An Anthropological Analysis of Rituals Performed During the Hindu Angalamman Festival
This assignment seeks to describe and analyze the central ritual performed during the Angalamman festival, celebrated by a sub-sect of the Tamil Hindu ethnic group, in the small town of Kaveripattinam (population 15000) in Southern India.
An attempt has been made to carefully detail the ritual proceedings, and to map them against various anthropological theories including Van Geemp’s ‘Three Phases of Ritual’ and Marcel Mauss’s ‘Three Gifting Obligations’. The study will then move onto describe the enablers, participants, attendees, witnesses, the structure of society, the social purpose of the festival, and the roles played by faith and law. A brief note of the author’s personal reflections is also furnished before a summary in conclusion.
Angalamman is a non-Vedic Hindu Goddess believed to have protested injustice by crushing the fifth head of the creator of the universe. According to her Tamil Hindu devotees, she offers her kindness and protection to those who offer her their suffering. The greater the pain endured, the greater the promise of protection. If the offering exceeds expectations, the devotees also believe boons will be granted and wishes will be fulfilled.
Before the break of dawn, thousands of pilgrims carrying piercing objects have already lined up outside the Angalamman temple. Around 100 young male volunteers working for the temple, take their positions to perform the administer the piercings, which they have been trained to do with minimum blood loss.
The metal tridents or spears range from 1 mm thick to 3 cm thick in diameter, and 5 cm long to 10 meters long, which temples are sent through their cheek/s. Some seekers bring dozens of lemons which are sewn onto them to look like ponchos. Still, others insert thick hooks and metal chains into the skin of their backs, tying the other end of the chain to a large rock or an SUV.
Some pilgrims are here with a specific wish list (like wanting to find a good wife for their son or wanting their husband to find a job). For some, this ritual is an annual routine, during which they renew their request for protection during this dark age of Kaliyuga (Earth’s final, evil, era before Shiva’s dance of destruction commences).
There are also those returning to offer thanks for what they might have received. The Thankers express their gratitude by throwing fists full of salt on a procession chariot (Mayana Simhavahana Theyill) parked outside the temple.
The seekers take a 2 km walk to the cemetery, cheered by the crowd that lines the narrow street. At the cemetery, a Sadhu (Saint) will remove the piercings and administer the formal blessing, thus marking the closing of the ritual.
MAPPING AGAINST ANTHROPOLOGICAL THEORIES
Identifying Van Geemp’s Three Phases of Ritual
- Separation: The Seekers (accompanied by one or many family members) come to get their piercings done at the temple. During an interview, several subjects claimed that during the process of being pierced or decorated they experienced an unshakeable feeling of humility and surrender during this phase.
- Liminality: After the piercings are done, the seeker claims to feel transported into a state of isolation: alone in this battle against pain, in a realm within their own psyche, oblivious to the reveling supporters surrounding them. During their two-kilometer walk to the cemetery, some of them go into a trance-like state. And sometimes, it turns into drama, with uncontrolled dancing, wielding of spears and swords, and indiscriminate lashing out, resulting in the crowd scampering for safety.
During many such episodes observed during this study, it was evident that there was an inner circle of people deifying the actor, believing he is possessed by the Goddess; the middle circle was seen scrambling to save themselves from injury, screaming in fright, and the outer circle that stood back, observed and were entertained.
- Reaggregation: Upon reaching the graveyard and once the piercings are removed, members of the family of the subject huddle together and receive the blessings collectively from the Sadhu in the graveyard. The relief and re-assimilation are evident and celebrations after this are galore. At this stage, the subject experiences a sense of pride for their victory of mind over body.
There’s a large amount of Gifting by pilgrims to the Goddess (read temple), that stems from the philosophy that one must first give something in order to receive something.
Marcel Mauss’s three obligations are clearly fulfilled. The pilgrim:
- Gives (a donation to the temple, the ticket price paid for the piercing)
- Receives (success, granting of boons, etc. which are treated as divine rewards rather than any outcome of hard work or coincidence);
- Reciprocates (by throwing salt) plus perhaps a top-up donation to emphasize the thanks.
Balance of Value: Money that comes from ticket sales and donations goes into the host temple’s treasury, adding up to about 70 Million INR (1 million USD). However, the value of blessings is considered to far outshine the value of any human-made donation.
ANALYSIS OF SOCIAL PURPOSE
Kaveripattinam’s social structure is based on the Hindu caste system, which has been abolished by law but still holds immense sway over people across India
This system determines the townspeople’s hierarchical patterns, with priests placed first, then administrators, then businessmen, and lowest, the menial workers.
The family structure (in this case, the temple owner’s family) is a combination of patrilocal and matrifocal, with the man playing house-owner, breadwinner, and social representative, while the woman manages the kitchen and housework, and holds the key to the safety box that contains all precious and dangerous things including money and alcohol, rationing them out with her stable judgment.
During the festival, women remain immersed in their kitchen duties, to dole out food to the endless stream of passers-by. The men organize and supervise the ritual proceedings.
This unchanging format of responsibility among members of the family, sexes, and castes seems to reinforce the sanctity of and rigidity of roles, hierarchy, and familial structure.
The town also holds pride in being the Holyland for believers in the protective powers of Angalamman. Their coming back year after year, in spite of forming no social bonds with local residents, throws light on the importance of continuing their ancestral tradition of making offerings of their own pain and suffering to Angalamman.
Lastly, when the host temple doles out free food to devotees, it reinforces who the giver is, and who the receiver, thus emphasizing Power and Hierarchy.
I grew up surrounded by people who are superstitious with strong beliefs in witchcraft and in the supernatural. However, my prior experience of Hinduism is so far removed from the context set in Kaveripattinam, that I could not personally empathize or identify with any of the proceedings.
This exercise demanded that I study, understand and explain what I observed, objectively and without any prejudice. Although I found the observations very easy to record, the purpose easy to explain, I did find it a challenge to witness this ritual at such close proximity, with such a deep intellectual involvement, and not be emotionally moved into cultivating personal prejudices.
I did also observe the power and dominance of faith over scientific reason: Pilgrims came from a variety of educational and professional backgrounds. Some are well educated, employed in scientific fields in multi-national corporations. However, their faith in the power of Angalamman is so deeply rooted that no education or exposure had succeeded to dilute it.
Law or No Law?
There was a man standing in the middle of the procession street, whipping his five-year-old child. The child was bleeding from fresh wounds but seemed drugged, barely reacting to the lashings. After every lash, the man pointed to his begging bowl. Passers-by, including state police, were either not reacting, or dropping money into the bowl.
On the other hand, a newly enforced law that piercing spears are not to be more than 10 feet long, was being respected by manufacturers. How were people deciding on what’s to be obeyed, and what’s not? It felt like a complex contradiction, with selective abidance.
I later found out that the decision on whether or not a law is abided by or not is decided by the temple owners and priests, and this is communicated through their messengers to the public, orally.
In this paper, I have presented a detailed observation of a specific ritual
(piercings) performed during the Angalamman festival. During the course of
the study, several anthropological theories were mapped, e.g. the
Multivocality of Symbols, Van Geemp’s ‘Three Phases of Ritual’ and Marcel
Mauss’s ‘Three Gifting Obligations’ were easily identifiable.
The evident dominance of faith vs. science and caste-based authority over
political authority, the complex social structure (patrilocal-matrifocal),
combined with the undercurrent of hierarchical segregation, overtly or
symbolically revealed the social purpose of the festival.
The complex and deep proceedings surrounding the ritual of the piercing were not
possible to fit into a limited word essay. Hence a number of connected sub-
rituals have not been mentioned here, and observations, anthropological
mappings, the family and village social structure, and personal reflections too
have been condensed to only the highlights.
Photo credits: Devika Krishnan, Fredrik Lindholm, Josefin Sorstrand, Chris
Van Gennep,A., 1960 The Rites of Passage, London, Kegan Paul
Marcel Mauss’ The Gift (Essai sur le don, 1925).
Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s Small Places, Large Issues. (1995, 2001)
Rodney Fray’s introduction to Arnold Van Gennep’s rites of passage (University of
Overview of Victor Turner’s account of Ndembu ritual (Deflem, M., 1991 Ritual,
Anti-Structure, and Religion: A Discussion of Victor Turner’s Processual Symbolic
Analysis, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 30, no. 1, pp. 1–25) on the
Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 1991. “Ritual, Anti-Structure, and Religion: A
Discussion of Victor Turner’s Processual Symbolic Analysis.” Journal for the
Scientific Study of Religion 30(1):1-25.
Photo credits: Devika Krishnan, Fredrik Lindholm, Josefin Sorstrand