By P.R. John, SJ

(Responding to INI’s questions, the Principal of a well-known Jesuit theologate reflects on the significance of a hugely popular tribal festival in Telengana, India)

This tribal festival, called Medaram Jatara, seems to attract huge crowds from various States of India. What could be its appeal? What exactly could draw so many people from so many places?

India is a cradle of pilgrimages. We have kumbhmelas, pushkaras and jataras. They are integral to the ethos of Indian people. Jatara, a Telugu word, means a ‘fete,’ ‘temple festival’ or a ‘collective gathering of people’. These religious gatherings take place following the lunar calendar and the devotees come together to experience a deep spiritual ecstasy, joy and reconciliation. The people of Telangana are fond of jataras. Many jatara stories fascinated me during my school days. Sammakka Sarakka Medaram Jatara attracts huge crowds because of the ‘moral values’ and the ‘patriotic feelings’ that it arouses. The festival helps the people relive the value of ‘freedom and self-respect’ exemplified in the martyrdom of Sammakka and Sarakka. The devotees perceive godliness in these two women who they believe hear their prayers, and protect and bless their land.

Who are girijans? Do they still live in forests? How many are they in Telangana? How do they make a living? 

Girijans are forest dwellers and they continue to live in forests. According to the Telangana Tribal Welfare Report 2018-19, there are 32 scheduled tribes in Telangana belonging to Koya, Gonds, Pardhan, Andh, Kolamas, Chenchus, Thoti, Konda Reddies, Lambada, Yerukala, Nakkala and Kammara. The tribal population account for 9% of the total population in the state. Their main occupation is hunting and agriculture, piggery and basket weaving. They have vast knowledge of medicinal herbs and plants. Some groups try to make a livelihood from sooth saying.

Tell us about the legend of Sammakka and Sarakka that is celebrated at this festival. 

In the thirteenth century, the girijan region of Khammam and Warangal districts of Telangana faced a severe drought which dried up the lakes. As a result, their chieftain Pagididda Raju, husband of Sammakka, could not pay the tribute to the Kakatiya King, Pratapa Rudra. The King sent his army to collect the tribute from girijans. This resulted in a war between the Kakatiyas and the girijans. Many, including Sammakka’s children – Sarakka and Jampanna – lost their lives trying to defend their land and people. Hearing this, Sammakka too joined the forces and fought valiantly attacking the Kakatiya army. Stunned by her bravery, the Kakatiya king invited her for peace talks. Being furious at the loss of her family and people, Sammakka refused to come to terms with the king and continued the fight. She promised her people that she would always defend and protect them. Though she managed to chase the Kakatiya army away, Sammakka got stabbed from behind. Wounded though she was, with undeterred spirit, she walked into the forest towards a hillock called  Chilakalagutta. When the girijans went in search of her, they only found a box containing vermillion (Kumkum) and a few bangles. Eventually the Kakatiya kingdom was defeated and overthrown. The girijans believe it was the effect of Sammakka’s denunciation. The devotees of Sammakka celebrate her valour and sacrifice, and the protection she offers her people, the girijans.

What happens during the days of the festival?

Two weeks before the full moon night in the month of Magha, the Koyas go to Chilakagutta to bring the sacred pots containing golden Kanikalu signifying Sammakka and Giddaraju to Medaram to celebrate the festival. During the procession, some of the Koyas offer oxen as sacrifices. Then a week later, the Koyas erect a sacred pandal (tent) for the deity at Medaram. In the third week, the Koyas belonging to the Kokkera group bring the golden Kanikalu wrapped in a black silk cloth and hand it over to the priests who belong to the Siddhaboyana group. Kannepalli, a girijan village near Medaram, is the abode of Sarakka. The idol of the deity is kept in a small thatched hut. One day before the arrival of the deity Sammakka, the Koyas belonging to Kaka group bring the idol to the sacred pandal called gadde (raised platform or the throne), erected specially at Medaram, and hand over it over to the priests. On two gaddes, one for Goddess Sammakka and the other for Sarakka, the priest places bamboo poles smeared with vermilion (for Sammakka) and turmeric (for Sarakka).

The festival helps the people relive the value of ‘freedom and self-respect’ exemplified in the martyrdom of Sammakka and Sarakka.

The ceremonial ritual begins after a holy bath, which they believe purifies them and absolves them from sins, in the river Jampanna Vagu, named after the memory of Jampanna, son of Sammakka. Coconut and jaggery are the main gifts offered to the deities, though animal sacrifice is a common phenomenon at the jatara. The koyas and the other neighboring girijans believe that the deities are the most powerful goddesses and offer coconut, rice and jaggery to the deities. Some of the devotees who had earlier vowed to offer Niluvetthu Bangaram (gold weighing equivalent to the individual’s weight) gift jaggery as a substitute for gold.  They also offer chicken, sheep and goats as sacrifices. On the third day, after the full moon day, they send both the deities Sammakka and Sarakka to their respective permanent abodes viz.. Chilakalagutta and Kannepalli.

Does Sammakka make you think of similar heroines – in the Bible and real life?

Sammakka-Sarakka Saga remind me of prophetesses like Deborah (Jges 4:4-5), and Huldah (2 Kings 22:11-20), queens like Esther (Esth 1:10-11) and Judith, others like Jael (Jgs 4:11, 17-22), Tamar (Gen. 38) and Ruth (3:1-13). The mother-daughter duo comes across as a paradigm for heroism, sacrifice and commitment to the liberation of the “little” people, the Dalits and Tribals. Like Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives who acted against the Egyptian Pharaoh opting to defend the lives of Hebrew children (Ex. 1:15-22), Samakka dares King Pratapa Rudra. She epitomizes Shakti, power, and the sheer feminine energy, the primordial creative principle underlying the cosmos that challenges the hegemonies of culture and religion, and the subversive politics of discontent and dissent against all forms of injustice and violence. By deifying Sammakka, the girijans affirm that she is a nurturant mother who protects her community, responds to human problems, heals their sicknesses, and mediates between humans and the gods.

The revolutionary potency of the Sammakka-Sarakka symbol has been the inspiration for certain radical groups that have taken socio-political mileage out of this festival. Sammakka, who was stabbed from behind, reminds me of Sr. Rani Maria, stabbed more than forty times and lying on the side of jungle road, soaked in her own blood. We know that she was eliminated because she dared to feed and shelter the tribal poor of Udainagar against exploitation and harassment.

As a theologian, what do you think of the significance of this festival? 

I see similarities between the Sammakka-Sarakka saga and Jesus’ paschal mystery. The mother-daughter duo voluntarily sacrificed their lives in their battle against the powers of death and darkness, against the Pilates and Herods of their time. “No one takes it (his life) from me,” says Jesus, “but I lay it down of my own accord,” Jn 10:18. Their blood becomes the seed for a new religious future. In their wounds, the girijans affirm, they are healed. Isn’t this a great echo of the servant song (Is 53:5)? This is what is celebrated at the Eucharistic altar when we remember Jesus’ life as a sacrifice, as a “ransom for many.”

Sammakka, like Jesus, “builds the maternal, compassionate, sensitive, bearing relationship among people.” Besides, one can’t miss the parallelism between Sammakka walking into te forest with the arrows that have pierced her body and blood flowing and Jesus’s final journey via dolorosa (sorrowful way). Moreover, the exemplification at the gadde of the smeared bamboo poles – vermilion (for Sammakka) and turmeric (for Sarakka) – reminds me of the two beams that make up the cross?

The Sammakka-Sarakka saga has simply captured the imagination of the tribal people. The goddesses are alive today in the personal and collective memory of the girijans, who believe that the goddesses have been bestowed with divine powers to guard and defend the defenseless. At a time when female foeticide, infanticide, rape, molestation, kidnapping, abduction, battering, dowry deaths, murdering, and trafficking for Sammakka-Sarakka saga is a shining example of determined and courageous resistance. We may look at Sammakka as one who, by emptying (kenosis) herself, takes us to the ineffable mystery of God. She and her family do not cling to their lives but are ready for martyrdom to save their people. Sammakka gave herself totally to her community. Her death has become a life-giving memory etched in the collective consciousness of girijans. She died, but rises year after year, and lives in her people at Medaram.

P.R. John, SJ (AND) holds a doctorate in Historical-Dogmatic Theology from Leopold–Franzens University, Innsbruck, Austria. Earlier he was the Director of Kala Darshini, an institute of evangelization and culture in Vijayawada, Andhra. Currently, he works as the Principal of Vidyajyoti, College of Theology, Delhi and Professor of Systematic Theology. He is a Visiting Professor at several theologates.