Jatara is a popular religio-social festival with elements of a carnival and spectacular celebration.
The Jatara of Paidimamba, the Village Goddess of Vizianagaram, is an age-old celebration which has its origin around 1757.
The name Paidimamba connotes the mother of gold, the goddess of riches. She is considered to be the protecting deity of the area by popular belief. The festival is a cultural manifestation of collective experience. It reflects shared meanings, shared ethos and a shared belief which contribute to meaningful social existence. It is one of the myriad symbols of the local culture which is subsumed in the national ethos. Its cultural significance is immense in that it is a part of the shared experience of joy, dedication, loyalty, prayer and supplication. There are aspects of myth, legend, history and a way of social living. This paper attempts to study these various and a way of social living. This paper attempts to study these various aspects of the gay festival.
The ethos, or the spirit of culture, and the myths of the culture shape each other by endless cross-currents. The conception of a protecting deity, usually in the shape of a folk goddess, (perhaps a relic of the matriarchal domination at the anthropological root of Indian Culture), in every village (the geographical unit in India which has been primarily an agricultural nation) is age-old. Each village or cluster of them has a common and yet unique way of expressing its shared existence in a vast culture. The stupendous participation of people in these cultural festivities brings them into the ken of popular culture studies.
The Paidimamba festival is the popular variation of the canonical religion. This observance is a popular and collective expression of what was once an exemplification of canonical observance. If the conception of the deity as a goddess speaks of the anthropological base of matriarchal tradition, there is enough sentiment attached to the distinctive and affectionate treatment offered to the daughter of the house. Hindu culture, canonical and popular, accepts guarantees and retains a distinctive place to the daughter in that a worshipful, holy kind of treatment is believed to be a salutary and beneficent effect on the well-being of the parents' house. This is unique to Indian culture for in the western countries the singular and distinctive treatment to the daughter of the house after she leaves for her husband's abode is not held to be as necessary, salutary or beneficent as it is in India.
A study of the festival of Paidimamba affords us a key to the understanding of the multitudinous facets of the sub-regional manifestations of Indian popular culture. Different motifs may be isolated in the festivity:
an outlook of loyalty to the leader/benefactor/ruler of a pre-eminently feudal origin
a social festivity which has at its centre, a religious observance
an attempt at the realisation of the ultimate reality with feet firmly planted in the here and now
The uniqueness of the festival lies in that it embraces both the elite and the different kinds of minorities. From the lowest in this social scale right up to the top (in this case, the Rajah, the feudal Lord of Yore) participate in the festivities. There are rituals, religious observances, carnivals and fairs-all an expression of popular enthusiasm.
History, Legend and Myth:
The identity of the goddess is shrouded in an aura of mystery. Some assert that Paidimamba is the sister of a king, the victor in the Bobbili-Vizianagaram fray of the mid-eighteenth century. Some hold that she is the household goddess of the Royal family. It is popularly believed that there is a close affinity between the 'Shakti” (guardian angel) of the fort and this deity. The fort itself was constructed in 1713 by the feudal lord who patronised a hundred and one temples in the surrounding two hundred miles. The fort has historical connections with the Nizam of Hyderabad and later the French adventurers. These shaped a distinct local culture which is singularly different from the South Indian Culture at large. Legend has it that the Manne Sultan of Vizianagaram, Vijayarama Gajapati's sister, Paidimamba, was a devotee of Shakti. Her devotion kept her aloof from political intrigues. In a divine trance she saw the intrigue of the French General Bussy and forewarned her brother who assured her and left for the battle field. A short while later she succumbed to small-pox, in those days attributed to the fury of shakti, the goddess. It was believed that the deceased Paidimamba once again warned her brother in his dream of the French and asked him to install an icon which she said would be found in a tank and to offer it worship.
Lord Carmichael compiled the history of Visakhapatnam District in 1886 and some of these legends were mentioned by him. The town Vizianagaram which has come to be a district headquarters in 1979 has several goddesses worshipped in the surrounding villages like Nookaalamma, Yellamma, Nalla Maremma, Mutyalamma and Kali. The idol of Paidimamba has close resemblance to that of Goddess Kali. In her left hand are a sword and a trident, in the right Shiva's little drum and an ornamental urn a receptacle of red turmeric powder to indicate purity and auspiciousness. She might be a variation of Manikyeswari sharing the origin with Kanaka Durga of Bezwada.
Though the exact origin of Paidimamba and her affinity to Kali cannot be established in the face of conflicting pieces of evidence, disparate trends in popular belief and the multiplicity of legends and myths woven around the celebration reveal a shared cultural experience.
There is a fair, a carnival, a feast and plethora of frenzied kind of worship. Nearly 0.4 million people offer their worship to the goddess and partake of the festivities. On the day of the main festival there is a spectacular gathering of nearly a hundred thousand people in the huge open space before the historical fort. I here is a procession taken back and forth from the temple to the fort. A fasting man, perched at the top of a thirty feet tall hewn tree trunk hauled on a cart by men, bows thrice before the fort. It is a symbolic pledge of loyalty to the Shakti of the Fort as well as to the Lords of the Royal House seated on the battlements. Even today members of the Royal House sit on the battlements to witness the festival. The tree is chosen by the chief priest of the temple on specific instructions delivered in a dream. The trunk called popularly Sirimanu-the auspicious trunk, one giving wealth and property.
The Sirimanu is led by a cart signifying an elephant and another with a huge fisherman's net. It is a festival of the working classes, both men who work on land and those who fish at sea. Vizianagaram is in North Coastal Andhra. The Sirimanu was once a Sidimanu, a tree trunk with a steel hook. At the top was a man suspended from a tree hook thrust into his back. After human sacrifice as abolished both by law and social practice, the man was seated on a chair like structure at the top and it came to be called Sirimanu, a trunk which brings prosperity and therefore auspicious. Thorsten in his “Caste and Tribes of South India” recorded the practices of the people in the distant past.
The sight of the Sirimanu is spectacular. People invite their relatives from surrounding villages within a radius of two hundred miles. Popular belief has it that one should not absent one's self from the festival if one happens to hear its announcement made nearly a month earlier. The goddess is brought from her in-law’s abode with pomp and is retained for worship here for as many as eight to ten weeks. The day before the auspicious-trunk festival, there is a preliminary festival, Tollellu, when agriculturists receive grain to be mixed with seed. It is a fertility rite. On harvest, landowners give quantities of grain to the temple and after a formal offering to the deity, the grain is distributed to the tillers. The day following the main festival there is sumptuous feasting on non-vegetarian dishes. Two days of abstinence from meat and then this 'festival of bones and meat'.
The social festivities are a charming sight. Young and old, men and women throng to the temple and after getting a glimpse of the deity assemble in the open yard before the fort to witness the auspicious trunk which is heralded by the fabulous fisherman's net hauled on a cart. On the cart are four muffled men guarding themselves from the plantains pelted by the crowds. The fasting man perched on the top of the trunk guards himself with a fan. This pelting of plantains is a relic of the ancient custom in which the man is speared from below till he is mortally wounded. It started with a human sacrifice to propitiate the deity who protected people from epidemics.
Weeks before the festival, people vow to the goddess to participate in masques as actors in costume. The most popular of these are the ‘tiger shows’. To the rhythmic beating of drums, men painted and dressed to suggest that they are tigers, dance and sway and jump. The tiger show is an artefact which has no equal to it in the entire country. The swaying and the movements are taught by aged experts. The frenzied beating of drums rising to a crescendo and falling to a slow rhythmic beat, the graceful, enthusiastic swaying of energetic limbs and the movements of the neck muscles bring to mind the most graceful moments in Indian dance. Some men and women go into a frenzy of excitement and are supposed to be under the spell of the deity. Camphor and incense are lit before the frenzied worshiper to pacify and appease the goddess. Pots filled with holy water are taken in a procession of men and women lighted by the old-fashioned oil wicks. The main auspicious Trunk Festival is flanked by the preliminary Festival Tolellu and the Feasting festival, the Festival of Bones and Meat.
While the main festival takes place on a Tuesday after the National Festival of Durga Pooja before the full-moon day, the celebration of the farewell festival 'Anupu” is prefaced with a cradle-festival on a Tuesday before the New Moon day. The goddess is taken back to her residence at her in-laws”, four kilometres away to be invited again the following year in Vaisakh, May.
This is a folk festival with huge crowds participating in a colourful and boisterous fashion. It is the focal point of popular culture, the shared beliefs and sentiments of the men of the soil pledging their loyalty to their feudal lord and devotion to the goddess who is believed to protect people from epidemics. The enthusiasm of the people is electrifying.
First published in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol.2 No2 Fall 1986