When the World Becomes Female is an ethnographic account of a South Indian goddess Gangamma and her associated deities and festivals in and around Tirupati. The books offers both rich details of the events and its participants while providing insightful analysis and engaging theories of gender, ritual, and translation.
Chapters and Parts
The book is divided into two parts each containing five chapters all bookended by introductory and concluding chapters. Part One (“Imaginative Worlds of Gangamma”) sets the narrative and theoretical stage of the Gangamma festival under discussion by relating the multiplicity in the ways the jatara’s participants relate the deeds of the goddess and thereby how they relate to her. Perhaps the most important chapter in this section is the first (“An Aesthetics of Excess”) in which the author begins the process of redefining the term “ugram.” In my reading of the text, this is the central thread of the entire book to which I will return to discussion more extensively below. But for now suffice it to say that this chapter orients the reader to the contextual and experiential understanding of the goddess that is reiterated in all subsequent chapters. Chapter 2 (“Guising, Transformation, Recognition, and Possibilities”) introduces the reader to stri vesham, the participants who engage in the transformation, and the theoretical possibilities latent within the ritual. In Chapters 3-5, Flueckiger relates the narratives of Gangamma from a variety of sources that displays the different ways that devotees view her in relationship to Tirupati and its surrounding villages, different castes and genders, and Puranic narratives of the riverine goddess Ganga. Central to the author’s analysis of these stories is the nature of the goddess and sakti and how it is perceived in the world of her devotees and the jatara participants.
The second part (“Those Who Bear the Goddess”) looks more closely at how village and caste identity and politics shape the jatara participants’ role in the festival and networks of relationships amongst other villages, castes, temples, and, of course, the goddess. The five chapters take up three castes that have key roles in the jatara and women who have extraordinary relationships with Gangamma. This section truly illuminates the world of the jatara and how individuals construct meaning through its events. Through her analysis in this section, Flueckiger demonstrates the different social and gendered spheres that intersect through the network of devotion and performance.
As with her previous books, Flueckiger’s thick description of the people and events opens the world of Indian religious life to the reader. Particularly in the second section, the flavor of the festival and the relationship between the goddess and her devotees is vividly portrayed inserting the reader into the world of Tirupati and its surrounding villages and temples. Through this rich ethnographic account, Flueckiger portrays the complexities through which human and divine gender are perceived, expressed, and mediated. The result is an erudite presentation of the multiple ways in which goddesses and gender are expressed within this festival context.
Towards a contextualized translation
The most important intervention made within When the World Becomes Female concerns a central question and theme of the book: the ugram of the goddess. The term ugram (or its many variants) is quite familiar to anyone conversant with most scholarly work on South Asian goddesses. Since the advent of the field, many studies have focused on the inherent qualities of the goddesses, usually dividing the female deities into the binary of benevolent and malevolent. Ugram, which is generally translated as fierce, has been one of the terms most widely employed to describe the goddesses who were wild, independent, and hard to appease. Kathleen M. Erndl in her groundbreaking work Victory to the Mother problematized these binary categories instead arguing that South Asian goddesses were more complicated than the either/or distinction. Subsequent studies of South Asian goddesses made note of Erndl’s critique and nuanced the nature of the female deities; however, most have tended to frame the question in the same way, that is, they asked “what is the ‘nature’ of South Asian goddesses?” This line of phenomenological inquiry produced certain stagnation in they ways we examined goddess traditions.
Though it may not have been her intention, Flueckiger intercedes by questioning the very terminology on which the question is founded. The author, instead, suggests that ugram in the context of the Gangamma jatara in Tirupati does not mean “fierce” at all. She argues that in this ritual/festival context ugram is a state of being “too much to bear.” Particularly, the goddess’s power is too strong and her presence too imminent and, in turn, it has to be subdued through collective bearing. This approach is not an exact science, however. The resulting descriptions of the goddess often seemed conflicting with seeming inconsistencies arising within the analysis of her interviews, particularly in the the ways devotees associated ugram with possession (literal bearing). This, however, is exactly the brilliance of Flueckiger’s overall argument regarding the term. She suggests that a term like ugram cannot be translated consistently or precisely with only one term in all contexts. She instead suggests that ugram can and does operate with multiple cognitive fields and has a distinct set of discursive meanings given the setting in which it is being used. Through her analysis of Gangamma’s ugram, the author highlights issues of translation and how our rigid adoption of particular terminology can mask interesting ways of understanding ritual and devotional life in South Asia and by extension can lead entire fields of research to only ask a particular set of questions.
When the World Becomes Female is a great addition to the academic literature on South Asian religious, ritual, devotional, and goddess traditions. It is accessible enough for use in undergraduate courses on the same or as an example of ethnographic methodology. It is always in-depth enough for graduate courses and as a resource for scholars’ and universities’ libraries.
Caleb Simmons, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, University of Arizona (firstname.lastname@example.org)