AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 695

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Session 695: Locating Indian popular goddesses in space and time

Organizer: Sree Padma, Bowdoin College, USA

In India, especially in its south, there are many goddesses whose shrines are often in wide-open public spaces or in some inconspicuous venues hardly noticed by others who are not devotees. Although seemingly inconsequential, a thorough examination reveals how these goddess cults persist within historical vicissitudes, how their relevancy is sustained from historical past to the present enabling their migration to new geographical locations. The theme of the panel is to explore the identities and transformations of some of these goddesses in their non-traditional locations. The papers propose to argue how the conceptuality of goddesses of a seemingly local nature have adjusted to new situations such as colonization, urbanization, migration, scientific discoveries, technological developments and concomitant people’s needs of a material and spiritual nature. As the understandings of these goddesses have transcended different economies, cultures, time and space, their changing identities demand new analytical discussions beyond traditional normative categories.

Who is for real? Contested identities of Vijayawada Kanaka Durga
Sree Padma, Bowdoin College, USA

Goddess Kanaka Durga of Vijayawada is known as “the goddess” of coastal Andhra, endowed in a large temple complex on a hill called Indra Kiladri but locally known as Durga konda (or the hill of Durga). As in major goddess shrines throughout the Indian subcontinent, Kanaka Durga is considered a form of Sakti, drawing devotees from local regions as well as neighboring states. As such, the temple is busy even on normal days. The most celebrated event at this temple is the Dasara festival in which the goddess is shown in her ten Sakti incarnations. However, there is another image of the goddess at the foot of the hill in a small shrine. It has drawn local crowds for generations who are the ardent devotees and who consider this image to be the “real” Kanaka Durga. Unlike the cultic context in the large temple on the hill, devotees make their offerings directly to this image without any priestly mediation. In this paper, I look into the history of Kanaka Durga to understand the circumstances that led to the worship of the goddess in these two different forms. I will consider archaeological ruins, inscriptions, iconography, oral and ritual traditions (gleaned through interviews with devotees) to rebuild the history, as well as to compare, the worship on the hill with that at its foot.

Widening Options for Draupadī and Her Cult in Dharmapuri District, Tamilnadu
Alf Hiltebeitel, George Washington University, USA

It has been possible to map distribution of Draupadī worship in Tamilnadu to show that the core area of her cult as a goddess lies around Gingee, South Arcot. This paper will present recent findings on Draupadī worship to the northwest of that area, still self-consciously within its immediate orbit, but interesting for its modifications in the cult by marking a diasporic route into linguistic boundary areas along the Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka borders. The presentation will center on narrative, ritual, and theological innovations in Draupadī worship at one new village temple (founded in the 1990s) near Dharmapuri city. It will be possible to reconsider aspects of the traditional scholarly typologies of the goddess from a standpoint that traces intensive innovative projects with global aspirations inspired by the founder of this temple, while still acknowledging the regional and village settings within which he is constrained to operate.

Goddess beyond Boundaries: Karumariamman as the Eternal Mother at a North American Hindu Temple
Tracy Pintchman, Loyola University, Chicago, USA

This paper explores the transnational dynamics of a North American Hindu Goddess Temple, the Parashakthi temple in Pontiac, Michigan. This temple, built in 1999, is dedicated to the worship of the Goddess in the form of Karumariamman and is related to a well-known Karumariamman temple in the village of Thiruverkadu in the state of Tamil Nadu. Those involved in the Parashakthi temple in Pontiac maintain that Karumariamman has come to manifest herself also in the temple in Pontiac, particularly for the protection of all living beings. While Karumariamman may be classified as a popular regional goddess in her South Indian context, she is reconstituted in the American context as a universal goddess who has come to Pontiac for the benefit of all beings. This paper explores ways the Parashakthi temple creatively constructs a type of religiosity that is rooted in Indian Hindu popular goddess traditions but recreates such traditions in dynamic conversation with the temple's American context. The Goddess and her temple in Pontiac are enmeshed in a transnational, trans-historical, and trans-cultural economy of divine power that speaks to larger types of exchanges and transformations that are occurring in people’s lives inthe contemporary, postcolonial world. From the beginning, the temple was conceived of and constructed on a vision that seeks to transcend mundane boundaries, such as those of ethnicity and geography. At the Pontiac temple, a regional, popular goddess comes to claim universal status.

A tiger’s leap into the present: the goddess Malaiyammal
Diane P. Mines, Appalachian State University, USA

The goddess Malaiyammal sits obscurely in a whitewashed shed on the side of a road. A more mundane signifier of rural life in Tamilnadu can hardly be imagined. Yet, despite her seeming commonality to passersby, villagers warn that people had better not walk by her shrine just swinging their arms like they have no care in the world. Deadly traffic accidents have halted the careless in their tracks. The goddess demands recognition, certainly, but of what? We can see easily that Malaiyammal’s stories and her devotees’ practices are, in part, a politics of recognition, revealing subversions or reversals of dominant social/political relations. But what this paper focuses on more directly—and with more difficulty—is how narratives about and objects surrounding the goddess are also modes of time-making, a way of seizing history. In brief, this paper argues that Malaiyammal is the material manifestation of an event. The goddess places a past event, a moment-when-everything-changed, at her devotees’ disposal in the present. By seizing repeatedly upon a moment when things changed, these narrators become the “makers of their own history”—even in, to a degree, “a manner of their own choosing.” The paper considers the cultural dimensions of this process, contributes to materialist semeiotics and a phenomenology of time, and, more generally, reflects on how humans build the relation between death and time.