Maari to Maariamma: Brahminising local deities threatens religious ties in coastal Karnataka

The discrimination against Muslims in temple fairs forms a pattern not only linked to the recent Karnataka High Court verdict in the hijab case, but also to the contemporary cultural appropriation of local deities or bhoothas.
Bhootha in a field
Bhootha in a field
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“Appe’d kenda?” (Did you ask Mother?) is a common question asked in Kapu, a coastal town 13 kilometres south of Udupi in Karnataka, whenever disease threatens the health of a resident. The phrase signifies an abiding belief, bequeathed from one generation to another, in the local deity, Maariamma, or Kapu D’Appe (Kapu’s mother).

Kapu's residents consider Maariamma a spirit who keeps watch over Tulunadu, the region encompassing Udupi and Dakshina Kannada districts in coastal Karnataka. Today, the deity and her temples have become sites of tension between Hindus and Muslims. The current conflict, fuelled by Hindu right organisations, obscures the syncretic beginnings of the legend of Maariamma, which may not have existed without the contribution of Muslims.

It is believed that Maariamma helps ward off diseases like chickenpox, leprosy and, more recently, COVID-19. Every Tuesday, devotees from varied castes and religious communities throng the Maariamma temple, imploring the darshana patri – a medium who gets possessed by the deity and addresses devotees – for a cure.

This custom follows from the origin myth of Maariamma in Kapu, going back over 250 years, to the second half of the 18th century. Maariamma, or Dandina Maari, as she was known then, was the wartime spirit-deity – dandu meaning army – inside the Mallar fort in Kapu worshipped by the army of Basappa Nayaka, a ruler of the Keladi Nayaka kingdom.

Kapu, which means ‘to wait’ in Tulu, is a reference to soldiers guarding the fort. The Keladi Nayakas were defeated by Hyder Ali in 1763, who merged their lands with the Mysore kingdom. The worship of Maariamma was briefly disrupted under the new rulers but it was mostly soldiers who kept the practice alive. After the fall of Hyder Ali’s successor Tipu Sultan in 1799, Kapu was governed by the British, who called it Kaup. It was during the British rule that ‘Dandina Maari’s influence grew beyond the military and became ‘Maariamma’, resident guardian of Tulunadu.

The ‘ugrani’ or administrator from Tipu Sultan’s rule retained his position under the British as well, according to KL Kundanthaya, who has extensively studied and written about Kapu’s history. A popular legend says that this administrator, a Muslim man whose name is lost to time, was the first human that Maariamma spoke to.

One night, the story goes, the administrator was drawn to the fragrance of jasmine flowers, which led him to the Nandikere, a tank inside Kapu fort. There, he heard the sound of someone taking a bath.

The administrator asked: “Who is there?” He could only see the long strands of a woman’s hair in the water.

A voice answered: “I am Maari. I need a place that I can call home.”

The administrator replied: “This is a fort and it is now ours.”

He added: “And I’m a Muslim too, at that. How can I find such a place for you?”

To this Maari replied: “Unite the castes of this village and build me a gudi (home/shrine).”

This story is detailed in Kundanthaya’s book Nava Nava Durga, published in 2021. According to this account, the administrator then united members of the different caste groups living in the village at the time, and helped build a shrine for Maari in an area called Pallapadpu in Kapu. This shrine still exists and is considered the original home of the Maariamma deity.

The shrine is now in the news due to a concentrated campaign by Hindu right organisations to exclude Muslim traders who have historically been part of the temple’s annual festival – the Maari Pooja. The blatant discrimination against Muslims forms a pattern not only linked to the recent Karnataka High Court verdict in the hijab case, but also to the contemporary cultural appropriation of the temple and its deity, contributing to the incendiary communalisation of coastal Karnataka.

Mariamma's idol being taken to its resting pace after the festivities in Kapu on March 23, 2022.

A coexistence that goes back 1,300 years

Barricaded by the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea, coastal Karnataka or Tulunadu has a long history of coexistence between Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Jains going back 13 centuries. Merchants from Tulunadu developed trade relations with ancient Greece, Rome, Arabia, Egypt and China as early as the 3rd century. The Arab explorer Ibn Battuta's works mention the port town of Honnavara and refer to Tulunadu as an important centre of trade and commerce for spices, metals and horses.

Over the last 30 years, Muslims have been systematically targeted in the region by Hindutva groups who call this their southern heartland. But Muslims are very much a part of the region’s social mix and have left behind an indelible imprint on its culture.

The Zeenath Baksh mosque in Mangaluru built in the 7th century is one of the earliest mosques still in use in India. Several classical Arabic works from the 8th century mention the city of Mangaluru or Manjaruru, as documented by late historian Gururaj Bhat in his magnum opus Studies In Tuluva History And Culture.

“Two more mosques were built in Olavuru and in Polali in Bantwal taluk in the 13th century. They are also symbols of the coexistence between the communities here. The mosque in Polali is located next to a temple and the Polali fair is celebrated by Hindus and Muslims alike,” says Mangaluru-based social activist and writer Ismath Pajeer.

The dvaita school of thought, born in Udupi, and advanced by the Brahmin Hindu philosopher Madhvacharya, came around this time in the 13th century. There is a Muslim presence even in the heart of Madhva Brahminism in the Udupi Sri Krishna temple.

Carvings in the Subramanyagudi shrine in the Udupi Krishna Temple

The carvings around the shrine of serpent god Subramanya in the Udupi temple depict the meeting of the dvaita philosopher Vadiraja Theertha with Mughal emperor Humayun, described as ‘Dilli dore’ (Delhi ruler), in Delhi in the 16th century. They tell the story of Vadiraja saving Humayun’s son Akbar and returning to Udupi with rewards of gold thrust upon him. The story goes that the gold was buried and the Subramanya gudi was built on top of it.

Bhootha culture in coastal Karnataka

Unlike the deities worshipped at the Udupi Sri Krishna temple, Maariamma was a deity popularised by non-Brahmins across south India. She is paramount to people across communities in the Tulunadu region who believe in the worship of daivas or bhootha aradhane – the worship of ancestors.

Bhoothas are distinct from the gods of Brahminical Hinduism, with the custom predating the arrival of vedic culture. Their stories are recorded in oral narratives or paaddanas. They are often real people who fought different kinds of injustice, such as Koti and Chanayya, Tuluva warriors who fought against caste and feudal discrimination in the late 16th century. Some of the earliest bhoothas are animals like panjurli (wild boar) and pilichamundi (tiger). There are also Muslim (Ali Bhootha) and women (Kallurti, Chamundi) bhoothas.

It is a common belief that each bhootha controls a particular aspect of life and that praying to the appropriate bhootha will help a person overcome their problems. “Pilichamundi guards agricultural fields and prevents crop theft. Panjurli is the protector of righteousness. Korage or Nicha is supposed to be the protector of cattle. Bobbarya controls marine fishing,” says a study on the bhootha culture published in 1971 by the Directorate of Census Operations, Karnataka.

Pilichamundi and Panjurli bhoothas in Udupi

Kannada writer and literary critic Purushottama Bilimale has spent years in coastal Karnataka documenting paaddanas and the bhootha culture. He says that it is through the world of bhoothas that Muslims and Christians got prominent space in pre-Vedic traditions. “Muslims do not worship daivas and Hindu religion does not allow a Muslim to become their deity. But in Tulunadu, this is possible because of Bhootha aradhane. This is the beauty of this region. Muslims and Christians have a prominent role in the bhootha culture,” says Bilimale in a column written for the Kannada digital news site Ee dina.

The Muslim deity he is referring to is Bobbarya bhootha, named after a Muslim sailor named Bobba, who is revered by the fishing community and is the son of a Muslim father and a Jain mother.

The story goes that Bobbarya was the survivor of a shipwreck who swam to Kapu through his mystical powers, and became a bhootha. It was a Hindu Billava toddy tapper who built a shrine in his honour. “Now, a question arises. Muslims don’t worship daivas. So in Muslim culture, Bobbarya could not have been a daiva. Among Hindus, if Bobbarya is a God, what shlokas will they sing while worshipping him?” asks Bilimale, a former linguistics professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Bobbarya is a symbol of the brotherhood between Mogaveeras, Billavas and Beary Muslims in Tulunadu,” he says.

Bobbarya Bhootha in a field before the kola in Udupi

Daiva to Devi

The powerful Maariamma is the bhootha of the epidemics described as “the small-pox goddess of south India” in the 1971 census report. Most traditions involving Maariamma reaffirm the belief that she is a bhootha. For instance, there is no permanent idol of Maariamma; a temporary idol made out of wood is used during the annual Maari Pooja. The festival involves the ritual sacrifice of roosters and sheep.

But newer traditions involving the deity have reinterpreted her as ‘Shakti’ or an incarnation of Goddess Durga.

“Over time, as Maari became Maariamma and her shrine came to be accepted as a Hindu vedic temple, rituals related to Durga Puja and shlokas from Markandeya Purana’s Shri Devi Mahatme were performed at Maarigudis… A connection was made between the Maarigudi shrine and the Janardhana temple in Kapu, and Lord Janardhana was called an odeya (master) of Maari,” Kundanthaya says in his book Kapu Kshetra Parichaya (Introduction to Kapu), published in 2002.

Crowd at the Kapu Maari Pooja festival, March 22 2022

According to cultural activist P Deekiah, this is an instance in which vedic traditions were being used to usurp and erase the narratives of daivas. “They are two different worlds – the world of bhoothas and vedic Gods. For decades, the Sangh Parivar has been Brahminising bhootha traditions,” says Deekiah.

He says the appropriation of Maariamma is the story of many other daivas in Tulunadu. “Saffron flags were installed in small shrines, offerings of chicken were replaced by pumpkins and Brahma-Kalashas – a vedic ritual – were introduced in bhootha gudis,” says Deekiah. “The names of some daivas were also changed. Jhumaadi bhootha is now called Dhumavati. Lakkesari has now become Raktheshwari. The elders in our village don’t know the names Dhumavati or Raktheshwari,” says Amritha Shetty Athradi, a scholar and an activist.

The Maari Pooja festival in Kapu too has undergone subtle changes. The festival would earlier begin with the practice of sheep sacrifice. But the sheep have now been replaced by ash gourd, citing animal protection laws. The 1971 report on bhootha culture further mentions that goats, fowl and buffaloes were sacrificed during Maari Poojas. The present day caretakers of the Maarigudi temples in Kapu say that only sheep and roosters are killed.

Animal sacrifice at the Maari Pooja festival in Kapu, March 22 2022

Muslims stay away from Maari Pooja festival

This year, nearly two lakh roosters and 500 sheep were killed in sacrifice during Maari Pooja on March 22 and 23 in Kapu. But Muslim residents largely stayed away from the celebrations in all three temples.

Sheik Jaleel Saheb, a nadaswara (a traditional wind instrument) player, was one of the few Muslims who took part in the festival this year. His family has been playing at the Hosa Maarigudi temple during its weekly darshana for six generations. To him, the Maari Pooja was a celebration in which the whole town always took part. “I went to the festival because my ancestors always told me to respect Appe (Maariamma). This is the first time I saw very few Muslims turn up for the fair,” he says.

Muslim traders would earlier make up 70% of the stalls at the fair, mainly selling jasmine, and sacrificing roosters and sheep. The business for the two-day fair runs into lakhs of rupees, particularly in the stalls sacrificing animals.

The ban on Muslim traders imposed in Kapu was later replicated in at least 60 other fairs in Udupi and Dakshina Kannada districts in March 2022, according to Mohammed Arif, the secretary of the Udupi district street vendors association.

“It is difficult to accept what is happening here. This week, I have been to two bhootha kola events – the Kalkuda kola and the Guliga kola in our village. I never felt unwelcome when I went to watch them. Now compare that to the banners we saw in Kapu and the silence from the Hindus here. This is the first time I did not feel like going to the Maari Pooja,” says Anwar Ali, a long-time resident of Kapu. Banners put up by Hindutva groups in Kapu during the festival this year had warned against allowing Muslim traders to take part in the temple fair. “The Hindu is awakened now,” the banner read. This was quickly endorsed by the Karnataka government by misapplying a law from 2002.

Stalls at the Maari Pooja Festival in Kapu, March 22 2022

But the temple committee members in Kapu who talk ardently about the syncretic history of the town are hesitant to open up about the pressures they faced from Hindutva groups. “Our decision to exclude Muslim traders was to maintain peace here. We don’t want anyone to suffer due to this,” says a committee member of the Kapu Maarigudi temple who did not wish to be named.

His words are echoed by an influential BJP leader in the region, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It should never have come to this. Kapu’s harmony has been protected for generations. We cannot have enmity here,” the leader says.

Both men hope that the annual fair will be inclusive of Muslim traders again in the future. “If everything goes fine, obviously we will allow them like we used to,” says the committee member, before adding, “You can’t go against Maariamma’s will. Even I don’t know what she is thinking about all this… If it is her will that everyone should set up a shop, no one should object.”

All photographs by Raichand R

This story is a part of a series of stories on exclusion of Muslim traders from temple fairs. The first story can be read here.

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