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Bhagavati: ball of fire

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Bhagavati: ball of fire
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  COMPARATIVE STUDIES IN RELIGION AND SOCIETY Mark Juergensmeyer, editor i. Redemptive Encounters: Three Modern Styles in the Hindu Tradition, Iry Lawrence Babb i >, Saints and Virtues, edited by John Strntlon Hawley 3. Utopias in Conflict: Religion and Nationalism in Modern India, by Ainslie T. Embree 4. Mama Lola: A Voclou Priestess in Brooklyn, !>y Karen. McCarthy Brown 5. The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State, ty Mark fuergsnsmeyer 6. Pious Passion: The Emergence ol' Modern Fundamentalismin the United Stales anrl Iran, by Martin RieseJtrailt, translated try Don Rifnr.au 7. Devi: Goddesses of India, eililed by John Slratlon Hawley ami Donna Marie Wulff I [v Devi Goddesses of India EDITED BY John S. Hawley AND Donna M. Wulff UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS Berkeley Los Angeles London  BHAGAVATI Ball of Fire Sarah Caldiw.ll DEVlKOPAM: THE WRATH OF THEGODDESS As we walk through the village lanes and over a stone bridge, we admire thebeautiful landscape: paddy fields nestled under thedark green hills, cows calmly munching cool green grass, coconut palms waving at the edges of the fields, just where the hills begin to rise. The sun is setting and a slight breeze is beginning to relieve the oppressively humid heat of the day. It is the month of Kumbham in southern Kerala, harvest time, the start of the intensely hoi summer months before the monsoon rains, and the fifth month of my field-work on the temple rituals dedicated to the fierce goddess Bhagavati. 1 Welcoming visitors at the entrance to the temple ground are two large plantain stalks heavy with fruit., ripe golden coconuts, and flowers. Inside, the energy is intense and colorful; many things are happening at once. Crowds of people arc milling about as musicians play in front of a low, tile- roofed shrine.Theheavy drums, coveredingoldand redbrocadeandsus- pended horizontally around the slim waists of the heavily perspiring youngmale drummers, resound with deep and complex rhythms. Oboelike in-struments pierce the evening air as four instrumentalists serenade the rep- resentation of the goddess stationed in their midst: the curved sword of Kali,painted as if covered in blood, a white cloth folded in an accordion fan be- low, sits atop a red and gold palanquin, which is paraded around the tem- ple. While the musicians play beforethe display of Kali's weapons, at theentrance totheshrine women are making offerings to a clay pot covered in a red cloth, which also represents the goddess. Hundreds of people are already here in the large temple compound. Themen are mostly involved in the carrying and displaying of bullock carts toentertainthe goddess. The smell of liquor strong 011 (heir breath, they are 195  SARAH CALDWELL particularly exuberant as they shout and dance and pull the effigies through the yard of the temple compound. The women and girls cluster around the shrines or the teashops lining the yard, keeping a safe distance from the ac- tivities of the men.The main event of the temple festival is a drama of battle, which bikes place after the midnight hour. The fierce Bhadrakaji, represented by a spe-cial actor wearing a heavy wooden headdress and elaborate costume, cele- brates her violent victory over the demon-king Darika. Bhagavati, the pre-dominant deity of Kerala, is a form of the pan-Indian goddess Kali. AsBhagavati she is a benevolent protectress, but in her more common angryand violent form, she is referred to as Bhadrakali.^ She holds variousweaponsin herright hands, which maynumber from two to thirty-two, and,inher left, symbols of the "left-handed" way—the head of the demon shehas decapitated, a bowl to catch the blood dripping from his severed neck,bells used by the oracles she empowers, snakes. She is hot, full of rage, sex-ually dangerous, but she is also a loving mother whose blessing ensures pros- perity and fertility. She is a mother, a virgin, and a warrior. She resides in aspecial tree, she loves the color red, she loves blood, colored powders, mu- sic and dance, and humor. She is covered with smallpox, but she is lovely. She is evoked and feared by her devotees, who hope to control herthrough theperformances they carry out. She is beautiful and fierce. She is the co- conuttree, thepaddy field, and the forest. On the floor insidethetemple building we find the kalam —alarge multi- colored rice-flour pictureof Bhadrakali into which thegoddessis to be in- stalled temporarily. :! Her feet are shown with toes pointed downward, strad- dling the prone and bloodied corpse of Darika. His head is severed, and hisentrails spill out where her long curved sword lias pierced his abdomen. BhadrakaH's three bulging eyes, red and white, stare out at us, the onlythree-dimensional protrusions other than the two small red breasts birill upof raw paddy rice; her four arms hold a fistful of weapons, the head ofDarika, a snake, and a howl to catch the demon's blood. Three folds at her middle enclose the prominent navel, necklaces hang from her neck, andstars and flowers dot her long loose black hair. A square red cloth is sus-pended like a tent over the haln-m. It is fringed with tender coconut leavesinto which are tied areca nuts, small bananas, and bunches of mango leaves.On the floor surrounding the kalam are brass lamps lit with oil wicks, plan-tain leaves heaped with piles of rice, ripe coconuts with ctx:onut (lowers ontop; by the goddess's feet are puffed rice and bananas (see figure 19). Fourladies sit opposite the shrine area, hands folded in prayer to the goddess be-fore them. Only men, however, are allowed to mount the platform where the kalam is installed, to perform the ritual worship of the goddess.Pounding drums shake the small building as the kalam artist draws largeblack circles around Bhadrakaji's staring eyes, rousing the goddess and call- Figure 19. Rice-flour drawing of Bliagavali, fully enlivened with ln:r fierce energy, by the artist VaranaLtn Narayana Rump. Photo-graphbyBaladianrlran. ing her into the drawing. The musicians sing a mournful song (kalampfiMu) describing her attributes and worshiping her, as the soul-splitting drums get louderandlouder, faster and faster.The attendant priestlights the oil-wick lamps outside the doors of the shrine and opens the doors to reveal the main image of the goddess, a crude granite stone with three eyes and a * weird wailing »«""^  SARAH CAL0WELL arms, ankles, and hips. This is the oracular represcnlaLive of the goddess, the vc.Hc.chappadu (veliccappaht), who is possessed by herspiritandcarriesit forth into the outer compound to empower the performance to come. 11 The oracle runs around the inner shrine erratically, shaking his anklets with a wild look in his eyes. As the image of the goddess is brought from the shrine, the women are hooting loudly— ullullullullu! —and loud firecrackers and sparklers are set off behind the temple. Quietly, as more firecrackers go off,the Italfim is erased by the artist, who waves a green plantain leaf that encloses a burning wick in his left hand. With his rightlie pulls down some coconutleaves from the hanging decorations with which to sweep away the colored-powder drawing of Bhagavati, leaving only the protruding face and breasts. Then, dropping the leaves, he uses the fingers of his right hand to erase the face and breasts and places the powder on a fresh plantain leaf, to be givenas a blessing (prnmdam) to the sponsor of tonight's rituals—in this case a young man—and others present. The ladies apply the powder to their fore-heads. Through this sequence of acts, the spirit of the goddess has been re- leased from the drawing and isbeing taken to the outer compound forthe furtherrituals.The action now shifts to a large pavilion outsidethe shrine where an elab- orate gu.ru.ti, a blood offering to the evil spirits of the forest, is about to takeplace. As heavy "demonic drums" pound their mesmerizing beat, the priests are preparing huge bamboo grids, plantain stalks, coconuts,and bowls ofred gtintti liquid. 5 Now it istimetotake Bhagavatiinprocessiontocollectthe evil spirits (hliutnni) who will assist her in the war against Darika. These evil spirits re-side in a group of trees about half a kilometer from the temple. Everyonebegins to stir, forming two lines behind the bearers of six small pyramids made of banana plant stalks and topped by small fire torches. These are a form of portable shrine. The whole retinue proceeds up the hill and thendown the road to the shrine of the evil spirits. The young men lead, bearing on their heads the banana-stalk structures; each of them is sponsored by a family group that walks along attending to the oil torches. Following themare the tdlappoli —two lines of women with plates holding wicks, coconut- shell lamps, areca Mowers, and colored flowers. I hustle in amongst the womenandhurry along behind them. Behindus walk thedrummers, torch bearers, the oracle, and the glittering image of Bhagavati carried palanquin- style by two bearers. We walk down the dark country road like this, torches flaming, drumsbeating, ladies hooting (even 1 try it). Our eerie feminine hooting seems topierce the night. As I move within this slow, sedate group of women, flanked by the lines of excited men, the bright torches, and the gleaming golden im-age ofthe enlivened, fierce goddess illumined only by fire and moon, I be- gin to feel I really am walking in a bunch of fores! spirits. We are callingghosts in the dead of night, far from home and the ordered routines of day-light and village. It feels dangerous and thrilling. As we walk along, people come out of their houses to salute Bhadrakaji. They haveput oil lamps outon the stoops, and they stand with folded hands as we pass. We arrive at the small group of trees and circle them, collecting the ghosts and spirits that will accompany Bliadrakali to the war.Back al the temple pavilion we all crush around the stage area, when sud- denly the two actors playing Kali and Darika run wildly into Ihe shrine: Kiili is being held by the veli.c.cliappndu. They look as if they are possessed: widevacant stares, erratic, violent movements, full of unrestrained energy. The two men—handsome, slim, and muscular—are dressed only in short, skirls.Darika has a red skirt over awhite cloth twisted around his waist; his lace is paintedgreen witha white line aroundthe jaw and red lips; asimple white cloth is tied on his head. Kaji wears a gold-colored blouse, raised lo expose thenipplesand full lowerpart of the amazing bluebreasts—very large, round, and prominent. (The whole breast and blouse ensemble is a prop made of highly lacquered wood.) Around her waist she wears lacqueredwooden belt-ornaments. Like Darika's, her face isgreen, with black aroundthe eyes and red lips, and some white and red "pox" pustules of lime havebeen pasted on the checks. Although her expression is fierce, she is a young, very beautiful, sexy-looking Kali—aDravidian warrior goddess. A smallheadgear is attached to the top of the actor's head, its coconut-frond hair isletloose and then cut into small strips with an iron knife by the oracle, in order to release its power. The ladies around me seem oblivious to the performance:they are more interested in eating peanuts and talking, or mildly scolding their children. Some are sleeping. Meanwhile, Kali is looking furious—her eyes wide andher mouth open. Staring intently, she brandishes an iron sword while shedances to the heavy beat. Now the drumming stops. The pries! fixes her an- kleis, lifts Kali's breastplate for ventilation, and fans the perspiration from the chest of the actor, who is drinking a soda. We are surprised to see greyhairon hischest.Howbi/.arre this small grey-hairedmanlooks standing half- naked with white frills attachedto hisbehindandhuge breasts at hisfrontThin, hardened tamarind twigs heat out the rhythmic refrain on the tautskin of the drumheads—i 234/1 2/1. This is very powerful. The drums arc so hypnotic. (> The arms and chests of the five strong young drummersshineasthey bend forwardandbackwardinperfect unison.I'mstartingtoget drawn inside myself—I feel different. It's hard to write notes or be ob-jective. Laji, my fieldassistant, also has stopped writing. Darika continuesto dance in squares around the flickering oil lamp. Listening to the pulsat- ing drumbeat, I become entranced. There is something so sensual and  SARAH C;AI..DWELL masculine about the drumming—powerful, passionate, incessant. One tall, handsome drummer watches me swaying slightly to the rhythm; he seems toplay to me. I lose my self-consciousness and enter the energy of the drum-ming with them. Somewhere the actors are Flashing knivesat each oilier. I'm lost in the drums and barely notice Darika. The eyes of the drummers areso wild, like wolves. They seem to look through me. Then the oracle comes running out with the headgear (mitdi) —enormous and very heavy—and holds it before the image of Bhadrakali in the main shrine, while the ladies once again hoot loudly— ul/.ul.lnUulln\ The mudi (mnl.i) is about four feel high and wide and is shaped like a leaf. The oracleplaces the enormous mudi atop the head of" the actor, who now becomes the goddess Kali herself. Two men hold torches in front of Ka|i as she stalks around slowly, then faster. The actor can barely sustain the weight of the mudi; healmost drops it. They put ash on hishands.Hesteps onto thestool—quite a sight—and turns about, stamping his feet, his ankle bracelets jingling. Theoracle removes the mudi and scats Kali on a stool, with the mitdi resting onthe ground in front of her. As they fan her, they again lift the breasts to cooltheactor down. The breasts are the source of great heat.Now it is thedead of night. The drama of BhadrakaH and Darika has been unfolding to the deep voices of the drums for several hours. As each scenebegins, the actors dance and spin, carefully making offerings of prayers and flowers to the deity of the oil lamp at the center of the performance area, the halwilakku, which has been enlivened with the spirit of the goddess. Theactors' movements arc accentuated by the occasional brilliant green flare ofthe torches, made of oil-soaked rags tied to branches, onto which are thrown handfuls of If.lli powder, an indigenous medicine extracted from tree resins. It has a beautiful smell, fresh and pungent, as well as an antiseptic effect, which once served to eradicate smallpox germs in the area. Bhadrakali is a fever goddess, and the offering of this ritual performance is said to cure anypox diseases afflicting villagers by satiating her blood thirst and cooling her down from her raging, overheated slate.It is the deepest part of the night of the most dangerous day oflhc week,the time when ugly and bloodthirstydemonsmove abroad in search of theirvictims. It is atime when people should he safe andasleepintheir beds, doors and windows shut, protected from the evils of the dark. But they arenol in their beds. They are here, women, men, and children, in full view of the night sky, the unhealthful mists of evening, the frightening spirits of a Friday night, watching the battle of Bhadrakali and Darika on the dry, bar-ren paddy fields of the village temple grounds.' All night the actors and priests have been flirting with the dark powers at large. Indeed, everythinghasbeen calculated lo call forth thosepowers and toinvite them intotheperformance arena, into the person of the actor himself, into the body of Bhadrakali dancing mudwelt.u. H UHAC.AVAT] 201 And now if is time. Kali begins to veer madly into the audience, wildly wav- ing her sickle-shaped iron sword in blood lust, forDarika's head. People jump up from theirseatsand run For the safety of the shrine as she chases Darika erratically around the temple ground. Suddenly her heavy headdress begins to slip, her steps falter, she swoons and begins to tremble violently, her eyes rolling up into her head, her arms Hailing. She is helped to herseat near the flame, her headdress removed, the energy temporarily containedandcontrolled, her body cooled.An enormous crowdiswatchingnow—there are easily a thousand people present, and all eyes are riveted on the action in the pavilion. A conch shell is blown as Ka|i putsthe mudi on again and stampsout the small rice-powderdrawingthatwas under thestool. Everyone hools. Kali's dancingismore rhythmic now; the actor's concentration seems to have improved. Her nakedstamping lo the beat of the drums is very sexual, contrast ing sharply with thestaid, controlled movements of Kerala women in public. The legs swat bed inwhite paste and laden with brass anklets thrust heavily downward into the dirtlike elephantstrampling a forest floor, the movementsreminiscent not of the graceful, controlled classical art forms of Kerala but rather of the absrcinal dances of the hill tribes. Now Darika is smearing the "blood" offering of the gurtt.l.ii\\\ over his body, thereby feasting the spirits and sending them away lo their forest dwellings. The torches flare up with fragrant greenlight. After about five hours, as the dawn breaks, Kali symbolically beheads Darika, removing the colorful wooden headdress and hair, which she waves before the oil lamp,chanting in Sanskrit.Parentsthen bring their infants forward for Kali to bless, which she does by waving them before the lamp andapplying a spotoflampblack to their foreheads. Some say that the sight of the gruesome Kali so startles the sleeping infant who is awakened in this manner that he becomes brave and strong for life. Others merely wish to ob- tain theblessings ofthenow benevolent goddess, at. this moment of her vic- tory, at the height of her saldi, her power. Mothers in the audience scoop up their sleeping children, collect theirbelongings, and follow disheveled husbands through the dew-damp brown paddy fields to their homes nearby. Birds (lit about in the thin morning light, their songs brighteningthe misty air. Back insidethe temple, the per-formers are removing their makeup and drinking hot tea. I, too, lift my heavily sleeping little one, lake blessings from the mndi, and, shoulderingray bag of notebooks and my tape recorder, head for home. AGNIGOLAM: BALL OK FIRE The performance of imtdiyettu and related art forms is a divine offering, notan entertainment. Its primary purpose is lo please and lo appease Bhaga- vati; the reaction of the spectators is, in theory, irrelevant. Vet the special
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