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Title: Folk Śākta tantric (goddess-oriented) performances in South Asia : theory, ethnography, and historical processes
Author: Martin, Matthew
ISNI:       0000 0004 7966 3906
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 2019
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This thesis proceeds as an ethnographically informed study of two folk Śākta ('goddess-oriented') ritual performances in South Asia: Navadurgā performances of Bhaktapur, Nepal, and Teyyāṭṭam performances in Northern Kerala. Drawing, in part, upon fieldwork insights, I suggest that Teyyāṭṭam and Navadurgā performances are autonomous in regional style, yet concomitant as an overarching typology. Both rituals, though geographically distant, belong to a genealogically-related 'Śākta Tantric' tradition, which was in pan-Indic circulation along networks of householder ascetics (Nāth) circa 11th - 16th Centuries CE. Broadly speaking, Teyyāṭṭam and Navadurgā traditions are lower-caste or subaltern ritual performances - timed by post-monsoon agrarian cycles - embedded within web-networks of worldly power (śakti) represented by a region's royal goddess-clan. Throughout the mid-medieval period, these ritual performances were supported under the aegis of a local sovereign: the Malla dynasty of Bhaktapur and the Kolatirri dynasty of North Kerala. During this medieval ritual, the kingdom's corporeal power (śakti) was channelled into the bodies of low-birth deity-mediums, which, in effect, united a territory's various castes and lineages into a macro-clan or a web-like ritual network. These ritual performances, now reframed, are still practiced in contemporary South Asia, and I argue that Teyyāṭṭam and Navadurgā performances continue to manifest these web-like ritual networks by unifying heterogeneous families into territory-wide macro-clans. At the societal level, the performance negotiates a social dichotomy, articulated as (1) a vertical caste-hierarchy that segregates bodies according to Brahmanical rules of purity and distance pollution; and (2) a horizontal world of Tantric lineages that assemble members in empowered relationships of 'impure' bodily proximity. By apotheosizing lower-caste virtuosi via reciprocal exchanges of impure substances (food and blood sacrifice), Folk Śākta performances - like the warrior goddess-clan they honour - synthesize this pure-impure tension by spiralling across them, thereby uniting a territory's lineages into a macro-clan of ritual kin connections; a cohesion which is symbolized by the goddess-clan's 'menstrual synchrony'. Through a systematic analysis of four themes - history, lineages, sacrifice, and politics - I attest that the ritual's mechanism of spiralling dichotomies into web-like ritual networks operates on two further levels: metaphysical and political. Metaphysically, Folk Śākta performances cohere doctrinal or textual knowledge into body-centred bricolage webs of ritual knowledge which transcend bounded categories of religion; and politically, the ritual mobilizes collective agency and gift-distribution such that, in the 20th Century, it served as a correlate in the development of revolutionary ideology in Bhaktapur and Malabar. Taken together, I argue that the ritual synthesizes a series of dialectics, primarily purity-pollution and human-divine, into webbed networks at three levels: societal, metaphysical, and political. To date, no exploration of Śākta Tantric ritual in Nepal and South India has coordinated historical, ethnographic, and theoretical analysis effectively: in response, this study's scope will bridge academic boundaries to illuminate the relationships that enmesh Tantric goddesses, folk religion, ritual performance, kinship, and political movements in contemporary South Asia. My original contribution, then, will be a comparative fieldwork-informed account of these related ritual performances, which I network in renewed, mutual dialogue with social theory, a theoretical framework I call Neo-Durkheimian.
Supervisor: Flood, Gavin ; Hausner, Sondra Sponsor: Spalding Trust ; Arts and Humanities Research Council
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available