The Jatra is a long-held tradition among the Koya Adivasi community, and several million gather in Telangana every two years.

Photo Essay In a sea of humanity at Medaram Jatra worlds largest tribal congregationAll images: Sakhi SC
Delve Demographics Wednesday, April 04, 2018 - 15:15
Written by  Sakhi SC

The Samakka-Sarlamma Medaram Jatra is considered one of Asia’s biggest congregations of humanity. An estimated 1.5 crore people from Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana pour in to participate and celebrate in the biennial tribal festival that lasts for four days.

The Jatra is a long-held tradition among the Koya Adivasi community, who hold their faith in the folklore and mysticism of the living legend of Samakka and Saramma (also known as Sarlamma) – the mother and daughter duo who are destined to protect the community in exchange for the faith and trust bestowed upon them.

The community resides in a large tract of the Dandakaranya region in East-Central India, spread across roughly 92,000 sq km.

In Telangana, Medaram village with a population of over 1,600 persons swells to a sea of several million people during the Jatra. From infants and young adults to the elderly; men, women and the trans community all congregate in this celebration of faith.

When we decided to participate in the Jatra between January 31 and February 3 this year, we got a sense of what to expect when a 17-km stretch to Medaram village, a little after Project Nagar village, took us a good seven hours. Trucks, buses, fancy air-conditioned vehicles, tempos all jostled in the narrow road, to inch closer to the destination.

Despite the long hours of wait, no irritating honks blared, nor were tempers flying in the air. The air was rant with people’s voices, some yelling names, some cracking loud jokes, and in general a smile beamed across the faces.

For some hungry and unprepared like us, we were happily surprised to locate free ‘donas’ of tasty lime-rice. As the vehicles moved, we saw a few get off the road onto large tracts of open space and began settling down with their cooking pot that was part of their entourage.

As the evening skies darkened to prominently display the celestial delight of the moon, we moved closer to our temporary abode, clumsily in the vehicle amidst the bullock carts and sea of people that were purposefully heading in the direction of the ‘Gaddelu’ (the sanctum sanctorum of the temple) or the ‘Jampana vaagu’ (Jampanna lake) to take a dip under the full moon gaze.

The Jatra was all about finding rhythm in the chaos. This rhythm lay in the sheer faith for their goddesses. Just as nature has neither a figure nor a form, the goddesses Samakka and Saramma, we discover subsequently, is faith wrapped in finery on a thick beam of bamboo.

What does the legend say?

The legend of goddess Samakka dates back to the late 12th Century and early 13th Century, when the region was under the rule of the Kakatiya dynasty. The region had a large tribal Koya population.

According to legend, during one of the community’s hunting trips in the thick forests, they came across an abandoned female infant guarded by a pack of tigers. Fascinated, the community brought her with them and named her Samakka. The woman grew up to marry the Chieftain of the Koya community, Pagididda Raju and they had three children – two daughters Sarakka and Nagulamma, and a son Jampanna.

As parts of the Godavari river dried during a severe drought, the Koya community stopped paying tax to the then Kakatiya King, Pratapa Rudra, to conserve their resources.  Annoyed, Rudra sent an army to forcibly take the taxes. The Koya community resisted this and fought, but were weak before the powerful Kakatiya rulers.

Soon, the Chieftain Raju, his two daughters and son died valiantly while fighting.

Angered, Samakka too entered the battlefield and proved her prowess. Fearing defeat, the King sent an emissary to make a peace offering to make her the chief queen of the King’s harem.

Samakka instead chose to fight. In the battle that went on for days, Samakka was badly wounded. Cursing the Kakatiya dynasty with destruction, and promising to protect the Koya tribe for as long as they remembered her, she entered into the forest in Chikalagutta.

The community followed her into the forest to look for her, but all they came across were pug marks. At the spot where she was picked up as an infant, they found a few glass bangles and a heap of vermillion powder at the entrance of a cave. This place has been marked as a place of worship.

Soon afterwards the Kakatiya kingdom lost its glory and the locals believe that this was due to Samakka’s curse. In return, they owe their survival and existence to the goddess, to who they collectively seek protection from.

Many devotees who visit the Jatra also seek blessings for their fulfilled wishes and turn back at the end of the fourth day with new wishes to be fulfilled, surrendering their complete faith in return.

What happens during the Jatra?

Day 1

Goddess Sarakka (the daughter) is brought from Kanneboyina Palli (a neighbouring village in the forest) in the evening and placed on Gadde, the Sanctum Sanctorum of an identified site. Here, the priest conducts his prayers for two hours.  No photographs are allowed, though a ‘darshan’ is allowed.

Day 2

Goddess Samakka is brought from a nearby forest in Chikalagutta in the evening to adorn the presiding deity on the Holy Gadde. Other than the holy priest, all halt two km before the actual cave in the forest where the spirit of Samakka is said to be resting.

Hours later, the gunshots announce her arrival. No huge statues mark her presence, her spirit is wrapped in fine cloth filled with kumkum and turmeric just as she is believed to have left centuries ago, as she escaped into nature as a wounded queen fighting the Kakatiyas.

Once again, no photographs are allowed until she is taken out of the main gate of the Chikalagutta. Curious photographers who defy the ‘ban’ and climb tall trees to capture the arrival are booed and even had stones thrown at them.

In anticipation of their goddess, the dusty pathway from the Gadde to the main gate at Chikalagutta, gets coloured first with vibrant patterns of Rangoli, painstakingly done by women, soon to be washed by the thick blood of the goats and hen that are sacrificed on the colourfully laid out design.

The entire stretch is filled with flowing blood, as it mixes with the colours of the rangoli. The sacrifice marks their thanksgiving for their wishes being fulfilled.

As the ceremony of sacrifice progresses, many devotees, usually women, enter into a trance which family members embrace and protect with great devotion.

Day 3

This day is left for the public to have a fill of their goddesses, placed separately at a distance of a few meters, seeking their blessing and asking for more wishes to be granted. Before their arrival, devotees would have taken a holy dip in the ‘Jampanna Vaggu’ (Jampanna lake, a tributary of the Godavari River).

As adults and children, young and old take the holy dip, many can be seen in a trance or weeping loudly until guided patiently by their family back to pray and offer flowers and coconut to their respective deities.

Enroute, many people, usually men and young boys, get weighed against ‘bangaram’ or jaggery, to be donated at the shrine. One can see people with all sizes of jaggery perched on their head streaming towards the shrine.  Often, blocks of jaggery collapse into a melting sloth as they are unable to bear the heat. However, those carrying them are hardly bothered if the melting jaggery trickles down their forehead.

Since the shrines are in an enclosure of tall iron rods, most hurl the jaggery, tiny shreds of cloth, flowers and coconuts into the enclosures to mark their presence to the deity. In return, they seek from volunteers and police personnel guarding the gates, pieces of jaggery to take back with them.

Day 4

The fourth and final day marks “Vanapravesham”, the return of the deities into the forest in a quiet ceremony by the priest.

The people are already on their way back. The simple belongings are soon piled up on the heads, infants are neatly hooked on to their mothers’ waist, children struggle with huge bags as they balance toys and goodies that they get to take back. The men can be seen helping the elders finding their path without stumbling.

Many were happy, promising to return two years later as they have been doing for generations.  Perhaps no legend or myth holds them as much as their commitment to their forefathers who have been reaching up the path since years.

A much-needed push

Since the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh in 2014, the new Telangana government has been actively promoting the Jatra as a part of the state’s culture.

This year, the state government, besides releasing Rs 80 crore for the Jatara, had also filed a formal request with the Centre to declare it a national festival.

The Kumbh Mela, which is perhaps the only gathering in the country larger than the Jatra, already has the ‘intangible cultural heritage of humanity’ tag of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

The Telangana government is now hoping that the same tag can be given to the Jatra as well.

While attending the festival this year, Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao donated 52 kg of jaggery to Sammakka and said that permanent structures would be put up at Medaram, at a cost of Rs 200 crore, for the convenience of pilgrims.

Accusing the elected representatives of undivided AP of neglecting the Jatra for generations, KCR told reporters, “I have prayed to the presiding deities to clear all the hurdles for the construction of irrigation projects, like the way goddesses fulfilled my desire of realising Telangana dream.”

KCR also put in a word with Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu, who attended the event, who in turn said that he would urge the Centre to grant the Jatra national status.


Inputs from Malini Subramaniam

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