19 Chapters
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9. Exchanging Talis with the Goddess: Protection and Freedom to Move

Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger Indiana University Press ePub

EXCHANGING TALIS
WITH THE GODDESS:
PROTECTION AND
FREEDOM TO MOVE

9

I had attended three jataras and lived in Tirupati for several months in the fall of 1999 before I heard of the tradition of matammas.1 A professor at Sri Venkatesvara University invited me to go with him to a school he had started in an adjacent town for children of matammas. Seeing my quizzical look, he explained that matammas were women who have exchanged talis with one of the Seven Sister gramadevatas. Many matammas are offered to a gramadevata as babies or little girls when they or the village are experiencing the physical presence of the goddess in their bodies through poxes and fevers.2 When they reach puberty, their families celebrate a wedding-like ritual in which the girls and the goddess exchange talis. Thereafter, the professor continued, these women are free to enter relationships with men, with or without marriage. He explained that the children born of these alliances, when they are outside marriage, are scorned, socially marginalized, and otherwise at risk; he believed education was one way they could rise above their marginalized status.

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1. An Aesthetics of Excess

Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger Indiana University Press ePub

AN AESTHETICS OF EXCESS

1

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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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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Medium 9780253347213

2. The Healing System

Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger Indiana University Press ePub

The whole world depends on pen and paper.

Amma boldly states that she ‘guarantees’ (using the English word) her treatments for all troubles and illnesses that are caused by śaitānī, literally evil forces but more generally the impingement of spiritual forces on the physical world. (Śaitān literally means “satan,” but śaitānī has a broader meaning of evil or devilish things; sometimes the meaning can be “naughty” if applied to the behavior of a child.) Amma specifically excludes cancer, heart troubles, typhoid, and polio from the classification of illnesses over which she has control (all diseases that have, incidentally, directly affected members of her own family).1 Many patients come to Amma with very specific complaints: infertility, high fevers in children, disobedient children (including teenage sons who do not work but just “meander around all day”), colicky babies and stubborn young children, babies who are failing to thrive, abusive husbands, troubles making marriage arrangements for their daughters, stolen gold, runaway goats, interfering neighbors, or failing businesses. Other patients come with generalized complaints such as “I don’t sleep well, my hands and feet are pulling,” vague restlessness [becainī], or general trouble [pareśānī] in the house.

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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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