Smriti Srinivas teaches anthropology at the University of California. (Courtesy: Smriti Srinivas)

In Conversation with Dr Smriti Srinivas: Karaga Festival Brings Together the Sacred and the Civic

in Interview
Published on: 11 September 2020

Roshini Muralidhara

Roshini Muralidhara is an architect with an MA in Conservation Studies from the University of York, UK, and currently works as a conservation architect at INTACH Bengaluru chapter. She is an INTACH Heritage Academy research scholar for the year 2019-20, and intends to continue research in the field of cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible.

Dr Smriti Srinivas shares her experience on documenting and understanding the different perspectives of the Karaga festival, and discusses its uniqueness and its changing significance to Bengaluru since her research in late 1990s.

Srinivas is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Davis. Her research focusses on urban cultures, social memory, utopias and religion, among other things. She has received various grants, fellowships and awards throughout her research career, like the Rockefeller Humanities fellowship, the Mellon fellowship, the American Academy of Religion grant, University of California Humanities Network grants and a India Foundation for the Arts grant, to name a few. She has authored many articles, conference papers and books. Her book Landscapes of Urban Memory: The Sacred and the Civic in India’s High-Tech City was published in 2001 by Minnesota University Press and was republished with revisions in 2004.   

Following is an edited excerpt of the interview conducted by Roshini Muralidhara and Varsha Raju on January 11, 2020, in Bengaluru,

Roshini Muralidhara (RM): You have studied the Karaga festival for several years and have also published a book in relation to the topic. What was the objective behind taking up such an extensive study of the festival and what aspects of it fascinated you?

Dr Smriti Srinivas (SS): The interest came from two levels. Firstly, having lived in the city over several periods of time, I had seen the Karaga festival on television, but I had never attended it. Around the time of my research in the 1990s, there was a lot of hype about Bengaluru becoming the ‘Silicon Valley of India’. A very development oriented view had taken over the discourse about a city that, I knew, had a much longer history. I wanted to bring that history of the city into conversation with the contemporary reality of Bengaluru.

Secondly, several older residents of the city like U.R. Ananthamurthy [a senior Kannada contemporary writer and critic] and Professor M.N. Srinivas [well-known social anthropologist] suggested I study the Karaga festival because it had never been documented before. Karaga’s history is contemporaneous with the history of Bengaluru and I was able to unravel the older layers of the city through the lens of the Karaga festival. That was the hypothesis, but, at the end, it became more than that; it gave me an opportunity to ask questions about the relationship between religion and the city or what I call the sacred and civic in the book. The science and technological discourse on Bengaluru as India’s Silicon Valley overshadows the religious history or older depths of the city. I wanted to highlight that these are actually both living histories of the city—it is not as if the older tradition has been replaced by the new hi-tech city image, but both are alive at the same time—one is an elite view while the other is a view from below. So, there are issues and questions about labour, caste, access to space in the city, all of which becomes apparent when you study something like the Karaga festival.

RM: How would you describe the origin of the Karaga festival in Bengaluru?         

SS: There is no single narrative of origin of the festival: it is important to look at it from the perspective of the Tigala community and the history of settlement of the community in the city. The account of origin of the community is in the Karaga Purana [oral epic also called Vanhi Purana], which describes the birth of the community from the goddess Draupadi in a non-Sanskritic version of Mahabharata. This text becomes vital as it underpins all the activities of the festival and it is interesting to note that in this classical version of Mahabharata, the focus is not on the Pandavas, but on Draupadi and the Goddess [Adi Shakti].

There is historical evidence of the movement of the Tigalas from the Tamil country into Karnataka at the end of the Vijayanagara period, and other more contemporary waves of migration in the eighteenth and nineteenth century that came to constitute the caste or community that celebrates the festival today. But, if I were to make a guess, it is possible to say a festival dedicated to the Goddess in the area was probably celebrated since the establishment of the pete [market town] in the sixteenth century by Kempe Gowda [Kempe Gowda I, a ruler of the Vijaynagara empire].

RM: The legend behind the celebration of the Karaga festival has a common theme of the birth of Draupadi in the form of Adi Shakti, a primeval form of the Goddess, across the southern Karnataka region. What elements of the festival make it exclusive to the city of Bengaluru?

SS: We have a unique vernacular version of Mahabharata that is true to the region of Bengaluru and some surrounding towns. In my book, I have a map that shows the extent of the Bengaluru terrain where the festival is celebrated and it is very specific to the Bengaluru metropolitan region. Among its explicit features are its connection with the tanks and lakes that is not seen in other sites, its connection with other religious centres within the pete area like the Sufi shrine, and the physical-ecological landscape of the Bengaluru area in which it is celebrated. The festival is trilingual [Kannada, Tamil, and Telugu] and illustrates the multilingual nature of the city; it is the largest festival celebrated in the city.

RM: Based on your study, how would you describe the significance of the festival to a metropolitan city like Bengaluru and to its citizens?

SS: This was the primary focus of my research. The festival provides what I called ‘a landscape of memory’ allowing us to access older historical and cultural layers of the city, including those that no longer exist. It also contests the idea that cities are necessarily non-sacred/secularised spaces. The relationship between religion and the city is often cast in pathological terms. In the 1980s–90s, in India, Pakistan, and elsewhere in South Asia, there was an upsurge of religious expression in the city that often resulted in violence and communalism, but you do not see that here in the Karaga festival.

RM: On each of the nine days of the festival and on the night of the Pete Karaga, the main priest and his troupe visit certain specific temples and waterbodies to conduct puje. How does this reflect the historic landscape and geography of Bengaluru?

SS: If you follow the festival through the different days, what you unpack is a certain urban core that existed in the past. One kind of dominant landscape that is often publicly cited is that of Kempe Gowda building four towers to mark the edges of the old city. Another kind of landscape is what the Karaga highlights—the Amman shrines, the Hanuman temple, the Sufi shrine, and ecology are never absent from this landscape—fort, waterbodies, gardens and religious centres are all linked together. If one is to understand the urban plan or design of precolonial Bengaluru, it is a complex of pete, kote [fort], tota [garden], and kere [lake/waterbody]. This provides an urban model, which if we had replicated in our new suburbs, may have helped manage the resources of our city better. The Karaga festival, thus, is not just about the past it is also about the future.

RM: How would you describe the relationship of Draupadi as Adi Shakti with the boundary goddesses [goddesses located on the outskirts of a town with or without a temple, generally found in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka] of the city like Annamma Devi, Muthyalamma and Patalamma?

SS: It’s a notion of sisterhood, a community of sacred beings. And you have to be there to experience it—on the final day, near the KR Market, it is an amazing view. Almost every temple in the city send their rathas (chariots carrying idols of deities), not just the goddesses but other deities as well. Sufi shrines also send their representatives. My impression of this whole tradition is that it is not a reversal of the ordinary city, but you are witnessing the city in all its sacredness. It is almost as if all these sacred beings are gathered together at night. In some ways, the Karaga festival is to Bengaluru what the Mardi Gras is to New Orleans.

Varsha Raju (VR): The Karaga festival forms an integral part of the intangible heritage of Bengaluru. What are your observations about its growth from a community-level festival to a widely celebrated civic festival of the city? What would be some of the biggest reflections on your study in relation to the festival and its city over the years?

SS: There are several reasons why the festival has become so popular: First, the community that performs the main roles in the festival is a part of an alliance of backward caste communities in Bengaluru. Second, we have to realise that 60–70 per cent of the city’s population works in the informal sector, so it represents their aspirations, their rights towards the city and their vision of what the urban is. And that is also important because we cannot always think or talk about urbanism from above. These people believe they are the legitimate subjects of the history of this city. And the fact that we have different religions, caste, and communities celebrating this festival together proves something to us today. India has in fact had a composite culture at the urban level for vast swathes of time and we should celebrate that.

The notion of who the Goddess is is also unique. She is a powerful being in her own right, not some sidekick of the Pandavas—this says something about gender and religious history. The fact that it is a man, a male priest, who becomes a woman/goddess during the festival also says something about the possible cultural relationships between masculinity and femininity. I think the festival carries a lot of different messages, but for me, the personal takeaway is the stuff about the relationship of religion to the city on one hand and on the other hand, that we desperately need models of urbanism that are sustainable, that come from below; just becoming a smart city does not work.

RM: In your research, you talk about the different Karaga festivals that are held at other temples dedicated to Dharmaraja or Dharmaraya [Yudhishtira] in the city. How is the Pete Karaga different from the others and what are their common features?

SS: The communities are different, the caste origins of these communities are different, and other temples involve things like fire walking which are not followed in the Pete Karaga. They also happen later in terms of time cycles. They do not happen according to the Kannada calendar which is the solar-lunar calendar but are based on the Tamil calendar which is the solar calendar.

VR: It is very interesting to note that in Karnataka the Karaga jatre is an urban festival and did not spread to rural areas, but only to areas within the city’s boundaries, and considering the festival is rooted to/performed around key locations of the city centre, what prompted the spread of the main festival? Do these festivals pay homage to the Pete Karaga and does it also involve specific water sources? 

SS:  The festival is rooted in Bengaluru and its environment. In the past, it would have been celebrated within the fort settlement of Bengaluru and the pete-kotes (settlement-fort) surrounding it; it does not go far beyond it. In the present as well, once you go past Ramanagara and Channapatna towards Mysore in the south or past Devanahalli towards the east, the celebration of such a festival disappears. The physical landscape of the festival—one which sustains tank agriculture and urban gardeners—is critical to the festival.

At some point, the Karaga came to be patronised by the Mysore rulers, perhaps the early nineteenth century when there is some indication that they donated money to refurbish Dharmaraya Swamy temple and gifted land. At that point, it starts becoming important as the festival of the city in a way that is parallel to the Mysore Dasara. The Mysore kings had found it culturally and politically valuable to have a central princely festival, and in Bangalore it was the Karaga that became central. Then the smaller festivals at Doopanahalli, Domlur, Devanahalli, Ulsoor, etc., that have little Amman shrines had their own Karagas and became allied to the festival; it is hard to state which of them started first. As the metropolis grew to encompass these Amman temples, these temples coordinated their festive cycle with the Pete Karaga. They have similar features of sacrifice, etc., and all of them are Amman temples. These temples don’t necessarily pay homage to the Pete Karaga but are linked through cycles of time and ritual practice.

RM: In your book, you say that since the origin of the festival and its celebration in the pete area the city has drastically changed in terms of its geography, eating into the ritual centres and waterbodies significant to the Karaga festival. Today, many waterbodies have dried up due to lack of maintenance from the government or due lack of proper water management system. Do you think these aspects will have an impact on the future of the festival and the way it is celebrated?

SS: As long as the main ritual players of the festival transmit knowledge of these locations into the future, to the next generations, I think they will be retained in memory and practice. But we should also understand that festivals change and so, one can imagine that something else might get absorbed into the cycle of the festival. I do not think that what the festival is today is exactly how it used to be in the past. What I did in my book was provide a structural interpretation of the Karaga festival based on my vantage points during my research in the 1990s. It’s quite possible when you visit the festival over the nine days now, you may see new sites being integrated and that makes perfect sense. In other words, festivals are adaptable and they change their routes and if they do change, they are saying something about the present, not necessarily about the past. In one chapter, I include all the places the karaga visits, some of those were not necessarily of ecological significance. They were crucial because the community had an association with another group or place and maybe there are other sites that have been brought in today. So, maybe that is something to watch out for; I would be very interested to see where the ritual stops are now 20 years later.