Gangamma jatara turns Tirupati feminine — but scholars, devotees feel ‘Shakti’ is sacrificed at altar of upper-caste hegemony

Religious scholars and devotees complain against shifting the identity of the local folk deity through Brahmanisation.

ByBhaskar Basava

Published May 27, 2024 | 8:00 AMUpdatedMay 27, 2024 | 4:32 PM

Final day bid-off celebrations of the Ugra Roopam clay idol of Gangamma. (Supplied)

On the seventh day, Palegondulu — the ruler of Tirupati and surrounding areas eons ago — came out of hiding on hearing the people showering curses on Tataiahgunta Gangamma of the Avilala village.

Like many others in Tirupati, journalist Mallarapu Venkata Subbaiah, too, grew up hearing the legend of Gangamma.

Palegondulu had unleashed a reign of terror, violating the women of the village. He cast his eyes on Gangamma, a village girl when she blossomed into a beautiful young woman.

It became his hubris. To escape Gangamma’s wrath, he went into hiding. To bring him out, she took different forms.

On the seventh day, Palegondulu emerged and met his end.

Altering identity

On 21 May, Subbaiah was unusually disturbed. He was to cover the conclusion of the week-long Tataiahgunta Gangamma Jatara for a local television channel. He took the opportunity to visit and pray at the Gangamma temple.

A male devotee with a feminine avatar. (South First by special arrangement)

A male devotee in a feminine ‘avatar’. (Sourced)

Subbaiah noticed devotees, both male and female, disguised as Gangamma’s seventh avatar, filling the streets of Tirupati, and cursing in their typical Rayalaseema dialect, a ritual held to seek her blessing.

Gangamma, the local folk deity and grama devata (village deity) is considered to be the sister of Lord Venkateswara of Tirupati.

While returning from the temple, Subbaiah felt something unfulfilled and incomplete. He remembered people worshipping Gangamma in her ugra roopam (fierce form). On the concluding day of the jatara (annual festival), the ugra roopam was rare among the milling devotees, he noticed with disappointment.

Subbaiah and several others felt the change in the goddess’s identity as the gradual Brahmanisation of the local deity. The journalist has also noted the Sanskritisation of temple rituals.

He felt bittersweet while reporting the feminine attire of men in the jatara, which gained more popularity after Allu Arjun donned the costume in his upcoming movie, Pushpa 2: The Rule.

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Sacrificed tradition 

Gundala Gopinath Reddy, aged 45, was among the devotees dressed up as Gangamma. He has been undertaking the ritual for the past four decades.

Devotees at the jatara in the guise of Gangamma's prince avatar. (South First by special arrangement)

Devotees at the jatara in the guise of Gangamma’s prince avatar. (Sourced)

The man said Gangamma, his gramadevata, possessed Shakti, the energising power, the underlying esoteric energy that sustains all.

“We don seven different attires that Gangamma had worn throughout the jatara and visit the temple to receive her blessings and fulfill our prayers. This tradition has been practised for generations,” he told South First.

He estimated that around one lakh devotees attended the annual festival held between 14 and 21 May. The number, he said, was lesser than what it used to be.

Gopinath Reddy said earlier that no one used to leave the town during the week-long festival. If they did, they returned before sunset.

Another tradition involved bali (animal sacrifice) to appease Gangamma — fondly called Chinna Gangamma — considered more ferocious than her other six sisters. Animal sacrifice was conducted to pacify the angry goddess, also known as Ugra Rupasya.

Subbaiah and Gopinath Reddy noted that the abuses — as part of the ritual — and animal sacrifices have significantly come down over the years.

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The legend of Gangamma

Scholars and devotees felt that Gangamma started losing her identity when her small shrine that stood under fig and neem trees was shifted to the large concrete temple.

According to folklore, Gangamma was brought up in Tirupati’s Avilala village after a childless man from the Reddy caste found her as a baby abandoned on his farm at the beginning of Kali Yuga, the shortest and worst of four yugas according to Hindu mythology.

The man took care of the child, and she grew up into a charming young woman. One day, as she was drying her hair on the terrace of her home, the libidinous local chieftain, Palegadu, saw her and wanted to marry her.

Fearing reprisal, the adoptive father reluctantly agreed to Palegadu’s proposal. The young woman noticed her father in distress and enquired the cause. He told her the truth.

Also Read: Appeasing rain gods by offering water to the dead

The wrath of Gangamma

She asked her father not to worry, and urged him to proceed with the wedding preparations. On the day of wedding, as the couple circumambulated the sacred fire, Palegadu noticed his bride taking a ferocious form, extending from the earth to the sky.

Scared, the man fled, and hid in a house belonging to a Kaikala (weaver’s) family on Karnala Street in Tirupati. Gangamma realised that she could not enter the house in her current form, and devised plans to bring Palegadu out.

She adopted various disguises. She took on the appearances of an ascetic, snake charmer, herder, ruffian, merchant, and sweeper before disguising herself as a prince, or Dora.

Palegadu, upon hearing about the illustrious Dora, emerged from his hiding place. Gangamma beheaded him and revealed her true form as the goddess. Still angry, Gangamma roamed the streets holding the man’s severed head.

Later, she disappeared, leaving behind what the devotees now pray to: Gangamma’s idol in the shrine.

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The broken nose

Professor (Retired) Peta Srinivasulu Reddy, author of “Tirupathi Ganga Jatara“, detailed the identity shift.

Peta Sreenivasulu Reddy captured Gangamma's small shrine three decades ago.

Peta Sreenivasulu Reddy captured Gangamma’s small shrine three decades ago. (Sourced)

He said that his grandfather Notchila Kuppi Reddy once broke the nose of the idol in the small shrine. The man was then drunk.

Srinivasulu Reddy, an academic advisor to Sri Venkateswara University, was nostalgic when he shared his childhood stories. He said his grandfather, often drunk, used to take sweets to Gangamma.

On his way, village children would eat the sweets, and his grandfather assumed that Gangamma had eaten them. One day, the children did not turn up due to heavy rain, and Kuppi Reddy became enraged on seeing the sweets left with him. He broke the nose of the idol in a fit of rage.

Later, remorse overpowered him. He fixed the idol with a cement nose. Srinivasulu Reddy said Gangamma viewed it as an affectionate gesture.

The retired professor recalled play around the temple during his childhood. All children were then deeply attached to Gangamma. “It seems to have disappeared now,” he told South First.

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The change: Genesis

Srinivasulu Reddy said that deities from folklores were typically worshipped beneath trees or in small shrines accessible to the Shudras, Dalits, tribals — non-ruling class and those outside the Brahmical varna system — unlike Puranic deities in large temples.

The Gangamma temple as of today, after decades of renovation. (South First by special arrangement)

The Gangamma temple today. (Sourced)

He further mentioned that Gangamma, who was once near the sacred fig tree, has been enclosed within large walls of a shrine, and one has to purchase a ticket to see the deity.

Shudras, particularly from the OC communities (Reddys and Balijas) and the OBC communities (Yadavas, Kommaris, Vadderlas, Kaikalas, and Mudaliars) of Telugu and Tamil families, are part of the temple management. However, the rituals and temple renovation were carried out in such a way that it changed how these traditional communities associated with the gramadevata.

Srinivasulu Reddy felt the change began with the Andhra Pradesh Department of Temple Endowments and Tataiahgunta Devasthanam taking over the temple renovation and its administration in the mid-1990s. The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams funded the renovation project.

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Edging out the Mudaliars 

Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger, Professor Emerita in the Department of Religion at Emory University, US, has written on Gangamma Jatara in When the World Turns Women: Guises of a South Indian Goddess.

Gangamma, inside the renovated temple. (South First by Special arrangement)

The idol of Gangamma in the renovated temple. (Sourced)

“When I first visited Tirupati in 1992, Gangamma in her Tatayyagunta temple was being served by a Mudaliar-caste Tamil woman. Because many gramadevatas are traditionally served by women, her presence was not particularly noteworthy,” she noted.

However, the change was quick. “But, when we returned for the jatara the next year, this female caretaker’s absence in the temple was palpable,” she wrote.

“The Mudaliar family that had been serving Gangamma at this site since 1914 (according to their own family oral histories) had been replaced by Brahman male pujaris (ritual specialists serving the deity in a temple),” Flueckiger, who grew up in India till the age of 18, recorded in her book.

“The Mudaliar patriarch thought that the Andhra Pradesh Department of Temple Endowments and Tataiahgunta Devasthanam (temple administrative committee) had ejected the family because they were not Brahman; his wife thought she, as the primary caretaker of the goddess, had been ejected because she was a woman,” she wrote.

Srinivasulu Reddy echoed Flueckiger’s observation, “When Brahman priests became Gangamma’s caretakers, the rate and depth of change was of a different degree. It coincided with changes in the class of Gangamma’s worshippers.”

“We have a tradition of offering non-vegetarian meals to Gangamma at least twice a week, but now, except during the one-week annual festival, there is no non-vegetarian food offered to our Gangamma,” he said.

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Reviling the goddess

“Gangamma is known for her aggressive nature, as reflected in her roopam (form). However, what one sees in the shrine now is a completely different and distant calm posture with a lion,” he added.

Scholars noted that such form is generally seen in Puranic goddesses like Parvati, Saraswati, and Lakshmi. However, folk deities often have completely different attire and typically do not have animals as their rides.

Flueckiger has mentioned meeting a woman, Pujaramma, who claimed to have “communicated” with Gangamma. The woman further claimed that she had the inborn strength to bear the ferocity of the goddess.

Pujaramma told Flueckiger that Gangamma had communicated about a concrete pillar that had replaced the neem tree.

“Since the beginning of time, they’ve been using a neem tree. Now it’s like an *office job* [using the English phrase]. They brought this [cement pillar] without asking me and placed it here,” Pujaramma quoted the goddess.

“If they bring this stone, then what significance do I and my shulams [tridents] have? [my emphasis]… If I do anything, they only say ‘Gangamma has no eyes, no ears; she did like this; she did like that.’ They revile me,” Flueckiger mentioned Gangamma’s communication to Pujaramma in her book.

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Call for reversal

Religious scholars expressed sorrow over the temple’s loss of originality. They emphasised that such changes should add value without destroying the true essence of the deity.

Both Subbiah and Srinivasulu Reddy highlighted that the temple has now been entangled in local politics and business interests, neglecting Gangamma’s traditional preferences. They asserted that the situation should be reversed.

Over years, renovations have denied backward classes the ownership of folk deities, as evidenced by the experiences of author Srinivasulu Reddy. He should now purchase a ticket to worship the goddess, whereas his grandfather conversed freely with the goddess in a temple with no gates.

The debate on modernisation and the loss of originality might continue. However, Flueckiger has presented a view worth considering. “The female-dominated jatara and its stri veshams are temporally limited, but nevertheless potentially transformative.”

“They offer a possibility of a gendered world in which aggressive, female-controlling masculinity is destroyed, creating a new kind of masculinity that acknowledges and experiences (even as part of itself) the shakti of the female,” she noted.

The main priest and the board are yet to respond to South First. This report will be updated if and when they respond.

(Edited by Majnu Babu).