The Many Veerabhadras, Gate Keepers and Texts
Finding Veerabhadra: I heard about the Siva temple in Muramalla from my friend Priyanka. My first visit to the temple occurred in the summer months of 2014. Completing my Bachelor’s degree in Engineering, I was visiting my maternal uncle’s home for holidays.
He took me and two of my sisters to the temple. We entered the temple to the sounds of music being played for the Nitya Kalyanam (ritual marriage of the deity performed daily at the temple).
We later found that it was a temple of Veerabhadra. He is believed to be created by Lord Shiva. Infuriated with the news of his beloved wife- Sati’s demise, Shiva created him to avenge her death.
Little did I know then that I was experiencing the interchangeability of identities between Shiva and Veerabhadra for the first time. I was to write about it in years to come.
Little did I know then that I would throw away my GATE rank, switch to studying Historical studies at Nalanda University instead of continuing in Sciences and, would one day enter the same temple to do a Research Scope Analysis.
I choose to write about Veerabhadra in this article, for the sole reason that my research work is based on him. With appropriate Research Methodology, any subject can be studied as a microcosm of larger social processes.
I should tell you that you don’t have to know anything about Veerabhadra or even like Cultural Anthropology to be interested in this story. I will not talk about Veerabhadra only as a deity, but as a Cultural Marker.
How the research began:
The dean of our school at the time was Professor Aditya Malik. He conducted a course in our second semester: Memory, Time and Historical Consciousness.
Once, in a discussion about the concepts of sacred space and time, I happened to tell the story of the temple at Muramulla to him. He was intrigued by it and advised me to visit the temple and check if there is enough material to conduct research.
When I went back to my hometown- Kakinada for holidays, I went to my good friend Priyanka. I borrowed her bike and set out to perform a Research Scope Analysis at Muramalla.
I finished a round of interviews and sat in the temple’s office. I was planning to pay a visit to Veerabhadra Gaddelu (the spaces where Veerabhadra is believed to be ritually embodied) and to a community which is believed to have its origins in Veerabhadra.
Excitedly processing all of this new information I stumbled upon, I was collecting some more data from the temple’s office. That is when the priest of the adjacent- Lakshmi Narayana temple walked in.
The Textual Tradition
Amidst talking about the temple, its sthalapurana (backstory), the administrative changes and the newly started official website of the temple, he asked me what I intend to find through my work. I told him that I was still figuring it out.
The priest sat there unimpressed. Let’s pay close attention to what he said next: “Everything one can know about Veerabhadra is already written. If you want to find something new, meet scholars who can share rare stories from the scriptures.”
If you are thinking what I am thinking, you probably observed two things: 1. If I were to write something new and different, I had to find new information. 2. He believes that the legitimate sources to find out about Veerabhadra are texts.
Maybe, you share his ideas. I aim to inspect these ideas closely and systematically explain why I disagree with his well-intentioned advice.
Hopefully, by the time you are finished reading this, you will understand my side as well.
Disclaimer: I did read Veerabhadra’s story in three Puranas and old Telugu texts alongside contemporary research work. I’m not contesting the importance of Textual Analysis and Literature survey.
Puranas and Orality
The puranas literally mean ‘that which is old’. The vāyu purana states that a particular section of the society (a particular caste) was entrusted with the task of maintaining and protecting the genealogies of gods, sages and kings, and the traditions of humans.
Puranas are the stories of the Indian Bards or story tellers. The story tellers were called Puranikas. They travelled from place to place to tell stories. The Orality of the Puranas is very essential to understand a few aspects of the written Puranic texts.
Many versions were brought down to one story during ‘Textualizing’ the Oral tradition. But, in popular opinion, they are thought to be the most accurate versions.
Understandably, there were multiple stories which varied from each other. The first point I make is that the stories we read in the Puranas therefore need not be considered as the ultimate sources.
Let us now examine the social dynamics around Textual and Oral sources.
The Gate Keeper’s story of Veerabhadra:
As a part of my fieldwork, I visited the temple at Pattiseema in West Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh. It was a lovely temple that sits over a sand dune, covered on all sides by the river Godavari.
I was taking interviews. Talking to the old gatekeeper who was working there for over a decade, I asked him to share the story of the temple. He hesitated. He and the priest told me that he doesn’t know much.
After taking the interview from the priest, I tried to make the gate keeper comfortable enough to share his version of the story. Here it goes:
“Once upon a time, Veerabhadra was given a weapon called Pattasam to slay the head of Daksha. Due to the sheer power with which he beheaded Daksha, the weapon swung and got lost.
So, Veerabhadra started searching for the divine weapon given to him by Siva. He moved throughout the world searching for the lost weapon, with his hair wide open, performing his dance- Veeranam. Beings suffered due to the dance’s force.
They approached Maharshi Agasthya who was performing his austerities in the same place where the divine weapon fell and submerged into the ground. Later, the place came to be called Pattiseema.
Agasthya, being engrossed in his tapas did not react to these pleas. Later, Veerabhadra came to that place performing Veeranam, making an unbearable sound, searching for his lost weapon.
Agasthya being disturbed by this activity opened his eyes and stopped Veerabhadra, making him immobile by holding him in his tight embrace. Veerabhadra sank into the ground taking the form of a swayambhoo linga due to Agasthya’s power.
The priest can show the little bulge on the top of the linga. It is the hair knot or jatajoota made by Agasthya to hold Veerabhadra. The marks which are visible on the linga are the fingerprints of Agasthya.
The temple we see on the neighbouring sand dune is for Mahanandeeswara. He is the brother of Veerabhadra. He sang Mangalam here to pacify his brother. Expressing his inability to do so, he turned himself into a stone there.”Story shared by the Gate Keeper at Pattiseema.
If you know the story of Pattiseema or, if you are the priest who spoke to me, you would know that this is it! This is the story. Then why are the Gate Keeper and the Priest convinced that the former doesn’t know?
Why are some people considered more knowledgeable than others, especially in cases where both have the exact same information?
The only part where the stories divulge a little are about the story of Mahanandeeswara. The priest told me that the story of Mahanandeeswara is a fantasy woven by the locals.
You and I already know that all these stories are rooted in Oral Traditions. Then, why are some considered more legitimate than others? I am sure you got a clue or two about the social dynamics at play here.
Veerabhadra’s story: Whose version?
There could be more reasons and explainations. But here is an explanation that I would like you to consider, taken from the book Textures of Time:
A community continues to write in its own genres and modes until their histories and the historicity of their texts are dominated or denied by more powerful or newly ascendant cultures.
…The history of the losers may itself be lost…
The changes in historical understandings have a direct relation to the power of the cultures that follow them.Velcheru Narayana Rao et. all,
Simply put: The History of the powerful is considered more legitimate. I am not saying this to pass a moral judgement.
I write this for you. I write this for me. But most importantly, I write this for the Priest and the Gate Keeper. I’m here to write a disinterested truth. My work will anyhow mirror all my biases.
I’m writing this with the hope that these Social Dynamics and the stories of the Gate Keeper deserve to be noticed. I write this with the hope that the story of some other Gate Keeper at another temple under the sky will be given a chance.
Veerabhadra outside the Textual Tradition
I would like to make a quick second point: not every piece of information is written in the texts.
- From the Vedic times, Indian knowledge transmission survived through Oral Traditions.
- The sense of History among the illiterate communities thrived in Oral narratives.
There are unwritten stories, practices and beliefs that go back to many centuries. These survive in the Living Tradition and Oral Narratives.
Let us take the example of Veerabhadra. Understanding him seemed incomplete without listening to the stories of the dead children who are believed to become Veerabhadra.
One must study the seats of ritual embodiment- Veerabhadra Gaddhelu, his communities- especially Veerabhadriya, the ritual processions- Jatharas among other things to get a sense of who this deity is.
Understanding him meant understanding the story of different people, their social and economic realities, understanding different kinds of divine spaces and in some cases, mapping the journey of certain musical instruments like the Tasha.
He survives in the multiple crystallizations of memory of the people who carry him forward. I set out to understand Veerabhadra and found an entire social milieu which had to be understood to begin understanding him.
I let you tap into my stream of thoughts as I was trying to make sense of Veerabhadra.