For a whole week she keeps walking. Her vermilion-smeared feet get blistered and calloused. People pour water on them to cool her. They receive her tenderly into their homes and their shops. She looks different each time she visits. But they know and recognize her and wait for her. It's an ancient relationship.
In parallel with her journeys it's a raucous tumult everywhere in the town as the Jatara, her annual festival, moves from the bizarre to the devout and a plethora of ritual activities including animal sacrifices. The males, children and youth, traverse the streets dancing and singing lewd songs and hurling abuses at others and at her. You can spot scores of males dressed up as women daintily walking down the streets alone, in groups or in procession with drums and band, and visiting her in her twin temples. Nobody in the town seems to mind it or take offense.
The goddess has many stories to her. One is the creation myth which the Pambala bards sing. After she had created the universe, an enormous desire for companionship erupts in the young Gangamma. Thus come out of nothing the first males. But these sons/potential lovers trap her into devolving her supreme power, sakti, to them and then treacherously abandon her leaving her desire unfulfilled.
The more recent story – which nobody sings but everybody knows in old Tirupati -- is of a Gangamma, the young daughter of a village headman. A very oppressive local feudal lord, the Palegadu, eyes her and demands that she satisfy his lust. But when she rises in revolt, he gets scared and hides himself in Tirupati. To draw him out, she goes out into the streets taking different guises (bairagi- ascetic, gaaradi – snake charmer, golla – shepherd, banda - ruffian, komati – merchant, thoti – sweeper) and hurling choicest abuses. When he doesn't step out even after three days of invective, she takes the guise of a minister and comes riding on a horse. The guy comes out, and she beheads him in a divine frenzy. Now that the Adi Sakti hidden in her is out, she needs to calm down. This calls for three more guises, very spiritual and symbolic. Thereupon, it is understood, she became the village-deity of Tirupati.
Every year in mid- May as the heat grows intense, the mythical travels of the goddess through the streets of Tirupati are reenacted by the males of a weaver family. And many of these ‘goddess' guises are mimicked by the people according to a well-prescribed pattern. They are however free to don any other guise.It's a veritable theatre out there. No wonder Tirupati has probably the only temple dedicated to a goddess of guises. She is Vesaalamma, also Gangamma.
On the final day of the Jatara, late into the night, they fabricate a giant fierce-looking painted mud sculpture of the Goddess's head which is then pulled off in a matter of minutes by her devotees. Thus she returns to the primordial waters from which she had sprung.
It's a festival which exemplifies in a stunning manner what is more and more being understood as the post-post-modern and post-Frueudian location of many aspects of traditional Indian culture. The overt questioning and play on gender and sexuality, and the divine and human planes, provides a healing and liberating experience, for the males, in particular. Ritualist structures work on you even if you do not understand them well.
Of late, the media has been covering the Ganga Jatara quite well in its own quizzical fashion. But old timers lament it has lost much of its original verve and participatory feel even as Tirupati has very fast grown into a metro city. Nevertheless it still offers a marvellous experience even to a willing onlooker. So whether you are a maverick looking for a kick, or a shutter bug, or a religious person, or someone interested in issues of gender and the nature of performance, Tirupati is where you should be during the jatara week that ends this Tuesday night.
(The writer is completing a documentary film on Ganga Jatara, shot over four years)