Feminine force

Devotees in Secundrabad head to a temple to make an offering to Kali. Photo: Surya Sridhar  

The month of aashaada or aadi has just passed, with renewed pledges to the many ammas of Tamil Nadu. Of late, the small individual ceremonies that marked aadi two decades ago have subtly made way for ancient traditions of frenzied dancing by neem-branch wielding women in a trance, of fire-walking and of rooster and goat sacrifices.

The ancient cult of the mother goddess is thriving across India. Thousands of tiny shrines around the countryside worship Chandi, Shakti, Kali, or their countless local counterparts: Jogubai, Tulaja in Maharashtra; Bhagawati or Pattini in Kerala; Kuravai, Ananku and a hundred other aathas in Tamil Nadu.

According to the theory of matriarchy originally proposed by anthropologist/sociologist J.J. Bachofen and philosopher Friedrich Engels and expanded in the Indian context by mathematician/historian D.D. Kosambi, women held a high position in the hunter-gatherer society. The tribe rallied around a witch-priestess-queen-earth mother. The man’s identity was his maternity. The tribe’s every instinct was to adapt to Mother Nature’s whims and seek protection from her wrath. They worshipped animal, forest and river spirits. The goddesses were often fickle, jealous, bloodthirsty and lustful, of a piece with the “nature red in tooth and claw” (Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H.) She was called Pachamama in the Andes, Tuuwaqatsi among the Hopi people, Ishtar, Inanna or Astarte in Mesopotamia, Anu or Danu in Ireland, and Ushas among the Rig Vedic people. The priestesses attempted to evoke terror with orgiastic dances and blood sacrifices.

The goddesses were not married and chaste but virgin and coquettish; they were presented as faceless or grotesque images. They were not associated with commonplace rituals but with times of calamity (during a difficult pregnancy or when smallpox struck and devotees begged the goddess to leave them alone). Their temples were usually outside the village and they had no male Brahmin priests but were worshipped mostly by women and members of “mostly non-Brahmin, often untouchable” castes, as poet and scholar A.K. Ramanujan said. The priestesses attempted to evoke terror with orgiastic dances and blood sacrifices.

One such temple functions even today at Koyambedu in Chennai. Semathamman is the resident goddess. In the 1990s, the Aadi festival was a big event there, with v eppam branches in every hand, thappattai and ekkalam flooding the airwaves, and the lead worshipper getting “possessed”.

Slowly, things changed. The animal sacrifice (itself probably a diluted version of an older human sacrifice ritual) was abandoned. The v eppam branches became fewer. And the aatha was “amman-ised” with alankaram, aarathi and abhisekham.

But this year, the Koyambedu temple festival, with the support of a group of local women, blossomed from a half-a-morning function into a three-day festival. The lead devotee was replaced by women. The trance-inducing music was different, with the ekkalam playing a supportive role while a traditional storyteller with a thapattai-charged narration whipped up a frenzy in the swaying women devotees.

The evening before the ritual, the raconteur was in full flow. As the stories grew more awful, the beat grew quicker, the storyteller became more excited and the dancers moved faster. Soon a woman went into a trance. When she started screaming and frothing, the crowd knew the aatha had arrived.

“What do you want from your devotees, mother?” the narrator asked. “For a long time now, I have been longing for a man,” she said, making the crowd restless. Was this a primeval goddess thirsting for human blood? Or a woman’s subterranean sexual desire surfacing in an extraordinary situation that temporarily sanctioned the suspension of social mores? Who could say whether the woman was playing to the gallery or was in some sort of altered consciousness?

Perhaps, the answer lies in understanding the transition of mother-worshipping hunter-gatherer societies to settled agrarian communities.

Farming brought profit, private property, inheritance and patriarchy. New distinctions were established among the hitherto undifferentiated members of a tribe — who owned what, who could inherit whose property, who was whose father, and, as a direct corollary, who was allowed to sleep with whom.

The new thinking attempted to impose rules on nature (both external and human), to curb its spontaneity. Social structures changed: earlier, the father was merely the mother’s designated partner. Julius Paulus Prudentissimus, the Roman jurist, has stated, pater est quem nuptiae demonstrant (the father is he whom the marriage designates as such). The woman originally owned all the property, and the husband owned it through her. She could, and often did, replace him with another man. Hunting, warring and pillaging filled the lives of men, keeping them far from home. The family, the hearth and the livestock were entrusted to the women: hence, their dominant social position and exclusive claim to property. As tribes moved into a settled existence, this morphed into Manu’s scheme of things, where the wife was a part of the property the husband owned. The greatest triumph of patriarchy was to co-opt into the new religious order the very gender whose freedom and power it sought to curtail.

In one interesting case, an ‘ ardha-narishwar’ was created by fusing male and female elements into a single deity. In some cases, the old goddess was married off to the new god: Siva’s marriage with Shakti and Krishna’s with countless apsaras are examples.

In certain cases, the old goddess was neatly appropriated by the patriarchy and adopted into the pantheon, in a slightly subservient position to the one she occupied earlier. Chandi, Kali, Durga and all the local ammans became associated with Parvati, the gentler wife of Siva.

This had happened by the days of the Silappadikkaram:

“You once stood on the back of a lion/with red, angry eyes holding/the conch and wheel in your lotus hand/Now you stand praised by the Vedas/As a consort on the left side of him/Who has an eye in his forehead/And is adorned with Ganga in his tuft.”

But some goddesses remained aloof. In Hinjewadi near Pune, Kosambi tells us, there is a shrine to the Saat Kanya, possibly seven priestesses who were ritually drowned in a pool. Until recently, human sacrifices were offered to the ancient goddess every year in the month of C haitra.

Wherever the old goddesses prevailed, their chief votaries were women and a chief feature of their devotion was becoming “possessed” by the deity. Cults involving possessed priestesses exist in several cultures. The Greek Dionysian cult, though a part of the later patriarchy, had its roots in mother deity worship, emphasising sensuality and appealing primarily to women. His devotees were the wild Maenads.

Whether or not a spirit enters the body of a possessed individual, a certain something does temporarily leave her mind: the consciousness of social mores and patriarchal taboos applied from above for centuries that defined how she should move, what she cannot say, what she must not do. But the ancient goddesses return from their subterranean hideouts from time to time, right in the middle of the patriarchal world. When these man-made restrictions on women pile up beyond a point, a metaphorical dam bursts and the woman seeks emotional catharsis in the cults of the fearsome mothers of yore.

Our epic literature reflects this faithfully. Ilango Adigal’s S ilappadikkaram can be read as exactly that kind of a cathartic episode. Kannagi uncomplainingly endures every patriarchal injustice until she can take it no more. She then breaks off the symbolic fetter that is her anklet, and storms out of the palace with wild, dishevelled hair (patriarchy ruled that women keep their hair plaited and fragrant, since uncombed female hair is a reminder of the uncurbed power of the woman). It is small wonder that the king “looks at her and dies of terror”. Kannagi rips off her breast and flings it away. Not for her any longer the image of the bountiful mother who gives sustenance, but that of the vengeful Amazon warrior.

A Brahmin priest can never be mistaken for the goddess he celebrates; but the possessed woman is the goddess, because that primordial natural rawness is the deity.

In India, the past never dies; it is either absorbed into the present, or goes into hiding for a while, only to resurface at intervals. The racial memory of unfettered female freedom has never left our society, nor indeed the awe and dread inspired by the vision of such freedom. Now, all of a sudden, women are out in great numbers, and the thapattai is on a roll again, leaving one to wonder whether in its new politicised avatar, the Hindu religion is seeing a revival of pre-Agama Shastra traditions.

It is important to remember that being Hindu means different things to different people. Concepts of a dvaita-karma-dharma may define the Hindu religion for some, Shastric injunctions and Puranic lore may constitute the religion for others. And for yet other Hindus, rhythmic beats, frenzied dancing, animal sacrifices and altered states of consciousness may form the core of worship. Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan once defined Hinduism as “nothing more than the belief that truth is many-sided and different views contain different aspects of truth that no one could fully express”.

Sriram Padmanabhan is an engineer and a student of world mythology and social history.

Sumathi Sudhakar is a writer and editor who focusses on education, values, folklore and mythology.

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 12:12:40 AM |

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