As the bright full moon plays hide and seek, Lacchani’s wrinkled hands roll her long braid into a bun. Clad in a white sari with blue border, Lacchani, a 60-year-old elderly woman darts through narrow serpentine lanes from her village to reach Shri Mahalingeshwara Temple, Nandalike in Karkala.
After a few minutes’ walk, she stands at the entrance of the abode of Lord Mahalingeshwara and prostrates. Inside this divine structure lies a whole new world of ecstasy for Lacchani.
She is evidently a happy woman today, a sharp contrast to what she was 40-years-ago.
Back then, a 20-year-old coy and shy Lacchani had decided to end her life after she failed to change her bitter marital reality. An alcoholic, abusive and infidel husband had wrecked her happiness. Fighting back the thoughts of suicide, Lacchani had then decided to live and live like nothing less than a Goddess and she succeeds, thanks to Siri!
Since then, every year, as the full moon shines bright, Lacchani is one among thousands of women who congregate at Nandalike Sri Mahalingeshwara Temple in pursuit of happiness, solace and dignity. She is one among the thousands of women who willingly go into a frenzied trance and purge themselves of pent-up frustrations and feelings.
As the temple’s annual festival begins here, a sense of frenzied eeriness reaches its peak. With the symphonic percussion in the background and with the fragrance of areca flowers, incense sticks and smoke from oil lamps engulfing the area, women slip into trance with areca spikes in hand, swaying and dancing in corybantic ecstasy.
They certainly look maniacal, smearing the areca spikes on their face, with their hair let down loose and awry! The scenes that prevail later are nothing short of being maddening, chaotic, hysterical and weird.
Women in large numbers surrender themselves to ‘Siri’ and once slipped into trance, they scream, haul, cry, wail, sing and dance, most of the time narrating the glorious oral epic of Siri, called the ‘Paddana’ (15,683 lined poem) and sometimes also speaking out loud their personal ordeals.
Who is Siri?
Siri was a mythical woman who is remembered down the generations for her courage to step and stand against the patriarchal society. She is considered as a harbinger of women’s emancipation and also the founder of the matriarchal system of lineage practiced in coastal Karnataka by many communities.
Legend has it that Siri was found amidst an areca flower by a childless local chieftain named Bermer Alva of Majalottu Beedu of Sathyanapura. Siri’s troubles begin with her marriage to Kanthu Poonja of Basrur Beedu. On realising that her husband has been unfaithful to her, pregnant Siri abandons him, returns to Sathyanapura and gives birth to a son. She names him Kumara.
Despite astrologers spelling out clearly to Bermer Alva that tragedy would strike him if he even steals a glimpse of his grandson, Alva sneaks a look at the child and dies.
In turn of events, Siri is rendered out on street to fend for herself and her new born. She wanders far and wide with her son Kumara and her maid Daru and performs several miracles.
It is said that through her powers, Siri transforms Kumara and Daru as spirits.
Later, she re-marries Kodsar Alva of Kotrapady Guttu (fiefdom) and bears one daughter named Sonne and dies, leaving behind a declaration that the ones who worship her will be blessed with abundance and will be cured of various disorders.
Siri’s lineage ends with her twin granddaughters Abbaga and Daraga, who die after a fight over a game named ‘Chenne’ (Mancala). Due to the tragic end of the two, till this day siblings are forbidden from playing this game.
However, Siri lives on, through thousands of her devotees, who throng various temples in the coastal belt just to seek succour from her story.
Kabatharu, Hiriyadka, Dalyottu, Pangala and Nidgal are the most significant Siri temples where thousands of women congregate to get possessed, during the ‘PaggudaPunnime’ (From April to May). Apart from these main temples, there are over 20 other places across Dakshina Kannada and Udupi where Siri finds place of a deity.
Like Lacchani, Korapolu, an elderly woman from Moodabidri had remained restless throughout the year to participate in the Siri Jathre. Why not? For this possession has been life-changing for all the women who had taken refuge in Siri.
“Life has never been the same ever after Siri embraced me. My status changed from being a mere punching bag for my husband and his family to a divine person. I was suddenly looked at with lot of respect and reverence by my family and the neighbourhood. My words were not just treated seriously but were also treated as verdicts,” says Korapolu adding that every time she was possessed, her husband stood before her with folded hands.
Reverence and fear of Siri lurked from his eyes. The possession of Korapolu reformed the man to the extent that in their twilight days her husband accompanies her to the Siri fairs during the summers without fail.
Tales of Lacchani and Korapolu are just symbolic. The pathos of Siri is reflected in each and every devotee of Siri. While some researchers call it a “possession cult”, many opt to bill it off as a “mass therapy.” What is noteworthy is the fact that majority of women hail from economically/ socially backward classes/ castes. So it is a poor woman’s tool for empowerment or a medium to vent her anger, rage, pent-up emotions and frustrations, which without this tool is only a vague possibility.
As per researchers and folk experts, most of the women taking refuge in Siri live in acute poverty, a background where security and stability in life is a mere mirage.
Late marriage, spinsterhood, illiteracy, infertility, alcoholic husband, bad married life etc. are some of the common reasons due to which women take up Siri cult.
“It is nothing but a beautiful concept of empowerment through culture. We have to see the instant transformation of the women in terms of status, dignity and identity once they declare themselves as Siri. I call it cultural empowerment of women who have not experienced economic or social empowerment,” says researcher Gayathri Navada speaking to Karnataka Today.
Navada says that while elite and literate women have access to various channels to overcome their problems, the women at the grassroots level have very limited channels to vent their feelings and in such a situation, Siri comes as the best option for them to purge themselves of feelings of anguish and fight against them.
“The lady who is abused, tortured and battered by her husband for no fault of hers suddenly sees respect in her husband’s eyes once she reveals about her another identity. Certain degree of sanctity is attached to her not only by the husband and his family but also in the neighbourhood,” says Navada.
“It is gratifying for her,” says Navada adding that there are many women who claim to have been cured of physical as well as psycho-somatic disorders after resorting to Siri cult. “Hence many feel that the process is curative as well,” she says.
The women who come to Siri temples as strangers end up knitting beautiful bonds for themselves.
“A strong sense of kinship develops every year between these women, which continues even outside the temple premises, even after the identity of Siri is shed. They keep in touch with each other and also come to help one another in distress. There are many instances of how older women have taken care of their younger Siri acquaintances during times of delivery or any other health disorders,” points out Navada.
She calls it poor women’s social networking!
Symbiosis Law School Dean Dr Shashikala Shetty who is a folk enthusiast says that even though the entire Siri cult is supposed to be a female dominated cult, at the annual fairs of Siri, Kumara, Siri’s son plays the major role.
“In the Siri oral epic, Kumar is a mere nobody, but at the Siri Jathre, one may notice that impersonators of Kumara are the one who initiates possession and also prompt the women out of trace by sprinkling water on their faces,” says Dr Shetty who adds that with the Self Help Groups and Stree Shakti organisations bringing in quantum change in the economic and social status of the women at the grassroots level, the scenes at the Siri jathre may not have undergone massive change as even today there are good number of younger women participating in Siri Jathre.
But, she says, that again is debatable because there are many young women from the same background who may be looking at the Siri cult with apprehension today.
To testify Dr Shetty’s observation, Jalaja, a 32-year-old SHG member merely stares at her mother Muthu, who is possessed and is in a conversation with Kumara at the Nandalike Temple.
Even as her mother displays her aggression in those convulsive moves, Jalaja fiddles with her mobile phone, probably worried about her candy crush points!
An abandoned woman herself, Jalaja does not want to be associated with the cult at all.
She took control of her life and found her ground as a small time entrepreneur making both ends meet by producing home-made detergents and dish washers.
“I would worship Siri as a ‘Daiva’ (demi-god) but will never surrender myself to her,” says Jalaja adding that she is against pouring out her predicaments in a hypnotic state in an open public platform-like corridor of a temple. There are many young women like Jalaja who share the same feeling.
Evidently, elderly women outnumber the young ones at the Siri fair.
Back to reality
As the presiding deity is taken around the temple courtyard with all the pomp, fanfare and gaiety, the Siris on the outer ring of the temple lie exhausted. At the break of dawn, these women gather their things and themselves up and leave the temple with a promise to be back the next year.
Call it catharsis, venting of frustration, a poor woman’s pursuit for happiness, therapy, fight for dignity or simply a defence mechanism of a woman to change the harsh realities of her life, what Siri has done to thousands of women is a phenomenal epic in itself.
Their exaltation to being deities is rather palpable, because after one night the deification is only a near possibility. But, this near possibility overshadows their very identity and puts them up at least on a social pedestal, if not an altar!