Epic Narrative as a Blurred Genre

Posted in Culture on J0000006UTC 6, 2008 by Hari Saravanan . V

This article tries to interpret the relationship between epic narratives and their ritual contexts which are intangible, and the local ecology and environment which are tangible by using field documentation from the Goddess Akkammagaru epic narration of South-West Andhra Pradesh, the Mailaralinga epic narration of North-East Karnataka,  and the Dangi Ramkatha epic narrative of South Gujarat. The following contents will give a brief introduction to these epic practices and their ritual contexts, and also discuss the political implications, on a micro and macro level, on the respective ethnic groups that share a particular epic narration.

 

I do not want to discuss the definitions and contradictions by the numerous scholars on ‘Epic’ and Ritual’, by dwelling into the paradigms of these terminologies and their theoretical dimensions.  I would rather like to share my thoughts on the practices and politics of three epics, which I consider to be intangible cultural heritage of these respective communities. The following details emerge from my fieldwork observations, discussions with the epic narrators, community elders, and regional scholars.

 

‘In a civilization, there is a great tradition of a reflective few and there is a little tradition of the largely unreflective many’ (Redfield 1960: 41).

 

Epics in Indian context are generally classified into two groups: Written Epics and Oral Epics. Written epics (Ramayana and Mahabharatha) are extant in classical texts, written in Sanskrit and Tamil – the former having a pan-Indian influence and the latter a regional influence. They evolve into authorized creations which are carried by a ‘reflective few’ who influence the Hindu belief system. Oral epics, which are community- and region-centric, exist only by oral transmission within a language, sometimes in a regional dialect in particular. These creations are carried by the so called non-literateunreflective many’ (Ramanujan A.K.) . Nevertheless, epics in both these groups are sacred in nature, either to the whole of India or only to one specific community in India.

 

I would like to look into three aspects of the following oral epics: how these oral epics contest, oppose, and sometimes accept the dominance of a particular community upon other communities in a given cultural geography; how these oral epics get blurred within the local geography due to specific ritual practices; and how the written epics are altered in oral tradition, in terms of the relationships between mythological characters of a particular sacred epic (here Ramayana) and their depiction as though they are not of epic proportions  but only ethnographies of their own community.

 

Urumulavaru tradition and Goddess Akkammagaru epic of Anantapur district, South-West Andhra Pradesh

Goddess Akkammagaru (seven sisters) temples are distributed across the agrarian landscape of Anantapur district, Andhra Pradesh. These temples serve as gudikattu, a locus of the caste councils for the lineages of the Kapus (huge land owners) predominantly belonging to the higher castes of Karna Golla, Balija, Khamma and Reddy communities. Gudikattu is not a forum or an organization in a modern industrial sense, but based on the belief system of the regional communities, which has a direct influence on the agrarian economy of this region. The Akkammagaru epic is narrated by a group of active traditional drummers called Urumulavaru, who get their name from the Urumu drum they play.

 

The Urumulavaru belong to a sect within the Mala community who form the lowest stratum of the caste-based Hindu society of Andhra Pradesh. It is to be noted that the Urumulavaru tradition is region-specific; it exists only in the Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh. The present study on the Urumulavaru tradition was based on elaborate fieldwork on the ethnography and repertoire of a single UrumulavaruUrumula Naganna from Anantapur town.

 

Each Urumulavaru gets their tradition-based rights to perform drumming along with the narration of the Akkammagaru epic, by their ownership of the Urumu drum. Each Urumu drum bears the inscriptions of the names of patrons and leading families of Kapus of a particular village’s Akkammagaru gudikattu. A combination of the Akkammagaru epics in oral tradition which vary form gudikattu to gudikattu and the inscriptions on the Urumu drums provide a remarkable religious and social history  of the castes of this region.

 

The Urumu drum is offered to Goddess Akkammagaru by the higher caste devotees of a particular gudikattu, and later come under the possession of the Urumulavaru, who has a direct relationship with Akkammagaru. The regular Akkammagaru worship every Monday evening is incomplete without the designated Urumulavaru’s drumming and epic narration. Despite the fact that the Urumulavaru belong to the lower section of the Hindu caste hierarchy, because of their closeness with the Goddess,  they are considered as secondary priests (the main gudikattu priest belongs only to the higher caste Karna Golla community). The Urumu drum along with the narration of genealogies aims at glorifying a particular gudikattu, thereby elevating and reconfirming the positions of the higher castes and creating a sustenance of the Urumulavaru by the patronizing higher castes.

 

The Akkammagaru epic comprises of two parts. The first part describes their  birth in Sivanandalakota, a mythical village, and their coming to earth specifically to Devadakonda, a hill near present day Kalyandurg town; the second part dwells on how Goddess Akkammagaru, in the form of seven parrots traveled to select villages of their liking (in present day Anantapur district) to gather a following of devotees, by commanding devotion from a select higher caste devotee who was a big land lord, which he rejects and finally becomes a devotee by experiencing and witnessing the magical destructive and recreation powers of the Goddess.

 

The Akkammagaru epic incorporates history, geography, and agrarian ecology on a micro level. The local geography: places where the miracles of destruction and recreation of living beings by the divine powers of Goddess Akkammagaru have taken place in wells, ponds, boulders and fertile lands, around a village or group of villages . This sacred geography is well known only to the Urumulavaru and pujari (priest) of the respective gudikattus.

The Urumulavaru tradition is a building block in the regional culture. Here, the Gudikattu is a social institution though hierarchical in nature and drawn along caste lines. This institution creates a bonding among various communities in this region, which otherwise have various caste-conflicts that hinders their amicable social relationship. The active bearers of this tradition, the Urumulavaru, here Urumula Naganna, despite belonging to a lower caste, bear the sacred responsibility to aid the Akkammagaru believers through their drumming and epic narration services. Hence, the Urumulavaru patch gaps between the agrarian Kapu communities consisting of no lesser then five high-caste communities of this region.

 

Being an Urumulavaru gives an elevated status symbol. In being an Urumulavaru, one has to follow strict protocols akin to practices of Brahmins: abstaining from the consumption of meat, alcohol, and tobacco; not wearing footwear and not consuming food at strangers’ homes. When Urumula Naganna visits his gudikattu devotees’ houses during the festival of Dasara to narrate their family genealogy along with drumming the Urumu, these higher-caste devotees wash his legs, offer prayers to the Urumu, seek his blessings, and pay him in cash and a few measures of food grains for his services; all these are performed only outside the latter’s houses. This practice of a higher-caste family member washing and seeking the blessing from a lower caste Urumulavaru is unique in this region. Nevertheless, on the other extreme, if Urumula Naganna does not possess his Urumu, then because of his caste lineage, he is barred from entering his patron families’ houses, and simply put, he remains unknown.

 

Due to their firm belief in and their assumed sacred duty towards Goddess Akkammagaru, the Urumulavaru have a vast knowledge about the geography of their region, especially around their respective gudikattu. This memory of the geography, in historic and ecological terms aids them in recreating the agriculturally prosperous times, even during the recent droughts.

 

Mailaralinga Tradition and Epic of Mailaralinga from Bellary and Haveri districts of North Karnataka

The study of Mailaralinga tradition was extensively conducted by the German Indologist Gunter E.Sontheimer.  Sontheimer’s primary interest was on the pastoral communities in Western and Southern regions of peninsular India, comprising Maharashtra and Karnataka; it was during this research that he stumbled upon the Mailaralinga tradition. According to Sontheimer’s observations, Khandoba of Maharashtra, Mailara of Karnataka, and Mallanna of Andhra Pradesh are the same with slight variations, particularly in the names of the same tradition in the three states with an important similarity that these three traditions draw large number of devotees predominantly from the pastoral and hunting communities inhabiting this part of India.

 

Fieldwork with regard to the present study on Mailaralinga tradition was conducted in the Bellary and Haveri districts of North Karnataka, where we documented two Kuruba and Madiga versions (by both male and female epic narrators), along with their individual and collective ritual practices of the active bearers of this tradition at the annual Mailara Jatre in Devaragudda village, Haveri district and Bharatha Hunnime Mailaralinga Jatre, at Mailara village, Bellary district.

 

There are two important variations among the active bearers: one group comprises ordinary devotees who only worship Mailaralinga, while another group comprises devotees who dedicate their life to serve Mailaralinga by performing designated services in the form of sacred services and rituals throughout their lifetime. The latter group are the participant active-bearers of this tradition; they are Goravappas (male) and Goravammas (female), Wodeyars, and Kanchaveeras. The goravappas consider themselves as the soldiers of Mailaralinga. They are identified by their distinct lifestyle and attire, as described by Gorava Gaddada Veerappa, Devaragudda

“when Mailara killed Mallasura and Manikasura, he wore their intestine as his turban, their teeth as a cowrie necklace, their mouth as a damaruga (hand drum), skull as a doni (meal bowl) and their skin as a long coat. The fat of the demons were used as oil and their nerves as wick for the lamp lit by Mailara after his victorious battle.”

 

The goravappas and goravammas are not restricted to any caste, race, and creed; there are some goravappas and goravammas even among the Muslims of this region. Nevertheless, the Mailaralinga tradition attracts devotees from the nomadic pastoral communities of Kuruba (shepherds), Golla (cowherds), and Myasabeda (hunters). It is to be noted that not all devotees of the Mailaralinga tradition are goravappas and goravammas. To be a goravappa or a goravamma, the individual devotee has to go through an initiation ceremony known as Hore Horuvudu (‘carrying the load’, ‘load’ refers to service to Mailaralinga), in many cases the initiation is done at young age, in their pre-adolescence, by their parents. The initiation prepares the devotee to be mentally strong and follow strict codes of discipline, like non-addiction to any kind of intoxication and they must beg every Sunday at six houses – this is known as Uraduvudu (Venkatesha 1994).

The initiation of an ordinary devotee to be a goravappa or goravamma is done by the priestly class of Wodeyars. The Wodeyars are considered as gurus (teacher and guide) of the Mailaralinga tradition; they manage the day-to-day functions of the Mailaralinga temples in the main centres, Devaragudda and Mailara villages. Wodeyars claim their origin from Gomuni, the mythical saint in Mahabharatha.

 

Finally, the Kanchaveeras are mostly from the Madiga community (scheduled caste). Within this community the Kanchaveeras are given a priestly status. They perform blood-shedding deeds such as piercing iron tridents through their legs and fore arms, these ritual performances of self-mortification can be seen as acts of devotion to their Lord Mailaralinga. According to a popular myth, Kanchaveeras are representatives of another regional folk deity of this region, Veerabhadra. Mallarappa Nagor, a Kanchaveera of Devaragudda village, vividly explains the connection between Kanchaveeras and the Mailaralinga tradition,

“in the battle against Mallasura and Manikasura, Mailara lost all his strength and divine powers and fearing for his life ran away from the battle field. After a marathon running, Mailara crossed the Tungabhadra river to escape from the clutches of Mallasura and Manikasura. Mailara tried to hide himself by drowning in the river. Seeing Mailara’s plight, Lord Veerabhadra struck the earth with his long hair (dreadlocks), from that spot emerged five brave warriors, Panchaveeras (pancha means five). The Panchaveeras are none other than the present day Kanchaveeras. At first Mailara was frightened by seeing the Kanchaveeras, since they had the appearance of a demon. Sensing Mailara’s fear, we, the Kanchaveeras touched his feet and said ‘Father and Lord, we are your servants, we will help you. We were created by the divine powers of Lord Veerabadhra, to help you in your battle against Mallasura and Manikasura’, after saying this to Mailara we confronted Mallasura and Manikasura, we could have killed them but Mailara was an incarnation of Lord Siva who had descended on earth with the sole purpose of killing the demon-brothers. So we handed them over to Mailaralinga.” (Venkatesha, 1994).

 

Mailara Jatre – Ritual re-enactment and dramatization of the Mailara epic:

Annually, the Mailaralinga epic comes to life during the Mailara Jatre and Bharatha Hunnime Mailara Jatre in Devaragudda and Mailara villages respectively. Mailaralinga tradition is multi-dimensional: it has socio-cultural and economic structures. The annual Jatre held at Mailara and Devaragudda villages sets the stage for ritualized re-enactment of important events in Mailara’s life, which finally ends with the battle where he slays the demon brothers Mallasura and Manikasura. The rituals performed by the goravappas, goravammas, and kanchaveeras are descriptive of Mailara’s deeds; like wooing a shepherd woman Kurubathi and his subsequent marriage to her; Mailara’s kidnapping of Komally, Mallasura’s sister, whereby he instigates the battle and adapting guerrilla warfare by leading a silent precession at night and slaying Mallasura and Manikasura. The Mailara epic portrays the conflict between the nomadic pastoral communities who showed interest in settled agriculture, and the native settled agriculturalists of this region.

 

During the fair, the goravas, goravammas, and the kanchaveeras perform a variety services to Mailaralinga by means of ritual practices. These rituals resemble actions of Mailaralinga’s army. Among the goravas and goravammas, together, there are ten different varieties having specific rituals to perform:

Theevatige  gorava – holds a lamp in his hand during the silent procession that resembles Mailara’s army marching to the battlefield.

Chati gorava – whips himself like the charioteer whipping his horses.

Sarapali gorava– holds an iron chain and breaks it with the strength of his bare hands, resembling an escaping soldier.

Nayi gorava – acts like a dog by barking and eating directly from the doni without using his hands. Dogs are important companions for the pastoralists and herdsmen in protecting their flocks of sheep, goats and cattle.

Kudure gorava – dances like a horse and whips his legs, considering themselves to be the horses in Mailaralinga’s army.

Pahari gorava – holds a big paharai ghante (big bell) which he rings at regular intervals like warning Mailaralinga’s army about an enemy attack.

Karanika gorava – ascends a 12-metre bow and utters a euphoric prophecy conveying Mailaralinga’s intentions for the year.

Kinnari gorava – holds the kinnari, a musical instrument.

Elechechi goravamma – female devotee who offers areca nut and betel leaf to Mailaralinga.

Chavuri goravamma – female devotee who offers fans Mailaralinga using a Chavuri (fan) (Venkatesha, 1994)

 

Groups of devotees gathered during the Jatre repeatedly shout ‘Elu koti, elu koti, chaanga balo’ (strength of seven crores). Echoes of this phrase along with the rituals performed by Goravappas, Goravammas, and Kanchaveeras; give each individual devotee a satisfaction of participating as a solider in their Lord Mailaralinga’s epic battle, as a reminder of their pastoralist identity.

 

The most eagerly awaited rituals during the Mailara Jatre are the Karanika utsava (bow-climbing-and-prophecy-uttering-ritual) and Pavada. Karanika utsava is performed by the Karanika Gorava who goes through 12 days of fasting, after which he ascends a 12-metre bow and utters a euphoric prophecy which influences regional agriculture, animal husbandry, and politics; hearing this prophecy means a lot to an ordinary devotee. Pavada – body piercing rituals are performed only by the Kanchaveeras, which recreates the battle between Mailara and the demon brothers, and finally ends with the Goravva dance, which symbolizes Mailaralinga’s dogs, trusted friends of the pastorialists, who also participated and contributed their share in the epic battle of Mailara, and his final victory and the Sarapali, chain breaking rituals performed by designated Goravappas, symbolizes prisoners of war freeing themselves form the clutches of the enemy.

 

 

Other than the sacred and ritualistic contexts, Mailara Jatre creates an occasion for the pastoral and hunting communities to interact among blood relatives, clan members, and merchants. During these interactions, buying and selling of cattle and sheep are carried on, marriage alliances are finalized, leasing of lands for cultivation is arranged, and family and clan disputes are settled.

 

Though the same features of Urumulavaru tradition apply to the Mailaralinga tradition, the latter is geographically wider spread and has no caste based restriction, despite having a hierarchy. The very existence of the annual Mailara Jatre, is to recreate the epic battle of Mailara against the demon brothers Mallasura and Manikasura, and creating opportunities to the believers of this tradition to publicly exhibit their faith in Lord Mailaralinga who fought for them.

 

The Mailaralinga epic portrays the transformation of the pastoral Kuruba community into settled agriculturalists, who at some point in history had a foresight about shrinking pastoral landscapes which influenced their occupational shift from pastoralists to settled agriculturalists, hence asserting themselves in this region after a conflict leading to a compromise with the native agriculturalists.

 

Dangi Ramkatha from Dangs district, South Gujarat

The Ramayana epic has a pan-Indian influence on the belief system of the people of India. This epic has had a tremendous influence in the Indian mind, transmitted in oral, performative, and written forms of expression; no wonder why a number of versions of the Ramayana in many languages circulate amidst many ethnic groups in India.

 

Dangs is a small administrative district, located in the South-eastern border of Gujarat in western India. ‘Dang’ is a geographical term in native speech meaning ‘hilly- terrain’, this region is the richest forest area of Gujarat famous for its high-quality teak. This region is entirely populated by tribal communities, predominantly the Bhil, Kunkana, Varli, Gamit, Mavchi and Dhodia, all dependant on agriculture. Among these tribal communities, the Kunkana have a version of the Ramayana narrative, narrated in the native Kunkana language, which does not have its own script. This version of Ramayana carries the same contents and characters, but radically alters the relationships and positions of the characters in the epic.

 

In Dangs region, the Ramayana is popularly known as Ramkatha. The Dangi Ramkatha is not contextualized by any rituals, but rendered only as a form of entertainment with religious overtones. The native tribal communities here take pride in recalling Rama’s story as a reflection of their own culture and associate themselves and their region with the Dhandakaranya (in Sanskrit) forests where Rama, along with Sita and Lakshmana lived for a period of 14 years during their exile. Dangi Ramkatha is narrated by Bhaghats, bards-cum-priests from the Kunkana community. These Bhaghats are considered as the active tradition bearers of Kunkana customs, since they are associated with the life cycle rituals of the regional community members. The Bhaghats are also reputed as folk-medicine practitioners.

 

Though Dangi Ramkatha is secular in nature, only the Bhaghats have the sacred right to narrate it along with an accompanist. In most cases, the latter is a trainee who undergoes  life long training with the former. The Bhaghat starts the narrative with an invocation to their deities – natural, animistic, and mythical; the accompanist joins in by repeating the last word, and sometimes the whole phrase of every line narrated by the Baghat. After a few measured lines, they sing some lines together with a refrain (Aruna 2006). The narrative is sung in accompaniment of an indigenous instrument called Thali.

 

The Thali is the only instrument used during the whole narration. It is a deep, round plate made of bronze or brass, a common utensil in this region used in the kitchen for kneading dough to prepare rotis (baked, dry pan cakes). To the centre of the plate, a dry and hollow stem of the bhangsar plant is stuck using a particular koti (bee) wax as an adhesive. The Bhaghat creates music by running the first two fingers of both his palms, top to bottom of the bhangsar stem; while the thali is placed on his lap, held between folded legs. The sound rendered by the thali is akin to the buzzing noise of honey bees. There is no variation on the musical notes created by the thali instrument. Rather, it aids the Baghat in concentrating inward to link the lines of the Ramkatha narrative.

 

 

Other than the sacred and ritualistic contexts, Mailara Jatre creates an occasion for the pastoral and hunting communities to interact among blood relatives, clan members, and merchants. During these interactions, buying and selling of cattle and sheep are carried on, marriage alliances are finalized, leasing of lands for cultivation is arranged, and family and clan disputes are settled.

 

Though the same features of Urumulavaru tradition apply to the Mailaralinga tradition, the latter is geographically wider spread and has no caste based restriction, despite having a hierarchy. The very existence of the annual Mailara Jatre, is to recreate the epic battle of Mailara against the demon brothers Mallasura and Manikasura, and creating opportunities to the believers of this tradition to publicly exhibit their faith in Lord Mailaralinga who fought for them.

 

The Mailaralinga epic portrays the transformation of the pastoral Kuruba community into settled agriculturalists, who at some point in history had a foresight about shrinking pastoral landscapes which influenced their occupational shift from pastoralists to settled agriculturalists, hence asserting themselves in this region after a conflict leading to a compromise with the native agriculturalists.

 

Dangi Ramkatha from Dangs district, South Gujarat

The Ramayana epic has a pan-Indian influence on the belief system of the people of India. This epic has had a tremendous influence in the Indian mind, transmitted in oral, performative, and written forms of expression; no wonder why a number of versions of the Ramayana in many languages circulate amidst many ethnic groups in India.

 

Dangs is a small administrative district, located in the South-eastern border of Gujarat in western India. ‘Dang’ is a geographical term in native speech meaning ‘hilly- terrain’, this region is the richest forest area of Gujarat famous for its high-quality teak. This region is entirely populated by tribal communities, predominantly the Bhil, Kunkana, Varli, Gamit, Mavchi and Dhodia, all dependant on agriculture. Among these tribal communities, the Kunkana have a version of the Ramayana narrative, narrated in the native Kunkana language, which does not have its own script. This version of Ramayana carries the same contents and characters, but radically alters the relationships and positions of the characters in the epic.

 

In Dangs region, the Ramayana is popularly known as Ramkatha. The Dangi Ramkatha is not contextualized by any rituals, but rendered only as a form of entertainment with religious overtones. The native tribal communities here take pride in recalling Rama’s story as a reflection of their own culture and associate themselves and their region with the Dhandakaranya (in Sanskrit) forests where Rama, along with Sita and Lakshmana lived for a period of 14 years during their exile. Dangi Ramkatha is narrated by Bhaghats, bards-cum-priests from the Kunkana community. These Bhaghats are considered as the active tradition bearers of Kunkana customs, since they are associated with the life cycle rituals of the regional community members. The Bhaghats are also reputed as folk-medicine practitioners.

 

Though Dangi Ramkatha is secular in nature, only the Bhaghats have the sacred right to narrate it along with an accompanist. In most cases, the latter is a trainee who undergoes  life long training with the former. The Bhaghat starts the narrative with an invocation to their deities – natural, animistic, and mythical; the accompanist joins in by repeating the last word, and sometimes the whole phrase of every line narrated by the Baghat. After a few measured lines, they sing some lines together with a refrain (Aruna 2006). The narrative is sung in accompaniment of an indigenous instrument called Thali.

 

The Thali is the only instrument used during the whole narration. It is a deep, round plate made of bronze or brass, a common utensil in this region used in the kitchen for kneading dough to prepare rotis (baked, dry pan cakes). To the centre of the plate, a dry and hollow stem of the bhangsar plant is stuck using a particular koti (bee) wax as an adhesive. The Bhaghat creates music by running the first two fingers of both his palms, top to bottom of the bhangsar stem; while the thali is placed on his lap, held between folded legs. The sound rendered by the thali is akin to the buzzing noise of honey bees. There is no variation on the musical notes created by the thali instrument. Rather, it aids the Baghat in concentrating inward to link the lines of the Ramkatha narrative.