As waves of protests led by women reverberate through the country, a four-day carnival, which celebrates women’s valour in another era, unfolds in Medaram village, Telangana. Sammakka Saralamma Jatara, the centuries-old festival of the Koya tribe, has turned the dusty little village into the venue of one of the country’s biggest festivals. Over four days every two years, usually between February 5 and 8, some 1.3 crore people throng to the village to make offerings to the goddesses Sammakka and Saralamma.
One of the legends is about the revolt of the Koya tribe against the Kakatiya rulers who asked them to pay taxes during a year of drought. “The Kakatiya rulers sent their army to fight the Koyas who were no match for the better equipped and disciplined Kakatiya army,” says Jayadheer Tirumala Rao, an academic who has collected the oral histories of the Koyas.
One after the other the Koya warriors fell, forcing the matriarch Sammakka to enter the battle fray. She too could not win against the skilled Kakatiya soldiers and retreated to the jungle with injuries. She cursed them, saying the Kakatiya reign would soon end. It is to commemorate the mother and daughter, Sammakka and Saralamma, who wielded swords much before the Kakatiya queen Rudrama, that the Koyas began to organise the jatara. And now, every two years, this ancient story is brought to life, enchanting millions in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.
Bringing them home
Carrying a whip, and wearing an oversized mask of a goddess, a group of dancing pilgrims makes its way to the VIP queue complex. “My ancestors did it, we are continuing the tradition,” says Subaiah, a farmer from Khammam, who walks ahead of the drummers leading the band of revellers.
A day earlier, in the middle of the month of Magh, Koya priests had climbed down the Chilkalgutta hillock carrying a bhariney (casket) with vermilion symbolising Sammakka, who must be brought to her place of residence for three days. Saralamma is brought down from another hillock, Kannepally. As the priests descend the hillock, a police official fires three rounds into the air and a frenzied mass of people follows the priests as they race to bring the goddess to the altar. A round platform surrounded by tall railings is the gadde (throne or altar) for Sammakka for three days, and another one is dedicated to Saralamma.
In the liberating anonymity of the festival, men dress as women with daubs of lipstick, trans people don oversized nose pins, and, together with young boys and married women, some carrying blocks of jaggery on their heads, jostle towards the twin gadde .
Before the devotees begin prayers, they must bathe in the river Jampanna Vagu, named after the martyred brother of Saralamma, which is a tributary of the Godavari. The brave ones step into the shallow, muddy, red water, while others choose to stand under the showers that pump treated water.
The sacred, the spiritual, and the sexual coalesce in this village fringed by a river and ringed by hillocks and forests. Thousands of makeshift tents dot the village where families wait for an opportune moment to pray to the goddesses. For some families, it is 10 days of revelry, where they get to let their hair down, to sing and dance to the tinny two-tone drumbeat whipped by the tribal elders. The women stick to beer while the men wash down the food with plenty of hard liquor.
From the watchtower, the bathing ghats appear like colourful grains of sand scattered on the riverbanks. In the water, groups of women huddle and then some of them go into a trance. A spiritual frenzy takes over as the ‘possessed’ women shake, convulse and flail their arms, swaying their hair and contorting their faces; they talk, shout and gesticulate: for the moment, they are oracles conversing with the gods.
Adilakshmi, 40, has travelled from Vemulwada, about 180 km away. Her family drags a vermillion-smeared lamb and chicken to the sacrificial spot created between two mounds of jaggery, coconuts and a quarter bottle of liquor. Adilakshmi goes into a trance. “What wrong have I done? When will I have a child? Amma tell me,” a family member asks, as Adilakshmi mutters, grunts and rocks. Her reply is considered the words of the goddess. “Be nice to your family, you will have a child,” someone translates the incoherent words.
Deva, who had walked 13 km from Gonepally with her family, will stay in the village for 10 days. Her breath has that overpowering smell of molasses, just like almost every person at the jatara. They visit every two years whenever the festival takes place, to pray for the family’s well-being, she says.
Coconuts and helmets
But the closer the devotees get to the altar, the mayhem increases. The pilgrims send their offerings of coconuts and jaggery pieces sailing through the air to the altar. In the middle of it all is a tall bamboo, decked with a hairpiece and draped in saris. Today, several non-tribal beliefs have become part of the festival. “The tribal communities don’t have idols. Also, until 1955, some 2,000 people used to visit Medaram, of which the main group of worshippers comprised 1,500 tribal people,” says Dyavanapalli Satyanarayana, who has researched tribal traditions and beliefs in Telangana.
According to the 2011 Census, the Koya language is spoken by 4,07,423 people in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and Odisha. These original worshippers now form just 2% of the pilgrims, and the teeming masses largely comprise 1.3 crore non-Koya people and others. The Koya worshippers once carried a large triangular flag or pagide . “The flag was handed down the generations and had inscribed on it the story of the tribe with the names of ancestors, stories of their valour, and their origins. These flags are difficult to spot now,” says Rao.
In the main altar, volunteers are wearing cricket helmets or hard hats as offerings can turn into dangerous missiles. “We are treating some hundred injuries every day, some of them serious and requiring dozens of stitches. Most of the injuries are to the head from coconuts and large chunks of jaggery being hurled,” says R. Chaitanya, the duty doctor near the altar. The injured include devotees. “I was standing in the queue and got hit by a coconut,” says Chandramouli from Bhadrachalam, as he walks out of the health centre with a bandage and a blood-soaked shirt.
On the third night of the festival, as the full moon rises, the frenzy to pray to the goddesses reaches a crescendo. A police force of 12,000 tries hard to control the people pushing and shoving to try and break through every gate and entrance to pray at the holy site. The Telangana police’s artificial intelligence technology for crowd control fumbles as the revellers leap across walls and jump the queues to reach the inner sanctum.
Tomorrow is another day. The priests will prepare to take the goddesses back to their hillocks. And soon, Medaram will return to being another village of 1,642 people.
Acknowledgements: K. Damodar Rao, former associate professor at Kakatiya University.