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  • “Who am I . . . what significance do I have?” Shifting Rituals, Receding Narratives, and Potential Change of the Goddess’ Identity in Gangamma Traditions of South India
  • Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger (bio)

I first attended the village goddess Gangamma’s jatara (“annual festival”)1 in the South Indian pilgrimage town of Tirupati in 1992, knowing little about the jatara except press reports that emphasized the custom of male participants taking female guising.2 Over the intervening years I have attended the jatara four times, spent nine months living in Tirupati conducting research about Gangamma traditions, and have returned for numerous shorter visits. Since my first visit, I have observed numerous changes in both Gangamma narratives and rituals that have the potential to change who the goddess is. Gangamma’s largest temple, Tatayyagunta, has been radically transformed—ritually, architecturally, and in the personnel serving the goddess. The local narrative repertoire surrounding the goddess seems to be receding from the public imagination, or even being silenced, and is unknown by many in the burgeoning jatara crowds (reported to be 500,000 in 2012) drawn from beyond the boundaries of Tirupati that Gangamma traditionally protects.3

These narrative and ritual changes raise questions about what each individually creates, their relationship, and what is lost or gained in the changes I have observed. What is created with the addition of Sanskritic rituals to temple service (traditionally offered to puranic deities4 rather than gramadevatas [“village deities”] such as Gangamma), when middle-class aesthetics have impacted architectural temple changes, and when Gangamma’s narratives recede from the public imagination? How is the goddess’ identity potentially changing with these narrative and ritual shifts? These questions bring a performative lens to older questions of the relationships between ritual and narrative, which often prioritize one over the other.5 Ethnographic and performance analyses of Gangamma ritual and narrative traditions show the finely tuned ways in which they are both independent and codependent and the ways in which they both reflect and create—and have the potential to change—the identity of the goddess.

Gangamma jatara began as a local, very local, celebration that is typical of a wide range of jataras performed for what are known as the Seven Sister gramadevatas in Chitoor District of Andhra Pradesh. The purpose of these jataras is to invigorate the power of the goddess so that she will protect the uru (“local community”) during the vulnerable time of the hot season—when she herself is said to expand—when the uru is threatened by particular hot season-associated illnesses and drought. The power of these gramadevatas must be ugra (“excessive” or “heated”) in order to accomplish these ends. But then that ugram6 must be cooled or satisfied in order that the goddess not become destructive beyond these ends; this has traditionally been accomplished through the offering of bali (“animal sacrifice”). Nevertheless, even in her cooled and more “stable” state, Gangamma is typically identified as too ugra to bear or serve at home by most devotees; her needs are simply excessive. However, as will be mentioned below, there are a few ritual families and individuals who can and do bear her and enter intimate relationships with her.

Some explanation of what it means for a goddess to be heated or cooled may be helpful here, before proceeding with discussions of Gangamma’s shifting narratives and rituals.7 Heat in Hindu discourse and ritual is associated with expansion, (sometimes excessive) presence of a deity, and both human and divine unsatisfied desire—that is, ugram. Coolness, in contrast, is associated with stability, satisfaction, desire fulfilled—shantam. Some Indian languages use the phrase literally “to cool” (Hindi: thanda karna) when referring to immersion in a body of water of a temporary clay festival image at the end of the end of festivals such as Durga Puja and Ganesha Chathurti, even if that deity or its clay form is not directly identified as ugra. Rituals that are offered to a heated, that is, present, goddess who is possessing a human body— performed to “send her on her way” (to “de-possess” the person)—may be called, in some contexts, “to cool” the goddess. Gangamma is consistently characterized as ugra...

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