LAKSHMI

An agrarian Festival at Hatkatchora

(near Jagdalpur, India)


by Nold Egenter


PICTURE REPORT
The present report gains strong support by the photographic documentation of the cult festival of an extremely poor agrarian village in India. Therefore, please browse first to see the pictures.

Basic question in view of our Eurocentric Western missionary mentality:
what do we have to teach these peoples?
Should we not rather learn from them?




Introduction


This very important festival was discovered in the framework of our survey of semantic architecture in the Bastar region. It was observed on the 30th of December 1993. The festival is particularly important because of its unusual representation of the deity Lakshmi. This deity is very widespread in India, but is usually venerated as an anthropomorphous figure. In the cult described in the following it appears as a fibrous bundle of rice plants and evidently forms the centre of the cult.

Lakshmi as a deity thus appears in a very primordial toposemantic form strongly related to agriculture. This raises new questions on the origins of the Lakshmi cult and also on cults in general in India. If this type shows us a very primordial stage, we would have to ask whether the pragmatic and vital tradition is not much more apt to explain the origins of such cults than the conventional system of beliefs. This conviction is the basic reason for our phenomenological method. The material, spatial and behavioural setting is not explained as a concretisation of ideals and beliefs. Our approach proceeds in reverse ways. The complex phenomenological description and reflection provides the meaning of the cult.

The whole festival goes on for 7 days including the traditional preparations. What is reported here is limited on the last day of the cult festival which at the same time is the most important day of the event.


The village

Hatkatchora is a very small village consisting of about 15 houses and situated in a large plain in the middle part of the Indravati river between Jagdalpur (MP) and Jaipur (Orissa). The wider region is inhabited by numerous tribes <1> which is to some extent expressed in differences of houses, economy and use of landscapes. The composition of the population in Hatkatchora could not be clarified, but the inhabitants seem to be dominantly belonging to the Halba tribe.

The village shows a rectangular layout in an area shaded partly by palm trees, partly by large deciduous trees. On two sides of the rectangular path system houses are aligned on both sides.

Between the village and the national highway, numerous paddy fields are situated. The fields were dry at that time and were surrounded by a rectangular system of earthen dams.

In this domain of the rice fields there was a permanent temple closely related to two dominant deciduous trees acting as some sort of landmark. The rectangular structure or the temple was made primitively with poles staked into the ground. The roof consisted of branches resting in the upper forks of the poles. The outer walls were made of fibrous stalk like materials. Very likely a local type of reed was used. In the inside space two deities were set up. They were represented by two large stones coated with white cloth. This permanent temple was not researched in details.

Close by to the permanent temple there was also a similarly simple hut erected as temporary temple for the festival. First we will give a short outline of the festival, then describe in details what was observed as a ceremony related to the temporary temple hut.


The general structure of the festival

The festival as it was seen on the main day has two main focus points:
Evidently both parts are complementary. A temporary sanctuary with its static, resp. toposemantic function (deity Lakshmi in the paddy fields) is the primary element. It is basically a demarcation, the setting of a sign of ontologically high value. But this is related to the whole village. Not only by the peoples taking part in the rite at the temporary temple in the fields, but also by the explicitly dynamic part of the festival. The deity in its dynamic phase is transported through the village. Definite links are expressed. The population identifies with the deity in regard to the protection and the positive energies it offers.

Note that socially the event has a regional aspect: inhabitants of settlements of the wider region visit the village. They are evidently related to the local tribal system. The visitors bring their own signs with them, thus supporting the event in the framework of a larger community.

The families residing in the village in individual houses or in groups of adjacent houses prepare the main street for the procession. Every 40 to 50 meters large gates are erected, thus articulating the street into stations for the sacred procession. The gates were formed mainly by banana trees, palmleaves or wooden poles fixed in the ground on both sides of the path, the leaves or a horizontal pole forming the arch. These gates were then decorated with traditional textiles. Strings were spanned from the houses to the gates indicating relations. In the middle of each gate a small altar with offerings was erected.

As mentioned above, the cult is related to the goddess 'Lakshmi Jagar'. In the wider Hindu belief system Lakshmi stands for prosperity and wealth. Jagar means awakening, waking up, awareness. We do not elaborate here on the historical meanings of this deity. Very likely the cult in its behavioural form is much older than the particular cultic ideology now related to it.


The temporary temple

Evidently the main part of the festival consists of the erection of a temporary temple in the empty rice fields, the temporary abode of the deity Lakshmi Jagar. It is from there that the procession through the adjacent village (gates) is generated.

The temporary temple-hut is rectangular in its plan. The side length of the square is about 1.50 m. The hut is defined by four poles of 4-5 cm in diameter to which horizontal sticks are fixed in a height of about 2 meters. These sticks form the outer lines of a rather crude flat roof. It is loosely covered with twigs with large green leaves (Dumar). Slightly below this roof a garland is made hanging on all four sides. It is decorated with mango leaves in regular distance. Since such garlands are a widespread element of Hindu temples it is evident that they provide the most elementary sign that the crude hut is a sacred place, a temporary temple.

Initially the ground surface of the temporary temple is marked by an ornament using rice flower ('rangoli' [Gujarati], 'alpana' [Bengoli], 'kalam' [Malayalam]). It defines a square of about 60 cm inside with a second square slightly larger and shows triangles protruding with their tops towards the outside.

In a second step three bundles of seven rice plants are put into the centre. In the whole there are 21 stalks forming a tripartite unit. Roots of the plants and the corresponding earth are kept and form a remarkable part, giving stability to the plants.

This seems to be the basic outfit. Now gradually peoples from the village, men, women and musicians, also visitors from other villages join the community. They are all pittoresquely grouped around the temporary temple.

With the beginning of the puja proper, numerous brass vessels are deposited on one side. Four terracotta oil burners are set up in the four corners and their wicks are lit. Strings connect them on three sides. These works are mostly done by women but the village head and an elderly man seems to have an important function too. They perform the puja strewing leaves, flower petals in a traditional way.

For the fire small pieces of various types of woods are used (neen, chawdan, bel, mango aam, jam, jamun). What the meaning of this combination is could not be clarified.

Finally a dumar branch is brought and stuck into the earth. It is clearly forked at the top and at both twigs leaves are left naturally. Its bent upper part is directed towards the rice bundle. Contact seems to be intended at the top.

The rice bundle is then covered with white cloth and thus becomes sacred, the Lakshmi deity . About in the middle of its height it is decorated with a flowerlike circular form tressed with fresh yellow palm leaves. The same but slightly smaller decoration is fixed to the dumar branch about 20 cm above ground. The cloth of the Lakshmi deity, as well as the flowerlike decorations are then coloured with intensive red powder.

The same flowerlike decoration is then fixed on the front of the priest's and priestess' head. Both are seated at the side of the temporary temple with some distance to allow the active persons perform the puja. When the priest and his wife have received their decorations fixed to their heads the Lakshmi deity is freed from its earth clumps, is lifted from the grounds of the temporary temple and put on the 'thali' (metal dish) provided by the priest and the priestess. Some bills of money (Rupees) are also fixed as a donation to the deity.

When this arrangement is completed the Deota and the women throw themselves on the ground in veneration and in a long ceremony the thali is covered with many other donations.

The formation of the procession


Several neighbouring villages have come to visit the event. They have brought with them their flagpoles in different colours (flags and cloth around pole). The following villages take part in the festival: Arawal, Banarapara, Hatka Karkapal, Patharaguda, Hatkachora.
Some of the villages have poles which are distinguised like a kind of heraldry:




Similarly some of them have brought whith them some portable shrines which also seem to be covered with coloured cloth characteristic of the villages.

The procession starts with a strikingly dynamic procedure, a frenetic dance of a 'deota' and a young man . Deota is an inherited role, a man wearing cloths and having painted his face like a woman. Both manoeuvre themselves into trance, getting possessed by the spirit of the deity. It is very evident that this striking role of a 'transvestite' has its origins not in psychological problems of the person, but is an outcome of the polar structure of the cult tradition . The cult unites a toposemantic and static element (temple, deity set up, representing a temporary stage of the permanent instalment of the deity [originally: renewal] and a dynamic par t which appears here dominantly as procession , relating the field sanctuary with the houses and families of the village.

Towards the end of this ecstatic event the procession forms with all the peoples having been around the scene as observers. They move towards the village stopping at each of the gates and performing sacrificial ceremonies.


Interpretation

The festival is clearly stratified. It is an ' accumulation' <1> of pre-hinduistic or early hinduistic agrarian tradition, very likely related to the demarcation of agrarian fields, to territorial control. This basic part is superseded by more advanced Hindu rites using fire and other concepts of sacrifice. Very likely also the hut is a neo-primitivsed form of the evolved temple construction. Originally the cult was performed with much more simplicity in the open.

The main characteristic of the cult festival consists in the fact that the deity is not represented in the usual Hindu ways by an anthropomorphous figure. A defined cluster, three bundles of seven rice plants, a tectonic bundle of rice stalks , is used as a cult marker. During the ritual this marker is clothed with white cloth , probably an allusion to evolved anthropomorphism, and the roots are freed of earth clumps which rest on the grounds of the small temporary temple.

Its relation to Lakshmi as a deity can be a primary form, thus showing the prototype of the evolved Lakshmi cult. Evidently, the cult with the rice bundles in its centre is doubtless an early form, which in early times might have formed the basic stratum for the evolution of anthropomorphous cults (s. Egenter 1994). In the present cult the nucleus is a primary tradition which has adapted to evolved Lakshmi cults which might have developed in other regions but under similar conditions. Anthropomorphisation of deities is definitely a late cultural development.

In whatever way it is interpreted, the cult shows provoking traits which make us reflect about the origins of the Hindu cult system. If thus we look at this festival as an accumulation of elements of different times, we can clearly read its 'processual character'. The territorial demarcation is at its basis and creates the affinity of the socially active part, whether individually or socially. The 'demarcator' and 'protector' of the fields is existentially primary. At the same time this relation, and its formal implications (polarity) creates the onto logical values on a very elementary stage. This ontological preformation allows later to adapt the tradition to traditions that developed in other domains, maybe to 'higher' and more refined forms, in this case the Hindu element. This can trigger developments like elaborate architecture, professional priesthood, elaborate interpretations, elaborate ceremonies. But theyalways have to supersede to structural principles already preformed, otherwise they are rejected by the local population.



Notes
Illustrations and Captions
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