Untying the knot: Tracing local elements within cultural phenomena in South Asia

Hints of unorthodox Sovereignty in Ancient, Medieval and Modern India

When one looks at something regarded as tradition, be it literature or performing arts, is confronted with a bundle of social and historical components that affect the development of a cultural phenomena, thus creating a picture in which it is hard to pinpoint the different strata and layers.

The aim of this panel is to see if the contrasting notions of local and global may help in untying this gordian knot. We will encourage to discuss the interaction and overlapping of regional and non-regional elements within a given “tradition”, as e.g. the local features and facets that merged into the process of the so called sanskritization, and, on the other end, to analyse the local traditions that gained or kept their own status. Furthermore, this issue demands an interdisciplinary approach as long as the same dynamic might be at work in different context: if we consider, for instance, the cult of the goddess Ellama, we see that it is mixed with Brahmanical elements but it also retains aspects of its folk origin. In modern time, especially over the last few decades, some of the folk-religious practices of the goddess have been questioned and criticized as not fitting either the self-image of India as a modern nation or the rapidly spreading middle-class values. This phenomena appears very interesting for the impact of “modernization” on “folk” or popular religious culture. At the same time, the stories staged in Yakṣagāna performances, though drawn from the common-shared sanskrit epic, show the influence of the kanaḍa mythological background and, on the same time, some of the props used in this theatre form hint at an interesting connection with the tribal rites of bhūta. Therefore, we intend to create a platform for comparing data from different field of research, such as anthropology, history of religion and theatre, supported by the strong suspicion that it might also favour a discussion on what can be termed as “local”.


Cristina Bignami (University of Milan) Elena Mucciarelli (University of Tübingen)


Katrin Binder  (Georg August Universität of Göttingen, Germany)

A world of many colours: Yakṣagāna Rangabhūmi

The Yakṣagāna dance-drama of coastal Karnataka is an example for one of the many local forms of performance found throughout India. Its colourful costuming, vibrant dancing, witty dialogues and distinct musical style continue to enthral audiences today. In many ways, Yakṣagāna occupies an intermediate position between historical and descriptive categories such as folk/classical or religious/secular entertainment. Challenging the validity of such categories, I propose to show that Yakṣagāna’s place in a constantly changing cultural context reflects the creative tension between three different cultural spheres, namely those of Sanskrit, Kannada and Tulu. I further suggest “localization” as a strategy characteristic of the vernacular literatures and traditions of performance that emerged within a Bhakti context. The sanskritic influence can easily be traced in the adaptations of the Sanskrit epics as mediaeval Kannada epics and as Yakṣagāna episodes. The sanskritic is mediated here through the literary culture of Kannada and sanskritic Hinduism. But while comparative textual studies quickly reveal localization processes, these usually remain on a somewhat general level. In the present paper, I will thus focus on the less tangible influences of the local Tuluva culture with its performative rituals of local deities and the rich oral literature associated with these rituals on the Yakṣagāna theatre. This will contribute to a better understanding of the relationship between the cultural spheres as well as throwing light on the historical development of Yakṣagāna.

Piotr Borek (Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland)

Braj poet in a foreign court. Power relations in the 17th-century North India and the career of a vernacular idiom. 

The dynamic rise to power of the Maratha kingdom in the 17th century is often perceived as a merit of a strong individual. Shivaji Bhonsle, despite his uncertain provenience, managed to astonish HIndu circles which must have felt endangered in the face of the new Mughal politics by Aurangzeb. Modern Indian nationalists created and support the ideal image of a strong hero successfully fighting the mlecchas. But the history of Shivaji’s success is not a tale of miracles. It is underwritten by deliberate use of the complex power system that certainly functioned in and between the multiple North Indian realms at that time. The institution of the court poet sponsored by ambitious rulers reveals that the literature was an important medium of that political pattern. The case of Bhushan Tripathi, a professional poet traveling to his new patron in Rāygaḍ, suggests that indeed some part of rīti literature played such a role. Vue the historical and possibly propaganda function of some Sanskrit texts (e.g. Sudyka, Lidia. 2013. Vijayanagara. A Forgotten Empire of Poetesses. Part I. The Voice of Gaṅgadevi. Kraków: Księgarnia Akademicka.), a similar use of literature was nothing new in the early modern India. What strikes the literary historian of 17th-century is why an emerging regional political power should honor and sponsor the creation of an elaborate poetical treatise in the vernacular idiom of geographically remote kingdoms? Why Shivaji needed his praisal in Braj and not in dominant court’s Persian? Why couldn’t he remain satisfied with local Marathi or Sanskrit already present in his court?

Ewa Dębicka-Borek (Jagiellonian University, Krakow)

Diversity of the cult of Narasiṃha and the process of acculturation of Andhra

The aim of this paper is an attempt to reconstruct various processes that contributed to the diversity of the Man-Lion’s (Narasiṃha’s) worship in Andhra. In accordance with the concept of a “divine integrator ” introduced by G.-D. Sontheimer in relation to the tradition of Śiva / Khaṇḍobā, also the Narasiṃha deity may reconcile two socially and spatially distant worlds: the so-called Great Tradition of Hinduism, in this case the South Indian Vaishnavism, with the ancient local streams of Narasiṃha cult. Coexistence of these two different worlds initiates the development of new and enriched forms of a religious and social life . The mainstream studies on Narasiṃha myth have been usually focused on the interpretation of its pan-Indian Sanskrit version, according to which the Man-Lion, the fourth incarnation of the God Viṣṇu, came down to the Earth to kill the demon Hiraṇyakaśipu who threatened the world. Soon afterwards he disappeared. In contrast to this version, undoubtedly extremely important for Vaishnava theology, variants of Narasiṃha cult that still exist in Vaishnava centers in Andhra present a very different picture of the deity. Depending on the center (and usually after killing the demon) Narasiṃha may traverse the forests or plains, marry the daughter of a local chieftain or decimate the flocks of sheep. He may hunt, heal the sick, or provide an offspring. He happens to manifest himself in the form of a tiger. Almost always – despite the reluctance of Brahmin communities – he expects bloody sacrifices. The research hypothesis presented in this paper assumes that the cult of Narasimha in Andhra is so much diverse, because it has been adapted to the local needs and expectations. This happened, in turn, in the result of a dynamic and multilevel (religious, ritualistic, social, political and economic) interaction between the Great Tradition and the local cults, associated originally with a hunter-gatherers‘ or herders‘ lifestyle and worshipping originally their own, dangerous and theriomorphic deities. Reconciling of these two spheres illustrate tribal and folk narratives in vernacular languages like Telugu and Tamil, but also a couple of Sanskrit texts as well as temple iconography. The persistence of local elements may be also observed in the current forms of religious and social life in the chosen centers of Narasiṃha worship in Andhra.

Sarah Merkle-Schneider, M.A. (Würzburg University)

Tying the Knot with the Goddess Gender-Transformation between ‘Local’ and ‘Global’

The paper focuses on jogappas, male born dedicated devotees, who in their devotion for the god-dess Renuka-Ellamma primarily follow folk-religious beliefs and practises and, as a characteristic element, adopt a female role. They are solely bound to Renuka-Ellamma and her worship. Some people regard them as spouses of the goddess or even as divine. But notions of the jogappas differ widely: they are opposed by cultural agendas, such as of middle-class values and of religiously moti-vated arguments in favour of a sanskritic “pure” form of worship. While their gendered performance obviously confronts the dominant, biologically based gender norm and is criticised as deviant, jogap-pas are drawn into urban debates on the rights of sexual minorities, which link them to a globally oriented Indian gender queer movement. These social and cultural developments, which follow trends of “sanskritization”, “modernization” and “globalisation” and which are additionally pushed by legal developments, lead to a multilayered conglomerate of traditions and thereby challenge each jogappa to negotiate their individual position in the society. By untangling these traits within today’s traditions, the paper aims to trace elements which can be termed “local”. For this the discourses about gender-transformation are in the centre of the analyses and, referring to broader contexts, are localized in global, national or regional patterns of arguments. To identify “the local” it is discussed how bhakti can be a promising concept. Due to a lack of sources the paper analyzes recent field data from Karnataka, South India, applying a discursive and comparative approach.

Mrinal Kaul (University of Naples/Montreal)

What is Local and Global in Kashmiri Islam?

The history of diverse religious traditions developing in Kashmir is quite unique. Under the reigns of Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim kings the religiosity of this land-locked country developed in many ways differently. So Kashmir is defined as a unique melting pot of varied races and distinct ideas. Here we focus on some key elements which help us in understanding the unique nature of Islamic culture in Kashmir. No religious culture can be global. It will always be influenced by the elements those are indigenous to a particular time and space. What is local about Islam in Kashmir? Many answers to this question lie in the advent and development of Islam on this land of ‘godly-men’ (called either sufis or risis). What were the vital links between the Sheikh-Noor-ud-din-Noorani or Lalla Ded and the pre-Islamic tradition? And how did these links continue to be a part of Kashmiri society even un till recently? There are often tensions between the popular Kashmiri Sufism and Scriptural Islam. How do we see such tensions? Such questions will be our focus and their answers should help us analysing the ‘Kashmiri’ aspect of Islam.

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