Once every two years, the world’s largest gathering of Dalit and tribal communities takes place at a jaatara, or fair, in the remote village of Medaram in the Warangal district of Telangana. They come together to remember a goddess who saved their ancestors in war – a ritual of gratitude and devotion that has been ignored in the narratives of mainstream Hindu history.
The legend of Sammakka
The story behind the Medaram jaatara originates in the thirteenth century, when the region was a part of the larger Kakatiya Empire that ruled between 1000 and 1380 AD. The lore has it that one full moon night, in the month of Magha (according to the south Indian traditional calendar), the local Koya tribal lords found an abandoned baby in the forest. It was naked and unprotected, but guarded by a pack of tigers.
They named her Sammakka, brought her to their village and raised her. Sammaka grew up to be a beautiful woman and was married to the chieftain, Pagididda Raju. They had three children – two daughters named Sarakka and Nagulamma, and a son, Jampanna.
One year a severe drought hit the area and parts of the Godavari river, which flows through it, went dry. The tribes were dying of starvation, yet the Kakatiya king, Pratapa Rudra, was busy only with collecting taxes. Raju, wanting to safeguard what little his community had, refused to pay the king anything.
When the king’s army arrived to punish the tribe, they resisted and fought as long as their strength allowed. Raju and his daughters were killed, and Jampanna fought on until he too was killed and his body thrown into the river. So Samakka entered the battlefield and continued the fight against the Kakatiya army. Seeing her valour and power, the king realised it would be easier to make peace with her than to try and prevail.
He sent his prime minister to make a compromise with her: the minister offered to make her the chief queen of the king’s harem. Sammakka rejected his proposal and chose to fight on to avenge the dead. The war went on and Sammakka was severely wounded. She cursed the Kakatiya kingdom and promised her tribe that as long as they remembered her, she would continue to protect them – then walked into the forest with her wounds. When the tribals went in search of her, all they found were the pugmarks of a lion, a heap of vermillion powder and a few glass bangles, left at the very spot where Sammakka was found as an abandoned infant. The Kakatiya kingdom came to an end soon afterward and the locals believe it was the effect of Sammakka’s curse.
The spot where Sammakka was found as a baby is now called Chilakala Gutta. The course of the Godavari through this region is called Jampanna Vaagu, in memory of Jampanna’s sacrifice for the Koyas. The soil is red underfoot and they say it is the blood of their martyrs that makes it so.
This year’s festival
Since the thirteenth century, every alternate year, the Koya and other tribes of the hills have gathered to worship Sammakka. Most of the devotees belong to tribal and Dalit communities of Chattisgarh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Orissa and Karnataka. For a few days, they camp within a radius of twenty kilometers around Chilakala Gutta to sing songs about the valour of Sammaka and her sacrifice, and enact her story in dramas. They take a ritualistic bath in the Jampanna Vaagu. They offer the goddess jaggery equal in their weight, calling it ‘Bangaram’ (Telugu for gold). The festival becomes a site of gathering, celebration and a space of solidarity for thousands of Dalits and tribals.
Animals are sacrificed, liquor is drunk and the community that gathers there does not conform to prevalent ideas of Hindu religious gatherings. There is no set iconography for the goddesses. Bamboo poles smeared with vermillion and turmeric powder represent Sammakka and Sarakka. These poles are erected on earthen platforms for worship. They represent nature, the power of the feminine divine and reinforce ancient ideas of sacredness.
Yet upper-caste influences have begun to infiltrate the ritual: Sammakka and Sarakka can be seen on flexes and billboards portrayed as Durga, as inspired by calendar art. Sammakka is shown seated on a tiger, Sarakka on an antelope. A temple-like structure has come up in the recent past. The Sammakka-Sarakka Jaatara remains an alternative space where local tribes and Dalits carry out their beliefs and practices, but there is a looming possibility of upper caste Hindus appropriating the festival and sanitising it.
The history of the Telangana uprising is not as modern as many historians make out, tracing it only as far back as the Naxalite movement. The valour and sacrifice of Sammakka, the local history of the Koyas and their oppression by feudal lords are an important part of the longer narrative.
How to Reach the Jaatara
This year’s jaatara is being held between February 17–21. Medaram is 90km from Warangal in a forested area. The nearest railway station is Warangal and regular buses are arranged to Medaram during the jaatara time. Accommodation is in temporary camps and tents in the forest, and the nearest hotels are in Warangal.
Veejay Sai is a writer, editor and a culture critic, who lives in New Delhi.