, that person would suffer bouts of Cholera (a dreaded disease of the time) and succumb to it.
What is the commonality with all these rumors? Nobody knows the GANGOTRI, the source of their origin. You always hear it from a friend, who was told by a friend’s friend who heard it from another friend’s friend. It is like the plant we call in Odia as NIRMULI LATA or rootless creeper which curls its way to the plant hosting it, yet it is very difficult to trace its root.
I can assure you nobody knew the source of SURUKUMURI rumor, nor can anyone trace the root of ASURA, ASURUNI saga. KALI YUGA may eventually transform to SATYA YUGA, but only one thing is destined to remain constant – Rumor mongering.
(Sambeet Dash is an Odia technocrat living in Georgia ,US)