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6. Immersed in Remembrance and Song: Religious Identities, Authority, and Gender at the Samā

Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger Indiana University Press ePub

It is the poetry that pulls at the heart. . . . A happiness is born from the poetry and we begin to twirl.

On the twenty-sixth of each Muslim lunar month,1 the courtyard of Sheikh Hussain Qadiri, Abba, is transformed from the open-air “waiting room” of Amma’s healing room into a magnetic center of spiritual power drawing together a core group of disciples of the aging sheikh. The occasion is the samā, a ritual of devotional song [qavvālī] and remembrance [zikr] whose purpose is to arouse mystical love among those assembled and move them closer to the pīr, the saints, and God.2 It is on the occasion of the samā that Abba’s spiritual authority as sheikh/pīr is most visibly performed—he sits on a velvet-cushioned seat/throne [gaddī], wears a special green satin turban, is garlanded by his disciples, and “holds court.” Abba’s male disciples are seated in a rectangular pattern around the courtyard; Abba is seated at one end (along with his murśid son and heir apparent, Khalid, and Khalid’s oldest son), and the musicians [qavvāls] are seated at the far side opposite him. Amma and female disciples sit on a raised verandah behind Abba with a curtain separating them from the sheikh, his male disciples, and the musicians.

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2. Guising, Transformation, Recognition, and Possibility

Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger Indiana University Press ePub

GUISING, TRANSFORMATION,
RECOGNITION, AND
POSSIBILITY

2

While stri vesham is the most notorious feature of Tirupati’s Gangamma jatara, guising also appears in less dramatic forms, including turmeric (pasupu) application on the faces of the goddess herself and her female worshippers. When I attempted to confirm with a group of women in Tatayyagunta temple courtyard that women did not take vesham, one of them vehemently disagreed, saying, “But we do; we put on pasupu, don’t we?” This comment led me to understand, analytically, the pasupu application on the goddess as vesham—that is, as a covering/guise/disguise of the body. In the analysis that follows, I have also included instances of the goddess coming to the human world in forms in which she is not recognized—a context in which the human body itself serves as vesham, “taken on” to serve as a disguise. Specialist and lay male stri veshams, female pasupu vesham, and Gangamma’s human form and pasupu-covered dark stone heads create a repertoire of guising whose manifestations inform and frame each other; through this repertoire, we can begin to understand the potential creativity of jatara veshams.

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7. Temple and Vesham Mirasi: The Kaikalas of Tirupati

Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger Indiana University Press ePub

TEMPLE AND VESHAM
MIRASI:
THE KAIKALAS
OF TIRUPATI

7

We first met the Kaikala family whose male members take Gangamma’s veshams when we entered their domestic courtyard during the 1992 jatara to watch preparation of Gangamma’s snake charmer vesham. A fourteen- or fifteen-year-old boy was being dressed as the goddess by his mother; he sat quietly as his mother applied pasupu to his face and his grandmother supervised the preparations with loud orders. The boy was transformed into a particularly beautiful, lithe, gentle Gangamma—seemingly not fully aware of herself either as the male-become-female or the goddess. At the time, my own son was sixteen years old, and I wondered how a teenage boy’s concept and experience of gender would be changed through his own transformation through vesham into a goddess.1

Although only Kaikala men take Gangamma’s veshams, it was the energy and directives of the Kaikala women that I sensed most powerfully when I first entered their home and over the years that have followed. Venkateshvarlu (hereafter, V), the primary male organizer of the Kaikala families who take Gangamma vesham and eldest son of the family matriarch, describes how his family came to be involved with the jatara and emphasizes a female lineage of responsibility for the goddess:

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10. “Crazy for the Goddess”: A Consuming Relationship

Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger Indiana University Press ePub

“CRAZY FOR
THE GODDESS”:
A CONSUMING
RELATIONSHIP

10

Veshalamma and Pujaramma articulate some of the benefits of entering a ritual relationship with the goddess; in their narratives, it would seem that these benefits outweigh the troubles they may experience because of this relationship. However, as the narrative fragments of the personal narratives of the female devotee of Gangamma in this chapter will suggest, there may be times when an intimate relationship with Gangamma may, in fact, be “too much to bear.”

Gangamma is a restless goddess who traditionally moves too much to accept a permanent dwelling and thus is perhaps not present enough, in one place for long enough, to establish a devotional relationship with most worshippers who interact with her. However, in her Tirupati temples, Gangamma is more stable than she is on village boundaries. Here, when female householders have particular needs, throughout the year they make vows to light a specific number of oil lamps (dipam) for a specific number of Tuesdays and/or Fridays at her temple or to cook pongal for her in her temple courtyards, asking her to fulfill their desires. The relationships between these women and the goddess are primarily ritual/material transactions: Gangamma needs food and other services, and her worshippers need something from her (a husband, fertility, health of or employment for their children). Few householders maintain her at home; her ugra nature requires a level of nearly full-time service very few women have time, energy, or even inclination to give.

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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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