Rains failed once in Itagi village. The village elders sought Bhimavva’s help for bringing rain. She said to them: “The rain god says he will come only when Kori Hanumavva weeps.” This remark appeared strange. The elders had to abide however by the word of Dharma, the name of the power working through her and the author of her words and deeds. How to make Hanumavva weep? The elders enlisted the help of a sentinel, who was passing through the village, for realizing their ploy. Hanumavva, a poor, old woman, lived with her two children. The sentinel came to her house and demanded to know her son’s whereabouts since he had to be arrested for a horrible crime. A frightened Hanumavva broke into tears. It started to rain right away. The rougher the interrogation, the more she wept. And heavier became the rainfall. The earth cooled in the end.
Bhimavva spoke in difficult riddles at times. Ordinary expressions contained extraordinary meaning. Only Chayasaaba Hosamane could help make sense of them. A village messenger by profession and a Muslim by caste, he also worked as an administrator in Bhimavva’s matha. Viewed as her shadow (chaya), therefore, he had seen Allah in Dharma and found liberation.
Anxious that the monsoon would be cut short abruptly, the villagers of Itagi rushed to Bhimavva. They had taken care to take along Chayasaaba with them. After a long silence, Bhimavva said: “Chaya?”“I’m here, sister,” he replied as he moved closer to her. She asked: “Do you see two ants moving on top of Shantagiri Hill?” He said: “Yes, I can see them clearly.” She asked further: “Does the one in the front have a bell around its neck?” He replied: “Yes, I can see it.” She then turned to the others and asked them to leave. Understanding her perfectly, Chayasaaba assured the villagers that the sequence of rains would not be interrupted. And the rains came the way they always did.
(Itagi Bhimavva is a revered goddess in north eastern Karnataka. The miracles retold above are from around a hundred miracles that show the immense faith the local community placed in her for overcoming drought, illness, penury, childlessness and other difficulties.)
The devotees of a goddess were once keen to build a small temple for her. But the goddess spurned the idea. The perplexed devotees begged her for an explanation. She asked them: “Does everyone have a house?” One of the devotees said he did not have one. She then replied, “I don’t want a house until all of you have one.”
Another goddess once discouraged her devotees from building a shrine for her. She wanted to be left free to wander as she pleased whereas the shrine door would restrict her movements. The doorless shrine her devotees then built for her still exists on the outskirts of Bangalore.
The devotees of yet another goddess, Bisilamma, were also keen to build a shrine for her. The goddess pleaded with them to build one without a roof. She clarified: “I want to shiver in the cold, burn in the sun and get drenched in the rains.” Identifying with the hardship of those struggling for shelter, she invited suffering for herself.
On another occasion, an elderly person asked a goddess on behalf of the local people: “Where were you all these days? Have you forgotten us?” The goddess retorted, “Is yours the only village? I need to look after the seven worlds. Do you know how difficult my work is?” The elderly person persisted, “We work so hard. Don’t you see that?’ The goddess shot back, ‘Am I working any less?”
(I have translated these accounts of village deities that Siddalingaiah, folklorist, poet and Dalit leader, shared with me in an interview a few years ago. Allowing for a more intimate relationship with the devotees, he noted, these deities exude “affection, love, and large-heartedness.” The central thought behind their festivals is the well-being of all. And, he added: “the festivals of village deities celebrate the grandness of life.”)
There was a village. It had a wealthy headman. Thimmi was a servant in his household. She would talk excessively as if she had lost her mind. No one in the village liked her.
The village had a tiny tank lined by a narrow bund. Taken in by the charm of this tank, a few stonecutters passing by built a small pandal on the bund. A few days later, a weary old woman, who rested in the pandal’s shade, built a small stove under the pandal to let other wayfarers cook their food.
The following day, a potter, who was travelling in a cart loaded with pots, halted near the pandal to rest. Before resuming his journey, he placed a clay pot on the stove for other travellers to use. Other passersby that day also joined in: one of them filled the pot with water, another dropped rice grains into it, a third put some jaggery inside the mix and a fourth brought some firewood and lit the stove to let the rice cook.
Next day, Thimmi walked by the village tank carrying a headload of manure to the headman’s banana grove. After she unloaded the manure inside the grove, which was beside the tank, a sweet fragranc emade her stand still. Intrigued, she went inside the pandal and found a nicely cooked dish of jaggery rice inside the pot. Since she was feeling hungry, she decided to eat it. To avoid being seen by anyone, she thought of having the dish inside the Goddess Kalagattamma temple nearby. She spread the jaggery rice on a plaintain leaf that she had plucked from the headman’s grove and started eating.
While she ate, Thimmi noticed the goddess looking at her. “How dare you look at me, Kalagattamma?” she cried. “Turn around, I say!”The stone idol didn’t move. “I came here to eat by myself, but here you are looking at me!” Thimmi continued angrily. “Turn around right now! Or, I’ll scratch your face with a broom!” The goddess turned her back thinking, “Why should I get my face scratched by her?” Thimmi then finished her meal in peace.
Later in the day, the temple priest noticed the reversed position of the idol. Taken aback at this sight, he rushed out and raised an alarm all over the village. Everyone came running towards the temple. Try hard as they might to move the idol, it wouldn’t budge.
Anyone who restored the idol’s position, the headman announced, would be rewarded with the land attached to the temple. No one offered to do it. Thimmi then stepped forward, “I’ll do it.” People began to wonder whether she had gone mad. But someone among them said, “Let her also try.”
A large group of people assembled outside the temple the next day. Thimmi alone went inside. She put the cooked rice she had brought along on a plaintain leaf and sat down to eat facing the goddess. Looking up at the goddess, she said: “I wanted to eat without being seen by anyone. But you are now staring at me. Turn around!” The idol didn’t move. “Wait, I’ll show you.” Picking up the broom from the corner, Thimmi threatened her, “Will you turn around? Or, should I thrash you with this broom?” The goddess thought, “Why should I let her hit me?” She returned to her original position.
Thimmi came outside. “Everyone can go in now.” The villagers were thrilled to see the idol as it had always stood. They exclaimed, “No one is as truthful as our Thimmi!” The land attached to the shrine passed on to Thimmi. She then left the headman’s household and lived a life of contentment.
(The co-operative charity of the travellers, the goddess’ recognition of Thimmi’s moral worth as higher than that of her despisers, the affirmation of a life outside bondage, all of these narrative elements let us glimpse a village community engaging fundamental ethical matters. Besides, Thimmi’s desire to be left alone by the goddess, her intimidation of the goddess and her concealing of her thoughts from the goddess depart from the usual idea of God as all-knowing and all powerful and disclose an imagination of a freer, more supple human relationship with the divine. The story I have translated above is found in Kannada Janapada Kathegalu, an anthology of folktales compiled by the famous folklorist, J S Paramashivaiah, fifty years ago.)
Mastani Maa of Bangalore, a Sufi saint, was usually found praying or meditating or doing zikr (a repetition of prayer). Her love of God was boundless.
One day, a group of men, women and children dropped by to see Mastani Maa. Finding her engaged in zikr, they sat down opposite her and began to meditate. They did not break for food or water. Around midnight, Mastani Maa opened her eyes. She was moved to see that her visitors had waited this late, without food or water, to meet her. Asking them to put the earthen pot, which lay in a corner, on the stove, she told them to fill it with the leaves, stones and soil from the courtyard and cook them in water. She then beseeched God for help. Soon afterwards, rice was seen boiling inside the pot. The visitors looked at her questioningly. She reassured them, “There is nothing special about this. It is all God’s love. He provides food through stones, soil and leaves, doesn’t He?”
(The largest number of women Sufi saints have been seen in India and Pakistan, especially in the regions of Sindh and Punjab. The women Sufis, many of whose dargahs continue to draw devotees in the present, were an integral presence in the lives of local communities.)
Excerpted from Another India: Events, Memories, People by Chandan Gowda (Simon and Schuster India, 2023.)
Chandan Gowda is Ramakrishna Hegde chair professor of decentralisation and development, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore
(This appeared in the print as 'Of Deities, And Other Women')