Back in Chittoor (Andhra) when I was a kid, around this time of the year the week-long ganga jathara (festival) was celebrated. I don’t know if they still do. But it was a colorful festival; the purpose of which was to please goddess ganga – the deity of water. They used to erect a statue of the goddess in a four-road intersection. The statue would be housed in thatched shelter. Before all this, they’d do a ‘foundation stone’ pooja (ceremony) some 10 days before the festival. One’s not supposed to look back after the stone is laid; whoever is doing it has to walk home without turning around. Else he would incur the wrath of the goddess.
And the work would start. We used to stay very close to the festival area… and my younger brother and I used to watch how the shelter was built, and how the statue was erected. On the festival day, people would offer their prayer and dump the porridge (the goddess’ fav food) in a huge container by the side of the road. The porridge is normally made of ragi, water and rice. They used to have 3 or 4 containers, and all of them would be filled by the end of the day. The porridge would be given to all the beggars, gypsies and to those who can’t make ends meet.
The best part of the festival was that people would repay the goddess for her earlier blessings or favors by doing a ‘vesham’: in other words, people (men) used to ‘paint’ themselves as women (thus becoming ‘her’), tigers… or just paint themselves in silver using aluminum paint. These people are called ‘veshams’ and they used to go around the town: the tiger vesham was popular as two or three ‘tigers’ used to get together and give dance performances, which were accompanied by the drum beat of the traditional temple drummers. Towards the evening on the last day of the festival all the veshams would congregate at the ‘temple’ (the shelter) to see off Gangamma (mother ganga) who would be submerged in a nearby pond.
Puli vesham (tiger dance)
Chittoor the town
The Expanding Goddess in Tirupati: Gendered Experience of Gangamma’s Jatara (PDF file) – By Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger