Singing the Goddess into Place
Locality, Myth, and Social Change in Chamundi of the Hill, a Kannada Folk Ballad
Series: SUNY series in Hindu Studies
- ISBN: 9781438488653
- Published By: State University of New York Press
- Published: July 2022
Caleb Simmons’ Singing the Goddess into Place: Locality, Myth, and Social Change in Chamundi of the Hill, a Kannada Folk Ballad analyzes the Kannada (south Indian) ballad of “Chamundi of the Hill,” the goddess who lives on a hill overlooking the south Indian city of Mysore. Following six chapters of analysis, the book presents a full translation of the ballad (125-179) as it was performed by Kamsale Mahadevayya and transcribed and published in Kannada as Bettada Chamundi by Professor P.K. Rajashekhara in 1972. The book’s title refers to ways in which the ballad of Chamundi emplaces this goddess, her husband Nanjunda, and her sister Uttanhalli within local pilgrimage and narrative networks that help to create the sacredness of “this place.”.
The ballad of Chamundi tells the story of the goddess’ triumph over the cosmos-threatening buffalo demon Mahisha, followed by a battle with his even-more-threatening brother Aisu, whose every drop of blood replicates into another demon. These narratives parallel those found in the Sanskrit Devi Mahatmya, with some changes in names and details. Chamundi, overwhelmed by the replicating demons, calls out for help from her sister Uttanhalli, who has emerged from Chamundi’s battle sweat. Similar to Kali in the Devi Mahatmya, Uttanhalli spreads out her tongue to prevent Aisu’s blood drops from hitting the earth and replicating as more demons; Chamundi is ultimately victorious.
The ballad then turns towards a very local story of Chamundi bathing in a river to wash the battle blood off her hands. Here she is seen by Nanjunda, a jangamma (wandering ascetic) who shares many characteristics with the pan-Indian deity Shiva. The god falls in love with Chamundi and, after some negotiations about his other wives, they get married on the riverbank. After two blissful weeks together, Nanjunda says he must return to his temple to bless his devotees during his festival (significantly, he is also returning to his two wives). When he doesn’t come back, Chamundi entreats her sister to call back Nanjunda; after several twists and turns, one of his wives also insists that he return to Chamundi to save them all from her wrath. The ballad narrates a goddess who is both the great goddess who saves the world and “our” goddess who is in and of the local landscape. Chamundi protects the erstwhile kingdom of Mysore and is worshipped through local festivals; she also shares (some) human emotions and participates in local south Kannada cultures of marriage and kinship.
A central question of the book is: what are the relationships between regional/Kannada and pan-Indian/Sanskrit traditions? Simmons critiques the hierarchical valuation of several common analytic binaries—pan-Indian/regional; brahminic/non-elite; classical/folk (19); high/low (chapter 5); benevolent/malevolent goddesses (110). He searches for language that doesn’t imply regional derivation from, or secondary status to, brahminic pan-Indian traditions. However—with caveats, scare quotes, or new definitions—he continues to use the terms “folk” and “high/low” and periodically reinforces such binaries, as when he asserts, for example, that the ballad encompasses “a perspective that runs parallel to and, often, in competition with the elite culture that also exists in the region” (20). Elsewhere he calls the relationship between brahminic and nonbrahminic traditions “tense” (48). Ultimately, however, he argues that the ballad describes interconnected “ritual worlds [that] are part of one large network of religious stories, practices and devotion that is constructed and connected through their spatial relations” (xxx). More ethnographic research would be needed to introduce other ways in which locals themselves articulate and experience these relationships.
“Chamundi of the Hill” is traditionally sung by members of the Kamsale community, which is drawn from a subcaste of the Kuruba agricultural-shepherding caste. Classified by the Indian government as an Other Backward Caste (OBC), many Kurubas converted to Lingayatism, a Shaiva sect whose theology critiques ritualism and caste hierarchy. Simmons reminds us that caste and social hierarchies are, however, still “a touchstone within the tradition” (92) and that the ballad itself expresses “hierarchical anxiety” (115). Uttanhalli is hesitant to call her brother-in-law back to Chamundi because, she asserts, Chamundi and Nanjunda are from different castes, one that eats meat “like demons,” and the other that “ties the linga” (that is, Lingayyat), respectively (42); she also questions the validity of their wedding, which was performed without certain rituals.
Primarily based on this inter-caste marriage, Simmons argues that a message of social change is “embedded at the heart of the narrative” (xvi). This conclusion would seem to assume that deities are role models and narratives are social mirrors, neither of which has been supported here textually or ethnographically. Simmons focuses his analyses on a single performance text published in 1972. We learn little of this or other performance contexts, except that the ballad is performed “outside the temple” and at various village festivals. We learn nothing of changes in performance styles, contexts, interpretations in the last 50 years. To know whether and how the ballad serves as a critique of caste, one would need to know more about how caste manifests, is performed, and has changed (or not) in everyday life, as well as more ethnographic research with performers and audiences. Including the perspectives and voices of local interlocutors would also address some of Simmons’ unease about his own positionality as a white scholar in postcolonial India (21).
One of many strengths of Singing the Goddess into Place is the archival and historical research that introduces translation and analysis of parts of a royal history called The Great Kings of Mysore (ca. 1860s), said to have been composed by Krishnaraja Wodeyar III. This is the same king who replaced the non-brahmin priests of Chamundi’s temple with the Tamil brahmins who introduced Sanskritic temple rituals. The ballad showcases alternative urban histories and mappings to those of this royal history. Other possible intertextualities would be the broader performance repertoire of the Kamsales (what else do they sing) and narratives of other village goddesses that have similar intersections with puranic stories. These intertextualities could serve as indigenous commentaries on the ballad of Chamundi; and we may learn that this particular ballad is not as unique as Simmons sometimes implies (2). However, that may also be a different project.
Simmons wrote the book for use in undergraduate classrooms (xv), a decision that has shaped some choices of framing, translation and transliteration, the short chapters, and non-jargonistic writing. He provides plot summaries in the chapters so that a reader can mostly understand the analyses without having read the translation of the full narrative. However, that translation is one of the strengths of the book and enables readers to engage in their own analyses. Simmons raises important questions about different kinds of narratives in Hindu traditions, and this book is an excellent pedagogical resource.
Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger is professor emeritus in religion at Emory University.Joyce Burkhalter FlueckigerDate Of Review:May 9, 2023