Monday, 5 June 2017

Gangamma Pandaga

Gangamma is one of the native mother goddesses, 101 sisters. The Gangamma deity is the stone under the neem  tree to the east of the village. A  temporary pandal  of neem poles is erected on the day of the festival and neem leaves are stuck in all around it. 

In this festival various veshaalu (paints and disguises) are worn. Some elder boys like to dress as women. They wear their mother’s blouses and sarees. They tie their hair into a ponytail, or fix false hair. Some others blacken their faces and wear masks. Sometimes they smear alternating layers of ash and muggu pindi (the white rock powder) on their body, giving a zebra effect. One boy who was a tailor made himself a colourful skirt of scraps which was stunning.  It is source of great merriment as they go from home to home, thus dressed. As it is a small community, and the children are their own children, the fun is more. People may give them some money when they come home. Sasi, then four years old, came with his face painted green and asked me for money.

In all homes salla pindi is made for the festival. Raw rice is soaked for an hour or so, and while still damp it is pounded in the hollowed stone usually found embedded in the floor of the house. Only some houses have this, as this is supposed to be fitted before the house is built up. The stone is not supposed to be moved  into the house through the doorway later, once the doorway comes up. So people often go to to other houses to pound. They are welcomed there, and over some chatting and gossip, the pounding gets done. The rice has to be pounded, then seived and this repeated a few times. The lady of the house lends a hand if she is free. The rice leftover in the seive maybe left behind for the hens in that house if they have any hens. 

There are some grinding stones under trees, and dug into some hard granite in the pathway. These are in common areas for everyone. The damp pounded rice is processed immediately as otherwise it will sour. Jaggery paakam (solution of jaggery boiled till it thickens) is made and poured into this rice powder, while continuously stirring, and then the mixture is rounded into balls. Those who have cardamom and groundnuts add them. Jaggery would be available as the sugarcane would have just got harvested, and the small jaggery making units would be set up in fields. Many harijans would be doing tenancy farming and would be having their share of the jaggery. Those who don’t have jaggery at home, ask and take some from those who have jaggery. Families usually make enough salla pindi to store in a couple of tins, and the children have this for the next few days. They run around eating it and sharing it.

Sometime in the morning or afternoon, the people, usually the children from the house, go down near the temple site and arrange three stones to function as their wood stove. They also collect some twigs and stack it up next to the stove for fuel. Some children write their names on their stoves with charcoal and later bitterly complain that some adult wiped it away and cheated them out of their stove. 

Early evening, the priest for this function, who is from the local washerman family in the harijan community, goes from house to house, sticking a neem twig in each door, and calling people for the festival. 

Once when it got clouded and started drizzling, the drummers came out with the drums and started drumming furiously. This, someone said, was to drive away the rain and the rain did stop. 

There are times when the rain has not  stopped. Sometimes when it rains, people do one round of cooking of the pongal, a sweetened rice dish, at home and bring it along to just do the final cooking at the site, as if it rains it will be impossible to start a fire there in the open! 

In the evening when the drums beat, all the women – a woman or girl (sometimes even a small girl child )   from  each household – go  there, dressed in their best. Vishnu, when she was eight years, came in a skirt of neem leaves carrying a pot with many holes in it, the veigundalu dutta.  She had had a severe attack of ammoru (pox) that year, and her family has promised this as penance to the god when she recovered. Usually as part of this attire soot or katika (the eye blackening soot) is also applied on the face. 

All the women carry on their heads, over a twisted round of cloth (chuttu kuduru), a wicker basket or an aluminium or steel basin. This has a cooking vessel with water and some uncooked rice, some jaggery, twigs for the fire, a blowpipe and matches in a wicker basket  to prepare the pongal offering there All the fires are lit, and it is a convival affair. Many cooking vessels are of gleaming steel, with turmeric and kumkum applied on them. Some are mud pots similarly anointed. Someone has insufficent water in the pot, and so takes a ladleful from the neighbour’s pot. Someone’s fire is not lighting up well, and a neighbour adds some of their live coals to it. One child has not dug a deep enough space for the fire, and her fire keeps dying out. Somebody else asks the child to move her pot to their stove as their cooking is over. All the pongal pots are placed before the god, and everyone goes home to get their salla pindi offerings. 

A small wicker basket, or nowadays a shining steel or aluminium basin, is washed well and decorated with turmeric and kumkum and neem twigs. Turmeric, kumkum, camphor, incense sticks and a matchbox are kept in it. Two balls of salla pindi are placed one over another with the bigger one below. The upper one is fashioned into a lamp with a depression, and oil is poured into it, and wicks arranged in it. Some put many wicks, and the lamp then twinkles with many lights. Some decorate the lamps with neem twigs, or with small chains made of cotton and coloured with turmeric or kumkum.  At dusk all the ladies light the lamps and set out from their homes when the drums beat.   They proceed in a line which winds through the village. The line of flickering lights and the silhoueted  procession look very beautiful in the disappearing light of the dusk. 

All go to the neem tree, where the village washerman functions as the priest of the ceremony. Eguva Maalapalle Gangaiah of the washerman family of the village is the priest. Everyone circles the neem tree and the god barefoot. The area is cleared but there would still be thorns. They place their offering before the priest. He takes the upper salla pindi and a handful of pongal as his share of the offering. This is shared among the priest and the pinna pedda (village leader). The pooja is conducted. 

Hens and sometimes goats, are sacrificed. In some places where the function is conducted in a grand manner buffaloes are also sacrificed. The heads of the sacrificed animals are the share of the thotivaadu of the village. A non vegetarian community also has non vegetarian gods and the foods of the community are offered to the gods. 

In my initial years I tried telling the people that I could not agree with animal sacrifices. They listened to my position peaceably, and told me that if I don’t come for this function, I can go a week later, and make my offerings at the Yerapachamma shrine. However the next door child Vanajakshi came and made me put some rice and jaggery in her pot so that it was as if I also participated. That is also a permitted way of participating. In subsequent years I participated, and would leave before the animal sacrifice. As my daughter grew there, the event was too beautiful and the festivities too colourful for a child to be kept away from. Over time I have also lost intellectual conviction to oppose the hen sacrifices as if one accepts non-vegetarian communities then one accepts that they will offer their foods to their gods.

People also bring new sarees there to get them blessed by the goddess. These sarees would be draped over the tree. It would be dark when the function got over. People would give one another their pongal and salla pindi. The ones who had added some ghee in their preparation would proudly and happily give some of it to the others.

The next  Tuesday, the function would be repeated at the Yerpachchamma temple at the other end of the village. The dates of this festival would vary. The first festival or jathra of the season is held at the Alavelu Gangamma temple near Tirupathi. Then turmeric and kumkum is sent to Gangamma temples at Tirupathi and all neighbouring villages, and after that it can be held in the other villages. If a village could not hold the function one Tuesday due to a death or due to any such event in the village, it would be postponed to the next week.

Some villagers leave to participate in the function in their relatives’ villages. They say that in those places it is far grander, and bigger jathras or religious processions are taken out.   

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