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Benign Goddess, Terrible Gaze: Gender, Power and Agency in the Cult of Nalla Pochamma
First published in Indian Journal of Political Science, July-Sept 2015. https://www.jstor.org/journal/indijpoliscie
Indexed on JSTOR https://www.jstor.org/stable/26534899
This study is based on fieldwork study of the cult of the goddess Nalla Pochamma carried out in the Secunderabad and Adilabad districts of Telangana over a period of two and a half years. The goddess Nalla Pochamma , whose name means simply ‘black goddess’ of the village Pochammapally, is relatively unknown outside these two districts. In the context of village life one of the most (if not the most) significant and powerful divine presence is the gramadevata,–a deity who is especially identified with the village and toward whom the villagers often have a special affection.
These village deities, more numerous than Indian villages themselves, are naturally diverse in character. Some deities are popular over a region and command reverence and fear. The goddesses Pochamma in South India and Manasa in North India are examples of this regional popularity.. Speaking through its oracle, the matangi, during the rangam ritual , I argue, the goddess speaks for all subalterns. The performance of the matangi is agentive in the context of rituals wherein subalterns assume agency and power, if only in a liminal space and time.
Keywords: Pochamma, agency, power, ritual, gramadevta, matangi.
Nalla Pochamma is a fierce goddess known to bring disease and ill health upon its worshippers if neglected. She has been compared to Kali, however, I feel that it is more of an effort towards Sanskritization, contradicting the oral history of the goddess as told by the Matangi in the Rangam ritual associated with the goddess. Despite the number and variety of gramadevatas, several typical characteristics of these local deities have been noted. First, they usually are female. Speaking of South India, Whitehead says that “village deities, with very few exceptions, are female . . . . All over Southern India . . . the village deities are almost exclusively female”.
In Telangana it is true, most of them have male attendants, who are supposed to guard the shrines and carry out the commands of the goddesses; but their place is distinctly subordinate and almost servile.
Second, these deities are usually not represented by anthropomorphic images. This is true for the shrine I visited on Robert’s Road, Secunderabad. The deity is a conical projection from earth. According to lore, Nalla Pochamma appeared in the dream of an old woman and commandeered her to resurrect and worship the goddess in the form of a rock.
Interestingly, Nalla Pochamma also finds mentions in the Oggu Katha tradition. This is a unique song-speech-dance sacred theatre dedicated to praising and narrating the stories of deities, especially Mallana.The narratives also include legends of Yellama Devi and Nalla Pochamma Devi, developed by Vallam Sathaiah. The Oggu Pujarulu are minstrels to their patron community, the seven Kurumas / Gollas. Mallanna Katha is their caste myth, which narrates the exploits of Mallanna their caste hero. As the Mallanna Katha is narrated using a particular percussion instrument called as “Oggu” by “Oggu Pujarulu” it is popularly termed as Oggu Katha.
Sometimes no shrine is present at all except during special festivals, when temporary structures will be built to house or represent the deity.
Third, these deities, goddesses for the most part, arrest the prime interest of the villagers and tend to be worshiped with more intensity than the great gods of the Hindu pantheon.
Although the great gods are acknowledged to be in charge of remote cosmic cycles, they are only of limited interest to most villagers, many of whom traditionally were not allowed within the precincts of the temples of these deities in the first place. The village goddess, in contrast, engages the villagers directly by being associated with their local, existential concerns. She is perceived to be their deity and to be concerned especially with their well-being and that of their village.
Finally, these village deities are often directly associated with disease, sudden death, and calamity. When the village is threatened by disaster, particularly epidemics, the local goddess is usually said to be manifesting herself. She erupts onto the village scene along with disasters that threaten the stability, and even the survival, of the village. Furthermore, her role vis-à-vis such epidemics or disasters is ambivalent. She is perceived both as inflicting these diseases and as protecting the village from them.