Renuka-Yellamma (Part 2)

The narratives for goddesses in South Asia span from lyrical compositions to philosophical commentaries on the nature and fluidity in form. Renuka, one such popular deity of Western India embodies motherly care, stance of a warrior, and the symbology of water and wilderness in nature. The deity caters to the religion in the elite texts composed in Sanskrit by being Renuka or Ekvira, and gets her popular name “Yellamma” in the quotidien sphere. This post dives deep into the continued tradition of attendants given to Yellamma.

Yellamma and Renuka : the Earth-deity

Renuka as Yellamma (everyone’s mother)

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

Social (im)balance

See Part 1 of this post for the background on Renuka – Yellamma.

3. “Given to the Goddess” – jogtin, jogappa and the Devadasi Matrix

Following the narrative of Renuka and Jamadagni, the goddess Renuka straddles the domain of being the object that causes her sons to bear Jamadagni’s wrath. In the narrative from the Puranas, Jamadagni and Renuka’s sons (except Parashurama) decline killing Renuka, and get either killed, or cursed, or both – according to the variation of narratives. Jamadagni’s curse that lends them impotent, features in the traditional belief of Yellamma’s attendants. Yellamma acceptd deviant male individuals as her servants. In addition, Yellamma charts a space for females who have lost their husbands, or have families and have no one to care for them. Although the narratives attempt a rationale for the participation and membership in Renuka’s close retinue, the social implications in the modern world have a different story to tell.

Lucinda Ramberg, an anthropologist researching on the devadasi tradition of Yellamma, explores the transfer of ownership of young girls to the deity. In her book “Given to the Goddess: South India Devadasis and the Sexuality of Religion”, she presents a parole on the culture of “giving” and “giving up”. Young girls from lower socio-economic status in the traditional Hindu society recall their journey from being a member of their family to the attendant of Yellamma, following episodes such as skin rashes and diseases, matted hair, and other markers that were interpreted as messages from the deity. Some women report that the malevolent power of Yellamma (aata) needs to be pacified by giving the goddess what she pleases.

The deity was traditionally served by a group of men and women, considered as medics, mediums and mendicants in service of Yellamma. Although veiled by various cultural layers and practices, the initial membership of the retinue to accompany Yellamma could have been an attempt to safeguard the rights and existence of sexually outcaste members of the society. Individuals who transgress the male and female binary of gender needed to have an articulated space in the society, that was mitigated through religious sanctions. The attendees to Yellamma thus comprise of members of the society who self-identify as asexual, transgender, or orphaned and barren females. The position of jogappa (a transgender man, generally) was to be incharge of the group that serves Yellamma. They were entrusted with the task of assigning members of the group to perform various functions such as collecting alms, worshiping the installed and mobile effigy of Yellamma, upkeep of the temple and managing finance and food provisions for the group. The temples institution such as at Saundatti in Karnataka, summoned jogappa prior to the significant days of Yellamma worship to make arrangements for the festivals and performance.

Each year in January, thousand of poor, low-caste farmers go on pilgrimage to the temple of Gaddess Yallama for her annual festivel. Devotees eagerly wating for the glimpse of the 600-year-old black-faced stone idol housed in the inner sanctum of the temple.
Devotees at Saundatti (Photo: Thomas Kelly)

The jogtin, or the females in the group are believed to channel Yellamma’s power through their body. Both jogtin and jogappa are married to Yellamma to form a closed group of her attendants. Jogtins would engage in carrying Yellamma in a wicker basket door-to-door, or seeking alms and blessing the devotees on Renuka’s behalf. Traditionally, alms collected as foodgrains, and piece of clothing would be “jogwa” or offering for the deity, used to sustain the group of attendants. Very exclusionary at its very inception, colors and markings on the body further highlighted a distinct existence for the attendants of Yellamma.

Associated with healing and medicinal properties, turmeric continues to dominate the color pallette for Yellamma attendants and worshippers. The attendants mark their forehead with turmeric powder to highlight their allegiance in the congregation of Yellamma. Both jogtin and jogappa drape a saree and wear a traditional necklace with black beads, signifying marriage with the deity. The lifelong covenant, as it were, prohibits the jogtin and jogappa from marrying, having a biological family, and holding positions of office outside the dedicated bodies for Yellamma worship.

Devdasi coloring one another's head with yellow vermilion powder.
Saunadatti, India.
Devadasi marking each other’s forehead with turmeric (malvat bharne: lit. filling the forehead)
Photo: Thomas Kelly

Circling around the nexus of Yellamma – narratives, traditional performances and social role as married to the deity – the jogtin and jogappa trace their private milestones of mute existence. After the phase of initiation into the system, the devadasis (lit. servants of god) continue a life-long engagement with Yellamma. They perform religious dance, are called to bless newly weds in the village, carry the effigy of Yellamma to meet her devotees, and perform sacrosanct roles during the annual festival of Renuka – Yellamma across the temples in the modern states of Karnataka and Maharashtra.

4. Social (im)balance

The girls and boys inducted under the fold of the deity lose the kinship status in their original families. The new hierarchy dictates seniority in rank and authority of the older jogtin and jogappa. In numerous cases, loss of education deems the young devdasis unemployable, paving way to alternate forms of earning, including prostitution. Ramberg attracts the reader’s attention to the irrevocable cycle in the devadasi matrix. Being tax exempt, the earnings from devadasi role often finance the original families of devadasis. Ramberg highlights a few instances where the family members wish the role of devadasi to continue, so as to reap financial gain. On the other hand, devadasis who bear girl-child out of wedlock are often forced to keep the child within the system out of the fear of being excommunicated by other members of the society.

A senior Devadasi, showing her dreadlock.
Saundatti, Karnataka; India.
Devadasis at Saundatti festival. Notice the matted hair, one of the characteristic of Yellamma devotee. (Photo: Thomas Kelly)

The traditional roles of serving the deity have gradually moved their focus into troubled arena of social roles. The younger generation of jogtin and jogappa, charting a confused existence – torn between tradition and demands of the modern world – demonstrate the gradually morphed roles of prostitution, taking on odd jobs and the overall amplified social ills that the system has bred for decades together. Homophobia and extreme-right-wing politics in South Asia has contributed to the categorization of Yellamma attendants as hijra, and has attached a colonial gaze that many are struggling to shake away.

For more information on projects and efforts to help devadasis, check here or contact an NGO working actively in Belgaum, Karanataka.

DISCLAIMER: This post contains suggestions for external resources to help the cause of curbing malpractices and the devadasi system. The author or this blog website are not responsible for the accuracy, work, ethics and ideals of the respective NGOs linked in the post.

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Published by Kalemighty

Penned thoughts from South Asian culture. Follow for thoughts on Archaeology, Anthropology, and Pedagogy around the world

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