It’s 1.30 am and I am eating basmati pulao under a malai coloured full moon that hovers above the multi-coloured twinkling lights of the Dharmarayaswamy Temple. Loudspeakers crackle with stories from the Karaga Puranas while over 50,000 people mill about anxiously, waiting for the Karaga bearer to arrive. I suspect that this temple, the only one dedicated to the Pandavas and Draupadi (Yudhishtra being Dharmaraya) and presided over by a Kshatriya priest, is secretly pleased to be at the epi-centre of this sword wielding, fire walking, conch blowing, goat sacrificing, drum beating, Jasmine and camphor scented Jatre. It is the month of Chaitra Purnima and the Pete is wide awake. The Goddess has finally come to town.
Her `sons’, the Veerakumaras are overjoyed.They have spent a whole year waiting for her to be among them once again. A flower festooned chariot rolls past pushed by cheering, shouting men. It is a bejewelled Goddess Durga, out on an extremely early morning survey of her city. The ease with which the ancient and the modern co-exist in India never ceases to amaze me.
The Karaga and Bangalore city weave together a complex web of associations. Running through it are the themes of duality and transformation. They are centred around a post- Kurukshetra story from the Mahabharatha.
Woman into Primordial Goddess : “Not long after the great war between the Kauravas and Pandavas was over, having completed the 13 year post-Kurukshetra exile, Draupadi and her five husbands reached a dense forest where the celestial chariot awaited to take them to `Swarga (heaven). It would spin the cycles and signal the onset of Kali Yuga. Draupadi was the last to step in. Just as she put her foot into the chariot, she was accosted by the demon, Timarasura. The chariot sped away, leaving her behind. She cried to Krishna and her husbands for help, but they were already in another world and unable to help her. Timarasura was protected by a boon. He was a Raktabija whose blood was such that if even one drop fell on the ground, a thousand Timarasuras would be regenerated from it. An enraged Draupadi transformed into her primordial Goddess form, Adi Shakti. She created warriors and weapons from various parts of her being. Yajamanas from her head, Ganachari from the forehead, Goudas from her ears, the Gante Poojari from her mouth and the Veerakumaras from her shoulders. While they vanquished the demon., she licked up the drops of blood before they fell to the ground and finally, swallowed him whole. Adi Shakti then took leave of her woebegone sons but promised to come back for three days each year during the first full moon of the first month of the Hindu calendar ( Chaitra). She then returned to her human form as Draupadi and ascended to heaven, leaving her renewable shakti behind in a pot..the karaga.”
This story, told to me by a prominent member from the Tigala community is but one of many explaining why the return of this primordial energy, the great Mother Goddess, Adi-Shakti, is celebrated each year during the ancient Karaga Shaktiyotsava. But this fierce Goddess, born of a sacrificial fire to King Dhrupad of Panchal to fulfill the boon Brahma gave to Parvati, arrives angry and alone. Over the next ten days, she manifests herself in stages till she symbolically weds Arjuna on the last day and is appeased.While the Draupadi cult is predominant in rural Tamil Nadu, she takes up home right in the heart of this massive metropolis for three days, transforming herself into an urban Goddess and the city into a stage.
Man into Warrior : Waiting to protect her are the sword bearing Veerakumaras.They are Vahnikula Kshatriyas, a sect of the Tigala community, specially chosen from their families to become dramatis personae in this sacred magnum opus. They wear white pyjamas /dhoti’s with a red cloth waistband and white/gold `petahs’ on their heads. They also wear the yellow thread (kankana, interwoven with the root of the turmeric plant) on their wrists to indicate a ritual purity and wield a sword (katti) to indicate their warrior status and allegiance to the Goddess. Traders, daily wage workers and corporate employees through the year, they now transform into the Guardians of the Goddess.
To prepare for their role in guarding the deity, they undergo rigorous physical training in the Kunjanna and Anaiyappa Garadi Mane’s (wrestling gymnasium) nearby. As the Karaga makes its way swiftly around the Pete, they lead the procession to protect it. They too stop at shrines along the way, burn the sacred camphor and perform the Alagusevai or `blade service’, a choreographed ritual movement with their swords, while chanting “Allalala Di Di Dhik Di Dhik Di “. Someone also told me that should the Karaga bearer drop the Karaga, their traditional duty is to drive a sword through him.But this has never happened.So. far.
From Priest to Goddess: Late at night during the Hasi Karaga on the 7th night of this 10 day festival, a man steps out from his ritual bath in the Sampangi Tank near Kantheerava Stadium. He is the Karaga priest who from the start of Vijayadashmi has been living in the temple where he undergoes special purificatory rituals and trains at the local Garadi or wrestling gymnasium, to prepare himself for his role. He also undertakes strict vows of abstinence: sexual, meat and alcohol. As he emerges from the tank, drums begin to resound frantically in the darkness and amidst showers of jasmine flowers (a manifestation of the `hot’ Goddess energy) and shouts of “Govinda ! Govinda!”
As the Shakti overtakes him, the Karaga priest begins to dance slowly. He transforms from a man-priest into an embodiment of the Goddess. He then makes his way to the temple, from where, clad in a sari with black bangles, jewellery and the jasmine head dress, he will emerge on the 9th night to take the Karaga on its sacred journey across the Pete by the light of the Chaitra Purnima. The transformation is nothing new. The Mahabharatha is rich with the theme of gender transformation –Arjuna becoming Brihannala, the dice rolling Shikhandi, Krishna (Vishnu) transforming into Mohini to fufill the last wish of Aravan, the son of Arjuna and Uloopi.
The body becomes a temple. The sacred Karaga pot is made out of unbaked, raw (Hasi) clay.While the contents remain a secret, it is said to contain a fierce feminine force as well as the cosmic energy of both Shiva and Shakti. Over it is placed the heavy jasmine headdress which has been made according to age old specifications. On it are stuck a conch, discus, trident, mace and drum. Only a man can carry the weight of the 10-11 kg jasmine head dress. But he cannot absorb the fierce Goddess energy and hence takes on a female form to receive it.
The vigil is rewarded at 1.45 am. Jasmine buds rain down on me as the Karaga bearer steps out of the temple. Surrounded by Veerakumaras, s/he strides purposefully through the streets, stopping at Vahnikula Kshatriya houses, temples and other designated points along the journey. As he rushes forward, people shower him with flowers and coins, touching him for blessings and praying to the Goddess for favours. His body has become a temple. It sanctifies the city streets with its presence.
The city becomes a stage: Just before the sky turns a faint blue, the Karaga procession reaches the shrine of Hazarat Tawakkal Mastan Saheb Suhrawardi, a Sufi saint whose shrine is in Cottonpete. The processional deities have been waiting here since midnight. they have been brought here by the Veerakumaras who perform the sword tapping ritual Alagusevai with burning camphor. The Khadim-e-Dargah of the shrine applies vibhuti on their foreheads. He then exchanges lemons with the Karaga priest, a part of the `cool’ offerings to the Goddess when she appears in her fierce, `hot’ form. The Karaga will go around the Dargah thrice and dance before the sanctum. A Fateha will be read (prayer for the departed soul). It is an unprecedented moment, in these fractured times. An intensely powerful symbol of the syncretic and inclusive nature of the Pete.
The shrine and the Karaga create a syncretic culture through shared spatial, economic and historical associations;the saint being venerated by Haidar Ali, founder of the Mysore Sultanate who the Tigalas were closely connected to.
*”Traditional horticulturists, the Tigalas are said to have come to Bangalore in a wave of consecutive migrations from Tamil Nadu – sometime after the 10th century, during the Vijayanagar period and around the 18th century during Haidar Ali and Tipu’s rule to work on the planting of the beautiful garden, Lalbagh amongst other things.” They settled in and around Lalbagh in the Pete and grew produce for the city in their orchards and gardens. They relied heavily on the tanks, lakes and other water bodies in the area. Over time, these were built over, encroached upon and converted into commercial spaces, parking lots and other civic infrastructure. Their traditional horticultural identity was lost to urbanisation.
Over time the `Upnirinakunte’ Shakthipitha where the Shakti is manifested was reduced to a little pool in the Kantheerava Stadium. The Elusuttinakote site, a temple housing the idol of Potha Raja, brother-in-law of the Pandavas, where the Karaga Puranas are recited after the marriage of Draupadi and Arjuna is now sandwiched near the Corporation building. The sacred routes are now through crowded built up areas instead of groves an gardens. But once a year, the Tigalas reclaim the city and transform the urban environment into a site of sacred and symbolic activity.
Later in the morning around 9 am, the Karaga makes its way back to the temple. It is now 8am. There is a sudden shift of energy.All eyes are on a narrow lane near the temple. The balmy morning crackles with tension, excitement and anticipation. There are people in the street, on rooftops and balconies, as far as the eye can see. The conch blows, the drum beats resound and the drummer appears, circling the crowd. The Gante Pujari runs in swinging the bell. The crowd lurches towards the left to make space, crushing me. The drum beats intensify. I hear the cry again “Govindaaaa ! Govindaaa!” I stand on tip toe and try to get a glimpse. The Veerakumaras rush around the corner, brandishing their swords. Behind them is a jasmine draped figure.
The bell tolls furiously, the drum beats get louder and s/he rushes into the crowd. It goes berserk trying to touch him. As he brushes past me, I involuntarily feel a chill up my spine. I sense the presence of a powerful energy, a force I cannot name. What is inside this flower bedecked man-woman ? Who is s/he, really ? He swirls thrice and rushes into the lane ahead in a trance. He is here and not here. I run to the end of the lane to get a second glimpse, but I cannot see him anywhere. It’s like the Pete has swallowed him up.
“The body is God, the body is the temple,
the body is the worshiper, the body is the sacred shrine
What is contained in the universe
is also contained in the body…
– Pipa, 15th century philosopher king.
Landscapes of Urban Memory – Smriti Srinivas.