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Inter-caste Marriage and Shakta Myths of Karnataka

Rahamath Tarikere ( teaches at the Department of Kannada Literary Studies, Kannada University, Hampi, Karnataka.

The annual jatras or fairs conducted for certain female deities like Maramma and Dyamavva in Karnataka include the ritual of buffalo sacrifice. There is an accompanying myth that explains this sacrifice as symbolising the punishment meted out to a Dalit boy who had married an upper-caste girl by concealing his caste identity. Karnataka is one of the states where love marriages provoke honour killings, where the Sangh Parivar—as part of its “love jihad” campaign—attacks inter-religious couples, and beats up meat-eaters. Do these jatra practices, rooted in ancient memories, still serve the purpose of protecting the sanctity of caste?In what way have new developments changed the traditional meanings associated with the mythand the practice?

Translated from Kannada by M Madhava Prasad.

After Tamil Nadu, Karnataka has the largest number offemale village deities in South India. Of these, Maramma and Dyamavva are the two most popular ones. Buffalo sacrifice is an integral part of the annual jatras (fairs) held for these deities.1 The popular myth relating to this sacrifice concerns the love and marriage between an upper-caste girl and a Dalit boy. According to the myth (which is common to both of them), Maramma and Dyamavva were upper-caste girls who married a Dalit youth, who concealed his caste identity. When the truth is revealed, the upper-caste women try to kill him, and he, fearing for his life, enters the body of a buffalo. They proceed to kill the buffalo, after which the girls submit their “polluted” bodies to purification by fire and become goddesses. The myth and ritual thus incorporate themes of crime and punishment, love and marriage, caste and profession, murder and suicide, revenge, and deification. These themes acquire local forms in accordance with the conceptions of crime and punishment prevalent in different regions. But, these conceptions, in turn, are rendered complex by the existence of counter-myths that endorse such love relationships.

The myth begins with the episode of a Brahmin pandit’s daughter falling in love with a Dalit youth who is taking lessons from her father incognito. There are regional variations in the way the conduct of the marriage itself is depicted. In many of them, the narrative shows the Dalit youth falling in love with his master’s daughter, and the pandit himself, taking the youth to be a Brahmin, giving away his daughter to him in marriage. In the versions prevalent in the Hyderabad–Karnataka region, the Dalit youth has come from Kashi, where he had already completed his education. In northern Karnataka, he belongs to the left-hand, untouchable Madiga caste of leather workers.2 In the Mysore region, he comes from the right-hand untouchable Holeya caste of agricultural workers.3 In the southern coastal region, he belongs to the untouchable Koraga community.

In confirmation of this myth, the sacrificial buffalo is dressed in wedding finery (basinga kankanakatti) and is ritually wedded to the deity Maramma. In Tamil Nadu, a member of the untouchable Paraya community ties the thali (sacred necklace signifying marriage) to the deity (Whitehead 1921). The upper-caste people of the village, as the deity’s maternal family, claim the right to conduct the agrapuje (first worship) at the jatra. At the time of the buffalo sacrifice, songs are sung in which the deity is portrayed as grieving for her impending widowhood. At the end of the jatra, another buffalo is designated as next year’s sacrificial victim, and the deity once again gets married and regains her lost status of wedded sanctity. The enactment of these two events of becoming a widow and being restored to marital bliss again have combined to constitute a peculiar annual ritual.4

The scenes of the upper-caste bride suspecting that her husband is a Dalit and discovering the truth are of particularinterest. These scenes reflect the food and occupational cultures of various regions. In a majority of the myths, her suspicions are aroused when her husband repairs his own torn footwear. In some, the sight of her children stitching leaves together to make chappals sets off her doubts, while in another version it is the discovery of a piece of leather in her son’s pocket. In the northern Karnataka coastal version, when she goes into a room defying her husband’s prohibition, she finds processed skins hung up to dry.

In addition to the leather, which relates to occupation, food also features in the wife’s investigations into her husband’s caste identity. In one version, when the Dalit’s aged mother comes to visit, he takes her home dressed in a Brahmin widow’s clothes. The daughter-in-law serves her various food items. But, the old lady yearns for the food she is used to, that is, caste food. When the daughter-in-law serves her vermicelli payasam, she cries out as if pleasantly surprised, “what is this, looks like sheep’s entrails!” She compares the holige (sweet pancakes) to buffalo tongue. When asked how she liked the food, she replies, “not as good as the black foot of a buffalo calf.” Did the old woman spontaneously come up with these comparisons or did the daughter-in-law work some magic to find out the truth about her caste? The songs are designed to leave this ambiguity intact. In one version, suspicion is aroused when she mixes all the different items together and eats them. It is noteworthy that not only the nature of the foods, but also the ways of eating them are treated as indicators of caste. In the central Karnataka variant, the husband and children secretly consume buffalo meat and she discovers the truth of her husband’s caste when the children say to her, “your food is no match to grandmother’s buffalo tongue.”

Equally diverse are the ways in which the wife kills the husband and then herself. According to most of the myths, when the wife chases the husband with the intention of killing him, he enters the body of a buffalo grazing there and is killed in that form. In some versions, she captures the terrified man as he is running, chops off his head and parades it through the streets. In the southern coastal version, she confines the husband, children and mother-in-law in the house and burns them. The reason given here is that he would come home drunk every day and defile her ritual purity.5 In most versions, after killing her husband, children and mother-in-law, she commits suicide by fire. An unusual explanation for her vengeance is given in the songs in praise of Maramma in the southern coastal region. In this rendering, her marriage is explained by what was written in her destiny, that she would marry a leather worker. But, when their son leaves home andreturns as an adult, she has physical relations with him. On realising this, she blames her husband for this tragic turn of events and puts a curse on him, turning him into a buffalo. The Maramma myth, here, acquires an Oedipal dimension. Sexuality is a key element in the crime and punishment plot of all these myths.

Reconstructing the socio-religious history of the region through these complex, multifaceted myths poses an exciting but difficult challenge. Many aspects of the myth do not lend themselves fully to a rational socio-historical analysis. But, as elements of popular faith, four aspects of the myth can be taken up for consideration, namely love–sex–marriage, occupation–caste–food, crime and punishment, and response–revenge.


Philosophically, the Shakta and Tantra schools regard the man–woman relationship as a “sacred” means to worldly prosperity and other-worldly fulfilment. Rather than the discrete frameworks of caste society, they place them in a matrix of biological (jaivika) and spiritual achievements. That is why a person’s spiritual accomplishments are more important than their caste. Also important is physical longing and its fulfilment. Thus, the mythical elements that favour caste distinctions sit uneasily with a religious order that upholds a woman’s sexual and maternal freedom and rejects the caste system. These Shakta and Tantra creeds appear to have accrued elements contrary to their caste- and gender-neutral character in the course of time. Suggestions in certain Shakta/Tantra texts that lower-caste women should be employed for “Bhairavisadhane” should be seen in this light. Although this has been interpreted to mean that “lower-caste women being great achievers had attained the status of guru,” the implication of male superiority in sanctioning the “use” of women for achieving their own ends cannot be overlooked. Naturally, in a society marked by caste discrimination, myths opposing inter-caste marriages soon came to supplement such elements of doctrine. These were not restricted to the Maramma/Dyamavva cults. They can be found in the origin narrative of the rishi, Matanga, considered the cultural hero and ancestor of the Madigacommunity. There, he is depicted as having deceitfullymarried a Brahmin maiden. Of his father too, a myth narrates that, being a barber, he courted a Brahmin girl. But, if in the Maramma/Dyamavva myth deceit is avenged by murder, nothing of the kind is seen in theMatanga myth, the reason being that it was a creation of the Dalits themselves.

Hundreds of myths are prevalent in South India in which upper-caste women commit suicide when faced with the prospect of union with lower-caste men. In Andhra Pradesh, aTelugu narrative tells of the women of a royal household who drown in a well in order to escape capture by a Madiga general, who had defeated an upper-caste king in war and seized the palace (Thurston 1987: 318). In a central Karnataka myth about a Mahasati, a woman belonging to the upper-casteLingayat community kills the Dalit servant who sexually assaults her, and burns to death on his pyre as if she were his lawfully wedded wife (Chidanandamurthy 1977: 126). In the old Mysore region, there are narratives about upper-caste women who, on being forced by a barber-caste king to marry him, die and turn into goddesses.

Although women are depicted as committing suicide due to dejection and rage, there is no suggestion of this being her own personal decision. Rather, there is the social opprobrium of having lost the right to live by union with a lower-caste man. There are at least a few narratives in which the lovers are both murdered by caste society. In the Bhagavati myths of coastal Karnataka, when an upper-caste woman’s lover is killed to protect caste honour, she commits sati on his pyre. Another popular female deity of the coastal region, Ullalthi, originally the princess of the local kingdom, falls in love with the Dalit man who saves her from a snake, becomes pregnant, and undergoes many trials and tribulations. In a myth from the Mysore region, when a beda (hunter) falls in love with a girl of the Arasu royal family, the girl’s relatives call the boy’s family for an engagement ceremony and by deceit kill all of them. The girl then commits suicide and is transformed into the goddess Pattadammanni.

In sum, these various plottings of love, marriage, punishment, murder and suicide bear witness to the different attitudes taken by caste society towards the issue of inter-caste relations. If in the Maramma/Dyamavva story the Dalit man’s love is deemed a social crime, in the coastal Bhagavati myth the woman’s transgressive love is treated as legitimate and sacred. It is interesting that the latter myth, which sanctifies inter-caste love, is prevalent in the southern coastal region where Brahminical culture has deeply influenced Shudra and Dalit worlds and where in the name of “love jihad” and protecting Hindu honour, the Sangh Parivar cadres have attacked many women. This region is also home to many of the narratives where Brahmin girls abandoned in the forest, because theybegan to menstruate before marriage, are rescued by lower-caste people and are given a new lease of life. Indeed it should be noted in this context that Karnataka’s lower castes have Puranic accounts of how they welcomed women who were victims of Brahminorthodoxy, gave them shelter, and made them the proto-women of their communities.

In other words, in response to the caste-affirming myths of savarna communities relating to inter-caste love and marriage, Dalit and women’s communities have produced their own counter-narratives. Certainly, compared to the incidents of women who commit suicide on losing caste, those who die on their murdered husband/lover’s funeral pyre are fewer in number. But, they represent women and Dalit counter-cultural responses to the restrictions of caste society. The woman’s suicide here is an act of protest against the caste or society that denies her sexual rights. The deification of such women seems to be an extension of this.

Some even more complicated instances of inter-caste man–woman relationships can be examined in this light. There is, in Kolar district/region, a Telugu-speaking untouchable community called Sindmadiga. They tell a story of Dalit bondedlabourers being abused by the landlord’s wife as buffaloes. One of the bondsmen, feeling insulted by this abuse, makes an exquisite pair of chappals from buffalo skin and presentsthem to the landlord and gets the landlord’s wife in return as payment. Here, the anti-woman stance of turning her into anobject of exchange (similar to Draupadi becoming a stake in the game of dice between Pandavas and Kauravas) serves to assert Dalit pride. In the “tale of Yaluraja” prevalent among northern coastal Dalits, the queen, in her husband’s absence, falls for the sweet tones of a Dalit’s flute and has “paan” with him. The king, learning about this on his return, hands her over to the Dalit. In another story from the same region, the king, on learning that his queen had eaten paan from the mouth of a horse-riding samagara, gives her to the latter as a gift. In both these stories, the acceptance of paan from a Dalit symbolises their physical union.6

It is possible that these tales are based on actual events of women being handed over to Dalits when they were found to have transgressed caste boundaries? In the last few instances cited, the Dalit/lower-caste men do not conceal their socialstatus. And, since the women themselves initiated the affair, there is no scene of punishment either. However, there is little scope in these narratives for the expression of the feelings of the women who, whether by choice or by force, had to live with a Dalit husband.

If the Maramma/Dyamavva myths have incidents of children of inter-caste marriages being killed in the form of sheep, in the coastal south, such children are shown living together as brothers. Around Udupi, in the same region, during the snake worship of the Shakta and Tantra cultures, untouchable community artistes dance with Brahmin artistes called Vaidya or Baidya. According to the background story, an untouchable man had several children by his untouchable wife. He, then, got married to an ostracised Brahmin girl by whom he had some more children. Having a common father, they became brothers. And, that is why they dance and sing together at the Shakta/Tantra rituals. Even today, these Baidyas do not have equal status with others in orthodox Brahmin society. These differences between the upper-caste and Dalit narratives about love and sex attest to their Shakta origins, and bear witness to the efforts to counter the anti-Dalit caste system and the denial of sexual freedom to women.

There are also female deities whose love stories are somewhat different from the above. In the northern coastal region, there is a narrative of a Brahmin boy who falls from a sampige (champak) tree while plucking flowers for a lower-caste girl who then burns herself on his funeral pyre and becomes a goddess. While the social coordinates indicate the intense love of the lower-caste girl, the story also prompts us to speculate on the possibility that she was forced to immolate herself by thesavarnas. The differences in the myths of inter-caste love and marriage between the plains and coastal regions of Karnataka are intriguing indeed.


The Dalits who appear in these myths are not only buffalo meat eaters, they are also associated with leather processing and chappal-making occupations. Here, aspects of biological existence, like love, sex, and progeny, are crossed with social issues like caste, occupation, and food. Theencounter leads to conflict. When resolved, communal–social relations triumph over personal and existential ones. Shakta and Tantra doctrines proclaim that they will liberate in one go the Chandala from Chandala-ness and the Brahmin from Brahmin-ness. But, the popular local myths and practices that have arisen around these philosophies remain casteist. In particular, they do not speak of the differences in the physical (jaivika) relations of Dalit and Brahmin women. Rather, they detail the problems that break out in society because of them.

In narrating how the husband’s food habits and occupation provide clues to his identity to his upper-caste wife, these myths indicate their subjugated/debased position. But, they also show that the oppressed castes preserved their occupations and food habits in the face of upper-caste intolerance. The Dalit youth’s mother eats the upper-caste food, but her tongue remembers the food of her community. Though temporarily Sanskritised by her son, she soon longs to revert to her own food culture. It appears that women more than men, the older generation more than the young, retain a stronger tie to cultural roots. Also, the importance and rigidity of food culture in Shakteya communities is indicated here. In confirmation, one may cite here the Shivasharanas of the 12th century, where men who converted to the vegetarian Sharana faith, butretained membership of the Shakta school, have written vachanas critical of women who ate meat and consumedliquor. It is, thus, not surprising that among the five “M”s of Shakta (mamsa, matsya, madya, mudra, maithuna or meat, fish, liquor, parched grain, sex, respectively) the majority are related to food and drink.

In the Dalit puranas, on the other hand, one finds stories that adopt a different approach to inter-caste marriage and food culture. Chief among them is the narrative of the Brahmin rishi Vasishta who married the Madiga girl Arundhati in order to get access to the secret knowledge possessed by her father Jambavantha. This is in direct contrast to the plot of the Maramma/Dyamavva myth. To acquire the knowledge of theuntouchables (perhaps leather science), Vasishta undergoes “Dalitisation.” When his wife serves him buffalo meat, he approvingly compares it to payasam. In the Maramma myth, the comparison of the vermicelli to sheep’s intestines leads to disaster, but here the comparison that Vasishta makes with the food of his caste has no bad consequences. In this myth, created by a Dalit community, differences in food culture do not result in humiliation. In the oral poetry describing the brave deeds of the renowned Maramma of Antaragatte in central Karnataka, the name of the landlord whom she kills, Konavegowda, carries the suggestion of male buffalo (kona). In all these narratives, the buffalo and untouchable men come across as enemies of the Shakta goddess. Scholars have interpreted this as a sign of a historical confrontation between the Shakta school and the buffalo breeding/eating culture. But, it appears to be the product of a balancing mechanism arising from the use of male buffaloes—which are not useful inagriculture—for meat. Such a reading is reinforced by thefact that buffalo sacrifice is prevalent in the plains, wherebullocks are the preferred draft animals, but not in the coastalregion where male buffaloes are employed in agriculture. The narrative of inter-caste marriage upholding upper-caste superiority seems to have been added on to this culture at some point in history.

Crime and Punishment

The next links in the chain of themes in the Maramma/Dyamavva myths, after occupation–caste–food, are crime and punishment. In the puranic narratives of Shakta deities, legitimate male figures are deployed to punish and subjugate arrogant males. But, in these myths of inter-caste marriage, men from oppressed communities are punished for the “crime” of their social background alone. In the mainstream puranic narrative of Mahishasura Mardini, prevalent all over India, the killing of the male buffalo by the goddess has been read by scholars as allegorising the Arya–non-Arya conflict as a confrontation between gods and demons. As in the Maramma story, here too we find the theme of love and lust: the king Rambhaka falls in love with the buffalo-form princess andbegets Mahishasura by her. But, here, there is no intention of opposing the transgressive marriage. Even so, there is a possibility that the Mahishasura Mardini narrative has influenced the folk goddess myths of Maramma and Dyamavva, considering that the framing theme of crime and punishment is present in both. As “criminals,” Dalits are equated with “rakshasas.”The killing of “evil” rakshasas such as Shumbha–Nishumbha, Raktabeejaasura and Mahishasura, all featured in the Kannada Devipurana have been the subject of several artworks, plays, films and literary texts, which in turn have legitimised this frame of crime and punishment in the name of devi worship. Through their influence, in theMaramma/Dyamavva myths the killing of the Dalit youth has acquired the meaning of punishment of evil. Thus, the very puranic texts of the Shakta school, which in giving primacy to Parvati over Shiva appear to profess a primitive feminism here, reinforce the buffalosacrifice tradition that denies a woman her right to love. Apeculiar situation, where the same narratives that invoke women’s power to vanquish male oppressors stand by orthodoxy when it comes to questions of caste.

There are other stories of love and sex leading to the death of men at the hands of women in the Shakta world of Karnataka. In the story of Chandraguttemma, from the ghat region, the lustful Beerappa dies at her hands. The pile of trishuls (tridents) planted in front of the temple are collectively known asBeerappa. This is similar to the story of Vaishnodevi of Jammu who kills Bhairava for lusting after her. Note the similarity of the names Bhairava and Beerappa: the name acquires significance in the context of the Tantra creed, where tantriks who achieve their spiritual goals by way of sex with women are known as Bhairavas. Sexuality is at the heart of both these narrative types, of women killing or being killed. A special case is the story from Kasargod on the Karnataka–Keralaborder, where it is a Muslim rather than a Dalit who makes love to the goddess against her will. Here, Ali, an adept in black magic, gets killed for molesting the goddess, but is then transformed into a deity himself and is worshipped along with the goddess.

In all the above instances, the victims of murder are alluntouchables, Bhairavas, Muslims and rakshasas. And, thereason for their being so punished is always related to love and sex, marriage and progeny.

Women too sometimes feature as sacrificial victims in these Shakta tales of crime and punishment. In the story of thefamous Shakta deity Ellamma–Renuka, she becomes aroused while watching someone else making love, thus defiling the sanctity of marriage, for which “crime” Parasurama, on Jamadagni’s orders, chops off her head. This is close to the Bhagavati myth of the coastal region where the upper-caste woman is killed for the crime of loving a Dalit man. The story of Mucchalodu Bhagavati of Trikkaripura in Kasargod, Kerala resonates with this. According to it, a Nambudiri Brahmin maiden, who loses an intellectual contest due to the conspiracy of the pundits, is expelled from the caste and falls to her death in a fire. Another version says that she was expelled from the caste because of premarital pregnancy (Someswara 1998). In contrast to these two, Maramma/Dyamavva actually marry Dalit men, bear children and become widows by killing their husbands.

In these Shakteya myths, the repeated recourse to fire as the means of punishment is striking. In the Maramma myths of the southern coast, when a girl asks her father what form ofrepentance is right for those who lie with an untouchable, he replies: death by fire. According to a myth from the northern coast, an orphaned Brahmin girl growing up in an Achari (carpenter) household falls in love with an untouchable Koraga boy. The story goes that she then asked her father what should be done with a pot touched by a dog, he replied, “it must be purified by fire,” and that she went thence to her room and burnt herself to death. Unlike transgressors who are murdered, in this conception of crime and punishment, upper-caste girls inflict punishment upon themselves. Though they enter the fire, it is not a form of “sahagamana” (sati). For these Brahmin girls, fire also signifies the fire rituals that are part of their caste background. It also signifies purification after the pollution caused by lying with an untouchable.

This is the moment to turn attention towards the fire (and water) rituals of the Shakta world. (In the Shakta cult, worshiping the water pot, called kalasa or ghata, is an important ritual.) In the jatras of southern Karnataka, the priest performs the fire-walking ritual bearing the goddess on his head. In some jatras, there is the practice of pouring embers on a Dalit’s head. In the southern coastal region, the shelter of theMadiga deity Matangi is set on fire. It is not clear whether these rituals involving fire are in any way related to the death by fire enacted by repentant upper-caste women, or the punishment meted out to the Dalit for transgressing caste boundaries. But, it is clear that fire and water (which has an important place in Shakta rituals) are facing off here, thus enacting the encounter of different cultural worlds. Many scholars have interpreted the practice of carrying water on the head while stepping on fire with the feet, symbolising resistance in which Dravidian or non-vedic water culture is stamping upon Aryan yajna culture. This fire of Shakta culture derives from the puranic episodein which Gauri, enraged by her father Daksha’s abuse of her husband, falls into the sacrificial fire. An inconsolable Shiva wanders the earth carrying her dead body, and the places where pieces of her body fell became seats of Shakta religion. It is noteworthy that Gauri, reborn asParvati, again marries Shiva, whom her father had rejected. In the many incidents discussed here, fire has a variety of connotations.

Commentators have given several different interpretations of the crime and punishment theme in the inter-caste marriage myths. One possibility is that, in a time when inter-caste marriages were becoming all too frequent, savarna society countered the trend with such myths. More specifically, such myths may have come into existence in the wake of the historicexperiment of the Sharanas of the 12th century city of Kalyana, where a Brahmin girl was married to a Dalit boy.7 Many scholars are of the view that these enactments of savarna myths, which entered the Shakta world at a later date, had managed to become an integral part of the very jatras that are jointly conducted by Dalits and savarnas (Siddalingaiah 1997;Hirematha 1993). Some regard it as “a narrative form given to the death sentence imposed on a dalit for acquiring knowledge in secret or loving a Brahmin girl” (Malagatti 1992: 231).Others say that “it is more likely the woman accepted herhusband knowing the truth about his birth. The couple represent the men and women dishonoured by the orthodox system due to caste mixing. That she sought the sacrifice of her husband and children is a later addition artificially grafted on” (Narayanaswamy 2009: 110). Yet others have characterised it as “a sign of the baseness of the caste system in south India ... an attempt to impose the caste system on innocent people by prohibiting caste mixing” (Nagaraj 2015: 15).

But, scholars who regard the Maramma/Dyamavva myths as the creations of upper castes and landed interests have not paid much attention to the counter-myths created by Dalit culture. There are as many such myths where upper-caste girls of their own will court Dalit youths knowing their caste background as there are those in which Dalit youth force savarna women into marriage. In these counter-myths, the upper-caste girl burns to death on the pyre of her murdered lover. A sign of her secret love, it is also an expression of moral anger against the caste system that denies her sexual freedom. In Chitradurga district of central Karnataka, where Madigas are a large part of the population, there is a myth where a Madiga youth working as a sentry at the fort and a savarna girl fall in love. She is attracted by his beauty and valour. When her brothers go to kill him to protect “caste honour,” he commits suicide with his own sword. Madigas have made him into a cultural hero and even today worship his tomb. In the Makam Bhagavati story of Kerala too, the upper-caste girl knows fully well that the youth she is in love with is a Dalit. But, when her brothers kill him for caste honour she too gives up her life. In a southern coastal narrative, an upper-caste girl, who falls in love with anuntouchable artist whose work she admires, is killed by her relatives. But, Dalits celebrate their love in their madimmayamadimmal (bride–bridegroom) dance. Art figures as a cause of love inanother instance from the northern coastalregion where the Dalit’s mellifluous flute-playing attracts theupper-caste girl.8

These myths and practices represent two mutually opposed world views. The one regards inter-caste love relations as a crime, while the other treats love between man and woman as natural and engendered by art, valour and beauty. Myths originating in Dalit and female contexts do not regard caste-defying love as a social crime. Some female goddesses avoid killing their deceitful husbands, instead cursing them to turn into sheep or buffaloes. Gentler and more “artistic” punishments than these, such as beating the drum at their festivals and dressing up as a Brahmin, are imposed by some deities.

In the Shakta myths, there are two types of women: those who are victims of honour killing by family members and those who commit suicide. Of the former kind, those of the coastal region become Bhagavati/daiva (teyyam in Malayalam), while in the ghats and the plains they are known as Maramma/Dyamavva. In the coastal region, there are women murdered for loving Dalit men, while on the ghats we find housewives who die by their own hand out of grief for havingbecome polluted by marriage to a Dalit. Barring the two instances from Chitradurga and Kasargod, Muslims or Dalitsbecoming deities after being murdered for love are very rare. Although the Dalit from Chitradurga who died for love became a cultural hero, only the Dalit community worships him as a god, unlike Maramma/Dyamavva who are worshipped by many caste communities. The Devipurana takes the view that the killing of the rakshasas by the Devi is a legitimate response in the service of society. Perhaps in keeping with this idea, in the myths too, the Dalits, having been killed as punishment for their crimes, have not been deified by savarnasociety. The prohibition of inter-caste love and marriage reflected here is not a matter of history (the past). In today’s society too itcontinues in different forms and so do acts of violence and cruelty.9

This inter-caste marriage myth of Karnataka’s folk-Shakta world evinces a tangle of relations between love, sex, lies, food, occupation, murder and suicide. When upper-castepeople, declaring themselves the bride’s party, claim the religious right of first worship at the jatras, they are also using it as an opportunity to consolidate their cultural hegemony. In a similar vein, the songs of abuse sung by Dalit artistes have as theirobject not only Maramma/Dyamavva, but also the upper castes and those in positions of authority. It surely is an act of resistance/revolt by Dalit victims of caste violence. On the other hand, it also seems to be part of a strategy to limit such acts of resistance to the period of the jatra so that they can be held down to their subjugated positions for the rest of the year.

At the jatra, untouchables enjoy the right to hold a vigil/wake with a lamp placed on the chopped-off head of the buffalo and burning its own fat. It is customary in Karnataka to place a light, deemed to symbolise the dead person’s soul, near the head of a corpse. By repeating that practice here, the Dalits are asserting that the dead buffalo is an ancestor. They sing songs that crudely abuse the goddess who killed him. But, the same Dalits kill the buffalo that symbolises the Dalit youth of the myth. They claim the meat of the buffalo by right and eat it. They wield a whip and flagellate themselves in front of the goddess. It is difficult to explain all of this within asingle(explanatory) framework.

In addition to the upper-caste mentality, there are also,behind the killing of the buffalo/Dalit, traditional expectations of agricultural prosperity. In the Shakta world, there is a direct relation between human and animal sacrifice, and expectations of prosperity. In northern Karnataka, there is a practice of killing the over-sexed Jokumara, a symbol of prosperity/abundance, and scattering the ashes in the fields. Similar is the practice of mixing the blood of the buffalo sacrificed to the Maramma/Dyamavva with seeds to make charaga (grains mixed with beef/buffalo meat), which is then scattered on the soil. In addition, there is the superstition that prosperity can be attained by killing a Dalit male and burying the body inside the house or in the earth. Even today, there are incidents of landlords killing the Dalits who work for them in the hope of gaining prosperity. Most of the human sacrifices made inKarnataka to prevent irrigation tanks from breaching arethose of Madiga untouchables. Dalit practices of inflicting violence upon themselves, playing sidi, and corpse procession are residues of Dalit human sacrifice. In the past, while scattering charaga, a Dalit youth would be sacrificed for the sake of the village’s well-being. Even today, symbolic practices like snatching the thali of a Dalit man’s wife to render her a widow before scatteringcharaga bear witness to the prevalence of such human sacrifices in the past. There are stories which say that if the Dalit priest did not cut through the neck of thebuffalo with one blow, he himself would be killed, and that he would therefore take away his wife’s thali before setting out for the temple. Thus, there is a possibility that buffalo sacrifice and Dalithuman sacrifice were part of black magic practices to ensure a bountifulharvest.


There are some interesting counter-responses from the Dalit world to the annual staging of the buffalo sacrifice and the goddess’s widowhood, which in turn is a reaction againstinter-caste relations endorsed by the Shakta doctrine. In Shakta practices where a large number of Dalits participate, the revenge narrative of inter-caste marriage isexpressed in the counter-revenge mode. Dalit artistes at the jatra called ranigya/potharaja/aasaadi sing their abuses in ambiguous terms: “You have killed the mother-in-law, you have killed the children, you have killed the father-in-law.” They whip themselves in a state of fervour. When a wooden doll representing Ingaloba, Dyamavva’s son from her Dalit husband, is taken away to be burnt, he enacts an attempt to prevent the burning. When the procession of Gullevva, afemale deity also known as Gauri is taken out, Dalit youths try to cut off her head. On the surface, these look like attempts to inflict punishment and protect the condemned. They could be read as expressions of Dalit anxiety and anger. But, they have lost the puranic memory of caste hatred and have been transformed into enactments of youthful exuberance. It is difficult to establish a direct connection between contemporary jatra practices and the myths of Dalit murder. These acts ofrevenge have mutated into art forms. In some regions, the myth has the upper-caste woman cursing the husband thus: “I will cut your right leg and stuff it in your mouth; I will draw your fat [nena] and light a lamp,” and further, that, of her five sons, four will be sacrificed in the jatra in sheep-form and the last one would roam the world as an aasaadi, singing their song. It is noteworthy that here the curse seems to be the cause behind foodculture and for the birth of arts like song-narratives.

Legacies of Mythic Narratives

In Karnataka, conflicts engendered by inter-caste love and marriage are not confined to Shakta myths. They haunt social life even today, having spread far beyond the Shakta world’s puranic framework into contemporary reality. Many Kannada literary works have taken the dilemmas of inter-caste marriage as their subject matter. In particular, Karnataka’s Dalit movement and Dalit literatures have treated the ideal of inter-caste relations in their own unique way. Many of the leaders at the forefront of the Dalit movement, which began in the 1970s, married Brahmin women. These marriages played an important role in social transformation. In Dalit literature, there are, expectedly, scenes of Dalit women being sexually exploited by savarna landlords. But, alongside these, there are also portrayals of lower-caste bonded labourers having relations with the landlord’s wife or daughter. The Dalit poet Siddalingaiah’s poem, “Story of the Queen’s Love” presents this metaphorically as a case of a crane falling in love with a fish. In Devanoora Mahadeva’s novel, Kusumabale, these are portrayed as non-exploitative, natural love relationships. It is significant that, here, the Brahmin girl loved by the Dalit youth Amasa is called Bhagavati. But, in the same novel, the Dalit youth Chenna is murdered for falling in love with a Lingayat woman. Chenna is the name of a 12th century Dalit Sharana. Thus, the two inter-caste relationships seem to be ironic continuations/versions of the inter-caste marriages conducted by the Sharanas. Theupper-caste girl, having lost Chenna, loses her mind. The murdered Chenna does not get deified. But, in the Dalit community’s imaginary, he does not die. He goes to Mumbai, becomes a big man and starts a new life. Confronting each other, here, are a savarna social order, which threatens to punish those who transgress caste boundaries, and Dalits and women, who defy such threats by resolving to resist and survive in other forms. The Maramma/Dyamavva myth is given a captivating new life in Dalit literature.


1 Buffalo sacrifice was prevalent in Karnataka long ago. Even after the Karnataka Animal Sacrifice Prohibition Act of 1965, it is still prevalent in some places.

2 Going by the story of Shankaracharya having saluted a Chandala in Kashi as a seer (jnana), it would appear that there was some kind of relationship between Dalits, spiritual knowledge and Kashi. Traditionally, Kashi was a place known for its leather industry. Sant Ravidas, who lived in the vicinity of Kashi, was a Chamar. He was a great seer.

3 In this region, the untouchable Holeyas, who beat the drums during the jatra, go through body purification rituals and don the sacred thread, temporarily becoming Brahmins. It is worth noting that it was in this region that in the 13th century Ramanujacharya grantedDalits, whom he termed periakula (great caste), the right of temple entry through the rite ofadmission into the Vaishnava sect.

4 In keeping with the myth according to which Parasurama beheaded Renuka for falling in love with another man, Ellamma undergoes the dual transformations of widowhood and restoration of married status. The devadasis enact these rituals which are known respectively as “randehunnime” (whore’s full moon day) and “mutthaidehunnime” (married woman’s full moon day).

5 Liquor, being one among the five “M”s of the Shakta creed, is considered holy. Even today, among coastal practitioners of Shakta and Tantra, worship of liquor prevails. But, here we see the entry, contrary to the Shakta doctrine, of the story of a drunkard husband.

6 Giving paan and receiving paan signify invitation to a particular occasion and acceptance of the invitation respectively. It is also traditional for a man and woman to consume paan before physical union.

7 In the 12th century, as part of their programme to build a new society on the basis of bhakti, against the caste system, Basavanna and his followers conducted a marriage between a Brahmin girl and a Dalit boy. This turned society upside down. The incident led to the destruction of the Sharana movement and the assassination of Sharanas by orthodox groups, ending in tragedy. Ironically, today, when Dalit youth are attacked for loving savarna girls,Lingayats are also known to participate in the attacks.

8 In the 13th century Jain poem Yashodharacharite by Janna, Yashodhara’s queen Amritamayi sleeps with a mahout of the elephant stable, enchanted by his music, but the king does not punish the mahout or the queen. The poem makes room for the queen to express her feelings for the mahout. But, deeming her act a crime against family and a sin, the poem shows her undergoing punishment by being reborn as dog, fox and pig.

9 Kalyan, a right-wing magazine published by the Gita Press of Gorakhpur, printed a concocted story about B R Ambedkar defending in court a Dalit doctor who was supposed to have married one of his upper-caste patients and stolen her wealth. This was their cynical reaction to Ambedkar marrying Savita, a Brahmin woman.


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Hirematha, S S (1993): Karnataka SamskrutiParamparebhaga 2: Jatregalu, Harapanahalli:Samata Prakasana.

Malagatti, Aravinda (1992): “Maarikambe Mattu Koana” (Marikaambe and Buffalo), Muddebihal, Karnataka: Janapada Shodha, ShylaPublications.

Nagaraj, G N (2015): “Dalita Devate Marammane Dalitara Bali Thegedukondale?” Samvada, September.

Narayanaswamy, K Y (2009): Neeradeevige,Bengaluru: Pragati Graphics.

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Whitehead, Henry D D (1921): “The Village Gods of South India,” London: Oxford University Press.

Updated On : 10th Nov, 2017


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