Snakes, Goddesses, and Anthills: Modern Challenges and Women'sRitual Responses in Contemporary South India Open Access

Allocco, Amy Leigh (2009)

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This dissertation is an ethnographic study of contemporary Hindu snake (naga) traditions and the worship of snake goddesses (nagattamman) in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Specifically, it analyzes the repertoire of vernacular practices connected with naga dosam (snake blemish), a malignant condition that is believed to result from inauspicious planetary configurations in an individual's horoscope. This astrological flaw is most often linked to having killed or harmed a snake, and is faulted for delaying marriage and causing infertility. Indigenously, these afflictions are identified as distinctly "modern" problems and understood to be increasingly prevalent. Because South Indian nagas have long been associated with fertility in belief, custom, and local mythology, naga traditions offer a religious framework to respond to these modern dilemmas, and the worship of snake goddesses has dramatically expanded as a result. New media, such as devotional magazines, have also played an important role in the popularization of naga dosam traditions, its ritual remedies, and particular snake goddess temples. I propose that these innovating naga traditions represent a distinctively local, culturally inflected "modernity" and reflect some of the gendered tensions of contemporary Tamil social life. This dissertation, then, analyzes how traditional religious practice can serve as a flexible, modern means through which to negotiate a range of shifting social and economic contexts. It charts naga ritual traditions (which include recontextualized as well as more explicitly "invented" rites) as they are being self-consciously adapted to meet a spectrum of new ritual and social needs that these challenging contexts inspire. These rituals are primarily performed at local, neighborhood snake goddess and anthill temples, which form an urban network of sites well-known for their power to counter dosam. These local goddesses, some of whom were previously known for curing pox-related illnesses, enjoy a dynamic and expanding ritual repertoire, a growing annual festival tradition, and the patronage of devotees from an increasingly broad array of caste backgrounds.

Table of Contents

TABLE OF CONTENTS Chapter One: Introduction to a Tradition in Transition 1 Finding the Field 1 Context for a Changing Tradition 5 Mylapore and Shared Boundary Identities 8 The Ethnoscape 12 Sources and Methods 21 Snakes and Anthills 29 Forms of the Snake Goddess in Tamil Nadu 31 Rahu and Ketu 41 Snake Worship and Nagas in Scholarly Sources 49 Anthills in Scholarly Sources 64 Dosam in Scholarly Sources 71 In/Fertility in Scholarly Sources 76 Tamil Goddesses and Tamil Ritual in Scholarly Sources 79 Delayed Marriage and Infertility: Perceptions and Realities 84 Invoking Tradition and Ritual as Responses to the Blemishes of Modern Times 90 Dosam on the Rise 94 The Organization of the Dissertation 106 Chapter Two: Locating the Causes of Naga Dosam 113 The Case of Archana 113 Defining Naga Dosam 119 Multiplicity and Semantic Overlap 122 The Causes of Naga Dosam 124 Stars, Signs, and Planets: Astrology and Naga Dosam 126 Harming Snakes and the Curse of Naga Dosam 134 Karma That Travels: Sinful Acts from Previous Births 151 Menstrual Cloths and Snake Marks 160 "Caught" By Dosam and Demons 170 Conclusions 177 Chapter Three: Ritual Therapies for Naga Dosam: Remedies, Solutions, and Removals 179 Ritual Remedies for Naga Dosam 180 Can Naga Dosam Ever Be "Cured?" 187 Fate and Head-Writing 192 Worshiping Snake Stones and Anthills 196 Sarpa Santi Rites: Cradles, Cords, and Expulsions 204 Amaravati's Naga Pratistha 217 Silver Nagas as Ritual Gifts 223 Propitiating the Shadow Planets 228 Dosam-Removal at a Distance: Kalahasti and Rameshwaram 239 Conclusions 266 Chapter Four: Worshiping Nagas in the Month of Ati 269 The Contours and Cadence of Ati 274 Ati's Special Features 282 Ati and Amman: A "Suitable" and "Happy" Time 287 Ati, Ammai, and Cooling the Goddess with Kul 290 Practice and Difference: A Note on Ati in Village Contexts 296 Ati and Enforced Abstinence for Newly Married Couples 298 Locating the Mariyamman Myth in the Month of Ati 302 The Ritual Repertoire of Ati 308 Ati Puram: Ritually Exchanging Bangles with the Goddess 311 Naga Chaturthi: Snake's Fourth for the Protection of Children 337 Garuda Panchami: Garuda's Fifth for the Well-Being of Siblings 349 Ati Perukku: Worshiping Water Sources for the Blessing of Fertility 355 Conclusions 370 Chapter Five: Performing Ati Devotion at Two Urban Snake Goddess Temples 372 A Note on Expansion, Development, and Aesthetic Innovation 376 Nagattamman's Ati Tiruvila 381 Ritual Musicians as Ritual Specialists 386 Building the Karakam 390 "The Karakam is the Goddess" 392 The Goddess Speaks: Flickering Lamps and Possessed Bodies 394 Tying Kappu: Protection and Restriction 396 Ritual Piercings for the Goddess: Power, Permanency, and Pragmatism 401 "The Goddess Goes in Search of the Devotee": Marking Boundaries in Festival Processions 408 Carrying Milk Pots for the Goddess 415 Firewalking Vows and Ritual Foods 424 Difference, Absence, and Presence in Naga Mariyamman's Ati Tiruvila 436 Naga Mariyamman's Temple and Her Servants 444 Temple as Center: Dancing, Speaking, and Feeding the Snake Goddess 448 Conclusions 466 Chapter Six: Diagnostic, Social, and Ritual Innovation in an Evolving Tradition 470 Subtle Dosam and Presumptive Diagnoses 471 "Everything has gone and changed": Shared Religious Spaces in Contemporary Chennai 482 Tree Marriage as Ritual Remedy 492 Concluding Reflections: "New" Directions and Locations 508 Appendix One: Tamil Months with Corresponding Gregorian Months 521 Appendix Two: Overview of Sanskrit Textual Sources on Snakes, Anthills, and Fertility 522 Glossary 539 Selected Bibliography 551

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