Chandan Gowda: How did you become interested in village deities?
Siddalingaiah: I was always curious about gods. I often went to fairs and festivals with my grandmother and used to participate in the festivals of village deities as an onlooker. I was also interested in the ‘possession’ by gods. A relative of mine would often get possessed by a god, and I would sit next to him on such occasions. Since he was closely related, we felt safe that no problems would befall us. Also, there was tremendous intimacy between the devotees and the gods. The devotees spoke to them as if they were their brother, father, mother, grandmother or friend. I particularly liked how they questioned and challenged the gods. The gods too did not mind and spoke back as if they were indeed their friends and relatives.
I realized when I was young that the god-human relation is intimate and humane among the lower castes, villagers and farmers. Among the upper-castes, purohits and poojaris mediate relations between the god and devotees. In fact, only the priests can enter the temple’s inner sanctum; the devotees offer their respects from a distance. A big distance exists between the god and the devotees. In folk (janapada) religion, the distance is much less, if not non-existent. There is freedom to scold, condemn and even criticize god. An elderly person once asked a deity on behalf of the people: ‘Where were you all these days? Have you forgotten us?’ The god answered calmly: ‘Is yours the only village? I need to look after the seven worlds. Do you know how difficult my task is?’ The elderly person hit back: ‘We work so hard – don’t you see that!’ The god replied: ‘Am I working any less? Even I’m working hard.’ The relation where the god and humans share their hardships with each other is an intimate one. The distance between them is erased. The context that allows for this interested me.
Referring to your book, Avataragalu (Incarnations), you once told me that it was a crude rational approach to understanding folk religion. How would you understand village deities now?
Mockery was central to Avataragalu. Because of my rationalist background, I used to make fun of gods for a few years. That’s when Avataragalu was published, which appealed to rationalist youth. But, I don’t think like that any more. For example, people suddenly start lashing themselves with a whip. I probably would have made fun of this earlier. I would like to look at it differently now. This person is inflicting self-violence (sva-himse). Why is he doing this? What are its origins? I would ask such questions now.
Some devotees took me to a forest to show their deity who was supposed to have great powers. They showed me a round stone with turmeric and kumkuma. I asked, ‘She is such a powerful deity. Why haven’t you built a shrine for her?’ They replied: ‘We tried to do it. But she asked us not to.’ Some of them strongly felt that she had to have a shrine and tried to build one. She asked them to stop building it. They demanded to know why. She asked, ‘Do each of you have a house?’ One of them replied that he didn’t have one. She then said: ‘See, he doesn’t have a house, and you’re asking me to have one. No, I cannot have a house; don’t build one for me.’
Many deities in and around Bangalore don’t have shrines. And, the shrines of many deities have no roof. A deity called Bisilamma said: ‘I want to burn under the sun, shiver in the cold and get drenched in the rain.’ Her demand might mean that she wants to be part of nature or, that she wants to face hardships. Braving nature goes against the history of civilization itself which has tried to conquer and escape nature’s hardships. Unusual conceptions lurk behind village deities. Freedom is very dear to village deities – ‘I want to be free to roam the plains’. If ‘refined’ deities like to be in a well-built shrine, village deities wish to freely roam the plains. A doorless shrine exists near Bangalore. The deity had protested against having a shrine, but the devotees forcibly built one for her. The deity begged them later, ‘You’ve already built a shrine, but please don’t build the door.’ They asked why, to which she replied: ‘I would like to go and come as I please.’