Wednesday, October 7, 2009

And then they all went bananas

Yesterday we took a little jaunt over to Vizianagaram for the Pidatalli festival call sirimanu, or prosperous tree. It's huge. 500,000 people huge. And yet the journalists still managed to find us.

History lesson:
Once upon a time, there was a war between the kingdoms of Vizianagaram (backed by the British) and Bobbili (backed - one could say egged on -by the French). It was all over a cock fight. Or a water dispute. Or two colonial powers using the local pawns to do their dirty work for them as they sought to out-maneuver each other in the global chess match that was 1700's international politics (at least, that's what I get out of it). V. completely routed B. and took a well-deserved break before heading back victorious. Well, 4 B. soldiers were a little miffed at the results of the day's work and took matters into their own hands. As V. sat well sauced by the victory wine that night (I'm extrapolating here), they snuck over to the V. king's tent, and while 2 kept watch, the other 2 went in and killed the poor devil.

Back at V, the king's teenage sister suddenly got a premonition that something terrible had happened to her brother. Sending for the Vizier, because that is what you do when these things happen, she had him investigate how the war was doing, not aware that her brother had just won it. He assured her that all was well, but she didn't believe him, as people who send for their viziers never do. She set out with her retinue to go find her brother and received word of his murder en route to Bobbili. Overcome with grief, she jumped into the local lake and drowned.

Some months later, after the local fishermen dregged the lake and brought up her body, she appeared to a relative saying she had been turned into a goddess and they should worship her. They would find a stone statue of her in the lake as proof. Well, find the statue they did, worship her they did, and today hundreds of thousands of people come out to celebrate her by means of a pole 60 feet tall.

The video is of the procession that goes from the temple to Vizianagaram fort 3 times. The technicolor net with the fish on top is being held up by Jalaris - the local fishing caste - to represent the people who pulled the princess's body out of the lake. The man perched on top of the sirimanu is a priest and descendent of the royal family. He is dressed as a king and sits possessed by the goddess. I think that possession is the only way to get anyone up there. Note the bananas being chucked at the priest. It is an age-old custom that some say represent fish of the lake. Others say that bananas and coconuts are offered to the gods during puja, and it's really not a good idea to throw coconuts at a man sitting on a pole 60 feet in the air. The bananas must hurt enough as is. Either way, all I know is that I sat on a roof for several hours and watched thousands of bananas being thrown by thousands of people at a priest dressed as a king possessed by a goddess who happens to be sitting on a pole being hauled through the streets by a local gang and the military.

India: there really is nothing like it.


  1. wow...that was incredible. and slightly crazy. I think I might have lost my mind after a while. Reminds of some things we did in Taiwan...masses of people and chaos and craziness everywhere. Love it.

  2. Zanna, you're such a pleasure to read.