From pox to drought, goddess invincible, Agumbe’s hope

By Shravan Regret Iyer

In the wettest spot in the Western Ghats, fabled Agumbe which once mirrored Assam’s Cherrapunji for the highest rainfall in the country, the signs that the spectre of drought hangs over the mountains are all there.

For the people of Malnad and Bayaluseeme, the only hope rests with the gods – specifically, the Mari goddess, revered for bringing the rains and blessing the village with good health and happiness, and in another era, protecting children from chicken pox and diseases that once had no cure.

The image of the Goddess is carved out of a single piece of wood and then painstakingly painted in the most vivid colours and draped and decorated until it almost looks human.

She is then attached to wooden wheels and pulled from village to village in a move that villagers believe, wards off the evil spirits. The ritual, called ‘Gadi Dhatisuvudu’ is believed to banish evil spirits across village boundaries, far into the Western Ghats that abut Agumbe.

Drive from Sringeri towards Agumbe and you see them – the wooden sculptures painted in bright colours, eyes wide open, fitted on a wooden cart and parked on the outskirts of every village, the guards who keeps Maleficent out.

Most people who don’t know the ways of people of the area would probably dismiss them as roadside craft work on display. Few know that this is Mari, the goddess who blesses the villagers with good health and happiness.

It’s a tradition practised for hundreds of years. “In earlier centuries, when the state was witnessing plague and other contagious bacterial diseases, villagers used to offer pooja to Goddess Mari and send her to the next village. From that comes the name, Gadi Mari,” said S. Gowda, a villager. In more recent times, the acute shortage of water has taken the place of disease and Goddess Mari has a new task at hand. “Many rivers and water bodies across Malnad have gone dry and there are forest fires all across. People now pray to the Goddess for good rains along with good health and happiness for all villagers,” Gowda added.

Each year, the villagers select a particular native tree variety, known as ‘Ottale Mara’ and dedicate it to the gods. Sculptures of a male and female goddess are made, both known as Gadi Mari, and fitted onto the wooden cart, again made from the same tree.

On a particular day, chosen by village elders, Goddess Mari is taken on a tour across the village, covering every corner of the hamlet. “It is similar to the Rathotsava, celebrated in many villages. But, here, Goddess Mari is sent outside the village to the accompaniment of drum beats in the fervent hope that she will take the evil spirit with her and send us something good in return,” explained a villager.

Once the goddess crosses the village boundary, the neighbouring village welcomes her and this goes on till she reaches the forests of the Western Ghats where the wooden sculptures get decomposed and simply vanish.

Agumbe story
Photo by Shravan Regret Iyer

According to a villager in Agumbe, each year, at least five to six Gadi Mari sculptures are found in the Agumbe Ghats in May after travelling all the way from different villages in Koppa and Sringeri.

Surprisingly, this custom of Malnad is not found in neighbouring South Kanara, although it is widely practised in Shivamogga and the villages in Bayaluseeme. With the searing heat leaving Malnad and its farmers tottering on the edge of a disaster, this is one year they need Goddess Mari more than ever.

A Bend in the Malathi
Till last year, Hulikal, nestling in the Western Ghats, received more rain than Agumbe, but this summer villages such as Yadur, located close to Hulikal, have been receiving water in tankers twice a week. Ditto with Agumbe – which received an annual rainfall of 8,000 mm-and till recently was known as Cherrapunji of the south.

According to Mr Hasirumane Nandan, president of Agumbe gram panchayat, the
daily water yield from six public borewells in the village used to be 1 lakh litres till the onset of summer. Owing to deficient rainfall, there has been a sharp decline in groundwater level and it was possible to draw only 25,000 litres of water. This summer, 20 wells and 60 borewells have dried up in Agumbe gram panchayat limits. At present, the water stored by placing sandbags across the river Malathi was being used for drinking in Agumbe. Mr Nandan said water stored in such a manner in the river Malathi would last for 10 days.


This story was originally published in Deccan Chronicle May 15, 2016, edition.