Renuka was the wife of the great sage Jamadagni. With him, she had five sons, one of whom was Parasurama, sixth avatara of Vishnu. Renuka was known for her wifely virtues and her fidelity to her conjugal vows — these had given her the unique power to carry water in a pot made of unbaked clay. Even a pot made of sand, porous as it was, would do. Some said she could roll up water itself into a ball and carry it on her head. Each day, Renuka went to the river and carried water back for her husband’s sacred rituals and for her household needs.
One day, as she was returning home, she saw Chitrangada, the king of the gandharvas, at play in the water with his women and his companions. Renuka noticed how handsome he was and admired him from a distance. At once, the pot of sand she carried on her head dissolved and she was drenched with the water that it held. She reached home empty-handed and when Jamadagni saw the wet clothes clinging to her body, he knew that she had lost the powers that her conjugal fidelity had bestowed upon her. He deduced that she had had a moment of lust.
Enraged, he went to each of his sons and asked them to cut off their unfaithful mother’s head. They were horrified and refused. Jamadagni turned them into stone. But Parasurama agreed to obey his father’s command and he chopped off his mother’s head with the axe that he had obtained from Siva. Jamadagni was pleased and offered his son a boon. Parasurama asked that his mother and his brothers be brought back to life. The sons came back to life easily enough, but for Renuka to be restored, Jamadagni needed her head which had rolled away and could not be found.
Parasurama cut off the head of another woman, an untouchable, and with that, Jamadagni was able to bring his wife back to life. Most immediately, this story resonates with the one in which Siva has to find another head to bring back to life the son he had decapitated. Parvati creates a son out of the dirt from her body because she is lonely without her husband. In a case of mistaken identity, Siva kills his wife’s son and has to resuscitate him with an unmatched head, creating thereby, Ganesa, the god of auspicious beginnings.
When Renuka’s head is cut off by her son at the behest of her husband, a new goddess, Yellamma, is created when the lost head is replaced. It is as if the ghastly crimes of filicide and matricide can only be erased through the deification of beings that are born of this hybridity. Yellamma is beloved of yoginis, nityasumangalis and hijras, all of whom have chosen not to have children, who have rejected the possibility of giving birth to sons who might be persuaded to cut off their heads. Even if those sons are god.
The writer works with myth, epic and the story traditions of the sub-continent