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Goddess Traditions of India- Cult of Nalla Pochamma-3

by Dr Rinkoo Wadhera Oct 24th 2015

Continued from Goddess Traditions in India- Cult of Nalla Pochamma-2

Part 3

Epidemic as Benevolence, Epidemic as Retribution

It is not necessarily a contradiction of this point of view to say that the goddess also causes the epidemic. She receives the main brunt of the onslaught, but she is unable, or unwilling, to contain it all and spreads it to the villagers, who help her deal with it. It is well known that the goddess in this situation is particularly partial to the victims of disease, perhaps because they help her bear the burden of the demonic attack.

Pashubali: Appeasing the Goddess

Perhaps the central dramatic event of village-goddess festivals is a blood sacrifice. This sacrifice also may be understood from two points of view. The sacrifice may be seen as a gift from the villagers with which they hope to appease the goddess so that she will withdraw her anger, which expresses itself in the form of the heat of disease. Or the sacrifice may be understood as representing the defeat of the invading demon or demons, who are also associated with the goddess’s consort/husband who had afflicted or abused her in the myths.

Pashubali Wikimedia commons

In either case, it is clear that the goddess demands the blood of a victim, that she needs that blood, either to appease her wrath or to invigorate her in her contest with the demons.
The elaborate, ritualistic way in which the sacrificial victim is treated during the sacrifice suggests his humiliation by the goddess. This in turn suggests that the victim is the goddess’s enemy and thus represents an invading demon or her offending husband/consort. Traditionally, a buffalo was offered to the goddess. After it was beheaded, its leg was thrust into its mouth, fat from its stomach was smeared over its eyes, and a candle was lit on its head and then presented to the goddess. The humiliation of the victim is fairly clear here and certainly suggests the defeat of an enemy, presumably the demon who caused the disaster or epidemic.

Struggle, Defeat and Death

Although the themes of conflict, struggle, defeat, and death are obviously prominent in these goddess festivals, there is also the theme of the goddess’s being awakened, aroused, and stimulated. Indeed, there is the suggestion that she may even have sexual intercourse with the demon or demons who invade her village. A likely implication is that the goddess periodically needs this encounter with a demon/husband/consort to invigorate and enliven her.

Invigoration and Rejuvenation

The festival also has an invigorating, enlivening effect on the village and its occupants. To a great extent, the villagers identify themselves with the goddess in her encounter with the invading demons. Like her and with her, they are aroused, invaded, and assaulted by these “outside” forces that disrupt the calm and order of their world.

Role Reversal 

During the festival the village as a whole, or at least those who are participating most actively in the worship, appear to abandon the quiet, orderly habits of everyday life. There is a stirring up of everything, a mixing up of things.32 There is often a mixture of castes, demons are present in the village, blood is spilled in sacrificial offerings, people are awakened, aroused by both the epidemic and the festival it has occasioned. Reversal of roles often takes place, or at least social roles and rules are temporarily held in abeyance.33

The village is awakened to the presence of sacred power, to the affirmation that a sacred power underlies and pervades the village. Morbidity is overcome, and the village organism is reactivated and re-enlivened by the immediate presence of the goddess.

Anything for the Goddess

The village-goddess festival is often the time of undertaking heroic vows, which greatly heighten the aroused state of the village. Fire walking, carrying burning pots on one’s head, and swinging while suspended on hooks through one’s flesh are all common during these festivals and are associated with trance and possession. These ordeals invite the presence of the goddess by expressing the devotee’s willingness to fully encounter the dangerous power of the goddess, who is aroused, hot, and fierce. While there is considerable risk involved in so encountering the goddess, it is understood that the ordeal is undertaken in gratitude for her blessing in the past or her mercy in the present and that she is particularly fond of those who so approach her and will usually see that no harm will come to them.

In return for villagers’ taking on a part of her excess fury or heat generated by contact with demons, the goddess blesses her devotees by protecting them during their ordeal. Together, as it were, the goddess and her devotees take on the dangerous but invigorating presence of the epidemic or disaster.

Matangi as Goddess

A striking illustration of the enlivening effects of the festival on the goddess and the village is the role played in many festivals in the South by a low-caste woman called a Matangi*. The Matangis are unmarried and hold their office for life. During a festival for the village goddess the Matangi represents the goddess. Possessed by the goddess, she will dance wildly, use obscene language, drink intoxicants, spit on spectators, and push people around. The Matangi cult has several origin legends in tantra and Buddhist literature.

As a Mahavidya, she is tantra personified. She depicts the paradox in the notion of oppositions of pure-impure; clean-polluted; puritanism-unrestrained sex; high caste-low caste; and urban-rural divide. She signifies coming to terms with, and transcending the apparent dualities of existence.

Liminality and Transgression-Way of the Goddess

As Victor Turner has argued, religious festivals often serve the important purpose of allowing a society, culture, or village to step out of the confines of normality so that other, often redemptive, possibilities may be glimpsed or briefly experienced or experimented with. Festivals provide a window to what Turner calls the liminal dimension of reality, the dimension that remains outside social norms and expectations but that is capable of enlivening and nourishing the realm of social order and normality.

Mahavidya Matangi

Festivals provide a context for the breaking out of confining social roles, for the breaking up and mixing up of expected social relations. The Matangi dramatically acts out this liminal facet of the village-goddess festival and makes it clear that it is the goddess herself who incites and arouses her devotees to this invigorating frenzy. Having been aroused herself by the encounter with a demon/husband/consort, she in turn arouses the entire village, and together they are renewed and renourished.40

In the topsy-turvy context of the festival, where reversals are dominant, the outrageous behavior of the  Matangi, ordinarily highly polluting, is purifying. Instead of avoiding her spittle and insults, people go out of their way to be subjected to her abuse.

To be continued in Goddess Traditions of India- Cult of Nalla Pochamma-4