Authority and Protest in South Asian Religions
By Leah Elizabeth Comeau.
My research is situated at the intersection of the fields of religious history and of material culture. Geographically, I work in South Asia, especially Tamil South India and I utilize an intersectional feminist framework to approach modern and medieval expressions of religion. In my work, I routinely encounter scholars of anthropology, modern goddess traditions, contemporary politics, and other fields citing early classical literatures as the origin of “the good Tamil woman” (or South Asian womanhood more broadly). In this short blog, I would like to share some examples that push back against this notion of timeless “femininity,” which flattens the remarkable diversity and authority of woman-figures in literature, rituals, and temple life, past and present.
In my recent article in JFSR, I analyzed verses of poetry from a famous ninth-century poem Tirukkovaiyar, which is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and attributed to poet-saint Manikkavacakar. In this poem, we find desire, obsession, and various conflicting emotions felt by a wife, a mistress, and other female characters. The following verse, spoken by the hero’s mistress, widens our perspectives on how womanhood and human relationships were imagined and characterized in the early medieval period.
Saying in praise of herself
If I can’t draw grace from the sides of those whose smiles spread like lightning
who can fully embrace like those who gained grace from the one of Ciṟṟampalam
who has matted hair spread with fire
who conquered the group of cities with arrows spread with fire
I will be like the flower creeper from the water village
who already separated from the man of the water village.Tirukkovaiyar 372
Here, the public women competing for the hero’s favor are compared to devotees seeking Shiva’s grace. If the mistress fails, she will be no better than the hero’s wife who is like a flowering vine. Through this verse, readers learn how to relate to a tremendous god with fiery hair using intimate emotions of desire (or despair) expressed by lovers.
I’ve been working on another publication that is also about religious expression in South India. This article “Saturated Space, Signs of Devotion in South Indian Temples” will appear this fall in South Asian Studies. It is about the materiality and aesthetics of posters, billboards, and calendars that hang on and over walls in contemporary South Indian Hindu temples. Oftentimes, these signs obscure devotees’ views of stone inscriptions that were engraved directly into the walls in earlier centuries. I show that contemporary signboards are both generative, looking forward into future devotional activities, as well as deeply rooted in medieval forms of temple worship.
I mention my work on the materiality of temple walls here because my writing on the relative diversity of roles and attitudes inhabited by women characters in Hindu poetry plays on very similar relationships between the past and present in Tamil religious culture. The old stone temple inscriptions have a lasting influence on the styles and effects of the plastic signs that hang over them. Similarly, female characters in early medieval poetry are routinely sought after by scholars and devotees for comment on contemporary conversations about gender, constructions of femininity, and religious practices in South India.
The intersection of gender roles in South Indian Hindu practice, early literatures, and notions of an “ancient tradition” have also captured the journalistic attention of local and international news agencies. Since 2018, flurries of protests, reporters, and violence against women have surrounded the Sabarimala Temple in the southwestern Indian state, Kerala. The sacred place dedicated to the Hindu deity, Lord Ayyappa, upheld a contested practice of excluding women pilgrims between the ages of 10 and 50. Those in favor of the ban on women of menstruating age often cite “ancient tradition” and claim that their exclusive practices are authorized by early literary texts. However, historian Janaki Nair has demonstrated that the pilgrimage site had in fact allowed women to enter in the recent past. Nair reminds us that religious culture is constantly adapted and refashioned; this is not a failure of the temple to maintain consistent practices but rather the healthy mark of a living community. While the discriminatory nature of the ban was debated in court, renewed protests broke out in Kerala at the turn of the New Year in early 2019.
In a more jovial vein, the Tamil harvest celebration, Pongal was celebrated in January in the southeastern Indian state, Tamil Nadu. The origin of this annual festival is traced back to descriptions found in temple inscriptions and poetry attributed to the same ninth-century Hindu saint who wrote Tirukkovaiyar. While Pongal is for the whole family and highlights aspects of farming typically associated with men, such as the blessing of cows and buffaloes, many aspects of the days-long holiday fall within the domestic domain of women, including the threshold decoration called kolam and the preparation of special foods. Pongal, for example, is the name of the holiday as well as the name of a boiling rice dish that is enjoyed on the second day of festivities.
Returning west to Kerala in February, this time to the Attukal Bhagavathy Temple and in overwhelming contrast to the Sabarimala temple conflict, people gather to celebrate Attukal Pongala. Attukal Pongala is an all-women festival during which hundreds of thousands of women gather to cook and offer payasam, a sweet rice dish, to the Mother Goddess. In this sacred place, the goddess is also referred to as Kannaki, the fierce heroine of the classical Tamil epic, Cilappatikaram, the same text that I referenced in my JFSR article for examples of powerful woman and goddess figures (Comeau 2019: 59).
Each example shared here, whether temple signs or delicious dishes, lies at an intersection between the dynamic trajectories of contemporary religious practice, women’s agency and authority, temple histories, and what survives of the early Tamil literary corpus. The reinterpretation of classical and medieval texts not only informs our understanding of past and current religious debates, it also directs us to new possibilities and innovations for future expressions of South Asian religion.
Leah Elizabeth Comeau (she, her, hers) is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. Her research is focused on religion in South Asia, material religion, feminist studies, and Tamil studies. Her book Material Devotion in a South Indian Poetic World is forthcoming (2020) in the Material Religion series at Bloomsbury Press. Comeau’s article, “Representations of women and divinity in medieval Tamil literature”, was recently published in JFSR 35.1.