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The Meenam Bharani Festival Of Kodungallur As a Carnivalised Text

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The paper treats the Meenam Bharani festival of Kodungallur as a carnivalised text and uses caste and gender as interpretive filters to explore its many signifying practices. The analysis of Kodungallur Bharani as a carnivalised text and the subsequent exploration of caste and gender dynamics that play out in its culture encoded ritualistic practices necessitate an understanding of its multiple origin stories, its constitutive elements and performative dimensions.

Bakhtin in his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1971) says:

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The laws, prohibitions, and restrictions that determine the structure and order of ordinary, that is noncarnival, life are suspended during carnival: what is suspended first is hierarchical structure and all the forms of terror, reverence, piety, and etiquette connected with it… or any other form of inequality among people. Bakhtinian notions of the carnivalesque foreground its potency to invert social orders and hierarchies. Interestingly, the ritualistic traditions in Bharani, accentuate the temporariness of this inversion and the covert reaffirmations of caste politics and hierarchies that allow for only a subtle disturbance in the social order. Critics like Michael Holquist believe that this ambiguity in its aims and the parallel processes of subversions and reassertions of the social order, are indispensible elements in any carnival form. While Bakhtin succeeds in emphasising the role of irreverence and profanity in carnival, and the effects they have in parodying authority, the paper also tries to accommodate the findings of Giorgio Agamben whose conceptualisation of the sacred/profane dichotomy find relevance in this context.

In the Kodungallur Sri Kudumba Temple, spaces and ritualistic practises are defined and divided along the lines of caste. Bharani which initiates with the ‘pollution’ of the temple by the entry of a member of the Goldsmith community and the affirmation of this pollution by a member of a Nair family brings to light the many nuances of caste politics that play out on its ritualistic traditions and festive forms. Dalit inclusivity in Bharani has led to readings like that of M.J Gentes, C Adarsh and V.T Induchoodan which try to establish its festive forms as a celebration of Dalit assertion. There is also an effort to read the subversive carnivalesque rituals, including its overt references to sex in Theripattu, Theendal and the use of profanity as being an intrinsic part of a ‘Dalit culture’. However the transience of this “profane illumination” does not allow for any significant inversions.

Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has explored the liberating effects of profanation in his essay, In Praise of Profanation. He says “If consecration was the term that denoted the leaving of the sphere of human law, profanation signified returning something to the free usage of mankind”. This theory however finds difficulties in this context since the Meenam Bharani festival does not culminate with profanation but with reconsecration-a restoration of ritualistic orders and a reassertion of its “sacred exclusions”. Such an analysis would facilitate the argument that Bharani, as opposed to popular readings of being an explicit expression of subaltern cultures allows to be reread as a valorisation of the temple’s reconsecration by Brahmins. A festival that begins with its desecration by members of ‘peripheral’ caste categories concludes with the restoration of social and ritualistic order through the intervention of Nairs and Brahmanical priests. The many rites associated with Kodiyettam, Theripppattu and Pulappadam as well as the multiple origin stories of this temple would substantiate this argument.

In its three origin stories which have long become indispensible nodal signs in the beliefs systems associated with this temple, marginal caste categories represent – profaners/desecraters, mythical monsters and sexual transgressors.

The first origin story explains that members of “lower caste” categories were used as devices to ‘desecrate’ the temple to drive away the Buddhist nuns who were its original owners and inhabitants and that Kaavutheendal is a re-enactment of this desecration. This narrative hints that the primary role played by the subaltern caste categories in the process of Aryanisation of religious institutions is that of profanation.

The second vouches for the belief that the the entry of ‘lower’ caste members act as metaphoric representations of the monsters that accompanied Kali following the murder of Daruka- thereby associating peripheral caste categories to that which is profane, crass and inhuman. Perhaps the most popular among the origin stories is the third which foreground the many political, cultural and ritualistic ambitions of an early Brahmanical social order.

The third narrative tries to see the temple as the body of the Goddess and the ‘polluting’ touch of the marginal caste categories along with the many profane rites that follow it as a way of appeasing Goddess Kannagi’s raging sexual appetite. This transgression both sexual and ritualistic is then subjected to “purification” through Brahminical rituals. One sees the recurring trope of desecration, reconsecration and restoration of an earlier sacred order playing out on all three origin stories.

Many of Bharani’s ritual practices are organized, negotiated and divided among the “lower caste” categories of Pulayas, Arayas, Thattans and Kumbidies. One such ritual is Kodiyettam. Pivotal to the festival’s inaugural ceremony, Kodiyettam is performed by the Malayan Thattan (a member of the goldsmith community). The fact that kodiyettam is preceded by another ritual wherein the Malayan Thattan meets the Kodungallur Valiyathamburan to ask his permission to initiate the ceremony, must be emphasized. At its conclusion the elder female member of the Pilapilly tharavadu ( belonging to Nairs) must declare that the temple has been swept clean owing to the pollution that followed Malayan Thattan’s entry into the temple. In a state where caste is no longer a criterion for one’s entry into a temple, the ritualistic traditions of Bharani asks for the re enactment of a censored version of an earlier social system that valorized social and ritualistic hierarchies, thereby retaining premodern Brahmanical notions of ‘caste pollution’ as its “significant past”.

Equally interesting is the ritualistic conventions associated with Pulappadam. Pulappadam named after the Pulaya caste is a space which stands separate from the inner sanctum (which follows Brahamanical ritualistic traditions) of the temple and comes with its own separate Goddess idol for Pulayas to perform their rituals. The eldest member of the Pulaya family who has been designated the right to carry out the ritual is known as ‘Vallon’- a name bestowed upon his predecessors by the Kodungallur Valiyathamburan and retained to this day. On the day of Aswathi, the Vallon wears a regal cap after bowing before the Thamburan in reverence.

Both rituals reveal the recurrence of performances wherein the concerned ‘lower caste’ member bows before a member of the royal family to humbly seek permission to carry out his/her rites. While the permission is never denied (the norms of the festival do not allow it), one sees a reassertion of an earlier casteiest social order with the exception that in the place of an assertive lord, is a ‘benevolent’ patron (the Kodungallur Valiyathamburan) who acknowledges the indispensible role that minority members have to play in the anti-Brahmanical rituals of Kodungallur. Participation in the festival with the blessing of the Valiyathamburan is written into the rituals of Bharani. Through this fealty to a higher caste authority Bharani evades a suspension of its “sacred signification” and in its place is a misplaced nostalgia for an abusive casteist order.

Theripaatu is also the censored version of an earlier subversive ritual practice wherein orgiastic activites and dance movements that imitated sexual intercourse were played out by marginal groups inside the temple premises, as part of the panchamakarathi* ritualistic tradition. Contingent on the ritualistic space provided by the festive forms of Bharani, theripattu (with its explicit lyrics on sexual organs and female sexual desires) articulates an aesthetic that stands in contrast to the patriarchal upper caste predispositions about expressions of sexuality. Classical texts and stories, pivotal to the bulk of Hindu mythology (the reading and comprehension of which were once monopolised by the savarnas) are appropriated into the bawdy lyrics of theripattu. Sakuntala, Rama, Ravan and Anirudhan become characters in these songs. It is worth mentioning here that theripattu tries to maintain its contemporary relevance by criticising ideological and repressive state apparatuses of the time. The readings of M. J Gentes and C Adarsh use the vocabulary and content of theripattu to establish the ritualistic traditions of Bharani as subaltern expressions of anti-authoritarianism, in the process inadvertently classifying profanity as an essential quality of these marginal groups. But these readings however ignore the fact that the singing of theripattu and the entry of its participants are restricted to the outer sanctums of the temple proving that the free play of meaning even within these carnival forms are limited by the greater structures of the sacred and the ritualistic.

Women and marginal caste groups- what was thought to be the inferior halves of two binaries that drew and redrew the contours of the Malayali ‘social unconscious’ over time, make a dangerous mix in the ritualisation of therippattu. Therippattu according to popular beliefs, with its exaggerated descriptions of sexual intercourse, female desires and genitals is used to temper down and satiate the raging sexual appetite of the Goddess. This is rooted in the belief that the Goddess’ sexual needs if left untended, would culminate in a breakout of chicken pox and other diseases. Thus this ritualistic initiative to appease the Goddess’ sexual impulses and to hold her within the ‘sacred’ spaces cordoned by the Kodungallur temple, stems from a fear that strongly reflects pre modern Brahminical anxieties surrounding the sexuality of upper caste women. Uma Chakravarti finds such upper caste anxieties to be contingent on the need to retain caste purity.

Therefore, while the ritualistic rationale of Bharani is forced to acknowledge the Goddess’ unrepressed sexual drives, the rituals performed to satisfy the desires of this libidinal Goddess is stripped of the formalities and ‘sacredness’ of traditional Aryanised rituals and is led to enter the realm of the profane and the worldly through theripattu as well as the kaavutheendal ceremony that precedes it. With kaavutheendal, a ritual that represents the pollution of the body of the Goddess (the temple) with the entry of marginal caste members into the premises. With this act of profanation, the Goddess is no longer the subject of sacred Brahminical rituals but is demoted to the status of the transgressing, salacious Shudra woman wherein the sexually charged Goddess (be it the young widow Kannagi or the untameable virgin Kali) becomes an object of ridicule and desecration in the hands of the lower caste members. Therippattu comprises abusive descriptions of the Goddess’ untameable character and crude references to her unrestrained sexual drives and raw impulses. Therefore, while theripattu gives due credit to the Goddess’ strengths, the treatment of her gendered body is drawn along the lines of the societal limitations that are consequential to upper caste patrifocal notions of purity and chastity.

It is interesting to note that the rites conclude with the reconsecration/purification of the temple (which is representative of the Goddess’ body) through the conduct of rituals by Brahmin priest. Thus the Goddess , who has been demoted to the Shudra woman following her pollution by the Arayas, Velans and Kudumbis , reclaims her agency through the ‘unpolluting’, ‘sacred’ touch of the Brahmin man thereby finding her way back to the inner sanctums of the temple locked in by its upper caste customs and conventions. The treatment of the ‘transgressive feminine’ in Bharani’s carnival forms reveal that the Goddess herself is not immune to the many constrains imposed on the gendered body of the Malayali woman.

Gender difference is intertwined with what Kristeva calls “abjection” to exclude the female body from the signifying chain of Bharani’s ritualistic practices.This holds true even with Hindu notions of impurity associated with women’s menstrual blood. While to this day, menstruating women are not allowed inside the Kodungallur temple premises, the Goddess’ menstrual period calls for special rituals. The Goddess herself is shut in and everyday rituals are suspended.

If one is to go by Jack Santino’s theory that ritual reinforces social categories while the carnival inverts them, then, in Bharani and its festive forms, the ritual wins over the carnival. All that Bharani provides is a liminal period that temporarily dissolves upper caste traditions only to conclude with the restoration of ritualistic order by the reconsecration of the temple by Brahminical priests. The organizing principles of Bharani that are contingent on pre modern notions of caste and gender limit the free play of meanings within its ritualistic structure. Thus the possibilities of Bharani having any transformative effects on the non ritual realities are sparse. For all its efforts at dialogism, an insistence at being faithful to caste hierarchies remains the “transcendental perspective” in Bharani due to which many of its carnivalised festive forms merely serve to secularize “an unconsciously religious intention”.

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