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Paraiyars Ellaiyamman as an Iconic Symbol of Collective Resistance and Emancipatory Mythography

by Sathianathan Clarke

Sathianathan Clarke, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Department of Theology and Ethics, United Theological College, Bangalore, India. This article originally appeared in Robinson, Gnana (ed.) Religions of the Marginalised: Towards a Phenomenology and the Methodology of Study (UTC: Bangalore and ISPCK: Delhi, PO Box 1585, Madarsa Road, Kashmere Gate, Delhi-110006), 1998,  pp. 35-53. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

To me, Dalit is not a caste. He is a man exploited by the social and economic traditions of this country. He does not believe in God, Rebirth, Soul, Holy books teaching separatism, Fate and Heaven because they have made him a slave. He does believe in humanism. Dalit is a symbol of change and revolution. (Gangadhar Pantawane, Dalit thinker).

I do not ask

for the sun and moon from your sky your farm, your land, your high houses or your mansions. I do not ask for gods for rituals castes or sects

Or even for your mother, sister, daughters. I ask for

 my rights as a man. Each breath from my lungs sets off a violent trembling in your texts and traditions your hells and heavens fearing pollution. Your arms leapt together to bring ruin to our dwelling place. You’ll beat me,

 break me, loot and burn my habitation. But my friend!

How will you tear down my words planted like a sun in the East ? My rights : contagious caste riots festering city by city, village by village, man by man.

For that’s what my rights are-sealed off outcast, road-blocked, exiled. I want my rights, give me my rights.

Will you deny this incendiary state of things ? I’ll uproot the scriptures like railway tracks.

 Burn like a city bus your lawless laws My friend!

 My rights are rising like the sun. Will you deny this sunrise?

(Sharankumar Limbale, Dalit Poet)

This paper attempts to wed together descriptive documentation and interpretive analyses.1 It focuses upon a religious phenomenon that is central to one community of Dalits in South India.2 Accordingly, it seeks to probe and explicate the resistive and creative dynamic that is operant in the religion of the Paraiyars. This two-fold dynamic of the Paraiyars’ religion is unveiled by examining a principal Paraiyar goddess. I believe that such an investigation of this key symbol allows us to put into discursive circulation the collective experience and the voice of the Dalit community.

Although the Dalits are themselves said to be drawn from numerous Jatis,3 it must be noted that in Tamilnadu they are primarily made up of the following three : the Paraiyars constitute 59 percent, the Pallans form about 21 percent and the Chakkilis make up approximately 16 percent.4  If we go by the updated 1991 census records of Tamilnadu, which places the State Dalit population at 10,712,266 in a total Tamilnadu population of 55,858,946, a conservative estimate would put the Paraiyars population at about 6.32 million.5  Furthermore, in the district of Chingleput (the area in which this study is located) 94 percent of the Dalits are Paraiyars. Therefore, the community that is a focus of this inquiry is representational of the Dalits in general, both in the state of Tamilnadu and the district of Chingleput. K. R. Hanumanthan reiterates this when he suggests that the Paraiyar “can be considered as the typical representatives of the untouchables of Tamil Nadu.”6

My description and interpretation of a central constituent of the religion of the Paraiyars draws upon the following three sources. It brings together (a) fragmented reflections from my three years of living and working with the Paraiyar communities in about 20 colonies around the town of Karunguzhi in Chingleput District, Tamilnadu (1985-87); (b) systematically documented data from a six-week intensive field trip in two of these 20 colonies, i.e., Malaipallaiyam. and Thottanavoor (June-July 1992), and (c) ethnographies and religious and cultural writing on Dalit communities in South India.

A Methodological Confession

Let me begin with an explicit affirmation that discloses a fundamental methodological presupposition of this interpretation the religion of the Paraiyars is much more than a compliant and unreflective internalization of the beliefs and practices of caste Hindus. There are many Indologists who interpret Dalit religion and culture solely through the lenses of caste Hindus. The latter is taken to be the all-pervading and all-determining social, cultural and religious reality. Therefore, all other frameworks can only be a reflection and product of the omnipotent nature of the Hindu religious worldview.

In his explication of the worldview of the Dalits, Harold R. Isaac bases his interpretation on such a misconception He says, Because they [‘the Ex-Untouchables”] accepted its beliefs and sanctions, they submitted to this condition for more generations than can be remembered. Millions of them still do. Only the great compelling power of the Hindu belief system accounts for this uniquely massive and enduring history of submission.7 Isaac goes on to make the case that because of the religious rationalization behind this belief system, the Dalits submitted to it with a “sense of propriety and even . . , a certain dignity” since they consider it to be “their inescapable fate.”8  Michael Moffatt strengthens and reinforces a similar perspective in his interpretation of religion and culture of the Pbraiyars He claims that the cultural and religious system of the Untouchables is “not detached or alienated from the ‘rationalization’ of the system. . . [Thus, it] does not distinctively question or revalue the dominant social order.”9  He proceeds to describe the religion and society of the Paraiyars as a “replication” of the religion and society of the caste Hindus. This notion of the inert, non-resistive and unthinking nature of the Paraiyars is indeed a stereotype posited by the caste communities. This is best captured in a Tamil proverb advanced by caste people: “Though seventy years old, a Paraiyar will only do what he is compelled.”10 Another commonly recounted Tamil proverb complements this notion that the Paraiyars will always be unreflectively placid and uncritically submissive : “Though the Paraiyar woman’s child be put to school, it will still say Ayya.” Here the word “Ayya” can be translated to mean “sir”, which augments the sweeping belief in the inherent submissiveness of this community.

I do not (nor can I) seek to establish the overall autonomous character of Paraiyar religion. However, in this chapter I do venture to lift up the creative, dynamic and active side of the Paraiyars’ religion. This will enable one to see that the Paraiyars are actors in their own ongoing social drama rather than mere spectators. The Paraiyars are thus self-reflecting human beings who are continually creating their own conceptual religious world which houses their collective existence with meaning and order.

Ellaiyamman as an Icoņic Symbol of collective Resistance

In order to shed light on the actively resistive and creative aspects of Paraiyar religion I shall focus on their colony goddess Ellaiyamman. Among the various classes of gods and goddesses extant in the religion of the Paraiyars (the chosen god/goddess, the household god/goddess, the lineage god/goddess and the colony god/goddess), the colony deity11 is most representative of the communal anti corporate religious life of the Paraiyars.  Specifically, Ellaiyamman is central to the religious framework of the particular Paraiyars living in the colonies I studied in detail. Moreover, the goddess Ellaiyamman is generally distinctive to the Paraiyar religion; she has not been coopted by the caste Hindu religious iconographic and mythological imagination.  Pupul Jayakar alludes to this special relationship between Ellaiyamman and the Paraiyars. She states, “The composite female form of the half-Brahmin, half-outcaste was named Ellama, the grama devata, the primeval Sakti of the South. She was to be worshipped throughout the country South of the Vindhya mountains by the pariah and outsiders.!”12

Ellaiyamman is, thus, principally a Dalit goddess. She is the hamlet or colony goddess of Malaipallaiyam. Also, she is inextricably linked to the other predominant Paraiyar goddess, Mariyamman. Most of the myths concerning the origins of the Paraiyar goddesses stem from an elemental or foundational core-myth that involve both Ellaiyamman and Mariyamman. There is no indication that Ellaiyamman is worshipped by caste Hindus around the villages with which I am familiar. The notion that this goddess is the axis of the Paraiyars’ religion can be inferred from Oppert’s etymological explanation: he claims that the name Ellamma is derived from the Tamil ellaam (all or everything) making her “Mother of All”.13 In the colony of Malaipallaiyam the predominance of Ellaiyamman is preserved by referring to her both as the “Mother of all beings” and as the eldest sister of all the manifestations of Sakti14 The other common interpretation for the name Ellaiyamman stems from the Tamil word for boundary ellai, making her the Mother/Goddess of the boundaries.15 This is the most prevalent interpretation among the Paraiyars of Malaipallaiyam. They pointed out to me that the positioning of the image of the deity at the boundary of the colony suggests that the goddess presides over the colony and safeguards its perimeters. In this case, the image of Ellaiyamman is strategically situated on the boundary that is regularly used as crossing from the colony into the outside world.

One cannot but notice the dialectic nature of the two motifs that can be extrapolated from the Paraiyars’ goddess Ellaiyamman; particularity and universality; geographical locatedness and boundlessness; fixity and fluidity; determinedness and openness; resistance and assimilation. I want to start with focusing on the particularity of Ellaiyamman within the overall context of the Paraiyars. It is this particularity and distinctiveness of the colony goddess Ellaiyamman that reveals the Paraiyars’ resistance to the expansionist and overpowering nature of caste Hindu hegemonic forces.

Ellaiyamman is an iconic representation of the resistance of Paraiyars to the conquering tendencies of the caste Hindu world In any reconstruction of the history of the Paraiyars we can at a minimalistic level agree on the following Even though the Paraiyars are an ancient and distinct people, they have had to endure a long and systematic process of economic oppression and cultural marginalization, primarily because their particular heritage was not in conformity with traditions of the caste Hindu communities

The caste Hindu people and their religious and cultural worldview continuously threatened the Paraiyars. Economically, they were forced into living in non-productive, dry, and low-land areas. They were, and still are, coerced to survive mostly as landless agricultural laborers, wholly dependent on the good-will of the caste Hindu landlords. Geographically, they were, and still are, cut-off from the caste village community since they live outside the outskirts of the village. Because of the location of their living space they are constantly endangered by the forces of nature (they live in low-land areas that are periodically threatened by flooding and dry-land areas that are threatened by drought) and by the historically successful attempt of the caste communities to annex their land. Culturally, they were, and continue to be, either marginalized or coopted; thus, they have to be vigilant in their endeavor to preserve their own culture and religion. It is within this historical situation that one must comprehend the characteristic of Ellaiyamman as a deity that protects the boundaries of and for the Paraiyars. She shields and polices the geographic, social, and cultural space of the Paraiyars from the continued colonizing of the caste peoples.

On a concrete level, Ellaiyamman guards the boundaries of the land that the Paraiyars possess. Her icon which is situated on the border of the colony symbolizes this guarding power. Furthermore, during the procession of the yearly festival she is taken to the borders in every direction (North, South, East and West) and a sacrifice is performed for her in order to energize her powers to guard and protect the colony and its inhabitants at all the strategic points of the geographic boundaries. On a conceptual level, Ellaiyamman guards the cultural and religious particularity of the Paraiyars. In the words of a song of praise sung by the Paraiyar Pucari Subramani, “O Mother Goddess Ellaiyamman, grant us the service of your true blessing, for you are the goddess who protects our religion.” By protecting the religion and culture of the Paraiyars Ellaiyamman safeguards their identity as the indigenous (“original”) people of the land, their dignity, their women and children, and their lives. In one of my discussions with the youth of Malaipallaiyam they brought out the idea that the goddess is situated at the boundary of the colony because she stands as a warning to those persons who may cast an “evil eye” on the people (particularly, the women and the children), land and property of the Paraiyars. In this sense Ellaiyamman represents the divine power of the Dalits which is able and responsible for guarding them against the destructive, possessive and conquering gaze of the Hindu caste people.16

It is pertinent to stress that this notion of protecting boundaries of the Paraiyars is engendered within the context of the caste communities’ conception of the seamlessness of the uur. The uur, which is the caste Hindu’s conception of the village, “is not so much a discrete entity with fixed coordinates as a fluid sign with fluid thresholds.”17 Interestingly, thus, the uur (the geographical and socio-cultural space of the caste community), which is distinguished from its counterpart, the ceri or colony (the geographical and socio-cultural space of the Paraiyars), represents the pervading frontiers of the caste community. It is this infiltrating and usurping trend that is challenged by the guardian of the boundaries (Ellaiyamman). A portion of a song in praise of Ellaiyamman reveals this cry of the Paraiyars to safeguard aspects of their local, particular, and parochial world from the “torture of the High caste.”18

You are the deity who expels our troubles; come rid us of evil.
You are present in the neem leaves used for driving out women’s afflictions.
You are present in the fire, the head of our religion.
You have lived with fame in our village, Malaipallaiyani.


In Padavethi a buffalo was sacrificed to You, even in Poothukaadu;
A sacrifice to inspire You, our goddess, to destroy evil.
You are the goddess who guards our boundaries:
You protect with you spear;
You will protect us from 4408 diseases;
You will protect the Harijans from the torture of the High caste.19


There is yet another aspect of the Paraiyars’ godesses that further attests to this idea that the colony deity represents their distinctiveness and particularly in its resistance of the social, economic, and religious nexus of the caste people, which threatens to colonize their overall existence: the Paraiyars’ goddesses remain single, unmarried, and unobliged to the Hindu Gods. They refuse to be coopted and domesticated by the larger symbols of power as represented by Hindu gods. While there are myths that link Dalit goddesses to Shiva and Vishnu, the independence of Ellaiyamman can be construed as reflecting the underlying desire of the Paraiyars to be distinct, different, even separate. Interestingly in the case of both Ellaiyamman and Mariyamman, even though one component of their constitutive nature is rooted in being the spouse of a Brahmin rishi, once they come into being as deities they claim independence from their past relationships. Both these goddesses cease to be obliged to the hierarchy of Hindu gods. This buttresses the resistive dimension of the Paraiyars dieties.20

In suggesting that the goddess Ellaiyamman symbolizes the resistive character of the Paraiyars in a historical context of the colonizing trend of the Caste communities, I am not subscribing to a view that the religion of the Paraiyars has not continually been interacting with the beliefs and practices of Hinduism. It is a fact that Hinduism in its diverse forms and guises penetrates the various domains of Dalit life in South India. Nonetheless, it is not as if Paraiyar religion is a replication of the general ideological and practical manifestations of caste Hinduism. Rather, I am suggesting that the religion of the Paraiyars evolved a process of both resisting and refiguring the Hinduism it was faced with so as to serve its own ends.

Ellaiyamman as an Iconic Symbol of Emancipatory Mythography

Thus far, in this discussion of the Paraiyars’ goddess Ellaiyamman I have merely focused on one of the dimensions of the deity: iconic resistance. However, this aspect cannot be studied apart from another dimension that is intrinsic to the goddess Ellaiyamman: the process of weaving emancipatory mythographies.21  This process signifies the deliberate and artful manner by which the Paraiyars utilize their goddess to tell their own story through the mythological framework of the caste Hindu. By recasting the myth of the goddess to serve their purposes the Paraiyars are reimagining their own history, identity and corporate personality.22

In what follows I want to examine one particular locally evolved myth to look for clues regarding the dynamics of the formulation of religio-cultural frames of meaning among the Paraiyars. Through the weaving of these mythographies one can find the creative and imaginative dynamics of an attempt at historicization. One can observe a remarkable process by which the local peoples, in this case the Paraiyars, reimagine their own communal subjectivity as a counter-history to the hegemonic one. These local myths are mostly oral, multiform, open-ended, and provisional (in the sense of being circulated only among the Paraiyars). They signify the colloquial word. This form of oral transposition of myths is perhaps strategic: it does not risk being codified in written text except by outsiders (like me) who are outside the power system. Because they are not textually inscribed they can be transformed, suppressed, and modified to suit the situation in which they are rendered. For example, a portion of the song to Ellaiyamman that is derogatory of the caste Hindus may be omitted or rephrased when performed in front of an audience that has both Dalits and caste Hindus. This fluidity is not possible if the myths are preserved in written form.

The following mythography which encapsulates the origins of Ellaiyamman may be a good example It is a version that was sung to me by a Paraiyar religious functionary from Malaipallaiyam.23

There were seven girl children born in Uppai. One of these children was abandoned and discovered by a wasbennan. [Kaufman, in The Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), p.127]. They do have their own active and creative manner of collectively representing their historicity, which I am arguing, is closely intertwined with their experience with what they take to be the Divine Power, Ellaiyamman as the goddess of the Paraiyars is a pivotal symbol of the source (and the hope of protection) of this distinct physical and conceptual space: she conserves their geographic space by guarding their particularity as a community and she represents their conceptual space as self-reflective human beings.

Since there were seven brothers who fought for this child it was decided that the child would be given to King Varunaraja, who was childless, in exchange for some gold. The queen Vethavalli nurtured the child. The child was named Renuka Pararneshwari and was brought up lovingly in the royal household. Renuka attained puberty when she was twelve years old and a grand function was held with the three auspicious fruits (Mango, Jackfruit and Banana).

There was a miscreant called Naratha.24  According to Brahma’s curse his head will burst if he does not continually stir up trouble. Naratha sees the rishi Jamarthakini in solitary, deep meditation. He decides to get Renuka married to him. He tells Jamarthakini that he has found a wife for him who can assist him well in performing his worship rites. Together they meet the King with this proposal and the marriage alliance is settled.

The wedding is a grand event and the celebration lasts for five days The whole town is decorated with flowers and fruits. The bride and the bridegroom are decorated with flowers. And in the presence of Ganapathy (God of all obstacles) they are married. After the wedding the King sends his daughter to the Ashram, which is the home of the rishi. The rishi refuses any dowry. Together Jamarthakini and Renuka have four children: Anuvaan, Dhanwaan, Visbwathi and Parasuraman.

The family worships Shiva. Renuka assists the Rishi in his performance of the puja by fetching water from the river Ganga. Every morning she walks to the Ganga where a pot of water is miraculously churned out of the river and given to her. Her mind is so pure and chaste that the water is held within the imaginary pot till she brings it to her husband for his worship rituals.

One day while receiving the pot of water at the river she sees the reflection of Arjunan who flies past as Gandharvan. Renuka admires his beauty and at that moment loses her chastity. The water recedes from her pot and she is afraid of being cursed by her husband. She calls for her fourth son (Parasuraman) and asks him to kill her.25  He refuses and runs back to report this to his father. The rishi is furious and orders Parasuraman to kill his mother.

In the mean time Renuka runs for her life and seeks refuge in a hut in a “Ceeri” (The hamlet that is separated from the main village in which the Paraiyars live) The people of the “Ceeri” hide Renuka in a hut along with an old Paraiyar woman who is to be of comfort to her

When Parasuraman did not find his mother at the place that he had left her he searched all over. Eventually he traced her to the hut and in his rage and confusion beheads and kills both the women. He goes back and reports this to his father. To show his good pleasure to Parasuraman his father grants him one boon. The son asks that his mother’s life be restored. The Rishi gives Parasuraman a pot of water and some ash. He asks him to replace Renuka’ s severed head to her body, apply the ash on her forehead and bathe her with the water in the pot. Parasuraman goes back to the hut and does as he is told. However, in his enthusiasm to restore his mother he mistakenly puts the head of the old Paraiyar woman on to Renuka’ s body. Now Renuka has the head of the old Paraiyar woman.

She goes home to the rishi but he is unwilling to take her back. She is sent out into the village to live from the gifts of the people. Here she utilizes her powers to protect all those who sustain her with food, offerings and worship.

Because of her transformed nature the goddess is able to assume various forms. They are imaged in the seven sisters. Of all these forms Ellaiyamman is the most powerful. She does good and protects the people from all evil. She has a troop of devils under her control. She protects the colony in all four directions.

This legend about the origins of Ellaiyamman is no doubt closely linked to the mythical origins of Mariyamman 26  Many important themes can be extrapolated from the legend. But primarily this myth points to the complex nature of the relationship between Paraiyar religion and Hinduism. On the one hand, one is struck by the copious borrowing of Hindu story lines, mythological characters, and themes. There is a resolute effort by the Paraiyars to work within the mythologically symbolic world of Hinduism. The setting of the myth reflects a conventional Hindu plot: the divine power emerges through a process of transposition of heads.27 Furthermore, the mythological characters contained in this song present easily identifiable figures from common Hindu stories that are fairly well-known in South India. The names of Brahma, Naratha, Ganapathy, Shiva, Arjunan, and Parasuraman are common to most South Indian Hindus; and they are invoked to give the story a ring of familiarity. There are also many themes inherent in this mythological song about Ellaiyamman that are prominent in various Hindu legends: the symbolic alliance between the king and the Brahmin, the efficacy of the holy water of Ganga, the ideal ritualistic pattern of daily puja performed by the rishi, the idea of purity and chastity being a quality of the mind for a devout wife, the commission of matricide, arid the cutting off of the head because of a suspicion that a wife has been unfaithful.

On the other hand, one cannot but notice the manner in which these themes and mythological characters are utilized with a view toward reinterpreting the collective identity of Paraiyars in an affirmative way. This remythologizing of the origin of Ellaiyamman functions to valorize the Paraiyars. Through an emancipatory retelling of the story of Ellaiyamman their particular version of history is inscribed and validated. In this myth the Paraiyars, firstly, presented as being a helpful community; they are even willing to suffer persecution in the service of protecting a refugee.28  Secondly, this remythologised version of the emergence of the goddess reinforces the notion that the Paraiyars are the recipients of undeserved violence; they are caught within the various subtle conflicts of the caste community and they are affected because of it spilling over onto the Dáevas.29  What is most interesting in this regard is the association of this victimization with symbolic figures of Women. Both Reņuka and the old Paraiyar lady are represented as the victims who miraculously survive the vengeful power of a male antagonist and then become the foundation of Paraiyar divine power. Finally, this myth reinforces the fact that formidable divine power is generated through being an outcaste. Ellaiyamman utilizes this power to protect and guard her subjects from all harm.

Another definitive element of the legend of Ellaiyamman must be emphasized at this juncture: this Dalit goddess has the head of the Paraiyar and the body of a caste Hindu woman. Commenting on this, Elmore writes, “the Dravidian goddess, Ellamma, is sometimes represented with the tom-off head of a Brahmin in her hand.”30 While I did not come across this icongraphical or mythological representation, which gives Ellaiyamman control over the torn-off head of the Brahmin woman (Renuka), I want to contend that this further supports my contention that the goddess Ellaiyamman exemplifies this process of emancipatory remythologization, This particular reinscription of the story as expounded by the Paraiyars reimagines the accepted social configurations of South Indian polity by reversing the position of the Paraiyars and the Brahmins. The head that symbolizes power/ knowledge of the Brahmin (erudition in the vedas and schooling in the proper practice rituals: wisdom of orthodoxy and orthopraxis) is replaced with the head that signifies the power of the Paraiyars (brute mundane power in the realm of the material! physical: tangible power to protect and to punish). This is in many senses a symbolic act of subversion: an inversion of the status quo as propagated by Hindu myth and practice.

It is clear from the above discussion that religious remythologization is a domain of specific meaning-making for the Paraiyars. It is the arena of tactful contestation in which the hegurnonic outlook of Hinduism is weakened. The process of construing emancipatory mythographies involves both an interaction with an appropriation of forms from the dominant group and a subtle rejection of it in order to reclaim for the Paraiyars their own human identity and rationale for existence.31

This explication of the goddess Ellaiyamman as symbolizing the resistive particularity and the emancipatory remythologization of the Paraiyars gives us a glimpse into the dynamic, creative, calculating, and empowering features of the Paraiyars’ religion. The religious arena for them, thus, is both an arena of continual contestation and conscious reformation: it both discerningly rejects and contextually redefines certain dominant “conceptions of a general order of existence.”32

One can notice again the process of emancipatory transmythologization at work in the story as remembered by the Paraiyars. There is a deliberate attempt to work within the categorical and symbolic framework of Hinduism and yet recast it to advantage the collective identity of the Paraiyars. Thus, the goddess of the Paraiyars, Mariyamman, is able to subdue all the major caste Hindu deities and annex segments of their powers. The divine powers of Hinduism are brought under the powerful and inauspicious curse of the goddess of the Paraiyars. The domain of Mariyamman expands toward universality; even the underworld is under her control.

In this presentation I have highlighted the active side of Paraiyar religion. It does not merely represent a passive replication and acceptance of all that was passed on to the Paraiyars from the caste Hindu’s interpretations of religion. Rather, the Paraiyars’ religion points to an arena of ongoing contestation and transformation of dominant and, sometimes, oppressive cultural and social patterns that are founded on religious narratives (plots?). However, it must not be forgotten that Paraiyar religion is not only the collective expression of dismantling and reassembling dominant patterns of meaning for the sake of this Dalit community’s human survival and humane enrichment. It is also a symbolic manifestation of their very own experience of the Divine.



1.  This paper is written in honor of Professor Eric J. Lott. It will appear in a festschrift that is to be published this year to commemorate Dr. Eric Lott’s retirement. As a first year B. D. student, Dr. Lott introduced me to the world of Hinduism at the United Theological College in 1981. At that time his approach was phenomenological. He taught us to describe the complexity of religious phenomena with respect and in detail. The approach in this study affixes imaginative interpretation to a predominantly descriptive project. Having read Lott’s later work, especially on tribal religions and ecological resources in Indian religious traditions, I know that he will not be unhappy with this dimension of the enterprise. Besides tutoring his students in the class room, Dr. Lott was a great sportsman on the field. The many hours of playing cricket along with our sessions in the class room made our relationship uniquely collegial in an otherwise hierarchical ethos. It is indeed a pleasure for me to be included in this endeavor of honoring my teacher and friend, Eric J. Lott. May his tribe increase.

2.  I think that the term Dalit has been around long enough in Indian theological discussion that it does not require detailed explication. The magnitude of their numerical strength must be pointed to: In the most recent 1991 census Dalits numbered 138 million in a total Indian population of 846 million. [Census of India, 1991 Volume 11, (New Delhi:Registrar general and Census commission of India, 1992). p.5.]

3.  T. K. Oommen, “Sources of Deprivation and Styles of Protest: The Case of the Dalits in India,” Contributions to Indian Sociology (n.s.) 18:1 (1985): 45.

4.  As quoted in Joan P. Mencher, “The Caste System Upside Down, Or the Not-So-Mysterious East”, Current Anthropology. 15:1 (December, 1974):474.

5.  Census of India, 1991, p. 18.

6.. K.R. Hanumanthan, Untouchability: A Historical Study Up to 1500 AD. With Special Reference to Tamil Nadu (Madurai: Koodal Publications, 1979), p. 74.

7.  Harold R Isaac Idols of the Tribe Group Identity and Political Change (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1989), p.158.

8.  Ibid., p.159

9.  Moffatt, An Untouchable Community in South India: Structure and Consensus (Princeton, N. J. : Princeton University Press, 1979), p. 3. Through a detailed analysis and interpretation of the religion of the Paraiyars in comparison with the caste community in Endavur, Chingleput District, Tansilnadu, Moffatt attempts to prove that there is a certain commonality in the structure of religious belief and ritual practice: “Every fundamental entity, relationship, and action found in the religious system of the higher castes is also found in the religious system of the Untouchables.” (Ibid., p.289).

 10  Edgar Thurston, Schedule Castes and Tribes, vol. VI (New Delhi: Cosino Publications, 1975), p.117.

11.  Ibid.

12.  Pupul Jayakar, Earth Mother: Legends, Ritual Arts, and Goddesses of India (San Francisco: Harper and Row Publishers, 1990), p.44.

13.  Gustav Oppert, The Original Inhabitants of India (Delhi, Oriental Publishers, 1972), p.464, First published in 1893.

14.  This conception that the term Ellaiyamman derives from the view that she is considered to be the “Mother of all” was articulated by a Paraiyar priest. The notion that Ellaiyaminan is the eldest of the sisters among the manifestations of Sakti was expressed by a few devotees. This feature of being the oldest among a line of siblings must be understood within the social and cultural context of South India where age and position of birth determines the status Of the person. The role and status of the oldest is qualitatively higher than the rest of the children born into that same family

15.  Thurston, one of the earliest systematic researchers into Dalit and Tribal religions in South India, says the following in reference to Paraiyar religion: “Each village claims that its own mother is not the same as that of the next village, but all are supposed to be sisters. Each is supposed to be guardian of the boundaries of the cherished. She is believed to protect its inhabitants and its livestock from disease, disaster and famine, to promote the fecundity of cattle and goats, and to give children.” He goes on to identify Ellaiyamman as “the goddess of the boundary [who is] worshipped by Tamil and Telugu Paraiyars.” Thurston, Castes and Tribes of South India, Vol. vi, p.105.

16.  This conception of the “evil eye” (dishti) is not uniquely distinct to the Dalits. It is a fairly general South Indian belief that harm and misfortune is caused by the envious and covetous gaze of the beholder. The view articulated by the Paraiyar youth is a contextual and communal Interpretation of this common belief For further details pertaining to the evil eye in South India see. C.J. Fuller, The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India (New Delhi: Viking, 1992), pp. 236-240 and David F. Pocock, Mind, Body and Wealth: A Study of Belief and Practice in an Indian Village (Oxford: Blackwell, 1973), pp. 28-33.

17.  Valentine Daniel, Fluid Signs: Being a Person the Tamil Way (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p.104, Daniel delineates the meaning of two Tamil words that denote the village: while uur implies a emotional and cognitive conception Kraamam designates the geographically determined territory In contemporary Tamilnadu the latter conception (Kraamam) is fairly fixed because of government documentation of geographical space. However, the former conception (uur) is active in its expansionist vein and ,t is this conceptual Caste worldview that threatens to usurp the distinctness of the Paraiyar social cultural and religious space

18.  This is part of an opening prayer of adoration sung by a local Paraiyar Pucari, K. Pallaiyasn. The song is sung to the beat of drums. I am aware of the fact that my own interpretation of the central idea of the characterisitic of iconic resistance is confined to the relationship between the caste Hindus and the Paraiyars. I do not deal with the other facet of guardianship that the goddess epitomized protection against disease death, and natural calamity.

19.  It must be noted that Mariyamman has the very same function. She has the powers to “guard the boundaries of her territory, to protect all those inside these boundaries against disease in humans and cattle, particularly epidemic disease, and to bring rain for those who worship her.” Moffatt, An Untouchable Community, p.247.

20.  I find the concept of “spousification”, suggested by Lynn E. Gatwood, a useful one for determining the dynamic of resistance and assimilation of the local indigenous traditions to the more prevalent Sanskritic traditions. She explicates three categories based on the degree of spousification of local goddesses: “First are the untouched, apparently permanently unspousified Devis. . .The second category consists of Devis who undergo temporary spousification . . .but whose popular symbolism remains essentially Devi-like. . .[And) A third and more complex category, that of partial spousification, involves more than minimal manipulation.” Gatwood, Devi and Spouse Goddess: Women, Sexuality and Marriage in India (Riverdale, MD: Riverdale Company, 1985), pp.156f.

21.  This notion of weaving an alternate mythography, as a way by which peoples deny and defy the construction of unitary and universalizable history, is expressed by Ashis Nandy in his interpretation of how the victims of colonization express their own historical perspectives in the midst of the dominant Western colonial discursive practice. See Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism, (Delhi:Oxford University Press, 1983). Also see Gym Prakash, “Writing Post-Orientalist Histories of the Third World: Indian Historiography is Good to Think” in Colonialism and Culture, Ed., Nicholas B. Dirks, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1992), pp. 353-388.

22.  A profound theo-anthropological postulate underlies this interpretation: Dalits are thinking and self-reflexive human beings. If we agree with Kaufman that “that which most sharply distinguishes human beings from other forms of life . . , is their historicity, their having been shaped by and their having some control over the process of historical change and development,” then we must attribute this element of self-reflexivity to the Paraiyars.

23.  K. Pallaiyam is a Pucari who travels around the area performing priestly roles. He claims to have the power to induce the power of the goddesses to descend upon people. This legend was translated and edited with the help of Roja Singh who lives and works in Karunguzhi, which is about a mile away from Malaipallaiyam.

24.  Hiltebeitel refers to him as the “inveterate troublemaker Narada”. See Alf Hiltebeitel, The Cult of Draupadi: Mythologics From Gingee to Kuniksetra (Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1988), p.191.

25.  Parasuraman himself is identified with the qualities that are a product of mixed unions, which are quite compatible with the characteristics attributed to Dalits. According to Shulman “In the myth’s earliest version, there is no mention of Parasuraman’s divine identity: he is simply the startling, unruly product of a horrifying mixed union. . . Brahmin and kingly blood flows in almost even quantities in his veins, and he acts accordingly, in a tragic life guided throughout by conflicting impulses. (We shall ask ourselves to what extent the dread “mixing” of genetic strains is the true source of his trouble).” It must be kept in mind, however, that “by the time of the major Puranic versions, of course, our hero [Parasuraman] has become the avatar of Visnu.” David Shulman, The King and the Clown in South Indian Myth and Poetry (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), p, 110.

In this Dalit version, Parasuraman is really the hero who uses his boon to produce the Dalit goddess. Perhaps, it may be interpreted as a vindication of mixed unions I say this in the awareness that there is a school of thought that believes that Dalits are the products of inauspicious mixed unions. See Simon Casie Chitty, The Castes, Customs, Manners and Literature of the Tamils, (New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1988), pp. 53-54; 133, First published in 1934.

26.  Whitehead recounts a similar story after which he adds, “The woman with the Brahman head and the Pariah body was afterwards worshipped as Mariyamman; while the woman with the Pariah head and the Brahman body was worshipped as the goddess Yellamma” Henry Whitehead, The Village Gods of South India Revised Edition (New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1988), p.116. For variations of this account with regard to Mariyamman see Wendy D. O’Flaherty, The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology (Berkeley University of California Press 1976) p 351 E R Clough While sewing Sandals (New York, Hodder and Stroughten, 1899), pp. 85ff; Thurston, Castes and tribes, Vol. VI 306 ff. Moffatt, An Untouchable Community p. 248.

27.  Thomas Mann, The Transposed Head, A Legend of India, Trans. H. T. Loew­Porter, (New York, 1941). For a classical myth of Renuka see MBH. 3.116.1-18.

28.  This is a counter point to the usual stereotype that the Paraiyar is a double dealing unreliable person This quote is attributed to H Jensen a missionary who worked among them in South India See Thurston, Castes and Tribes, Vol. VI, p.118.

29.  This is consistent with Dehege’s conclusion Recent analyses of untouchables myths of origin clearly reveal contrary to Moffatt s own interpretation that Hanjans consider their low degraded position as a result of a mistake some mockery or an accident Robert Deliege, “Replication and Consensus: Untouchablity, Caste and Ideology in India,” Man, vol.27 (March, 1992), p.166.

30.  W T Elmore Dravidian Gods in Modern Hinduism Revised & Reprinted Version (New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1984), p.7. Also see Oppert The Original Inhabitants, p.464.

31.  A version of the Mariyamman myth of origin suggested by a Paraiyar pucari further illustrates the process of emancipatory remythologization. This version was translated and edited with the help of Roja Singh from a compilation of oral sources furnished by K. Palaiyam, Gunadayalan and Gunaseelan. The latter two work as community leaders in the villages of Pasumbur and Vallarpirrai respectively. The story is very similar to the myth of Ellaiyamman. However, it refers to the other woman who was restored; the one with the head of Renuka and the body of the Paraiyar woman. She is worshipped as Mariyamman and her legend continues thus:

Renuka who now has the body of the Paraiyar woman returns home. The rishi is not willing to accept her in her changed form and curses her. She becomes the bearer of the “Pearl”, which is the name given to small pox. Renuka has authority over this agonizing disease. She brings this disease upon the rishi who begs for healing. She offers him healing if she be permitted to go to the four worlds of Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, and Yama. He enables her to visit the Four worlds. She goes to Shiva and causes a disease on him. In exchange for healing she receives his Shoolani (a forked weapon) and his cow. She inflicts Vishnu and gets from him his Conch shell and wheel. From Braluna she gets consent for converting her name. She is no longer Renuka but assumes the name Mariyamman (the changed Mother). She then inflicts Yama with a disease. She requires that Yama’s wife arrange for a huge festival for her. She agrees to this and asks her to remove the “pearl-like” disease in return.

32.  Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), p.90. It is quite obvious, I think, that my methodology of the study of religion is dependent on the work of Geertz. However, I think that this study attempts to throw light on the social forces that operate in the forging of religion. According to his critics, this is an aspect that Geertz does not explore. See Tale! Asad Anthropological Conceptions of Religion Reflections on Geertz in Man vol. 18 (1983) 237-259 and Brian Moms Anthropological Studies of Religion: An Introductory Text (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 318-319.


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