From Survival to Respect: The Narrative Performances and Ritual Authority of a Female Hindu Healer
This essay argues that through narrative performance, Valliyammal, a female Hindu healer from South India, earns respect (matippu or mariyatai ), creates and maintains her ritual authority in both her domestic shrine and in public temple spaces, and legitimates her unusual religious leadership role. Valliyammal's life stories constitute one discursive strategy to establish her identity as a now-single woman whose "call" to serve the Goddess demanded choosing the deity over her husband and thus entailed celibacy, which in turn has intensified her power (cakti ) and facilitated her ritual knowledge. As a professional ritual healer, Valliyammal inhabits what has traditionally been a male role, and from this vantage point, she negotiates normative gender expectations, extends gender boundaries, and ultimately embodies something of an alternative gender ideology. Importantly, in addition to authorizing new models of selfhood, Valliyammal's narratives and ritual performances also produce the conditions for her economic independence and, thus, her sustenance.
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