Renuka – Yellamma (Part 1)

The annual festival at Saundatti, Karnataka in deity Yellamma’s honour attracts numerous devotees (a modest estimate would be around 3000), who offer their respects and seek boons for fecundity and prosperity. The full-moon night in January also marks the day of giving the girls to the deity. The villages and towns round Saundatti practice the tradition of giving pubescent girls for a lifelong service to Yellamma. Who are these girls? Where do they come from? What is the nature of Yellamma worship?

Although this post does not promise all the answers – for there is no “one correct” version as an answer – a look at Yellamma and the associated traditional practices with their social ramifications is in order.

Yellamma and Renuka : the Earth-deity

Renuka as Yellamma (everyone’s mother)

“Given to the Goddess” – jogtin, jogappa and the devadasi matrix

Social (im)balanace

This discussion is divided in two parts. The first two points from the list above comprise this blog-post, and the later two points are elaborated in the next blog-post.

Brief Overview of Renuka-Yellamma nexus

  1. Yellamma and Renuka : the Earth-deity

Enamoured by the rich narratives in South Asia, one stumbles across the narratives of the goddess. Some are considered the reservoirs of infinite power such as Tara or Durga, while some are celebrated heroines such as Draupadi and Gautami. The mythological lore of Renuka straddles both these categories of feminine power expressed in literature and performative traditions. Renuka is first introduced to a reader of the ancient narrative literature in India as Parshurama’s mother. Sanskrit scholars provide a further etymological meaning as Renu = grain of sand (earth), ka = made up of /consisting/giverning; thus one who is made from the Earth, or is Earth herself; is Renuka. A similar Sanskrit word: Valuka, for termite hill, resurfaces with the narrative symbologies of Renuka. Both Valuka and Renuka emerge from Earth and symbolise fecundity in the ancient lore.

The textual narratives of Renuka cascade into the descriptions that mention Yellamma in vernacular narrative traditions. Renuka Mahatmya, a medieval text aligning itself with the Puranas in South Asia makes a strong case for the Renuka-Yellamma singularity. The graphic story of Renuka and Yellamma presented in the regional Puranas highlights the blending of two deities that later become inseperable.

Let us travel in time as teh purana lead us into a world long, long time ago… The seer Jamadagni, married to Renuka, lived with their four (some texts mention three) sons in Central India. Renuka, who was originally a princess, had forsaken a life of luxury to live with her mendicant husband, Jamadagni. Renuka was so devoted to her husband, that her devotion enabled her to model clay by the use of her mind alone. She used this power in daily life, to help her with mundane chores such as fashioning a water-pot out of clay to fetch water from the river. One fateful day, as she went to the river to fetch water, she caught a glimpse of a king engrossed in bathing with his wives and consorts. (Multiple wives for kings and rulers in Hindu texts was more of a norm than exception. But we could discuss this aspect for another blog post) Renuka was momentarily carried away thinking of the prospect of living a life with material and sensual pleasures such as the ones the king engaged in, in front of her eyes. This moment of waivered attention led the waterpot on her to crack and shatter, drenching her with the water she collected from the river.

Although it is ambiguous if she longed for another man and pleasures of the worldly life, her devotion to her husband waivered for a moment, that was enough to disintegrate the clay pot she had fashioned with her mind alone. She hurried home, in her fully drenched self. Jamadagni, known for his quick temper, gathered the moment of mental preoccupation that Renuka had. And labeling it as infidelity, he ordered for Renuka to be beheaded. All his sons, except the youngest Parshurama declined to murder their mother. Parshurama, raising his battle-axe (Parashu) chased Renuka.

Renuka took speed and ran out of the house, into the garden, into the wilderness that surrounded. She ran with her heart pounding inside her, and her thoughts creating a havoc in her unsettled mind. She ran into the bushes, then into the woods and then into the thickets with thatched huts of the Pariahs. Traditionally associated with hunting and gathering as their subsistence, the pariah community lived in the thickest of woods, and relied on forest produce. Renuka could hear Parshurama approach behind her. And as the footsteps drew near, she grew more certain of her death. As Parshurama raised his axe to land a blow to Renuka’s neck, another woman screamed: “No!!”. Renuka opened her eyes that she had shut for her end was near. Renuka saw a pariah woman sheltering her, who stopped Parshurma in his tracks.

“You have to kill me to get to her”, the woman said. Parashurama, in a fit of rage and burning with the sense of duty of a son, beheaded them both with a clean sweep of the broad blade of his axe. As other pariah members gathered, they let out a deep, sad cry. Parshurama had killed their Yellamma (mother of all) and Renuka.

Meanwhile, Jamadagni grew restless as it dawned upon him that he committed a grave crime by ordering his wife’s murder – at the hand of his son. Parshurama now home after killing the women, reported the same to Jamadagni. Harnessing the strength of his tapas (inner heat due to meditation, etc) , Jamadagni decided to resurrect Renuka. As Jamadagni and Parshurama reached the Pariah settlement in the forest, the men arranged the corpses of the women to be resurrected. With some chanting and redirecting the energies into the corpses, Renuka and Yellamma were resurrected.

However, to everyone’s surprise, the heads and the bodies of the women were interchanged. The deity with Renuka’s body and Yellamma’s head came to be known as Yellamma, while the deity with Renuka’s head and Yellamma’s body was celebrated as Renuka. It was the moment at this resurrection, that both the women gained the divine status as being brought back from death, as well as the symbols of fertility. Later, Renuka and Yellamma came to be worshipped as joint deities or as a singular deity with both the names.

2. Renuka as Yellamma (everyone’s mother)

The so-called Classical or Puranic deity – Renuka – conflated with the regional divinity Yellamma presents a case for what one may call as “appropriation”. This narrative could be looked at as an attempt to include the vernacular or regional elements to enrich a narrative and to spread its popularity. This narrative that supposedly takes place in Central India, gained momentum in the areas of modern Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra.

The Renuka-Yellamma myth invites a cross-section of the Hindu society – Renuka was originally a Kshatriya, married to a Brahmin, and later coupled bodily with a Dalit individual. All sections of the society acknowledged in the narrative highlight Renuka as the deity accessible to all the sections of the society. See the note on caste-system in India in this post.

Devi with a Rooster (Renuka) from Deccan region (India)
https://www.philamuseum.org/collections/634-549.html#object/106169
Dimensions: Image: 10 1/4 × 6 inches (26 × 15.2 cm)
Sheet: 10 13/16 × 6 3/4 inches (27.5 × 17.1 cm)
Curatorial Department: South Asian Art
Credit Line: Gift of an anonymous donor, 1965
Object Number: 1965-29-3

The above representation of Renuka (Title: Devi with Rooster (Renuka)) housed at the South Asian collection at the Philadelphia Museum depicts a deity seated on the throne, flanked by attendants and being offered a sacrificial rooster. This folio dated to c. 1700-1750 CE was a gift of an anonymous donor to the museum. The art style resembles Peshwa-Maratha style from Maharashtra, further reinforced by the date in official records.

The shrine for Renuka occupies the upper half of the painting, and the lower half depicts a scene from the courtyard. Renuka is seated on an ornate throne, holding weapons akin to the iconography of Durga Mahishasuramardini. The weaponry could harken back to Renuka’s Kshatriya lineage. The characteristic horizontal marks on the forehead with alternating red vermilion and turmeric mark the association with Yellamma from its practiced tradition. Red vermilion and turmeric are used abundantly as the markers of blood (fertility) and cure (since Renuka-Yellamma worship is associated with boons of curing) respectively.

Bhairava (ferocious form of Shiva) in its two forms attends to Renuka in this depiction. The Bhairava iconography is characterized in this specimen as a three-eyed person accompanied by a dog and wearing garland of human heads (naramunda-mala). The Bhairava to the left (right hand side of Renuka) is two-armed, while the other is four-armed. The Bhairava forms hold a trident (trishula) and a sword.

The interesting aspect from this depiction is the blend of Brahmanical and local/vernacular practices and depictions. The sacrificial rooster on a sacrificial altar probably offered by a king (?) or someone in power, judging by the finery and crown jewels. The presence of a water-pot marks the act of donation or giving. Typically in Brahmanical rituals, the donation is completed by letting a steady stream of water over the open palm of the donor’s right hand.

If we move our gaze to the background in the picture, the wilderness depicted by select three plants are associated with Renuka worship in Western India. The plants as well as a clearly marked distinction between wilderness and tamed landscape revists the narrative scheme of Renuka-Yellamma.

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