Friday, May 1, 2015

Yellamma and her Muslim family: Rethinking Origin Myths in Goa – II

Last fortnight I recounted a birthing myth about Parashuram that is rather different from the standard story that we in Goa have come to accept as set in stone. This Dhangar myth linked Parashuram to the goddess Yellamma, and suggested that both Parashuram and Yellamma established familial relations with the Shia heroes, the Imams Hassan and Hussein. 

There were a couple of interesting aspects to that myth that bear underlining. The narrative suggested that when Satyava’s sons, Bhram, Apa, Asan, and Usan, returned home with two wild goats, Yellamma called out, to them “Your maternal aunt has come! My boy should sit down with you. Let your sister join your dining row!” What is interesting about this part of the narrative is not that Yellamma referenced herself as maternal aunt or sister to the men, but that she demanded a right for herself, and the child she birthed, i.e. Parashurama, to be seated along with these men.

Those familiar with the dining habits in non-westernised parts of the subcontinent will know that the dining line (pangath or pankti) is a central marker, not merely of precedence, but also of familial and caste belonging. Who you eat with defines who you are, or how important you are. For example, a caste that considers itself superior will not sit next to those it considers inferior in the same pangath. Similarly, those who are more important, eat before those who are less so. Thus, the patriarch and those proximate to him eat before the younger, and men of lesser importance, with the women eating last of all

Dining in pre-colonial South Asia, an aspect that continues in some parts even today, was not a simple matter, but one that opened up space for ritual pollution. It was one of those rituals through which untouchability and inequality was, and is, perpetuated. It was for this reason that the Sikh langar (or common kitchen) stresses that everyone, regardless of caste or class, must sit together while eating. There was to be no toleration of caste and social difference within the Sikh community. It was also for this reason that so much of Indian secularism hinges on going to the homes of others and eating their food. Given that in the latter part of the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century people DID NOT eat with one another, something we consider so normal today, making people eat together, or eat the food of the other, was critical part of the nationalist agenda. The Indian nationalists could not imagine building a nation where people did not eat alongside with each other.

When Yellamma demands a space for herself, and Parashurama, in the dining line of the Shia heroes, therefore, she makes a number of claims. First, she recognises the validity of the Shia and Muslim men as dining partners. They are not untouchable others and inferiors, but someone she can validly eat with. Indeed, given the situation she found herself in, where she had been abandoned by her sisters, and punished by Mahadev, she was the inferior and was in fact requesting the Shia heroes to take her into their family. This equation underlines the role that the Imams Hassan and Hussein had, and continue to have, in the Deccan, that of the protectors of helpless women and children. This role for the Imams, is of course a natural consequence of their position in Shia Islam, where they are seen as defenders of justice, and partisans of truth.

Also critical to the narrative is that Yellamma and Parashurama sit down to a dinner whose main feature is the flesh of two wild goats. Yellamma, therefore, is not above eating with meat-eaters. She is willing to sit and eat with them, and integrate her child into the circle of these meat-eating men. It is another matter that she subsequently sprinkles the nectar of immortality on all the meat they had there, and gave [the dead animals] their full life-force again. However, rather than being read as evidence of Yellamma being vegetarian, it can be read as stressing her divinity, and her role as life-giving mother of all (in Kannada: Yella- everyone, Amma – mother).

This narrative of Yellamma’s relationship with the Shia Imam’s is not the only reference to her relationship with Muslims. She also has a curious relationship with a Sufi saint by the name of Khwajah Bar Shah Wali, or simply Bar Shah. This relationship has been highlighted through the work of the French anthropologist Jackie Assayag in his work At the Confluence of Two Rivers: Muslims and Hindus in South India (2004). In this book, Assayag recounts two myths about the establishment of the site in Saundatti as sacred. One of these tells of how the goddess, afflicted with leprosy by her vengeful husband, the ascetic Jamadagni, came upon Bar Shah, who took pity on her and cured her leprosy. In gratitude Yellamma served Bar Shah faithfully for twelve years, after which the saint granted her space to settle in Saundatti, where she had remained ever since.  As would be obvious, this myth credits Yellamma’s location in Saundatti not to the Imams but to a Sufi saint. Further, it brings in aspects of the brahmanical absent in the Dhangar myth. I will deal with the brahmanical aspects of the Yellamma myths in a later column.

There is a twist to the tale, however, since when Assayag recounted this narrative to some local devotees of Yellamma, belonging to the Banajiga caste, they denied any knowledge of it. On the contrary, they provided a different story which presented Bar Shah as constantly antagonizing Yellamma though his constant cursing of her. The Banajiga narrative informs that in response to these curses,  the goddess blinded the saint, who thereafter realized his mistake and began to dutifully worship the goddess. Through this constant devotion Bar Shah was able to regain his sight, and remained indebted and devoted to the goddess from then on. It should be noted that Bar Shah’s tomb is located within the space of the various shrines dominated by the temple of Yellamma in Saundatti.

In this latter myth, the equations of power between Islamic personages and Yellamma are reversed, with Yellamma being the more powerful. What is important, however, is that in the end peace is restored and the two figures live in amity. Once again, therefore, we are presented with myths that reference the complexity of religious life in the Deccan, and indicate that Islam, whether Shia or otherwise, was a critical part of this life. 

These myths are important for those of us in Goa who are interested in non-brahmanical myths of origin. They point to us that there is a mythical realm beyond the brahmanical and must necessarily take into consideration that the spaces that are today contained in Goa, were once in the shadow of the Shia Deccan. The influences of the Shia faith still mark aspect of life in Goa, not just what we consider Hindu, but possibly Catholic as well.


(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 1 May 2015)

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