The Goddess behind the tattoo

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Devotion abounds for Yellamma in Karnataka, where an Australian tourist was recently threatened for sporting a tattoo of the Goddess, but short shrift is given to the temple wherein she is enshrined...

A centuries-old temple overlooking a wide river flanked by the hills and mythical tales woven around it might come across as material for an archaeology project. But here I was, a journalist in search of a story, travelling around the small town of Belgaum, lying on the Karnataka-Maharashtra border, with an urge to understand better the faith around Goddess Yellamma, whose worship began here.


Two weeks ago, when an Australian tourist was caught sporting her tattoo on his shin by the Bengaluru police, it made national headlines after men from the Bharatiya Janata Party in Karnataka threatened to skin the tourist alive if he did not conceal the tattoo. Sporting the tattoo of the Goddess below the knee was seen as an act of disrespect towards the Goddess.

When I first read these news reports, the thought that instantly came to my mind was: “Isn’t Goddess Yellamma the one whose cult is closely associated with the birth of the Devadasi system in India?” And my memory had indeed served me right. “In Belgaum there is considerable stigma surrounding the Yellamma temple, because of its association with the Devadasi system, in which young girls are dedicated to the temple to serve the Goddess and condemned to a life of slavery thereafter,” B.L. Patil, the founder of Vimochana, an organisation working towards the eradication of the devadasi system in Athani, Belgaum, told me.

While the numbers of girls being dedicated to the temple has been falling, and the Devadasi culture has largely been curbed according to local residents, the Yellamma temple in Saundatti continues to attract ‘Devadasis’ and other believers in large numbers who secretly practice rituals (such as near-naked worship of the Goddess draped only in neem leaves), Patil said. Curious, I set off for Saundatti.

A river, a hill and a story

Saundatti, the hill town where the Yellamma temple is located, is a 90-minute drive from Belgaum. As per historical records, the temple was built during the ninth century under the Ratta dynasty, which ruled till the 12th century with Saundatti as its capital. We drove past pretty little sugarcane and cotton farms on the Belgaum-Hyderabad state highway before making the ascent to Saundatti hills, where a breathtaking scene of the Malaprabha River flowing quietly below came into view. The Malaprabha River, which originates in Kankumbi in the Western Ghats, is a tributary of the Krishna River. Both the river and the hills figure in the mythical tales that narrate the origin of the worship of Goddess Yellamma here.


Referred to as Renuka in mythology, the story goes that the Goddess was the wife of sage Jamadagni, and had three sons. One of her sons, Parashurama, beheaded his mother following his father’s instructions. Renuka had earned her husband’s fury for not dutifully filling up water in the clay pot for his rituals, as she was distracted by the sight of Gandharvas, who had taken the form of men, bathing in the river. Being a Sage’s wife meant sacrificing her sexual needs, and mythical tales hint at how watching the men made Renuka painfully aware of her own sexually unfulfilled life. Through his powers of intuition, Jamadagni became aware of his wife’s thoughts and ordered his sons to behead her. Of the three sons, only the third son Parashurama agreed to execute the father’s orders, but later, pleased by his obedience, when Jamadagni bestowed a wish for fulfilment upon his son, he prayed to his father to restore his mother back to life. Several such stories of the goddess exist and in one Renuka’s heads split into ten when her son kills her. One can spot devotees around the temple carrying the Goddess’s idols and various artefacts that bring these mythical tales to life.

Historical evidence shows that Yellamma was a tribal deity of a food gathering nomadic community, whose members used to place a twig of neem leaves in the food basket to personify their goddess. Several men and women still take as their names Jogappa and Jogamma, respectively, as human agents of Yellamma are known, and they can be seen begging outside and inside the temple premises with a food basket (padalgi) containing puffed rice, coconut, flowers and other offerings for the Goddess. The ritual of collecting offerings in the padalgi and eating out of it is a way of life for several residents from nearby villagers. Dedicating one’s life to the Goddess was not only a manifestation of religious belief, I realised, but also a socio-economic phenomenon fuelled by crop loss and lack of employment opportunities.


In the temple, I met Fakirappa, an itinerant baba dressed in loose yellow robes, sporting shaggy, unkempt hair and a beard, who said he had long abandoned his family that lived in the nearby village of Shivanakote as he couldn’t provide for them. Hailing from a Naicker family, the baba says he travels 42 km to reach the temple every week and has been doing so for the last 20 years, but till date there are no bus facilities from his village to the temple and he has to hitch rides in bullock carts to get to the highway from where he can board a bus. Fakirappa took to this life after agriculture in his village failed and there was no means of survival left for labourers like him. He begs in the name of the Goddess for a few days each week and travels in nearby villages as a jogappa, conducting religious sermons and collecting food and money in return from villagers. At the end of our conversation and after posing happily for some photographs, Fakirappa raised his right hand (he held a trishul in the other one) and placed his palm above my head, making a blessing gesture.

'The erotic ascetic'

Writing in an anthology of queer culture, anthropologist Nicholas J. Bradford describes Yellamma as an erotic ascetic, drawing comparisons with Siva, whose phallic symbol (linga) is widely worshipped by Hindus everywhere. He notes that the Hindu conceptual paradigms structured around oppositions of hot to cold, erotic to ascetic, male to female, and high-caste to low-caste are crucial to a proper understanding of Yellamma. He describes Yellamma as the “divine mistress,” whose aroused, overt female sexuality or (heat) provides a metaphor for transition; whether in the context of sickness, “transgenderism”, or in the rites of renewal around which she provides a focus.

What Bradford describes is something I got to observe first hand at the temple. Frenzied devotees smeared the walls of the temple and themselves with vermillion red and turmeric yellow, symbolising fertility and sickness; in fact, there is such a splash of red and yellow everywhere, including the temple floor, that you cannot hope to leave the premises without your feet absorbing some of those shades. As I entered the temple, the first sight that greeted my eyes was of two women, their hair let loose, vermillion and turmeric daubed all over their foreheads and necks, making a dancing procession around the sanctum sanctorum; followed by a man who drenched them with a pot of water as they moved on. Every now and then these women fell on the floor, lying prostrate for a while, as they continued to circle the shrine.


A local priest explained to me that smearing oneself with vermillion and turmeric that is offered to the goddess, and making the bathe-and-dance procession is carried out by women who come here for wish fulfilment and good health. They wish for a husband, if single, and for a child, if married and childless. I also saw parents bringing their children to the temple, wrapping them up in neem leaves, and praying for them to be cured of any existing illnesses or protecting them from possible ones.

According to local sources, a mysterious water spout near the Saundatti hills is also believed to cure leprosy and is visited by leprosy affected devotees on Tuesdays or Fridays which are considered auspicious days. Renuka-Yellamma herself is described in mythological stories as being afflicted with leprosy after she is turned away by her husband and she gets cured later.

The temple also serves as a hub for transgender persons. We met one Basavamma, who was carrying a padalgi and begging for food. She told us that she was both Basavamma and Basavappa, and it depended on what form she chose to take, thus emphasising the male-female opposition that frames human sexuality. Basavamma is 68 years old and said that she had spent about 50 years of her life in the temple and travelling to villages and towns nearby as a jogamma.

She was the first Devadasi I met at the temple, initiated into the system as a teenager and now living off it. “I have no home. I travel and live in the homes of those who invite me. If you feed me, and pay me, I will come and live with you as well,” she said, baring her yellow teeth, in a smile. Next we met Sivamma, who was sitting right at the temple, who was also a transgender, and offered to perform a special jogamma dance for us. The dance, while performed in the name of the Goddess, is also used as a form of enticement for men who visit the temple.


Right outside the temple premises, near the car park, beyond which lie a row of shops selling articles of worship, are empty walls that visitors to the temple use as an open urinal. On the day I visited, a huge pile of organic waste, comprising rotting banana peels, faded flowers, and other waste generated from offerings, was heaped right inside the temple in a corner. Not only is there a lack of cleanliness both within and outside the temple, there also seems to be little investment by way of posting police officials or putting up barricades for crowd management as you might find in other big temples.

Why is such an ancient and historically significant temple so poorly maintained? To seek an answer to this question, I went to the office of the Assistant Commissioner of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Trust, Ravi Kotaragaste, who handled temple management-related issues. Kotaragaste shrugged helplessly and said that managing issues of cleanliness and the crowd was near impossible, as the inner shrine of the temple premises is small and there is only one entry gate through which both entering and exiting visitors had to be moved.


The expanded temple area sprawls across 1,100 acres, including the hill area around it, and can accommodate lakhs of visitors during auspicious days, such as full moon days and during the ‘Rande Hunnime’ festival in December-January, when the widowhood of the Goddess is mourned by devotees. In February, during the Bharat Hunnime pilgrimage, when the ritual remarriage of the Goddess after the mourning season is observed, the temple attracts up to 16 lakh visitors in a few days.

Vijaykumar Patil, The Hindu’s Belgaum correspondent, said that every year during the pilgrim season, lakhs of visitors take to open defecation around the temple area, due to lack of adequate toilets and the administration has turned a blind eye to it thus far. The dearth of funds cannot be a valid excuse, as Kotaragaste himself said that during the last financial year the temple had fetched over Rs 11 crore in revenue.

Before I left Belgaum I also spoke to the local Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh sanchalak Balanna B. Kagganagi about the tattoo controversy. “This is nothing but an insult to the Goddess and we object to such practices,” he said. But when I asked him as to why the RSS isn’t doing anything to improve facilities at the temple, which the Karnataka Tourism website lists right on top of its ‘spirituality’ section, he said that was the sole concern of the temple management.

Is it not fair to ask that a strong devotion and a right to take religious offence be supported by an equally strong concern for the condition of the premises you enshrine your deity in?

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