Friday, April 17, 2015

Rethinking Origin Myths in Goa

Some months ago, I recollected an incident where a group of Gauda, Kunbi, Velip, and Dhangar activists from Goa were asked if they had any origin myths about Goa that would contest the more popularized origin myth of Parashuram. As I recounted, these activists were unable to offer one. What they could offer, however, were narratives of their peoples being systematically cheated of their rights in the land. It was in this context that I suggested that not every history needs to be ancient to have value. Histories can be recent and still be valid.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when some weeks after writing that column, I came across a scholarly essay titled “Muharram Processions and the Ethicization of Hero Cults in the Premodern Deccan,” by Hugh van Skyhawk, which featured in the book South Asian Religions on Display: Religious Processions in South Asia and in the Diaspora (2008). Discussing the manner in which various sacred traditions of the Deccan engaged with each other, Skyhawk recounted an oral text of Narayan Kondiba Mane, a Dhangar shepherd from the district of Kolhapur in Maharashtra. The reason for my surprise was that while this oral text that Skyhawk translated did not deal with an origin myth for the land that was, through Portuguese intervention, to become Goa, it did contain a narrative mentioning the familial interaction of a variety of pre-colonial deities in these territories.

The narrative is about the “Canarese” Goddess Yekva or Yellamma, and begins by underlining the fact that she was the youngest and most stubborn of seven sisters: “Yekva, Mhakva, Durgava, Durgva, Margva, Jakva, and Tukva.” This youngest sister was once separated from her siblings when she felt thirsty during a hunt. Though she was unable to find her sisters, she did eventually find water in Mahadev’s pond. While at the pond, her eyes fell on a chickpea plant, whose stem she felt compelled [by hunger no doubt] to pluck. As she leaned forward to do so, however, Mahadev cried out that should she carry out this action, “blame” would fall on her. But Yellamma was not one to listen. Oh no! She pulled a twig from the bush, and instantly, a burning blister formed on her palm.

Poor Yellamma, alone and frightened, ran in pain until she could bear the pain no longer. She pricked the blister, and found in it a lump of blood, and a radiant little baby was born. And who was that baby, born from the blister on Yallamma’s hand? Parasarama, or Parasurama!

It was after having birthed the baby Parasurama and traveling some more that Yellamma finally stumbled upon her sisters. When they saw her carrying the little baby, however, the sisters cried out, “Stay away! Don’t come closer! You have made us the relatives of a bastard! We don’t want to touch you! And we don’t want you in our group! As you have borne a bastard, go away from us! Don’t ever come to us!”

The stunned Yellamma had nowhere to go now, and after much wandering, she came upon “the Musalman brothers Asan [and] Usan,” that is, Hasan and Hussein. She requested, and received, shelter from them, and spent the night on the verandah of their home. In the morning, she requested a place to live. The brothers responded by placing a stone in a sling, flinging the stone in the air and indicating to Yellamma to follow the stone, for where it fell, that place would be hers. Yellamma did as requested and followed the stone, which had fallen on Saundatti hill by this time.

She reached the hill at sundown and encountered the home of one Jagul Satyava, whom she petitioned for shelter for the night. Satyava responded that he would have gladly given her a place to stay, “but mine is a Musalman house and there will be meat.” Yellamma would not take no for an answer, however, and persuaded Satyava to let her spend the night in the house. When Satyava’s sons, Bhram, Apa, Asan, and Usan, returned home with two wild goats, Yellamma called out, “Your maternal aunt has come! My boy should sit down with you. Let your sister join your dining row!” And so it was, the narrative tells us, that Yellamma, with the baby Parasuram on her lap, sat with the Muslim boys as they prepared to eat.

The narrative also informs us that “Yallamma sprinkled the nectar of immortality on all the meat they had there, and gave [the dead animals] their full life-force again. And Baby Parasarama was accepted in the circle of the Musalman boys, and in bliss did they eat together.” Subsequently, in the morning, the four brothers erected a temple to the virgin goddess on Saundatti hill, so that there would be space for all of them. The narrative concludes that “After they had built the temple the Canarese Yallava took Baby Parasarama and stayed in the temple on the hill.”

To those of us accustomed to the neat divisions between Hindu and Muslim, this narrative would present something of a shock. Indeed, the narrative seems to have all the makings of a contemporary soap opera. According to Skyhawk, it highlights the role of the Shia heroes, Hasan and Hussein, as protectors of helpless women and children in South Asia. From a Goan point of view, however, the narrative gives us a plethora of positions from which to think about Goa. Given that the territories that would go on to constitute Goa participated both in the Canara region and the Deccan, this narrative allows us to think of a pre-colonial Goa that was not entirely brahmanical. On the contrary, it was also a space where Islam, and especially Shia Islam, held sway. Further, this Shia Islam had rather intimate fraternal engagements with the non-brahmanical faiths in the region. One could also hazard a guess that these non-brahmanical and non-Muslim deities were in latter times Sanskritised to give us brahmanical deities—like the Parashurama we know today—who have completely different histories. Indeed, it appears that the two myths are speaking of two entirely different Parashuramas.

However, there is no need to rush into readings of this Dhangar myth at this time. For now, all that we need to do is know that there are other myths that would upset the certainty of the dominant discourse. And this, as most students of the social sciences would know can only be a good thing since it opens up space for more questions and new visions.
(A version of this post was first published in the O Herald on 17 April 2015)

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