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1. An Aesthetics of Excess

Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger Indiana University Press ePub

AN AESTHETICS OF EXCESS

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The most striking aspect of a jatara for someone experiencing it for the first time is its dizzying multiplicity of rituals and activities, carried out with a seeming lack of coordinated organization. These festivals are multi-sited, multi-caste celebrations; an elaborate web of castes, ritual families, households, and individuals come together in a flow of activities that sometimes intersect and at other times are relatively independent. No single participant experiences the full range of the ritual repertoire; and so, while the repertoire affects each ritual, its “totality,” as described in this book, might appear rather artificially constructed from the perspective of any one participant.1 And yet there is an organizational, aesthetic force that keeps the jatara moving—its rituals performed at the right time in the right place. People seem to know, without being told, what to do, and where and when to show up. In analyzing Draupadi festivals in Tamil Nadu, which share the multiplicity of rituals and sites of Telugu jataras, Alf Hiltebeitel writes, “In a sense, we are faced with distilling what is essential from so much variety when variety is its essence” (1991:11). The multiplicity of Gangamma jatara helps both to elicit and satisfy the ugram of the goddess, the purpose of the festival itself.

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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

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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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3. Narratives of Excess and Access

Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger Indiana University Press ePub

NARRATIVES OF
EXCESS AND ACCESS

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Gangamma’s narrative repertoire opens up alternative and expanded perspectives on the nature of Gangamma—her excess and access—to those that jatara rituals perform. More specifically, the primary narratives of the goddess are a site of debate about gender roles and the nature of the female. Key to this debate is the nature of and relationship between ugram and shakti: is female shakti inherently ugra—that is, too much to bear? Taken together, the ritual and narrative repertoires create a cultural imaginaire of gender possibilities that reflect a left-hand caste ethos and provide indigenous commentary on the nature of the goddess, rationales for jatara rituals, and its celebrants’ gendered experiences of Gangamma.

The two primary stories of Gangamma’s narrative repertoire performed during the jatara are the localized story of the Gangamma and the Palegadu who tries to marry her or makes sexual demands of her, and the myth of Adi Para Shakti, the primordial goddess who creates the three gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, hoping for a male to satisfy her desire. I also heard several other Gangamma narrative fragments outside of the jatara ritual context as commentary on the nature of the goddess or the jatara itself. These include the story of the Asadi (sub-caste of Madigas who are ritual specialists) cart driver who must sacrifice his wife, upon the demand of his passenger Gangamma, in order to get her mud-stuck cart moving again. Women, in particular, often recount the story of the two Gangamma sisters’ tension over Pedda Gangamma’s children and Cinna Gangamma’s lack thereof, which results in the elder hiding her children under a basket, and the younger turning them into rocks.

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6. Wandering Goddess, Village Daughter: Avilala Reddys

Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger Indiana University Press ePub

WANDERING GODDESS,
VILLAGE DAUGHTER:
AVILALA REDDYS

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Although many Tirupati residents say Gangamma cannot be kept at home because she is too ugra, too much to bear, several families and individuals claim exception to this generalization: “While others can’t bear her, we can and do.” One such family is the Reddy family of Avilala village, only a few kilometers from Tirupati, whose forefathers are said to have found Gan-gamma as a little baby in the paddy fields outside of the village and who raised her as a daughter. By extension, the village itself considers her to be a daughter of Avilala.

In its movement from village to village in Chittoor District throughout the first month of the Tamil new year, the jatara finally completes the migration (with considerable drama) from Avilala to Tirupati. The distance between the boundaries of village and town has shrunk considerably between my first visit to Avilala in 1992 and my last one in 2010; village and town have grown into each other, with only a few fields keeping them apart. In 1992 an auto ride to the village from Tirupati seemed extravagant, but by 2010 there were many autos and jeeps plying the road between. Nevertheless, there is still a distinctly village ethos in the quiet lanes of Avilala—in which buffaloes and goats wander and rest next to stacks of fodder—and their surrounding paddy fields.

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Introduction

Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger Indiana University Press ePub

The South Indian pilgrimage town of Tirupati is synonymous with the God of the Seven Hills—Sri Venkateshvara, a form of Vishnu. His temple is nestled at the far end of a series of hills that swell from paddy fields and rocky hillocks on the plains to a height of 1,104 meters. God lives on the seventh, interior hill, Venkatagiri. This mountain range anchors and gives identity to Tirupati’s physical and imaginative landscapes. From the plains below, the sheer rock face overlooking the town is a striking visual reminder of the god’s presence. The rock catches the shifting light throughout the day in a kaleidoscope of color and shadows, changing with the seasons when it becomes a resting stop for monsoon clouds or reflects the sizzling hot-season heat back onto the town.

The God of the Seven Hills draws 50–60,000 pilgrims a day (up to 500,000 on special festival days), and much of Tirupati’s economy revolves around serving these pilgrims; the temple is one of the wealthiest religious institutions in the world. Tirupati’s train station and large bus stand are filled with groups of pilgrims and families carrying cloth-wrapped bundles, tin trunks, or modern wheeled suitcases. Pilgrims with shaved heads (sometimes covered by a baseball cap or slathered with sandalpaste to protect from the sun) are those who are on their way home, the offering of one’s hair being a typical vow to the deity in Tirupati. It was not the god who first called me to Tirupati, however, but rather a rich festival tradition of a village goddess, Gangamma, who lives on the dusty streets and lanes downhill.

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