Hill Pandaram - Religion and Expressive Culture

Although nominally Hindu, Hill Pandaram religion is distinct from that of the neighboring agriculturalists in being un-iconic (i.e., venerating not images of deities, but the crests of mountains) and focused on the contact, through possession rites, of localized mala devi (hill spirits). Hill Pandaram may occasionally make ritual offerings at village temples, particularly those associated with the gods Aiyappan and Murugan at the time of the Onam festival (December) or at local shrines established in forest areas by Tamil laborers; but otherwise they have little contact with the formal rituals of Hinduism.

Religious Beliefs. The spiritual agencies recognized by the Hill Pandaram fall into two categories: the ancestral ghosts or shades ( chavu ) and the hill spirits (mala devi). The hill spirits are supernaturals associated with particular hill or rock precipices, and in the community as a whole these spirits are legion, with a hill deity for about every 8 square kilometers of forest. Although localized spirits, the hill spirits are not "family spirits" for they may have devotees living some distance from the particular locality. The ancestral shades, on the other hand, are linked to particular families, but like the hill spirits their influence is mainly beneficent, giving protection against misfortune and proffering advice in times of need. One class of spirits, however, is essentially malevolent. These are the arukula, the spirits of persons who have died accidentally through falling from a tree or being killed by a wild animal.

Religious Practitioners. Certain men and women have the ability to induce a trancelike state and in this way to contact the spirits. They are known as tullukara (possession dancers, from tullu, "to jump"), and at times of misfortune they are called upon by relatives or friends to give help and support.

Ceremonies. The Hill Pandaram have no temples or shrines and thus make no formal ritual offerings to the spirits, leading local villagers to suggest that they have no religion. Nor do they ritualize the life-cycle events of birth, puberty, and death to any great degree. The important religious ceremony is the possession seance, in which the tullukara goes into a trance state induced by rhythmic drumming and singing and incarnates one or more of the hill spirits or an ancestral shade. During the seance the cause of the misfortune is ascertained (usually the breaking of a taboo associated with the menstrual period) and the help of the supernatural is sought to alleviate the sickness or misfortune.

Arts. In contrast with other Indian communities the Hill Pandaram have few art forms. Nevertheless, their singing is highly developed, and their songs are varied and elaborate and include historical themes.

Medicine. All minor ailments are dealt with through herbal remedies, since the Hill Pandaram have a deep though unstructured knowledge of medicinal plants. More serious complaints are handled through the possession rites.

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