19 Chapters
Medium 9780253347213

1. Setting the Stage: The Healing Room, its Actors, and its Rhythms

Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger Indiana University Press ePub

Patients come by auto, foot, and bus—from villages, Bombay, and Pune. My fālitā are taken even as far as Dubai.

Amma’s healing room is a small crowded bustling crossroads of domestic and public spaces, personae, and discourses, a crossroads of ritual and storytelling, social and economic exchange, and family disputes and negotiations. As one enters the courtyard outside the healing room, one often sees a crowd of patients leaning into the doorway of the room, straining to hear Amma’s voice or slip in a personal request out of turn. Other patients sit in small familial groups conversing quietly among themselves, entertaining restless babies or children, exchanging gossip with groups from other parts of the city, and/or sharing with others in the courtyard their stories of suffering and Amma’s healing (and periodically giving their own advice to each other). On busy days, they may sit for several hours awaiting their turn. Although every so often a patient or her family might complain about the long wait, especially if a baby is crying inconsolably or if Amma is about to take her hour (or more) lunch break, usually patients resign themselves to waiting for their turn. Many patients spend the greater part of a day simply getting to Amma’s neighborhood due to long distances and the vagaries of public transportation. For women in particular, the day is an important social outing, as patients rarely come by themselves. It may serve as an occasion for mothers and married daughters or sisters who live with their in-laws to get together outside the scrutiny of others and the pressure of childcare and meal preparation. For a woman who has recommended Amma to a neighbor and accompanied her, this may be a rare occasion for them to talk with each other beyond the few minutes spent standing at the neighborhood water tap or rounding up their children from their play in the street.

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3. Patient Narratives in the Healing Room

Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger Indiana University Press ePub

They come crying; they go away laughing.

Individual patients come to the healing table with unique circumstances and present their problems to Amma in narratives that give depth, character, and variation to the “same” diagnoses. Many patients say that they chose Amma over other healers because of her patience in listening to these narratives, and Amma herself says that “understanding” is what is most important, not the mathematical diagnosis. We can begin to explicate what this understanding might mean by examining a range of individual cases and patients who have come to Amma’s healing table.1 Most of these cases involve what readers might identify as psychological problems rather than purely physical illnesses, and these illnesses generate narratives. Illnesses such as children’s high fevers do not generally generate extended narratives in the healing room beyond those that tell of a patient’s resort to multiple healing systems or healers within a single system.

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8. The Goddess Served and Lost: Tatayyagunta Mudaliars

Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger Indiana University Press ePub

THE GODDESS
SERVED AND LOST:
TATAYYAGUNTA MUDALIARS

8

The first year I participated in Gangamma jatara in 1992, a female, middle-aged, gracefully moving attendant was serving Cinna Gangamma in her Tatayyagunta temple. She was assisted by a male in the inner sanctum itself, and several other women were running in and out with various supplies and helping keep the temple precincts clean. A female presence and authority in a gramadevata temple was not unexpected, since gramadevatas are traditionally served by non-Brahman men or women. With the high energy of jatara rituals taking place in the temple courtyard (visiting veshams, pongal preparations, children beating the cement feet of the goddess in the courtyard, and chicken sacrifices), we paid little attention to the woman serving inside the temple. However, the next year, her absence was immediately palpable.

We learned from the temple flower sellers that, in the intervening year, the Temple Endowments Department had taken over administration of Tatayyagunta temple (presumably because of the increased income generated by the jatara) and replaced the primary female attendant with Brahman male priests. The change of personnel had brought with it changes in daily and festival rituals, which now included the recitation of Sanskrit mantras, performance of homam (fire sacrifice), and the sale of archana tickets (a puja ritual performed on behalf of an individual worshipper and his/her family and gotra lineage). Most of the women who had served the goddess in temple grounds’ upkeep and otherwise had helped to maintain some “order” in the temple (including crowd control in the long lines waiting for darshan of the goddess during the jatara) had been hired as employees of the Tattaiahgunta Devasthanam (spelling of the official name of the temple committee administering this temple) and continued their work in the temple, but they lamented the absence of the matriarch they call Amma. Her given name is Kamakoteshvari; to keep it simple and at the same time be respectful, I will call her Koteshvaramma, employing the familiar and honorific suffix -amma.

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4. Female-Narrated Possibilities of Relationship

Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger Indiana University Press ePub

FEMALE-NARRATED
POSSIBILITIES OF
RELATIONSHIP

4

When I asked female jatara celebrants to tell me the why the jatara is celebrated, they almost always answered with descriptions of rituals rather than with a narrative. In contrast, men responded most often to the same question with the story of the Palegadu and Gangamma. When I asked women more specifically about the stories of Gangamma, while they often knew the general narrative outline of the Gangamma–Palegadu story, they reported rather than performed it.1 Even the flower sellers at the Tatayyagunta temple, who have an intimate relationship with the Gangamma of that temple and are witness to the broad range of jatara rituals that take place in its courtyard, were not storytellers; when I asked them for Gangamma narratives, they referred me to the Kaikalas and Pambalas. Until my return to Tirupati in the fall of 2005, I was tentatively concluding that men related to the goddess primarily narratively, whereas women related to her primarily ritually—and that men relate to her primarily during the jatara itself, whereas women relate to her throughout the year. While this conclusion may still be relevant, an unexpected, serendipitous meeting with a small group of women in the village of Avilala in 2005 opened up other possibilities.2

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5. Religious Identities at the Crossroads

Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger Indiana University Press ePub

All these are the same.

While Amma asserts that gender boundaries are impenetrable and rigid, the second half of her assertion maintains that boundaries of religious identities are permeable—that there are no true differences between followers of different religious traditions: “There are only two castes: men and women. Hindus, Muslims, Christians—they’re all the same.” I was often asked by patients sitting around Amma’s healing room what I was writing in my little notebook. I responded that I wrote down whether a patient is Hindu or Muslim, his/her gender and relative age, the nature of the complaint, and Amma’s diagnosis and prescriptions. Hearing my answer, Amma often shook her head and expressed disappointment in how little I seemed to have learned sitting at her side, sighing, “Jo-ice, haven’t you learned anything? It’s not a question of Hindu or Muslim here [i.e., in the healing room]. We all breathe in and out, don’t we?”

In some contexts, of course, such as marriage and death, political contexts where religious identities might impact voting blocs in elections to legislative bodies, decisions about admissions into universities, and in relation to inheritance rights as determined by different religious systems of family law, differences between Hindus and Muslims matter very much. In other contexts of self-representation, highly educated members of religious communities might identify textual traditions as the crucial identity markers and identify vernacular practices that are not described or proscribed in the texts as extraneous to the tradition, not “real” Hinduism, Islam, or Christianity. In Amma’s healing room, these differences are overridden by what is shared, by the crisis of illness. But more is shared between patients than simply human affliction and attraction to a charismatic healer. Patients and disciples also share features of and actors in a cosmological structure that assumes the possibility of spiritual illness and healing; they share knowledge and acceptance of a minimal ritual grammar whose performance impacts the spiritual/physical world. And Amma helps create the inclusive nature of her healing room, the caurāstā where there is no Hindu and Muslim, through ritual and narrative performances that draw on motifs and grammars that cross these boundaries of religious difference.

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