Revitalizing and researching goddess rituals

By Centre of Yoga Studies|March 28, 2022|Uncategorized|0 comments

Event details: “Enlivening the Goddess and Feeding the Dead” by Amy Allocco, 7th February, 2022.

This post written by: Sabbi Lall

Dr. Amy Allocco (Elon University, USA) studies contemporary Hindu ritual traditions and religious practices in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, India. She shared her latest research in a recent talk at the SOAS Center of Yoga Studies. The talk focused on Mayānakkoḷḷai, a festival devoted to the goddess Aṅkāḷaparamēcuvari that coincides with the new moon of the month of Masi (February-March). Dr. Allocco transported us in mind to this two-day festival centered in and around the goddess’s temple. The talk respectfully described women who, possessed by the goddess, move alongside a richly adorned Aṅkāḷaparamēcuvari mūrti (image) in the Mayānakkoḷḷai procession. We also heard about a giant, temporary mūrti constructed of cremation ash that is enlivened and ultimately destroyed by worshippers in the culminating sacrificial rituals of the festival. Far from sensationalizing these events, Dr. Allocco touched on deep and meaningful themes in Religious Studies. She discussed the importance of capturing multivocal narratives and including perspectives that some scholars might overlook as peripheral. Throughout her research, Dr. Allocco has consistently avoided “giving in to the temptation to smooth over contradictions in the service of a tidy, coherent, and lucid narrative” (Allocco 2009: 5). Her talk at SOAS was no exception.

The talk focused on the festival of Mayānakkoḷḷai, translated as “looting of the graveyard/ cremation ground.” The festival centers the local goddess Aṅkāḷaparamēcuvari, seen today as a form of Pārvatī, the wife of Śiva. Mayānakkoḷḷai is associated with the story of a curse upon Śiva for removing Brahma’s fifth head, a form of brahmanicide. The decapitated head sticks to Śiva’s hand, eating any food that Śiva tries to eat. Pārvatī’s intervention removes Brahma’s head and thus releases Śiva from the curse, an episode that occurs in a cremation ground. While the story is well-known, the associatedfestival in Tamil Nadu has only rarely been examined in depth (Meyer 1986 is a notable exception).

The talk highlighted feminist ethnography as a methodology. This approach is only possible through cultivating relationships over time with local interlocutors. The method observes the elaborate ritual world of the festival while directly engaging with devotees, particularly women. Dr. Allocco’s past research has described barrier-breaking women, including Valliyammal, a Hindu healer from Chennai who left her husband for a celibate life in service to the goddess (Allocco 2013). Dr. Allocco has thus used a feminist ethnographic approach to access the stories of women who directly engage with the goddess and even those who channel the dead (Allocco 2021). In other words, these are women who may break certain perceived norms of the Hindu feminine but are visible and respected in some arenas in India.

In local mythology, the goddess who sits at the heart of the Mayānakkoḷḷai festival is called “a cataikkari, a woman with matted hair” (Allocco 2013: 110). The appearance of matting in a woman’s hair is often viewed as a divine mark indicating she is in a reciprocal relationship with the goddess. Dr. Allocco reveals the details of rituals undertaken by women. These details include ritual piercing in preparation for, and goddess possession within, the Mayānakkoḷḷai procession through the streets of Chennai. An intrinsically feminist ethnographic approach reveals practices beyond the brahmanical norm, embracing perspectives that contrast with prevailing academic notions about gender, pollution, and divine presence.

However, I would argue that the methodology extends beyond providing a close analysis of the lives and practices of women. Dr. Allocco’s deep engagement with musicians and members of non-brahmin castes has given voice to a range of interlocutors too often overlooked by Indologists in favor of brahmanical viewpoints and texts. Indeed, the tension between those who have access to Sanskrit texts and education, and those who do not but play central roles in ritual, is ripe for study (Allocco 2009). During interviews, ritualists often present the basis of their authority (texts, lineage, etc.), which is insightful for scholars wishing to understand how cultural knowledge is shared and weighed. Many fields, including some studies of yoga, might potentially benefit from methodologies that deliberately prioritize the voices of previously unheard participants.

However, the implications are even broader than the understudied groups represented by interlocutors. Dr. Allocco’s research asks us to re-examine the study of death itself in Hindu traditions. Many scholarly narratives portray the cremation ground and cemetery as transgressive or polluted. Birth and rebirth are viewed as a cycle that can be escaped through liberation. Dr. Allocco previously argued that such perceptions of death restrict our understanding of the complex and ongoing ritual relationships between the living and dead in Hindu traditions. Indeed, by building sustained relationships with musicians present at Tamil rituals, she finds that the recent dead, even previous wives who might harbor jealousy, are invited into the home (Allocco 2021). It is possible that these rituals and beliefs are Tamil-specific. Nevertheless this research challenges us to consider what is lost when the rich nuances of regional beliefs are overlooked in favor of “tidy, coherent, and lucid” pan-Indian narratives.

The Mayānakkoḷḷaifestival also reveals that participants can be unexpectedly comfortable with the dead and the cremation ground. Dr. Allocco described women and children picnicking in the graveyard during Mayānakkoḷḷai. Indeed, the cemetery becomes a fairground during the festival, complete with rides and food. Such a picture challenges our understanding of the Hindu relationship with death and so-called “polluted” spaces. Far from being sinister or forbidding, a cemetery ritual that honors the dead can be vibrant and intimate. This family holiday-like atmosphere contrasts with previous scholarship that depicted Aṅkāḷaparamecuvari’s cemetery association as a mark of her “otherness” (Gaur 1986). In another departure from preconceived norms, these ceremonies are not secretive: local residents look on from windows as the festival progresses. These events are also open to scholars who have created abiding on-the-ground relationships.

Dr. Allocco was refreshingly transparent about contradictions in her research. Participants have differing views on the identity of the ash figure constructed in the cemetery ground, even though the final events of Mayānakkoḷḷai involve visceral interaction with this figure. In addition, Dr. Allocco has not directly witnessed one aspect of the festival that is only accessible to men from the temple’s hereditary priestly family. These gaps, however, are the price paid in a genuinely reciprocal ethnographic interaction. Building trust involves respecting limits, and Dr. Allocco has invested many years cultivating close relationships to the benefit of scholarship at large.

Dr. Allocco’s written work transports readers into the heart of living Indian ritual: her recent talk at the SOAS Center of Yoga Studies did much the same. It has been difficult to visit and observe Hindu rituals in this pandemic era. Therefore, it was a treat to be transported there by Amy Allocco’s beautiful photography and presentation. The seminar helped us access regional Hindu rituals and see that overlooking multivocality and complexity in favor of a “tidy, coherent, and lucid narrative” can obscure the diverse realities of the very traditions we hope to understand.

Further reading:

  • This talk was based on Dr. Allocco’s upcoming book chapter: “Wonder in the Cremation Ground: The Affective and Transformative Dimensions of an Urban Tamil Hindu Festival.”
  • Allocco, Amy L. 2009. “Cacophony or Coherence: Ethnographic Writing and Competing Claims to Ritual and Textual Authority.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 21: 3-14.
  • Allocco, Amy L. 2013. “From Survival to Respect: The Narrative Performances and
  • Ritual Authority of a Female Hindu Healer.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 29: 101-117.
  • Allocco, Amy L. 2021. “Bringing the Dead Home: Hindu Invitation Rituals in Tamil South India.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 89:103-142.
  • Gaur, Albertine. 1986. Review of “A Goddess of Tamil Nadu, Her Myths and Cult.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland 2: 357-358.
  • Meyer, Eveline. 1986. A Goddess of Tamil Nadu, Her Myths and Cult. Stuttgart: Steiner Verlag GMBH.

Amy Allocco (Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Elon University, USA) is an ethnographer whose research focuses on vernacular Hinduism, ritual traditions, and religious practices in Tamil-speaking South India. Her most recent article, “Bringing the Dead Home: Hindu Invitation Rituals in Tamil South India” was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. This article grows out of her current book project on ceremonies to return dead relatives known as puvataikkari to the world of the living and install them as protective family deities. More on Professor Allocco’s work can be found here and here.

Sabbi Lall recently completed the MA Traditions of Yoga and Meditation at SOAS. She lives and teaches yoga in the Boston area at MIT and for Down Under Yoga, and is teaching assistant for the online learning platform Yogic Studies.

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