By Shobha Naidu Tiny villages across the country safeguard its cultural heritage through the enactment of its great mythologies, says Shoba Naidu, after attending one such event at a Draupadi temple in the South Ancient traditions, it is said, when preserved and passed down from generation to generation, not only safeguard the cultural heritage but also strengthen the fabric of society, thus leading to its peace and prosperity. The Mahabharata enactment under progress Last May, I made a trip to my husband’s ancestral village bordering Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu to find out if the ancient cult of Draupadi worship and the concomitant tradition of fire walking and Theru Koothu, or enactment of the mother of all battles — the Mahabharata – were still alive. To my pleasant surprise, the tradition of Draupadi Amman worship had become stronger, the retelling of the ancient epic more colourful, and fire walking more fervent. In these parts, Draupadi, the fiery wife of the Pandavas, is considered an avatar of Shakti and a fulfiller of boons. The depth of their devotion can be plumbed by witnessing the fire-walking ritual that crowns the two-week long celebrations. The artistes of Theru Koothu are heavily made up and dressed in garish clothes Summer is the time when these villages get ready to celebrate the Draupadi Amman festival unique to this region. The crops have been harvested and disposed of, and it is time to rest the land, and also the animal and human bodies that have toiled long and hard on the land. The farmers are now ready to relax in the balmy evenings, under a starry night sky and listen to the tales of valour and deceit. After the temple elders decide the date in consultation with the village priest, the flag or kodi is hoisted atop the temple probably to inform the surrounding villages of the impending festivities. Depending on whether the temple is flush with funds or not, the festival of story-telling may last from 10 to 18 days. The fact that the epic Mahabharata is engraved in the DNA of the citizens of this country can be gauged from the innumerable retelling of the tales through books, movies and television serials that are made repeatedly, year after year. However, the folk theatre form of retelling the ancient lore of Mahabharata is earthier, moving and real, evoking strong emotions when watched live all through the night. On an auspicious day the flag is hoisted in the Draupadi temple which has the figures of Draupadi, flanked on either side by her five husbands – Yudhishtir or Dharmaraja as he is known in these parts, Bhima with his mace, Arjuna with his bow, and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva with their horses. The origin of this ancient temple is lost in the hoary past, but it is believed by some that the Nawab of Arcot gave land to some of his battle-weary soldiers to settle down with their families. It was they who built this temple to the Mother Goddess in the form of Draupadi Amman. Basically being war veterans they revelled in war stories and probably that is why the Theru Koothu tradition became a major cultural event. A mela-like atmosphere permeates the place enhanced by the merry-go-round rides for children, food carts, clothes shops, bangle carts and other related paraphernalia thrown in for good measure. Street play The temple priest usually reads from the epic and explains the events in the morning and the same is enacted in the evening in the form of the remarkable folk theatre tradition known as Theru Koothu, or literally street play, which helps the illiterate villagers to understand the complex story. The origin of Theru Koothu in Tamil Nadu is lost in the hoary past. Historians date it to Sangam Period around 3rd century BC. The clown (my favourite), known as Kattikaran, dressed in loose flashy pajamas, pops in and out between the scenes to keep the audience in splits with his antics. His subtle role, however, is to stitch the scenes together by explaining in colloquial language the substance of the scene to be enacted. The actors, who sing their own songs, are accompanied by musicians playing the mridangam, harmonium, kanjeera and cymbals. The most dramatic part of the play, the actual war, is enacted after bringing down Arjuna’s cache of arms including the Gandiva bow given to him by Shiva, from a palm tree. The villagers celebrate the occasion by distributing prasadam and eagerly await the evening to witness the battle scenes. The artistes, heavily made up and wearing bright garish clothes embellished with gold trimmings indicating their royal status, sing in high-pitched voices in order to reach the large audiences lolling around them on bed sheets and mats brought from their homes. Being from poor families, these artistes look forward to this annual event to make some money. Even the women’s roles are enacted by men dressed in feminine costumes with stuffed bodice, et al. The troupe can be paid anything up to a lakh for a 10-day enactment of the epic. Some of the most moving scenes are Draupadi vastrahar, Karna moksh and Duryodhana vadh, which last is actually enacted by building a giant mud sculpture of the evil king on a field near the stage. The actors playing the role of the Pandavas celebrate his death by swaggering round it three times to the adulation of watching crowds. Fire walking At this stage the fire is readied with huge logs which by early evening becomes smouldering coals for the highlight of the festival – fire walking. The priest of the Draupadi Amman temple comes with a ball of jasmines and rolls it across the flames to test the purity of the devotees. If the flowers are singed then the fire walking ritual cannot take place. However, on this occasion, it comes out fresh and unscathed. The priest signals the go-ahead to the hundred-odd fervent devotees waiting patiently to walk through the fire. Before this, however, the devotees have to take a dip in the pond in turmeric-tinted clothes following which they are garlanded and their foreheads smeared with vermillion. Amidst loud chanting of “Haro Hara”, which gives one goose pimples, the devotees race through the fire, not once but three times, to fulfil their vows. Surprisingly this ancient ritual of fire walking has been included in several corporate leadership training courses around the world as it is supposed to break limiting beliefs and develop self-confidence. The cult of Draupadi worship is alive and kicking! About the author : Shoba Naidu has been a peripatetic journalist for the last 20 years. She now finds writing fiction more interesting than writing facts. Her present journey is to find the “Self”.
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