19 Chapters
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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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6. Wandering Goddess, Village Daughter: Avilala Reddys

Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger Indiana University Press ePub

WANDERING GODDESS,
VILLAGE DAUGHTER:
AVILALA REDDYS

6

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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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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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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Conclusion: Vernacular Islam Embedded in Relationships

Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger Indiana University Press ePub

 

 

 

What is the most important thing? Love. Love is the most important thing.

The vernacular Islam practiced in Amma’s healing room, in which Amma and Abba, as pīr and pīrānimā, heal and teach, is shaped and characterized by a series of relationships. As Abba so often rhetorically asks in his teachings: “What is the most important thing? Love. Love is the most important thing.” In other teachings, he emphasizes that what most distinguishes human beings from animals is their ability to recognize and enact kinship relationships. The ability to form relationships is given to humans by God, and furthermore, according to Abba, the only way humans can truly know and experience the love of God is to witness and participate in love between human beings. Because relationships as they are lived are variable, shifting, and creative, they provide the primary basis for and site of creativity and flexibility in vernacular Islam as practiced in Amma’s healing room.

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