The Dravidian religion provides liberating role models for women, writes Alleyn Diesel.
There are numerous temples dedicated to Mother Mariamman in South Africa, especially in KwaZulu-Natal, which enshrine the female face of divinity as venerated by the Dravidian people of South India.
Not only is the religion they practise the most ancient form of Indian religion, it is probably one of the oldest existing manifestations of human worship, illustrating that, from the earliest expressions of Hinduism, devotees have been familiar with divinity as both female and male.
As author Kathleen Erndl says, this tradition “has survived the ravages of time and has emerged triumphant in the modern age ... co-existing with male gods and in many cases making them superfluous”.
There is increasing evidence of a continuity between the Indus Valley civilization (circa 2500-1500BCE) and the South Indian Dravidian cultures. These long predate the Aryan incursions into the subcontinent (circa 1500BCE) that introduced a patriarchal, warlike culture, previously unfamiliar there.
Over the course of time, the Aryans became the rulers of India, and the indigenous Dravidians were relegated to an inferior status in the caste system.
The village or folk tradition, dominant in southern, rural India, retained the ancient veneration of predominantly female deities. Known as Amman (literally: Ma, Mata, respected woman), or Earth Mother goddesses, they were revered as the creators who sustain the fertility and wellbeing of the Earth, animals and humans, ensure prosperity in the form of rain and good crops, and protection from famine, disease, snakebites and premature death.
Their names indicate their specific function, such as Ellama, who protects the boundaries, Mariamma, who guards against infectious diseases, and Gengamma, water goddess of the Ganges. The pre-Aryan goddesses Kali and Durga were annexed into the later traditions.
Significant differences exist between these goddesses and those of the later Brahmanical tradition. Because of their close affinity with the Earth, they are often represented by trees, caves, earthenware pots, snakes or female felines – fierce protectors of their offspring.
Unlike the Brahmanical goddesses Sarasvati, Lakshmi and Parvati, they do not have male consorts. They are often described as “virgin”, which expresses their independence and lack of domination by men. This sexual autonomy reflects their potentially dangerous, wild nature. As Earth Mothers, they manifest the powerful, and at times destructive, forces of nature.
Their mythology develops these characteristics, frequently involving stories of faithful, virtuous women, violently exploited and abused by men, often through sexual assault. The violated woman expresses her outrage, vowing revenge, and after her premature death is transformed into a goddess, demanding veneration and propitiation.
The stories of Draupadi and Durga are both clear examples of women’s victory over demon males who abuse and attempt to subjugate them. The annual festivals of these goddesses recount and re-enact these dramas, evident in the Draupadi firewalking festival, celebrated annually in Pietermaritzburg.
In KwaZulu-Natal, the popular veneration of these Dravidian folk goddesses can be traced back to its practice in South India, which the early Tamil settlers brought with them to South Africa from 1860 onwards.
These ancient, powerful manifestations of female divinity emphasise the immanence of the sacred in human affairs; the boundary between humanity and divinity is very thin and fluid. The Amman goddesses are constant reminders of this, protecting the civilised world, and those who align themselves with the forces of good and of order, against the malign, largely male, incursions of chaos.
This extraordinary, rich and little-known South Indian religion, dominated by potent female deities, has preserved a tradition offering a unique form of goddess veneration of value to women – presenting them with potentially liberating and empowering role models.
Although Hinduism offers goddess veneration, there is an obvious discrepancy between the respect paid to these divine females and the daily lives of Hindu women. Yet these powerful figures, particularly Draupadi, Mother Goddess and patron of firewalking, offer women strength, encouraging them to challenge patriarchal structures and the injustices perpetrated against women.
Recovering knowledge of some of the Amman goddess mythology could provide women and men with courageous role models and a post-patriarchal spirituality with the potential to bring about social transformation.
Alleyn Diesel has a PhD in religious studies from the University of Natal.