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The Law In Stone

The Law In Stone

Author: Madhavi Tata
Publication: Outlook
Date: February 12, 2007
URL: http://www.outlookindia.com/full.asp?fodname=20070212&fname=Hyderabad+%28F%29&sid=1

Introduction: A village in Vizag swears by the court of The Rock. It's truth or divine retribution.

It's a seat of justice like no other-not a court, panchayat or the neighbourhood police station, but a large black rock sitting in the middle of Chinnapachila village in Visakhapatnam district. Named Peddarayi/ Dharmapeetham by the villagers, it is believed to possess divine truth-eliciting properties. Locals come to the Peddarayi with their disputes and find them being resolved in minutes.

Property disputes and cases of theft are the most common, but the rock is also known to have led several adulterous men scampering back to their wives, and restored harmony among squabbling relatives.

What's 'unique' about Peddarayi is that both accused and complainants start singing like canaries the moment they do a simple puja on the rock before a portrait of Lord Shiva, says Aravelli Vasudevacharyulu, head priest of the Kondandarama temple in the village.

The procedure follows a prescribed sequence. Both parties take a bath at a nearby well and walk up to the rock, which stands near a large neem tree. They wash it with water gathered from the well in a new pot. The complainant lights the lamp near Lord Shiva's portrait. The accused, if claiming to be innocent, puts out the lamp. And if guilty, he confesses to the crime without bothering to put out the light. Justice-seekers are convinced that if either party lies, divine retribution will follow-and the punishment will be terrible.

A couple of cases we witness testify to the immense faith villagers vest in the rock. Two men from Medivada village arrive to settle a monetary dispute of Rs 20,000. Pedda Siddaramaiah, a businessman who dropped his moneybag on a road while going on a bullock cart, says Thalandi Rayudu, who returned the bag, stole Rs 10,000. "He gave me only half my money," says Siddaramaiah, lighting the lamp. Rayudu at first appears unfazed and walks casually towards the rock. But once he reaches the lamp, he looks uncertain. Out come the words, "Yes, I took your money annaiyya (elder brother), forgive me." Villagers watching from nearby huts cheer the confession.

"If he dared to lie, he would have died," says Aruna Kumari, a farm labourer, as she recounts the story of Ramayamma. Four years ago, Ramayamma was accused of stealing Rs 50. But the woman stood on the rock and stoutly denied it. "A few days later, she died of a sudden, mysterious illness," says Aruna.

Chinnapachila lore has it that a couple of centuries ago, a certain Sasubilli Nallappa Naidu dreamt of a devata who asked him to bring down two rocks from the nearby Nagallakonda hill and place them near the neem tree in the village. These would stand as the guardians of truth and justice in Chinnapachila because sadhus had meditated on these rocks. So Nallappa Naidu initiated the process of bringing down these rocks. It took the villagers four months to transport them manually. The two rocks were placed side by side and now appear fused into one. Sasubilli Raja Rao, a descendant of Nallappa Naidu, says he's seen many cases being solved on the rock.

Raja Rao goes on to narrate another incident where Rukla Gangu Naidu, involved in a land dispute with his brother, lied on the rock. "Lightning struck their house a couple of days later. Others in his family survived but Gangu Naidu died," recalls Raja Rao.

Outlook witnessed two women settling their differences. Venkatireddy Padma and Kasamma were feuding over the allegation that Padma has turned Kasamma's son and daughter-in-law against her by filling their ears with malicious untruths. "Take it all back," wails Kasamma dramatically. This time the accused, Padma, is ready with her confession even before stepping on the rock. "See the rock's divine properties. Villagers sometimes sort out matters even before the truth ritual begins," says Vasudevacharyulu.

Officials and police alike term the Peddarayi decisions a "matter of belief". But a constable at Kothakota admits when difficult land and family cases are sent to the Peddarayi, "we have seen seemingly unsolvable crimes being unravelled. But it cannot be called legal."

The mandal revenue officer, Sita Rama Rao, says, "Rationality and education may go against these beliefs, but it is all about faith in a higher power." Vasudevacharyulu talks of a man from Peddamadina village who made his wife swear to her fidelity on the rock. "When she put out the lamp without hesitation, the husband's suspicions and doubts were finally quelled, and they now come often to pray here," he says.

P.D. Satya Paul, professor of anthropology at Andhra University, says such trials are a common practice among the Erikala tribes of the Visakhapatnam region. "Such rituals help in reinforcing public exhibition of honesty, which is important for villagers who are not so literate. Affirmation of guilt and innocence before society is a common feature in rural India. The confessional ritual and belief that one can't bluff on the rock are effective social control mechanisms." Prof Paul cites another example of the fishermen's community around Vizag. "If a fisherman falls ill, he does not go to a doctor. He first has to clarify who he has hurt and appease the local goddess. The goddess is then supposed to give him sanction to seek medical help."

Former Visakhapatnam mayor D.V. Subba Rao, who has also held the post of chairperson, Bar Council of India, opines there is nothing wrong with the Peddarayi form of justice as long as it is not politicised. "We used to have the Special Oaths Act where the accused would swear on the Gita or a Bible and the complainant would take him at face value. But this has eroded over the years. Settlements on the rock are welcome but it should not induce fear in the minds of the locals," says Rao.

But fear does seem to be a key factor. Pillasamadrulu Kotha Rao, a 23-year-old who works in a granite quarry, says he and his friend took a dispute over a minor loan to the Peddarayi. "Both of us were simply testing it out and he lied that he had returned my money. The next morning, he fell off a bus and broke his leg," says Kotha Rao.

"Call it coincidence, faith or fear, the Dharmapeetham has led our village to be morally conscious," says Jagallamma, a farmer. "Our people never go to the police for filing complaints. We approach the all-powerful rock instead."

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