The Earth Mother – The Contest (Bezwada – 750 AD)
Are you coming for the head-butting contest?’ she asked making a wide swirl of her silk skirts, before settling next to him under the tree. Nandi looked at her unable to take his eyes off the large pearl that dangled from her nose-ring twinkling against her wide lips, always smiling. Her eyes, dominating her roundish face, radiated energy like a cascade engulfing everything that came in her view. ‘I’m asking you, master, are you coming for the contest or not?’ she asked once again a little impatient, with one leg folded, its foot delicately tucked under the other whose toes just about caressed the earth.
‘No my dear, I’ve no stomach for such bloodshed,’ he said, ‘poor creatures getting maimed to entertain us.’
‘It’s just a sport master, like a wrestling match, isn’t it natural for the rams to fight one another?’ her eyes outwardly innocent but were probing him for answers, ‘and, what’s wrong with entertaining men? They’ve come from all over the country to visit the temple. It’s a holiday and everybody has money to wager, win or lose they’ll all go back happy, won’t they?’
He smiled. It is her way of starting a debate. He had known Kanaka ever since she was a child, and her father was the chief of the Oiler Guild which owned the town, and their chief patron. ‘There is no happiness when there is suffering,’ Nandi was the chief monk of Bijja Vatika, and also her tutor. ‘The soul that pervades everything, from this plant here to the greatest king is one. Tell me my dear, can your face smile when a thorn pierces your foot?’
Bijja Vatika was a hospice for the sick and dying. The hill and the surrounding orchards abutting the banks of the river were endowed by a queen many years ago, making it an ideal refuge for those on their last leg of life. A fifty monks and nuns lived and worked there dedicated to the service of the needy. Of late the girl had been spending a lot of her free time at the hospice. She’s a bundle of energy, helping the old and sick. A soft touch of her hand relieved pains and lessened the most persistent of fevers. She had even pushed aside objections and assisted midwifes in delivering babies, a chore reckoned as unsuitable to young girls. But she’s too strong-willed to toe the line, and sometimes very impulsive in her decisions. Even her talks, rather arguments, with her tutor were unrestrained and candid. Her remedies are sometimes so radical even the seasoned physicians would not risk using them on patients. Anger came to her easily when she’s denied, only her tutor knew how to keep her in check.
Now was the time to join the debate in the earnest. ‘Yesterday, a girl had a baby, didn’t she suffer? We were worried that she may not survive the ordeal. But you should have seen her face master, when she held that little bundle of meat, still wet with her blood. Joy and happiness, and pride too… all those feelings wouldn’t have been there without that suffering. If life cannot even begin without violence…?’ her voice tailed off but her question lingered on.
The question is so fundamental to his belief, influenced by the teachings of the ancients. She’s right, it’s impossible to take a step without causing harm to some little creature that comes underfoot… or even to take a breath without killing those germs that pervade the air, but agreeing with her will only strengthen her argument. So he took a different tack, ‘You’re right, but can’t you tell apart between the necessitous and that is completely pointless?’
‘Hmm…’ Kanaka nodded giving it a thought. ‘But master, isn’t that relative? I might think that a little violence. If it can make so many people happy, is not so pointless. So I’m going to watch the fight and you must come too,’ she laughed gaily as she stood up starting towards the gate, ‘and by the way…’ she shouted back just before ducking into the waiting palanquin, ‘my father will be there and the whole town. You may think it’s necessary to step out of your refuge once-in-a-way, after all the town pays for your hospice, doesn’t it?’
They moved in circles bumping at the flanks and feeling the strength of each other. Bookies were busy collecting bets. Bheemaah… Bheemaah… Bheemaah… the shouting began to swell leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind about who the favorite was, the speckled ram with a thick rump of wool dyed blue and held on a tether by her brother.
For a moment Nandi was horrified …
Watching her run down into the ring ducking the restraining hand of her father, not minding the rutting animals, and more so the disapproving looks of the people, the ring is not a place for women and certainly not for a girl of such high social standing. Her father is not blind to her impulsive ways and it was his indulgent nature had made her even more unpredictable. Of course she knew the animal since it was lambed and he had seen her feed sesame cakes into its little mouth when it was young.
Bhima, the ram, looked up and came to her sniffling a greeting.
To the shock of all those watching, she slapped him between his curved horns challenging him, a provocation even a trainer would not dare to make. In response the ram stepped back a few paces, bent it’s head low, pawed the earth and started charging towards her making a show of butting her but the girl stood her ground uncaring for her safety. It’s a huge animal trained to fight and fearsome when provoked, and the girl strong though in mind, was all the same a girl, and she was the daughter of the town, and they all loved her. As the animal neared the girl the crowd held its collective breath, unable to close its eyes expecting tragedy.
A huge combined sigh of relief turned into a wild cheer when the ram skidded to halt and turned its aggressive charge into a gentle nudge at her knee.
‘It’s a sign from the Mother,’ someone shouted. Virgin girls are regarded as the embodiment of Her creative potential and Kanaka undoubtedly the most favored of them all.
Wagers on Bhima went through the ceiling, now they knew that the Mother liked him and wanted him for her, which means that he’s sure to win. Only the winners, the best males, a cock, a ram and a buffalo, are offered to her every spring, to ring in the new-year. The contests are just a means to find the right animals to sacrifice.
Kanaka walked back unaware of the fate of the animal she loved. ‘Watch master, no one can beat my Bhima,’ she announced as she sat next to her tutor.
‘Are you sure you want him to win?’ There was something inscrutable in his voice that made her look at him. ‘Have you ever seen the eastern gate of the temple?’ he asked.
‘No… What is it about that gate? Isn’t it unclean? I had always used the main entrance…’ she looked puzzled.
‘Then… you must see it tomorrow.’
To be continued…
Worship of the Mother Goddess is as old as the sapient man. The so called Goddess Figurines were found in the archaeological contexts of the earliest communities of modern humans across the world. Perhaps, studying the folk beliefs and practices that have survived still, in the form of Guardian Deities and Village Goddesses will throw some light on their original object and function. India and especially Andhra country makes an excellent laboratory for this purpose. Yet for over a century, there had been hardly any scholarly work on this subject, especially when we compare the prolific writings on the more fashionable so called Vedic and Puranic facets of the Indian religion, and the heterodox sects such as Buddhism and Jainism.
Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg, a protestant priest had given an account of the popular religious practices of the common folk in 1869. Probably it was the earliest and the only account from an outsider’s perspective that is objective and unblemished by the racial and Eurocentric overtones. It comes no more as a surprise that the early western scholarship of Ancient Indian religion was fixated with the elitist lore and it had a free run with the modern educated elite, resulting in the complete neglect of the beliefs and practices of the rural majority.
At long last, this dearth is addressed finally by a historian, who had lived her early life on the banks of Krishna. Sree Padma Holt, a Harvard scholar and currently the Director of Bowdoin College, Maine, USA. She had her initial doctorate from the Andhra University. Her seminal work, ‘Vicissitudes of the Goddess – Reconstructions of the Gramadevata in India’s Religious Traditions’ makes her undoubtedly the most accomplished academician specializing in the cultural history of Andhra Pradesh, at least in the last half century or so. Her other works, ‘Costume, Coiffure, and Ornamentation in the Temple Sculpture of Northern Andhra’ and ‘Buddhism in the Krishna River Valley’, a collection edited by her, are essential reading for any scholastic or general reader truly interested in the history of Andhra Pradesh.
This story here is a modest tribute to the most accomplished cultural historian of present times born in the Amaravati Capital Region.