By Team Mangalorean
Photographs: Rajesh Shetty
Phalimar (Udupi district), April 22: Among various folk traditions this wonderland of folk culture the Sirikumara folk custom stands out. According to folklore specialist Peter Claus dramatization of myth in a ritual context is familiar enough. The ritual tradition and the mythic tradition have somewhat independent existences, he says.
This is the case with Tulunadu's siri rituals and the story of the siri spirits. The myth is part of a woman's narrative song tradition, while the rituals are managed by men. Peter Claus's paper focuses on the discrepancies between the myth as it exists in the women's song tradition and as it is dramatized in the ritual context. His analysis demonstrates that the drama is part of the ritual tradition and that certain alterations to the myth are best understood in that light. The ritual - myth association is not only strengthened by the drama, but in the process the mythic tradition is assimilated into and superseded by the ritual tradition. The male dominated ritual tradition, in other words, could be said to exploit and co-opt a powerfully moving narrative that has been maintained by women.
The annual "Siri Jaathre" was held at Kalathuru near Padubidri here on April 20, 2008. Its annual ceremonies take place at about 15-20 locations around the Tulu-speaking region of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi. Some of these can be documented at least as far back as the 16th century. During the rituals up to a thousand or more women and men come and get possessed by the category of spirits called the siris. The Siris are usually said to be seven in number, all female. The story associated with these spirits is traditionally recounted in a women's oral narrative genre called paddana, sung in the fields during paddy transplantation. The spirits that are female manifest in men and give them advise not to ill treat women and treat them as their equal. This unique tradition is restricted to the areas practicing the Siri culture.
The bulk of the ritual at the annual ceremonies consists of what might be called cases of spirit investigation. Novices, first timers, mostly young women, are brought to the Siri festival because they have been experiencing a condition which has been diagnosed as spirit possession. Since this takes place in their homes and can be embarrassing and disruptive, it is regarded as undesirable. During the rituals such cases are dealt with, one at a time, through an investigation with the young woman and her family. The investigations are led by Kumar with the assistance of one or more of the Siris. The process normally involves getting the young woman into a state of possession (initially an agonized state) and then inquiring into the identity of the spirit (presumably a Siri) and why it is giving trouble to the girl (and thus the family). At the end of each "case" the spirit in the young woman is expected to identify itself and make clear why it has been intruding on the lives of the family. The family promises to meet whatever demands the spirit might be making. The young woman is then required to return to the Siri festival annually. She is a medium for the spirit and joins the ranks of the other women as an adept.
This intense drama continues throughout the night and goes sometimes beyond the afternoon of the next day. People unmoved and watch intently every move of the Sirikumar. Sometimes in the heat of the intense possession the male members of the society disrobe fully and the gyrations they perform culminates in intense emotional outbursts. This is when they reach the daivathva (spirithood) This is also the culmination of the Sirikumara Jaathre.