Assertion of independence, pride in one’s identity and an open defiance of unjust authority have long been hallmarks of Telangana history. Heroes of such movements are cherished and glorified everywhere, but perhaps nowhere is hero worship of rebel leaders as exuberant and wild, nor as literal, as in the Sammakka-Sarakka Jatara in Telangana. The heroes (or heroines Sammakka and Sarakka, to be precise) of an old battle are deified and actually worshipped as Goddesses, by millions during this Jatara (loosely translated to mean seasonal market/fair).
Unlike Bathukamma and Bonalu festivals that are celebrated across the state, the tribal festival of Sammakka-Sarakka Jatara sees the convergence of lakhs of people at one particular place — Medaram village in Warangal district. Every two years, the sleepy village comes alive for three days for the Medaram Jatara to commemorate the battle of a mother and daughter, Sammakka and Saralamma against an unjust law imposed by the reigning king.
The story goes that around the 13th century, tribal leaders who went hunting found a new born girl (Sammakka) playing amidst tigers. The head of the tribe adopted her, brought her up as a chieftain and married her to Pagidigidda Raju a feudatory tribal chief of Kakatiyas who ruled from Warangal. Sammakka had two daughters Saralamma (Sarakka in short) and Nagulamma and a son Jampanna. The family fought valiantly against the king Pratap Rudra when he demanded a tribute even during a period of drought. While the rest of the family was killed in the battle with the king’s army, a grievously injured Sammakka managed to escape. Later when her tribe tried to locate her, all they found was a container of vermilion. The myth goes that she had turned Goddess. All the sites where the mother-daughter duo and their family fought and sacrificed their lives play a significant role in the festivities. The myth goes that the mother-daughter duo grant wishes of devotees during the Jatara.
A unique feature of the Jatara is that it is devoid of idol worship and Vedic rituals; only two wooden poles and containers of vermilion (Kumkuma barini) as symbols of Goddesses are worshipped. The Jatara is celebrated during the time the Goddesses is believed to visit the tribals.
The festival begins with the deity of Sarakka (in the form of a casket of vermilion) being brought by tribal priests from a temple in Kannepalli village near Medaram. After performing pujas, the deity is installed on the gaddelu (altar) in the evening. Meanwhile, deity of Sarakka’s husband Govinda Raju is brought there from Kondai village of Eturunagarm mandal, and her father Pagidigidda Raju from Punugondla of Kothaguda mandal.
On the second day, priests carry the most revered deity, Sammakka from the Chilakalgutta hillocks. Carrying a vermilion casket and a bamboo pole wrapped in a red colour sari, considered the deity possessed with magic powers, the priests rush towards the altar. The time when both Sammakka and Sarakka adorn the altar is considered the most auspicious. The procession of the deities to the altar is marked by dancing to drum beats, while others pray silently. Vibrant festivities are marked by a large number of devotees moving in poonakam (trance), believed to be possessed by the spirits of tribal Goddesses; sacrifice of fowls and goats, holy dip in Jampanna vagu (rivulet) before prayers and devotees offering jaggery mounds equal to their weight. Money, saris, bangles, gold or coconuts are also offered at the altar. Pilgrims also tie threads at the altar and nearby trees for wish fulfilment.
On the third day, the deities are returned to their abodes in the forest, marking the end of the festival.
Over the years the festival has got bigger with devotees from Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Jharkhand making a beeline to Medaram. The Telangana State government which declared Medaram jatara as a state festival ensured improved facilities. If earlier devotees arrived only in bullock carts on dirt tracks, this year, hundreds of buses transported visitors on roads. Placing hundreds of hundis for cash offerings, well organised queue lines and temporary changing rooms and toilets for the benefit of pilgrims, vigilant security forces were welcome measures. Stalls to provide medical aid to the needy were also set up.
With improved facilities and ever increasing number of pilgrims, the ones who made a killing during the massive festival included Koya fortune tellers, traders of fowl, goat (for sacrifice, a common feature here), flowers, jaggery, vermilion, turmeric, lemons, bangles, saris, pots, souvenirs, and pumpkins. The Sammakka-Sarakka Jatara is touted to be Asia’s largest tribal festival, but clearly it has grown beyond that to encompass various communities in a unique celebration of the culture of the region.