New Year 2019 Issue

The Cult of Draupadi

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In praise of an inclusive goddess

O Lady who resides in Gingee, my mother
Our beautiful goddess
I only believe in you, please assist us.
For the exiled Pandavas, my mother
You protected them as a heroic goddess.
O Lady who resides in Gingee, my mother
Sister of the victorious Rama Goddess born from fire
Sister of the blue-skinned god, Krishna.


THE INVOCATION TO DRAUPADI is sung in a throaty male voice, the words tumbling into an order somehow familiar, the vowels harsh and long like the summers in Gingee, a town in South Arcot, or present-day Villupuram district in northern Tamil Nadu where the song is set. A popular refrain at the Draupadi temples and festivals of Tamil Nadu, where she is worshipped as a village deity, it situates her, preposterously, in a land far south of the kingdoms of the Kurus and the Panchalas, reimagining her as the guardian, not just of her five husbands but also of the people who live amid the granite hills of Gingee and its surroundings. For a thousand years now, the worshippers of Draupadi as an avatar of the primordial mother goddess Kaliamman have not only conferred on her a divinity inaccessible to Arjuna and other protagonists of the Mahabharata, they have also refocused the epic on her to frame their culture’s customs, rituals, spirituality, social structures, caste and power hierarchies, laws and histories, and arts and crafts.

We first hear snatches of the song at the Draupadi Amman temple in Melachery, north of Gingee Fort, a much-coveted 12th-century structure originally built by the Kon dynasty, and bordering a forest that legend says was the haunt of demons. The small shrine, deserted but for the priest who stayed back in anticipation of our visit, is the adi peetham, the font of a tradition of goddess worship in a region of Tamil Nadu known as Tondainadu that dates back to the Pallava period (560-912 CE). “She is a dushta devathai (a cruel god). You cannot keep her in the village. She is angry, and she can smite the unfaithful—in fact, the people of the village believe she caused the tsunami but to say it out loud is heresy,” says K Murugesan, the priest, appearing to tempt fate by calling out the true nature of a goddess who is worshipped as kula devatha (ancestral deity) by large sections of Konars and Vanniyars. Others say she is a peace- loving deity who can end wars and disputes. Almost everyone agrees that she is a deliverer of instantaneous justice. Is their Draupadi angry at being unjustly treated? Is she seething with rage at her husbands for collectively gambling her honour away and at the court that allowed this atrocity? At Dusshasana and Duryodhana who paid with their lives for disrobing her? At Kunti for wedding her to five men at once? At Jayadratha, the Sindhu king who abducted her after she turned down his offer of marriage? At Kichaka, King Virata’s general, who tried to molest her when she served as a maid at his palace in the Matstya kingdom during the exile—an episode that ends with Bheema discarding his disguise as a cook to the royal household to kill the man who laid eyes on her.

“These things cannot bother a goddess,” says Murugesan. “Our Draupadi is stronger than that. In this avatar, she gets what she wants.” The Draupadi of Gingee is a virgin—chaste as Arundhati— untainted by polygamy, an all- powerful primal shakti said to have been reborn here to help Sunitan, the local king who had implored her to kill a demon stalking the woods. In fact, legend goes that when Sunitan doubts the powers of the idol installed at Melachery, and plucks a single strand of her hair to see if it is real, blood oozes out of the wound and he is blinded. The parallels to Dhrutarashtra, who is a mute spectator to her humiliation in court, and the symbolism of the long loose tresses—a symbol of female sexuality—are inevitable. In the mainstream rendition of the epic, the scene after the vastraharan is the turning point in the story, with Draupadi transforming from a hapless maiden into an avenger who would settle for nothing less than the blood of her abusers to wash her hair with. Her story is reconstructed across Tamil Nadu by way of lore, organised storytelling sessions, and a yearly festival whose centrepiece is the enactment in the form of theru koothu (street theatre) over several nights of key scenes from the epic. “Draupadi is a destroyer and also the one who ends the war,” says Murugesan. “She deserves double the respect.” The tradition of Bharatha koothu and discourse in north Tamil Nadu is at least 1,300 years old. Copper plates of King Parameshvaravarman I (670-700 CE) from Kuram near Kanchipuram record that a part of his donation to the local village assembly hall was towards the reading of the Bharatham. The Cholas, the Vijayanagara kings and the Nayaks who later ruled the kingdom of Gingee presumably encouraged the art form, and continued to patronise temples to Draupadi.

Draupadi’s story is reconstructed across Tamil Nadu by way of lore, organised storytelling sessions, and a yearly festival whose centrepiece is the enactment in the form of theru koothu (street theatre) over several nights of key scenes from the epic

AFTER THE HARVEST in January and then again from May to August, festivals celebrating Draupadi turn the landscape into grand arenas where light tramples colour, legend drips like a guttering candle over religious belief, and pagan worship over Hindu rituals as Draupadi is brought in a procession, installed at the venue of the performance, and the Bharatha koothu performed for her benefit. “When the koothu troupe performs, usually for a duration of 10- 18 days, the entire village participates, enacting the story of Draupadi. The kaappu (holy thread) tied around their wrists is a symbol of their participation in her exile, as they can no longer enter their own homes or leave the village. The festival therefore brings castes and communities together, and they must all eat and drink from a communal kitchen,” says Sashikanth Ananthachari, a cinematographer who has shot a documentary on Draupadi in the koothu tradition. He is working on a book that deals with themes of exile, memories of war and other interpretations of the Mahabharata as a conduit for local culture.

For about two hundred nights a year, M Damodaran, a 65-year-old master of Bharatha koothu, tells the story of Draupadi to thousands of people across northern Tamil Nadu. The nights he does sleep in his own house in Sozhanthangal, Villupuram district, he dreams of the jingle of the salangai (anklets with bells) and of the 14th-century poetry of Villiputhurar, whose version of the Bharatham in Tamil is the main text upon which koothu performances are based even today. Koothu costs Rs 1-1.5 lakh a day to stage, and villages start fundraising months ahead. The turnout numbers in the thousands, with popular episodes attracting tens of thousands. Draupadi’s wedding— always to Arjuna, and often twice, once as Kali and the other time as a royal maiden— and padukalam, the killing on the final day of Duryodhana, played by an actor and simultaneously represented by a larger-than-life clay sculpture of him lying supine, kumkum-coloured water oozing blood-like from the thigh where he is dealt a death blow, are among the most eagerly awaited scenes. “There are 18 of us in the troupe, including several young educated professionals. Interest in koothu is at an all-time high—one, because of government efforts to revive the art form and to support artistes, and second, because village temples are hiring us more often than they did a decade ago. Today, an artiste can easily make Rs 1,000 a night,” says Damodaran, who is often called upon to play Draupadi. In a baritone that needs no accompaniment, he sings a song that moistens his eyes each time he performs it before a crowd. It narrates a dream scene from the night before Draupadi’s humiliation in court. Draupadi has seen what ills are about to befall the country and she points out the omens to her mother-in-law Gandhari. “We are about to lose everything,” she says. “When all was lost, it was Goddess Draupadi who gave the Pandavas the strength to fight back. Krishna was on their side, but we believe that even the Lord respected Draupadi’s divinity, and while supplying her with endless swathes of sari, hid himself from public view so that the people would worship her and not him. Draupadi’s story is the most inspiring one from the Mahabharata,” says J Kaviarasu, a 29-year-old storyteller from Sozhanthangal. Interest in Draupadi worship has been on the rise, with several new temples to her coming up in Villupuram, a district already dotted with dozens of older shrines—in Alampoondi, Sevalapurai, Sathyamangalam, Keezhpennathur, Devadanapettai, Rettanai, Thandavasamudram and Thazhanur among other villages.

For a thousand years now, the worshippers of Draupadi as an avatar of the primordial Mother Goddess Kaliamman have refocused the Mahabharata on her to frame their culture’s customs, rituals, spirituality, social structures, caste and power hierarchies, laws and histories, and arts and crafts

Draupadi is often invoked as an avatar of Nalayani, who refused Ravana’s proposal and swore to rid the world of asuras. She is also Veera Panchali, who roamed the jungles at night as a demon feasting on animals, until spotted one day by Bheema, who promises to keep her reality a secret if she in turn swore to protect the Pandavas. In a version of the Mahabharata narrated elsewhere—by the Dungri Bhils of Rajasthan—Draupadi is ravished by the snake king of the netherworld, Visuka, after he is transfixed by a stray strand of her hair, as Arjuna helplessly looks on. In these local traditions, including the Yakshagana performances of Karnataka, Draupadi is given a lot more space and importance than in the Puranas. She becomes a vehicle for subversion, inverting patriarchal ideals—sometimes reinforcing them in ways that speak to that community’s biases—and holding up a mirror to society. In the modern era, Mahasweta Devi imagined Draupadi as a Santhal woman fighting for her community’s rights, but hundreds of years ago, the people of Tamil Nadu already saw in her a Vesuvius that could decimate an entire race of wrongdoers. Somewhere down the line, however, the worship of a feminist symbol as a redoubt against evil became problematic for communities with strong patriarchal and caste identities.

Vanniyars closely associate with Draupadi as they consider themselves Kshatriyas, born of the sacrificial fire of Shambhu rishi to defeat demons. So-called ‘honour killings’ of young women who dare to marry outside the community have over the past decade served to paint them as cruel and regressive— unworthy, one might say, of worshipping a protector of women. In the northern districts of the state, it is not uncommon to chance upon shrines to ammans (goddesses) who were once human, unfortunate victims of caste killings immortalised for their ‘sacrifice’ for the good of the community. Understandably, Vanniyars resist viewing Draupadi through a feminist lens, consigning her to the pantheon of a million ammans that watch over Tamil Nadu. She does, however, serve as a bulwark of socio- cultural memory in villages and towns that have built a temple to her. “The goddess doesn’t forget or forgive. She is a conscience keeper, and this is why we walk on hot coals during her festival—to prove we are pure of heart. If one commits a wrong, especially against a woman, there is no escape,” says A Sivagami, 42, a mother of three from Nerkunam, a village about 20 km from Gingee where we watch a senior storyteller, Sivamuthu of Peranamallur, narrate Karna Moksham to a small crowd, gathered under a shamiana to mourn the death of a villager. Draupadi, says Sivamuthu, is like the earth’s crust, a many-layered figure defying archetypal representations of women or goddesses. There may be gaps in her story, and she may sometimes quake in anger, but she is a protector of humanity. With chatty exuberance, Sivamuthu and his companion, a trained classical singer, pepper their storytelling with references to modern pop culture, cellphones and changing crop cycles. “We do not change the core content. And we are careful not to offend cultural sensibilities, but we do incorporate things of interest year after year,” says E Parthiban, 33, a Bharatha koothu artiste from Deevanur near Tindivanam, en route to Chennai from Gingee. Draupadi, for instance, cannot break into dance, or leave the end of her pallu untucked. Even a god must fit a certain mould to pull crowds. Parthiban is one of a handful of actors in the state who can play Dusshasana. “It requires intricate study of the character and devotion to the goddess. Before we proceed to shame her in the court scene, we ask for her forgiveness, explaining that we do not mean any of the insults,” says Parthiban.

DRAUPADI IS AN inclusive goddess, for everything about her, including her marital status, sexuality, and state of mind, is fluid, says Selvi, a 34-year-old transsexual physiotherapist at Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital in Chennai. “She is an icon for transgenders and prostitutes, who are forced to bed many but consider themselves kannis—the virginal divine who never bear children,” she says. Draupadi’s connection to Arjuna, who as Brihannala lived in the guise of a woman, and Aravaan, the patron god of transgenders who sacrifices himself in the Mahabharata and as a reward gets to marry Krishna in the form of Mohini, further cement the community’s faith in her. “Draupadi is the goddess of hope. I have heard sex workers refer to her as a thozhi (a female friend) who, like them, was branded a whore for no fault of hers. But Panchali could start and end a war, and the faithful who believe the goddess lives within them derive great strength from hearing stories of her.”

The powers that Vyasa does not vest Draupadi with are hers to summon in the lived space outside Purana, Itihasa and Mahakavya. Draupadi needs no hagiographer. She craves bhaava and stands for nyaaya as she paints her face green, dons a blingy outfit and heads out into the night to win a thousand hearts.