History written and narrated by those hosting dominant ideology will be celebrated as everyone’s history, while the life and culture of the oppressed will be relegated to the margins.

A group of Pambala priests perform ritual at a village deity.Image courtesy : Charan Teja
news Opinion Thursday, April 21, 2022 - 13:30

Recently, Chinna Jeeyar Swamy a popular Hindu-Vaishnavaite Brahmin seer, based in Telangana made headlines for belittling the tribal rulers, Sammakka and Sarakka, who are venerated as deities for their fight against the oppression of the Kakatiyas in the 13th century. Once every two years, a massive Jatra (carnival), the largest tribal congregation in South Asia takes place in the memory of Sammakka and Sarakka. Chinna Jeeyar Swamy in the viral video said, “Who are Sarakka and Sammakka? What is their history? Are they gods who descended from Brahmalokam (a mythical realm of Brahma) They are merely forest and village deities. Let the people who live there worship them.”

Sammakka -Sarakka Gaddelu (venue).

He has been recorded making other casteist remarks in the past too. In one instance, he mocked the food practices of meat eaters who mainly hail from historically marginalised Dalit, Adivasi and other non-Brahmin castes. His preachings also encourage and endorse the caste system. On one occasion, he even asserted that “seeking a casteless society is wrong.”

Nevermind that the seer sought to demean Adivasis deities, the very fact that Sarakka and Sammakka did not descend from ‘Brahmalokam’ is a matter of pride for the excluded communities who celebrate their legacy. There is a long history of martyr worship among indigenous communities. These deified heroes of the past are a way for certain communities to preserve their cultural distinctness from Brahmanical spiritual systems where armed gods descend from alien worlds to enforce their concept of ‘Dharma.’ 

Unlike Vedic gods, whose worship involves elaborate offerings, Sammakka-Sarakka are offered jaggery, which may be too simple for others but is considered more precious than gold by many tribal communities. Different kinds of meat are also offered and are an integral part of the festivities in Adivasis and Bahujan communities during the jatara. Though the subaltern (be it Adivasi or Dalit and Bahujan) ritual cultures have small differences in their practice, it is the inclusiveness, equality in those spaces and meat offering as a common phenomenon that makes them stand apart from the Brahminical religious spaces. 

History has also shown us that many cultural practices of subaltern communities have been assimilated into the vedic-Brahminical scheme through the process of Sanskritic assimilation. This is happening in the festivals of Sarakka and Sammakka too, with the numbers of Hindu devotees growing every year. These new non-Dalit-Adivasi worshippers have started introducing many practices of Brahminical symbolism in the adoration of Sarakka and Sammakka which are unfamiliar to the communities which have kept the faith alive for centuries. 

This cultural appropriation of Sarakka and Sammakka is not a new phenomenon and other deities of the lowered castes like Pochamma, Nallapochamma, Peddamma, Maisamma,Yellamma, Kattamaisamma, and Balamma too have fallen victim to Brahminism. Earlier, the presence of a Brahmin priest or the recital of mantras was unheard of in any of these temples. But this has been changing quite rapidly particularly in urban centres where Brahmin priests are taking over and introducing vedic rituals. These temples are also being renamed by adding words like ‘Sree’ or ‘Sree Sree’ in the beginning. 

A group of Dalit men and women takes out Bonalu procession during Pochamma (Folk goddess) festival.

The folk gods like Pochamma, Nallapochamma, Maisamma - Balamma, Katta Maisamma and Beerappa and Mallanna are well known deities of the lower castes. These deities have not only helped preserve the civilisational memory of communities facing the threat of erasure, they are also an integral part of daily life in these communities. Pochamma and her five sister gods are believed to be guardians of crops and livestock as well as a talisman to ward off diseases.

The legend of these five deities is as down-to-earth as the people who worship her and not some fantastical tale. For instance, Maisamma, one of the five deities, is believed to have tended to irrigation tanks and, as a result, she is worshipped for her powers over water systems. The worship happens in the people’s language and the offering to deities is the favourite food of the toiling masses: meat. Unlike in vedic rituals where auspicious dates and times are chosen based on astrology and astronomy, no ‘muhurtham’ or cosmic event dictates proceedings at festivals of non-vedic gods. These practices revolve around the cycles of nature like the Bonalu festival at the beginning of the monsoon. 

Tody and goats being offered to a village diety right out side a newly constructed house.

What makes non-vedic culture attractive to marginalised communities is the absence of ‘purity and pollution’ concepts which are used as filters for exclusion in Brahminical societies. Seen from this perspective, the festivals of gods like Sarakka and Sammakka have an essential anti-caste quality to them. They are anti-caste not just in terms of practice, but also in terms of design and architecture. The so-called untouchables can be excluded from Hindu rituals simply by barring their entry into temple complexes. But at the sites where Pochamma,Yellamma, Maisamma or Mallanna are worshipped there is no giant statue to be intimidated by; there is no grand temple to be banned from. In these places of worship, a simple stone or a piece of roughly sculpted wood is often the only symbol that marks the site.

An old place of worship at the entrance of a Dalit colony in a Telangana village.

What’s worrying is that these practices are constantly the target of Brahminical forces. Many tribal worship sites have been replaced by temples which have changed the character of these spaces beyond recognition. Some narratives around these folk goddesses seek to portray them as either wives or daughters of some popular gods from popular mythologies; this is another tactic deployed to assimilate these cultures by erasing their originality. 

In some places, the priests from lower castes such as Pambala, Baindla, Oggu, Pothurajus have been sidelined and Brahminical worshipping methods have been forcefully imposed on their traditional rituals. 

An offering of rice and tody at Pochamma (Folk goddess) temple.

Recently, Oggu artists from the Golla Kuruma (shepherd) community highlighted the forceful imposition of the Agamashastra methods by Brahmin priests in Komuravelli Mallanna temple and jatara. While some respond when the problem threatens their very existence, many have been subjected to mass cultural manipulation. Be it Adivasi or Dalit Bahujan spiritual culture, it will either be treated as inferior in the way Chinna Jeeyar Swamy did or get appropriated the way Komuravelli Mallanna jatara was hijacked.

Bahujan intellectual and professor Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd in his book ‘Why I am not a Hindu’ argues, "The violent, hegemonic, Brahminical culture sought to destroy Dalit Bahujan productive structure, culture, economy and its positive political institutions. Everything was attacked and undermined.”

A bonalu procession on the way to a dedicated place of worship of a folk diety.

Chinna Jeeyar Swamy is one of the many agents which Brahminism has for subverting subaltern cultures. It is just that he is more powerful than others, given his influence and companionship in the power corridor, be it his cosiness with the Chief Minister or his access to the Prime Minister and President's offices to invite them for the inauguration function of a giant statue of Vaishnavite saint Ramanujacharya.

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