"Flueckiger's rich and colorful descriptions of the stories, festivals, and worshipers connected with the goddess Gangamma evoke a world that previously had been accessible to very few living outside southern India. This work makes available to readers a close-up view of an extremely fascinating aspect of living Hinduism." —David L. Haberman, Indiana University, author of Journey through the Twelve Forests: An Encounter with Krishna
When the World Becomes Female: Guises of a South Indian Goddessby Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger
During the goddess Gangamma’s festival in the town of Tirupati, lower-caste men take guises of the goddess, and the streets are filled with men wearing saris, braids, and female jewelry. By contrast, women participate by intensifying the rituals they perform for Gangamma throughout the year, such as cooking and offering food. Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger… See more details below
During the goddess Gangamma’s festival in the town of Tirupati, lower-caste men take guises of the goddess, and the streets are filled with men wearing saris, braids, and female jewelry. By contrast, women participate by intensifying the rituals they perform for Gangamma throughout the year, such as cooking and offering food. Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger argues that within the festival ultimate reality is imagined as female and women identify with the goddess, whose power they share. Vivid accounts by male and female participants offer new insights into Gangamma’s traditions and the nature of Hindu village goddesses.
"Carefully crafted.... Through these rituals, stories and lives, the author reveals new ways of comprehending gender both at the cosmological and human level." —Ann Grodzins Gold, Syracuse University
"Flueckiger's rich and colorful descriptions of the stories, festivals, and worshipers connected with the goddess Gangamma evoke a world that previously had been accessible to very few living outside southern India. This work makes available to readers a close-up view of an extremely fascinating aspect of living Hinduism." David L. Haberman, Indiana University, author of Journey through the Twelve Forests: An Encounter with Krishna
"Carefully crafted.... Through these rituals, stories and lives, the author reveals new ways of comprehending gender both at the cosmological and human level." Ann Grodzins Gold, Syracuse University
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When the World Becomes Female
Guises of a South Indian Goddess
By Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2013 Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger
All rights reserved.
AN AESTHETICS OF EXCESS
The most striking aspect of a jatara for someone experiencing it for the first time is its dizzying multiplicity of rituals and activities, carried out with a seeming lack of coordinated organization. These festivals are multi- sited, multi-caste celebrations; an elaborate web of castes, ritual families, households, and individuals come together in a flow of activities that sometimes intersect and at other times are relatively independent. No single participant experiences the full range of the ritual repertoire; and so, while the repertoire affects each ritual, its "totality," as described in this book, might appear rather artificially constructed from the perspective of any one participant. And yet there is an organizational, aesthetic force that keeps the jatara moving—its rituals performed at the right time in the right place. People seem to know, without being told, what to do, and where and when to show up. In analyzing Draupadi festivals in Tamil Nadu, which share the multiplicity of rituals and sites of Telugu jataras, Alf Hiltebeitel writes, "In a sense, we are faced with distilling what is essential from so much variety when variety is its essence" (1991:11). The multiplicity of Gangamma jatara helps both to elicit and satisfy the ugram of the goddess, the purpose of the festival itself.
Individual jataras are local events; most are dedicated to gramadevatas for ritual purposes very similar to Gangamma jatara, to protect the land and uru. The village goddesses at the center of jataras are of this place, with local names and narratives of their appearance at a particular place, even as they may attract participants from beyond the local "place." Jataras are not transposed to new geographic settings when their celebrants settle in different villages, towns, cities, and countries, as pan-Indian or pan-Telugu festivals may be; for example, jataras do not find their way across the seven seas to homes, temples, and high school auditoriums in the United States, as do festivals such as Diwali or Ugadi. Jataras are not solely domestic or temple-focused, although they may include both temple and domestic rituals. They are often celebrated at sites at the edge of villages or at their central crossroads; temporary bazaars spring up on open fields and roadsides—stalls selling snacks, low-cost ornaments and bangles, kitchen utensils, and/or toys, sometimes along side small wooden Ferris wheels and other forms of entertainment.
With the multiplicity of jatara rituals comes an overload of ritual material: coconuts, pasupu-kumkum (turmeric-vermilion), overflowing pots of pongal, flowers, fruits, neem leaves, saris, goats and chickens—and, finally, an excess of participating human bodies. The simultaneity and wide repertoire of jatara performative genres and materiality contribute to an interpretive frame for any single ritual, creating what I call an aesthetics of excess. By using the term "excess," I draw specifically from the range of meanings of ugram in Gangamma contexts. I use the term aesthetics to refer to performative systems that reflect and shape the imaginative worlds—through words, ritual, and action—of their actors (Hobart and Kapferer 2005, 7). Aesthetics implies performativity, creativity, and attention to experience of both performers and audiences.
In the academic study of India, aesthetics has been primarily analyzed in the context of Sanskrit classical aesthetics developed in the Natyashastra, the sage Bharata's classical text (composed between 200 BCE and 200 CE) of dramaturgy, dance, and performance, and the text's commentators such as Abhivanagupta (tenth century). Although some aspects of the aesthetic theory of the Natyashastra are applicable to folk performances—such as assumptions about the creative power of performance—folk traditions perform their own internal systems of creative aesthetics, of which the jatara aesthetics of excess is one example. Arguably, Sanskrit rasa aesthetics can be characterized as an aesthetics of control and subtlety—a raised eyebrow, sidelong glance, subtle shift of hand position eliciting and/or reflecting particular emotions. In contrast, the aesthetics of Gangamma jatara is relatively unrestrained, characterized by excess, over-abundance, multiplicity, and intensity.
A Ritual Rationale of Excess: Creating and Satisfying Ugram
Gangamma is rarely kept in household shrines throughout the year because she requires services beyond the temporal and physical means of most householders to be kept happy or satisfied (santosha); and a goddess who is not kept santosha may become ugra. Ugram has often been translated as "anger/wrath" or "ferocity," and when applied to deities whose very nature it is said to be, even "malevolence." While Sanskrit and other Indian language dictionaries certainly include these translations, the term ugra has a much wider range of meanings, including huge, strong, powerful, mighty, formidable, terrible, violent, cruel, impetuous, and passionate.
We get several cues in the contexts of Gangamma jatara that suggest a similar range of meanings for the term ugram, which I have translated as "excess." This translation accounts for the valences of meaning from excessive size, excessive power (shakti), to hunger and desire. The term ugra is used in the identification of Gangamma's large clay heads, called ugra mukhis, built in temple courtyards on the last day of the jatara. These heads are literally ugra—that is, excessive, over-sized—but they are also the goddess in her fullest form, forms of her vishvarupam, whose darshan many jatara participants assert cannot be sustained by her worshippers for more than a few moments. The goddess has expanded over the week of the jatara to an excessive size with excessive demands. One woman said, "By the last day, we can't bear her anymore. We would have to give her piles of food [kumbham] every day; we wouldn't be able to bear that. So, saying 'Next year we'll worship you,' we send her off." But during the jatara, time and energy are set aside for just this: to create, bear, and satisfy the ugra goddess.
In her primary jatara narrative, Gangamma is said to become ugra when her sexuality is threatened by the aggressive Palegadu; herugram is needed to destroy him, much as her ugram is needed to destroy hot- season illness that threatens the uru. In another narrative, the goddess Adi Para Shakti, whose story is told as that of Gangamma, is characterized as having too much shakti, too much for any male to be able to bear. In this narrative, ugram/shakti is associated with excessive desire (the opposite of santosham, satisfaction/fulfillment), which has the potential to become dangerous if left unsatisfied.
The excess of ugram differs from the abundance that characterizes many other Hindu rituals. While the latter may also utilize wide ranges of material ingredients, their sites of worship or personnel are not as multiple, and their abundance is never potentially threatening. For example, the annual Varalakshmi Vratam (a female, domestic ritual honoring and invoking the goddess of wealth Lakshmi) requires female householders to cook nine types of vegetable curries; and the goddess is covered with an abundance of pasupu-kumkum and flowers. And yet, the ritual is confined to domestic space and its abundance does not threaten to overflow its boundaries; there is no threat of danger in the excess of the ritual.
This aesthetic framework helps us to identify the ritual rationale of the jatara: to first elicit and build up Gangamma's ugram so that she will be present and powerful enough to protect against threatening hot-season illness and drought, and then to satisfy and balance that sameugram so that the goddess does not become illness itself. Gangamma's ugram is created both through multiplicity of forms (Gangamma herself expands as she inhabits these forms) and particular rituals that both enliven and satisfy the ugram of these forms.
Another way to think about ugram is its association with heat: the goddess must be ritually heated in order to grow into her full protective power, but if she becomes too hot, she may become the illness or drought. Once sufficiently heated, she is also "brought down," or cooled, through ritual. It is the responsibility of jatara participants to finely calibrate the ideal balance between heating and cooling: to heat the goddess enough to call her to be fully present, but at the same time to keep her expanded, multiplied forms cool/satisfied/pacified (santosha). An example of this calibration occurs when, on the first days of the jatara, young boys beat with neem branches the cement feet of the goddess at the entrance to her Tatayyagunta temple, while singing sexually explicit songs; the physical beating and songs are said to heat the goddess and call her out of her dark stone temple form, while the neem leaves cool her at the same time.
David Knipe observes in possession rituals of coastal Andhra a similar but distinct rhythm of raudra (which he translates as rage, anger, fury, ferocity) and shanti (repose, gentleness). The raudra of the possessing neighborhood goddesses is desired by those who are possessed by her, and it is then converted into shanti through the services offered to her:
Raging powers are invited precisely because their wrath is a necessary conduit of spiritual energy, information, illumination, a channel that hopefully may be employed in reverse with devotion, affection, reassurance so that rage is converted to repose. (2001:345)
Knipe characterizes these goddesses as "fierce (ugra) by nature. They do not require explanations for either raudra or santa. They are goddesses" (Knipe's emphasis; 349). Further, he continues, "Most neighborhood goddesses are illustrations of mobility between poles of the ugra (wild) and saumya (mild), transformation being their modus operandi" (351). In personal communication (2011), Knipe verified that the terms ugra and raudra are used synonymously by both non-literate possession ritualists and Vedic Brahmans. He quotes a Vedic Brahman saying, "I accept all danas [ritual gifts] from benefactors with the exception of a cow. That would be an ugra dana !" This is an evocative example of ugra/raudra implying excess rather than malevolence; after all, Knipe asks, how could a cow be "malevolent"? But, as Gangammajatara 's aesthetics of excess suggests, there are times when the uru needs the goddess's ugram to become so excessive as to be destructive, to protect from illness and drought that may threaten the uru.
Spatial and Temporal Frames Creating Ugram
The intense summer heat, reading over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, during which Gangamma jatara is celebrated is itself an important source of the goddess's expansion and growing ugram. Summer temperatures reach their maximum in mid-May. One can almost feel the stirring of the goddess as the days heat up and hot winds blow, gathering clouds that should release rains on the final morning of the jatara in Tirupati, heralding the approaching monsoons.
Marking the boundaries of ritual space helps to consolidate and concentrate the goddess's ugram. The first Tuesday night, as the jatara moves from the adjacent village of Avilala to Tirupati, the boundaries of the traditional uru of Tirupati are sprinkled with rice mixed with blood of sacrificed animals, in a ritual called cakrabandhanam (lit. tying the circle). With this ritual binding, all who reside in that space become, in some sense, actors in the jatara. During the jatara, no one is supposed to enter or leave the uru, a prohibition that is lost these days in the bustling modern pilgrimage town; but just as importantly, the "tied" boundary keeps the expanding, restless goddess herself inside the uru (Handelman 1995). Further, the boundaries help to consolidate the ugram that is built up through her jatara forms and rituals, keeping it from dissipating. And finally, the ritual boundary holds together as a "whole" the myriad of sometimes seemingly unrelated activities that take place within the ritually marked uru into a single jatara repertoire, in which each ritual site/genre enters into a relationship with the others.
Excess through Multiplicity
Gangamma's ugram is created, in part, through the multiplication of her forms on streets, in domestic kitchens, and in temple courtyards. The assumption would seem to be that the goddess in roadside shrine and temple images of dark stone aren't sufficiently present/excessive/ugra enough for the task at hand, of protecting the uru from hot-season illnesses and drought. Handelman suggests that in these stone, stable forms, Gangamma is not only insufficiently accessible to the uru, but perhaps also not present enough to herself (1995); a certain self-consciousness, he argues, is required for the goddess to fulfill her role, a knowledge created, in part, through the multiplying forms of herself that she sees and experiences during her week-long celebration. During the jatara, Gangamma's stone images inside her temples become secondary to her temporary, fluid jatara forms of human-body guises in the streets, yogurt-millet mixture (ragi) and diminutive wet turmeric mounds in domestic kitchens, and the ugra mukhis in front of each of her two major temples. But this pervasive presence and the potential intimacy with the goddess that it creates—she is, quite literally, everywhere—is too much to sustain throughout the year; and so clear temporal and spatial frames are established, into which Gangamma is invited and then sent away.
The intensity and excess of the jatara is also created by the multi-sited nature of its rituals, and the range of rituals the goddess requires at each site. The primary sites of jatara ritual are: 1) the household of the extended family of Kaikalas, whose males take on a series of veshams of Gangamma that enact her story; 2) the streets of traditional Tirupati, where the Kaikala veshams walk from doorway to doorway and are met and worshipped by female householders, passersby are offered ambali (mixture of cooling yogurt, heating raw onions, and cooked millet) by female householders; mothers walk with their children to Tatayyagunta temple, holding "thousand-eyed" clay pots over their heads; on the streets around Gangamma's temples, roving bands of young men sing "abusive" songs (butulu) at passersby; and, on the last few days of the jatara, lay men in female vesham are "displayed" and seen on their way to the temple; 3) the courtyards of the two primary Gangamma temples—Tatayyagunta and Tallapaka—where ritual activity builds in intensity until the last day, when the ugra mukhis are built; and 4) domestic kitchens, where the goddess is created in several different forms, fed, and distributed. Each of these sites, each strand in the web of the jatara repertoire, is filled with distinct ritual materials and physicality. Performatively and schematically, many of the actors and rituals of these multiple sites come together on the final morning of the jatara during the ritual dismantling of the two large clay ugra mukhis by a Kaikala vesham.
Kaikala Veshams: The Goddess in Human, Moving Form
While the Palegadu-Gangamma narrative is being played out on the streets of Tirupati through the Kaikala veshams—which bring the expanding goddess to the domestic doorways of the uru—no one professionally performs or even informally tells the narrative verbally (unless asked to do so by the anthropologist); that is, there is no indigenously marked ritual site for its verbal performance. But, to give a sense of the rationale and sequence of the Kaikala veshams, as they progress from gentle young snake charmer to the goddess in her fullest, most ugra Matangi form, I provide a detailed summary of the narrative, which will be analyzed more fully in chapter 3.
Excerpted from When the World Becomes Female by Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger. Copyright © 2013 Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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