The Earth Mother – The Old Path (Bezwada – 750 AD)

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There’s something in her, Nandi thought, which even the mute animals seem to spot, and nature too smiled in her presence. He was now more determined to show her the other side of the temple, the darker and the terrible aspect of the goddess she’s unaware you see,’ Nandi pointed at the sky ahead, at the twin stars rising above the temple spire, ‘the Constellation of Twins, heralding the new-year,’ his voice was outshone by the kettledrums which began to blare, announcing the evening worship. As Kanaka stepped over the threshold, first to do so ahead of her father, the temple elephant recognized her and greeted her with a trumpet. She ran up to that majestic animal which raised its trunk and kneeled, waving its ears as she patted its flank.

The crowd followed the elephant at a steady pace on a square path around the shrine, lit up by oil lamps. As they reached a point behind the temple where a door was sealed with bricks, and cemented up, he drew the girl away from the circumambulating crowd to a path, sparingly lit by torches. It was an ancient path scarcely used nowadays and led away from the shrine down the hill. ‘This is the old path… the original,’ he said, ‘for a thousand years people came up this way to worship, made sacrifices at the shrine. Now the door is closed as the Mother has presented herself in her gentle form.’

‘Wasn’t She always like this?’

‘Yes and no, you see my dear, the Goddess is a form of the Earth Mother, the nature that surrounds us, makes us and sustains us, but…’ he paused trying to gather his thoughts.

‘If She happens to be the mother nature, aren’t we all a part of Her?’ she sounded unconvinced, ‘then why are some strong and others weak, good and bad, rich and poor?’

‘Ha huh, I’m coming to that,’ he laughed; his pupil is always a step ahead in her thinking, making these conversations that much more interesting and challenging. ‘The fault lies not with the nature but man. Every other being lives in harmony with mother nature, but the man tries to alter her to suit himself. He’s not happy with what’s provided as his due, but wants more, not just for now but for tomorrow and the days after. His demands sometimes go beyond what the mother can provide. Like a naughty child… constantly poking his hand in the cookie jar.’

‘And, he knows that, doesn’t he?’ she butted in, ‘and so he tries to be nice to his mother, a smile and a cuddle…’

‘And a praise and a prayer,’ he joined in laughing.

‘Sometimes he needs more than a little chiding, she grumbles and shouts like my mother does,’ she giggled.

‘Yes, she rumbles and roars to remind him of her anger, and even that’s not enough.’

‘So she makes him suffer, no food, toys and even a little thrashing. And that’s why she sends famine, floods and sickness,’ now she was serious. ‘So more you’re guilty, the more you’re terrified of her, and so you try to appease her, offer her a share in the ill-begotten spoils.’

‘Not so simple,’ the teacher said, ‘the traditions are too ancient to be conceived in a single lifetime. It’s probable that you’re right, they had their beginnings in reasons as mundane, but people continue to follow even if they cease to be relevant today.’ He was interrupted by a sudden assault of noise from below, hundreds of voices raised in unison calling the name of the Mother.

‘Who are they?’ she asked and quickened her pace down the path without waiting for his answer. A large number of people gathered around a fire, in a clearing facing the sheer face of the hill, the rock was gauged out into recesses. The path skirted the ground and she sprinted around to gain a better view. In the central niche stood an image, chiseled on the wall, life-size and frightening. It’s a naked image of the goddess in her most terrible form, many heads and arms, her tongue drawn out long holding a multitude of human skulls, her breasts coated in vermillion and legs stretched wide, as though she’s running, a foot rested on a dwarf and the other pressing down a water buffalo.

The girl was overtaken by anger, horrified by the sight of a shaman lashing a young woman with a neem branch, his body smeared in blood, and shouting inscrutably. On an impulse, she tried to push her way through the crowd to stop him, but was prevented by the restraining hand of her teacher. ‘What’s he doing?’ she shouted over the din.

‘He’s trying to exorcise that wretched kid, who they believe is possessed by spirits. Look at them,’ he pointed at the front rows; there were many such with disheveled clothes and vacant eyes, mostly young women. ‘They‘re brought here especially today. They suppose that the blood of the sacrificial victim has the power to quell the spirits.’

‘Is it true?’

‘No, it’s just an illness like any, but of mind,’ he said emphatically. ‘They don’t need this rubbish, what they need is a little care and tenderness… poor wretches.’

‘Why can’t they be stopped?’ she asked pointing at the shaman who had just started stamping his feet to the rhythm of the drums, holding a long blade curved at the end like a sickle, looking at something at the edge of the crowd. She followed his sight and saw a ram. It was coated in ochre and decked with garlands of neem leaves, being pulled by three men to the altar set in front of the idol. She understood why, the shaman was making motions with his weapon like chopping its head, eliciting cheers from the crowd every time he brought down the blade on the neck of the imagined animal. She looked at the poor victim to be, and… recognition struck her like a thunderbolt.

To the teacher, what happened next was a blur. Many a time, he woke up crying out reliving that nightmare. Even after ten years… he struggled to comprehend the sequence of visuals that played out in front of his eyes that night.

That night… the moment he had realized that his pupil was not next to him… he saw her appear at the altar, her eyes spitting fire, she was a personification of wrath. A well-aimed kick had sent the shaman sprawling, her foot still resting on his chest, and throbbing in her hand was the killing weapon. The crowd cringed with fear, they fell, flat with faces down, and a few even fainted. To them she looked the manifestation in Her most gruesome aspect.

Nandi could never come to terms with what he saw next. ‘It’s time you stop this evil,’ her voice was echoed by the nature which began to resonate her fury. A long arc of lightning lit her face as she spoke, eerie and incoherent, ‘If blood cures you of sickness…’ she paused only for a moment, ‘let that be mine.’ Nandi looked on horrified as a flick of her wrist brought the steel down severing her head, which rolled into the fire and a twin jets of blood spouted from where her head stood a moment ago.

At that very moment the earth began to rumble as the waters of the river rushed up in a flood to meet the torrent from heavens.

For nine days and nights the town was inundated, worst ever deluge in the living memory. The town was devastated, those who stayed alive, left the town to find a living. For years, the vision of the angry goddess covered the town like ghastly shroud… until now.

Now… it had been a few months and the town is already getting to normal, not so much as the old times but certainly on its way there, he thought looking at a small crowd gathered at the steps, at the exact place where it had all happened.

He pushed his way through the onlookers. A small shrine or rather a niche in the wall was new, and an image… The memories of that horrible night flooded back. It was an image of the mother, headless and twin spouts of blood pouring into the waiting mouths of her worshippers, the resemblance was striking, numbing his senses. He stood there with lead in his legs, until he was jerked out of his shock by something sprinkled on his face. A bout of nausea engulfed him as he rushed back and began running towards the main temple, but it was still far away when his legs gave in. He fell on the steps gasping for breath.

He wiped his face with his upper garment… blood… it was the blood of the sacrifice. He scrubbed hard to remove the stains he felt were still there.

His mind yearning to reach the sanctuary the temple offered, but his body refused. He had no strength to get to his feet. Life in him began to ebb. Desperately he tried claw his way up looking at the temple spire. The evening worship was coming to an end, evidenced by the temple bells. Their ringing sounds engulfed him as a caress of the Mother as he breathed his last.



A section on architecture in Mahāvattu explains the process of stupa building. The central pillar around which the structure radiates like the spokes of a wheel is called by the name ‘Indrakīla’. We know that the most prominent physical landmark of Bezwada is a hill also designated thus.

For ages the hill had been at the nucleus of trade-routes that radiated to the farthest corners of Andhra culture. Ironically, the city that surrounded the hill had never been the political capital, yet it had always been the heart that pumped the economic lifeblood of Telugu people. Presiding over the hill and overlooking the city is the Goddess Kanaka Durga.

In its history spanning over millennia, the city had been witness to many ups and downs. Even the religious life of people had gone through many vicissitudes, but the majority, the simple rural folk who migrated to the town, remained true to its faith in the guardian deity of the city. The mainstream religions in their times of dominance were not immune to this sentiment. Brāhmaṇism, Bhāgavatism, Buddhism, Jainism, Shaivism, Vaishnavism; whatever may be the dominant urban creed, it had become imperative for them to incorporate the imagery of Mother worship to stay relevant.

Inscriptions at the temple and the legends of the goddess betray her origins as a Grāmadēvata. It was sometime after the 7th century the goddess had taken her current form. It was alleged that Ādi Śaṃkara had converted the Ugra aspect of the goddess to her present Saumya form, and had her married to then prominent male deity, Siva. The bloodletting rituals associated with her earlier form were proscribed at the sanctum. But the evidence shows that such practices continued until very recently at a makeshift shrine below the steps, where the goddess was continued to be worshipped in her Grāmadēvata profile.



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