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La possession en Asie du Sud

Jackie Assayag
Gilles Tarabout


“A daughter for seven minutes”

The therapeutic and divine discourses of possession mediumship in South India

« Sept minutes avec sa fille » : thérapie et discours divin de la possession médiumnique dans l’Inde du Sud

Elisabeth Schômbucher


Cet article est consacré à une forme de possession médiumnique chez les Vāḍabalija, caste de pêcheurs du Sud de l’Inde. Les études anthropologiques de ce type de possession en ont généralement souligné les effets thérapeutiques. Une séance de possession est en premier lieu un événement verbal. C’est à travers le langage que la réalité est créée. Ainsi, l’accent sera mis ici sur le discours énoncé durant la possession. Bien que la possession médiumnique puisse en effet être interprétée comme une psychothérapie indigène, c’est egalement un evenement rituel au cours duquel un culte est rendu aux divinités, l’ordre cosmique est reconduit, les individus sont rassemblés, non seulement pour obtenir des conseils mais aussi pour avoir le darśan – ce qui signifie voir l’être divin et se trouver en sa présence. Par conséquent, le médium, qui est le réceptacle de la divinité, doit accommoder deux formes de discours : l’un thérapeutique, qui réfère aux problèmes de l’individu, l’autre divin, qui doit décrire exactement les choses appartenant au royaume des dieux. L’autorite du médium ainsi que l’efficacité des mots divins dépendent de la capacité du premier à combiner ces deux formes de discours. La façon dont il accomplit cette tâche est justement l’objet de cet article.

Note de l’auteur

Acknowledgements: Field research on which this paper is based was carried out from December 1990 to April 1991. It was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Council). The author wishes to thank A. Vijaya and S. V Ramana Murthy for their help with the translation, and Heidrun Bruckner, Martin Fuchs, Martin Gaenszle, Alexander Henn, Andras Höfer, Aditya Malik, Claus Pēṭer Zoller and especially Anne Feldhaus for their helpful comments and discussion on an earlier draft of this paper.

Texte intégral


  • 1 This definition follows the distinction made by Claus (1979: 29).
  • 2 More of the earlier literature on possession is quoted, for instance, in Nuckolls 1991.
  • 3 Several life histories of mediums and ecstatic healers are now available (MCclain 1989). Especially (...)

1Possession is a well-known phenomenon all over South Asia. Two forms can be distinguished: spirit possession and possession mediumship.1 In the anthropological analysis of both forms the aspects of illness and therapy have been emphasized. For a long time spirit possession has been considered an expression of some sort of psychic disorder or illness (Freed & Freed 1964; Obeyesekere 1977), whereas possession mediumship has been considered a form of indigenous psychotherapy (Kakar 1983).2 Moreover, anthropological studies of both forms of possession have generally concentrated on the person of the medium and the client (or patient), and have neglected the text spoken during possession as well as the ritual practice associated with possession.3

2A number of more recent studies provide a much broader view on the phenomenon of possession. Claus (1984: 60), for instance, suggested that ethnography and anthropological analysis should operate as an exploratory science in order to discover new perspectives on possession, rather than remaining problem-oriented and thus reducing possession to only one of its aspects. Regarding possession by spirits and demons, Kapferer (1983: 9) was able to show that a demonic attack is not merely an expression of mental or social disorders of an individual, but that the demonic has to be seen as a particular construction of reality in which the victim or ‘patient’ symbolizes problems of a wider social context. Concerning possession mediumship, Nuckolls has shown that, besides being a therapy, possession mediumship has to be seen as a divinatory device which provides an ontology of suffering (Nuckolls 1992) and an explanation of various other problems (Nuckolls 1991).

3Among the Vāḍabalija, a South Indian Telugu-speaking fishing caste, possession mediumship takes place regularly on certain days of the week. When I asked English-speaking persons of higher castes about the meaning of these séances, I was told that the fishermen are just illiterate people, poor and superstitious, who hope to get help for their problems from the gods. The problems were said to include ill health, bad luck in fishing, wish for children, etc. In this paper, I want to take as an example a woman with several such problems. I want to ask if possession mediumship can be interpreted as “indigenous psychotherapy”, and, if so, how the therapy is achieved. Moreover, I want to show that possession mediumship is a performative event with more than a therapeutic aspect to it. Although I agree that during possession a certain reality is constructed and that the social order is restructured, it is argued here that possession mediumship, as it is performed by the Vāḍabalija, is also a ritual event in which divinities are worshipped, in which the cosmic order is reconfirmed and which people attend not only in order to ask for help but also to have darśan (that is, to see the divinity and be in its presence).

4The focus of discussion will be the text spoken during possession mediumship. This is in accordance with Nuckolls’s observation that “possession is, after all, a phenomenon which usually expresses itself in language and which people interpret through explanation” (1991: 58). A focus on speech behaviour, on particular speech acts and a particular use of language, as it is demanded by Labov and Fanshel (1977: 3) for the study of the therapeutic interview, will contribute to an understanding of what exactly happens during a session of possession mediumship. Since the therapist who speaks is a divinity, the text shows characteristics of a dual discourse. A focus on the performance of speech acts will show elements which make the performance of the medium therapeutically effective and authoritative as divine words. One prerequisite for the divine discourse to be efficacious is the trance of the medium. As a temporary vessel of a deity, the medium has to be in an altered state of consciousness. In an altered state of consciousness, it is argued, even the professional medium is not wholly in control of her- or himself; subsequent amnesia or at least ineffability attest to this (Ludwig 1968: 81). If the memory of what happened during the trance is disturbed after the event, how does this affect the text spoken by the medium during an altered state of consciousness? Freeman (1994) has shown that the text spoken by Teyyam dancers in Kerala during trance consists of long stretches of highly stereotyped and memorized passages. But whereas a Teyyam performance is a highly formalized event, a medium who is possessed by the deity in order to divine the reason for individual problems has to be able to refer to specific situations– despite being in trance. In this respect, the medium has to be seen as the author of the text. On the other hand, to be convincing as a divine discourse, the text has to exhibit certain general features, such as praising the deities and narrating their achievements in the past. These utterances are formulaic in character and can therefore be memorized. As a consequence, the medium has to cope with two forms of discourse which are at first sight contradictory: the therapeutic discourse, which has to refer to individual problems, and the divine discourse, which has to give a correct account of things belonging to the divine realm.

5The following analysis of a case of possession mediumship will show how the medium combines these two forms of discourse and to what extent the text spoken by the medium during divination is stereotypical or unique. For an understanding of the divinatory text presented here, the life history of the ‘patient’ will be given in summarized form.


  • 4 The settlement at the seashore of Puri is named Pentakota, after the village in Andhra Pradesh from (...)

6The story of the woman concerned here is rather tragic, but in many respects not exceptional. Lakṣmī, as she will be called here, celebrated her 30th birthday during the time I knew her in 1991. At that time she lived in Pentakota, a settlement near Puri in Orissa which is mainly inhabited by a fishing community.4 The fishermen are all Vāḍabalija, one of the three Telugu-speaking fishing castes who live on the coast of Andhra Pradesh. The first Vāḍabalija families came to Orissa and settled near Puri in 1952 in order to fish for a better market. A second wave of fishermen arrived in Orissa in the seventies to participate in the boom of commercial prawn fishing. For about the last ten years Pentakota has comprised about 2000 to 3000 inhabitants who live there permanently and another 6/8000 inhabitants who come to Orissa only in winter for the main fishing season.

7In the course of the migration of the Vāḍabalija, many people from other castes were attracted to Pentakota (Puri) and moved there more or less permanently from Andhra Pradesh. Pentakota has its own market, with many goods ‘imported’ and sold by merchants from Andhra Pradesh. Especially rice, sarees, and dress material, but also video tapes of Telugu movies, of Andhra origin. Besides the merchants (Kōmaṭi), a number of other castes from Andhra Pradesh serve the Vāḍabalija, such as barbers (Maṅgali), washermen (Cākali), tailors, goldsmiths and basket weavers.

  • 5 There are many stories about how much money they earned, about both women and men wearing huge numb (...)

8Lakṣmī belongs to the Jangam community, a caste which ranks higher than the fishermen. Just after Lakṣmī got married in 1978, her husband decided to join his elder brother’s prawn business in Puri. But it was perhaps too late to make one of those legendary fortunes as a middleman selling prawns. The prawn boom was at its height in the beginning of the seventies. The Vāḍabalija remember this vividly.5 The boom declined rapidly beginning in the mid-1970s. The introduction of mechanized boats operating on the coast of Orissa resulted in overfishing of prawns. While Lakṣmī’s brother-in-law can still make a decent living as fish-dealer, her husband had to improvise with other quick-moneymaking forms of business. At one time he was a mobile stainless steelpots merchant, but the unwillingness of some fisherwomen to pay their debts made this an unprofitable business. In 1991, he was collecting debts of customers for a private bank in Puri; this job was also hardly sufficient to make a decent living according to his family’s social status. Lakṣmī, on the other hand, was more successful. She had studied up to matriculation and, after having taught in a Christian school in Pentakota for some years, she is now managing her own small primary school for Vāḍabalija children. She has approximately forty pupils.

9One of the dilemmas that Lakṣmī often mentioned lies in the discrepancy between her living standard and her caste status. Her husband is not able or willing to provide a decent life style. In Lakṣmī’s eyes, everything is much better in Andhra Pradesh. There, her father is a pūjāri of a Śiva temple, and her natal family owns a big house and some land. The family is large and everything is as it should be. In Puri, she and her husband and children live alone, in a small rented room with no tube well, electricity, private space, or other facilities. She has to work and manage the household entirely with her own income since her husband doesn’t provide money for household affairs. Many other lower middle-class families who are close to her own in caste status are much better off. Thus, she feels despised by other members of her class and not duly respected by the Vāḍabalija. Many of them live in better conditions than her even though they are illiterate and she is the teacher of their children.

10The other, even more serious problem, has to do with her marital status. When she came to Puri after her marriage, she soon got pregnant. As it is the custom, she went to her mother’s house two months before the delivery and stayed there until her son was eleven months old. Soon after she returned to Puri she got pregnant again, and again went to her mother’s house for the delivery. After her second child, a daughter, was born, she decided to undergo ‘the operation’, i.e. sterilization by tubal ligation, which has left a deep scar on her abdomen. As for many other women of the lower middle class, for Lakṣmī this was the only effective method of birth control, the means by which she hoped to be able to provide good education and a more prosperous future for her two children. However, the consequences of the operation are greatly feared by women. Like many other women, Lakṣmī constantly complains about pain in her lower abdomen, about painful and irregular menstruation, about general weakness, headaches, etc. As a result, she has to undergo medical treatment fairly regularly and she gets prescriptions for a variety of expensive medicines indicated in cases of “general gynaecological problems”. Besides these somatic symptoms, which she will probably have to bear for many years and which she shares with other women who underwent ‘the operation’, Lakṣmī’s fate is even more tragic. At the age of five, her daughter died of hepatitis, “although she was provided with all possible treatments”. Lakṣmī has a single photograph of her daughter, showing an extremely beautiful and healthy four-year-old girl at the marriage ceremony of Lakṣmī’s younger sister. In the eyes of Vāḍabalija women, Lakṣmī’s tragedy doesn’t lie so much in the fact that her daughter died, since almost all Vāḍabalija women share the fate of having lost at least one child, but in her ‘operation’ which appears to them as most tragic. But even then, whenever we talked about Lakṣmī’s problems, the other women usually suggested that she could easily adopt another girl. She would only have to go to the hospital in Puri to get one of the many unwanted or orphaned baby girls. In fact, there are several examples of Vāḍabalija women who have adopted girls because of infertility or because the wife separated from her husband before she got pregnant and wanted a child without getting married again.

11But Lakṣmī’s familial situation didn’t allow for such considerations. When she came back from Andhra Pradesh, nine months after the birth of her daughter and ‘the operation’, she found that her husband had changed completely. He had a liaison with a fisherwoman whose husband was absent for the whole fishing season, leaving his wife and two children back in Pentakota. This woman gave birth to a third child and Lakṣmī was convinced that her husband was its father, since the child was extraordinarily ‘white’, an unmistakable sign of high caste origin. Lakṣmī’s husband was absent from their house most of the time, not even eating at home, and when he occasionally came home, they would quarrel and he would beat her. Some time after the death of Lakṣmī’s daughter the fisherwoman moved with her three children and her husband to another fishing ground. The relationship between Lakṣmī and her husband is still very strained, the only improvement being that he stopped beating her some time ago.

12Two years before I met Lakṣmī, she had decided to send her then ten-year-old son to her mother’s house, where he attends school. While this is completely incomprehensible for me, since now she is without any emotional support and her son has become alienated from her due to his long absence, to Lakṣmī and all other persons who were familiar with her situation, this decision appeared to be plausible and of absolute necessity. It would be much better for her son, it was argued, to live in a more relaxed atmosphere. He should not get influenced by the behaviour of his father, and his mother’s mother is the person with the closest emotional relation to him and is therefore able to care for him almost as well as his own mother could.

  • 6 Lakṣmī’s husband frowns upon her consulting the medium. It is not supposed to be a sophisticated wa (...)

13For Lakṣmī, however, the situation is unbearable. She has lost her daughter, she longs for her only son, who is far away, she lacks the support of her family since they live at a great distance from her, the relationship with her husband is strained and is characterized by constant fear on her side, her living conditions do not correspond with her caste status, she feels humiliated by the other members of the community and she suffers from various health problems. In this situation, Lakṣmī has gone for various kinds of therapy: she was a regular patient of an Oriya-speaking physician in Puri who provided her with allopathic medicines. Several times she went to a homeopath, also to get help for her gynaecological problems and to reduce her headaches, which were described by her as ‘heat on my head’. Whereas the allopathic therapy was rather expensive and whereas she could hardly make herself understood to the Oriya-speaking doctor, the homeopathic therapy was free of cost, since the practitioner, of high caste Andhra origin, was acquainted with her. However, this kind of therapy was less convincing for Lakṣmī, because of the “very small doses of powders and pills”, as she said. Besides these two forms of therapy, Lakṣmī has several times asked her deceased daughter for help and advice.6


  • 7 Telugu: vīruḍu, singular ‘hero’; vīrullu, plural ‘heroes’.

14As we know from the literature, spirits of deceased persons may be of malevolent character and interfere unexpectedly with their relatives’ lives at certain times of general weakness or vulnerability, such as in cases of spirit possession (Claus 1979; Freed & Freed 1964; Stanley 1988). But, on the other hand, deceased relatives may become deified beings and are then benevolent in character. In particular, children and young adults, persons whose death is considered untimely, may be transformed into vīrullu (lit. ‘heroes’).7 According to the Vāḍabalija, vīrullu are deified human beings who live in the realm of goddessess. A vīruḍu announces its existence in the dream of a close relative and has to be worshipped regularly thereafter. Proper worship guarantees that the vīruḍu protects its relatives. Communication between persons and their vīrullu takes place with the help of a medium. In 1991 there was one woman in Pentakota who could become possessed by vīrullu as well as by the goddess. Lakṣmī had consulted this medium several times before.

15In the context of Lakṣmī’s situation, possession mediumship might be seen as a form of indigenous psychotherapy which is applied in addition to other therapeutic devices. In the following pages, I shall concentrate on the performative features of possession as well as on the semantic and formal aspects of the text spoken during the session. I hope to show that besides having therapeutic qualities, possession mediumship has also features of a divine discourse through which the cosmic order is re-established and confirmed.


  • 8 Bhaktuḍu (male), and bhakturālu (female) is the general Telugu term for devotee. To denote a medium (...)
  • 9 When asked about the persons who will attend the possession on the following day, the media usually (...)

16In order to show that all important elements of the worship of a deity are present in this possession cult, I shall concentrate on the performative features of possession. Monday is the day when vīrullu can be consulted, whereas on Thursday the goddess is worshipped and can be asked to come into the body of her medium. Lakṣmī went to the medium (bhakturālu) on Sunday night to inform her about her plan to come on Monday. Making an appointment in this way is the usual procedure if one wants to see a bhakturālu.8 People usually go to see a medium in their neighborhood. Medium and client are known to each other, and the medium is familiar with the situation of the client.9

17The session usually begins around nine o’clock on Monday morning, after the medium has cleaned the house and had her bath. After having worshipped the deity who usually possesses her, the medium takes a seat in the doorway to the shrine of her house. In front of her stands a clay pot with hot coals on which people burn camphor before they ask questions. Offerings, such as coconuts, bananas, incense, turmeric, sindur and small amounts of money are also placed in front of the medium. After the persons who are going to ask questions have assembled in the only room of the house, the priest (dāsuḍu) can begin with the invocation of the deities. He asks them to give the dead children to their mothers, just for seven minutes.


  • 10 The extent to which an invocation is structured and predictable and the extent to which it is the c (...)

18The invocation is a text spoken by the priest (dāsuḍu) in front of an audience but addressed to the deities, who are absent. The priest has to persuade the deities to be present at this specific meeting and to answer the questions. The persuasiveness of his words depends on how skillfully he is able to use the stipulated phrases. A closer view of the text will show that this does not depend entirely on his creativity, but to a large extent on the observance of structural and formal features. To invoke the gods, the priest has to sit exactly opposite the medium. In all cases that I observed, this was at the other end of the hut. The space between priest and medium has to be completely empty. Nobody is allowed to sit in this line, and knees or arms are pushed away firmly. The speech of the priest is characterized by great speed, a high pitch and a loud voice. He uses short sentences, longer sentences being divided by exclamations into smaller segments. Since there are no signs of hesitation, no pauses or false starts, an invocation has to be seen as a planned discourse which is well-formed and predictable. However, as in any ritual discourse which lacks a written text as source, there is also in the invocational text enough room for the personal interpretation and individual style of each priest. The following text exhibits the structural features which have to be present in each invocation.10

  • 11 The deity is addressed with the personal pronounߵnuvv ’ (second person singular) instead of ’mīr’ ( (...)
  • 12 Dharma kacceri, prayer meeting or place of prayer.
  • 13 Ciluku Simmādri is a standard term used by Vāḍabalija media. Literally ciluku means ‘parrot’. S. V. (...)

mahāprabho, kannatandri, bābayya, īśvarudu bābu, we thirsty (misguided) children are asking you, who were tied on the top of your fort, mahāprabho, today don’t leave us without protection, bābayya, for seven minutes give us the children who went away into that world [who died], in these hard times (kali yuga) you will show us the way,
ani oh, you will ask these children, mahāprabho, on this day, your younger sisters, your daughter, we are hoping, the reason for our hope, oh father, you should know, seven minutes you give, oh, as a gift you give anybody’s child to them, for opening your hand, you (NUVVU)11are our protecting father, only you, mahāprabho, give us perfect answers only, mahāprabho, father of 1000 pillars, you mother, Ciṭṭamma, mother
10 whose throne is on the one crore [many] of mountains, the Jālari [fishermen] who departing from home have occupied this place, you are protecting it, kindhearted mother, mother with the ten faces (avatār), you have to solve and tell [solutions], you have to tell in this prayer meeting,12 mother, the children who stay in that world, oh, your help, there // are obstacles, you give the child to its mother, the child’s words
15 [utterances] you have to give them, you are the guarding father, great mother (mahātalli), you give us only perfect answers in this prayer meeting, mahātalli, in this meeting, mahātalli, you are the one with one thousand forms (avatār), you are the goddess with seven erected bamboo poles, you have come to the pole at that time, on this day or on that day, to the children who came, to them you are giving, mother,
20 perfect clearness, you have to give to the children perfectly clear words, you protecting mother, give us only correct answers, oh, mother, only correct ones, in this prayer meeting, edamma, mother of the neem tree, mother who spits [gives], our mother Nūkala, mother of the world, goddess of the kali yuga, you have to solve and tell, you, who are the one who tells, you have to, mahātalli, mother, in this prayer meeting you
25 are the goddess with such brightness, amma, today we are assembling with hope, amma, you give the dead child’s words perfectly, only perfect answers you have to give us, mahātalli, in this prayer meeting, father, ciluku Simmādri,13 the one who is ruling the people who are asking, father of our village, mahāprabho, father, bābu, whether it is to Sītā or Rāma or whether it is to you, [we are offering] the same prayer, father,
30 black god, please give us answers perfectly, perfectly, oh, you give the words to the people who have gathered, you are our protecting god, mahāprabho, without stopping anywhere give us correct answers only, mahāprabho, on this day the kingdom belongs to Bandi Bhūlokamma, the goddess who is ruling the entire world, the goddess with ten forms (avatār), you solve and tell, you are the one who has to tell, mother, in the
35 prayer meeting, amma, give correct answers, oh, you have to give the word to the gathering ones, edamma, Bhadramaṅkali, edi, goddess with 1000 forms, great goddess (mahātalli), on this day, don’t leave us without protection, edamma, without holding back [stopping] your elder sister, give the answers correctly, you have to give the word to the waiting one, you are the goddess who protects us, mahātalli, give us, oh,
40 mother, edamma, Kottarājulu talli, solve and tell, you are the one who should tell us, mahātalli, to the children who came, god who gave shape to Gaṅga, you are showing each child to its mother, you are showing it, mother, on this day don’t leave us without protection, edamma, on this day, we have gathered with hope, for seven minutes you give us answers correctly, mahātalli, in the prayer meeting, salutation to you, don’t go 45 backward and forward [don’t hesitate], mahāprabho.

  • 14 The dāsuḍu also acts as a diviner. With the help of different oracles, he can find out causes of pr (...)
  • 15 This can be after a relatively short time. The medium in the present case however is well known for (...)

19The invocation ends as soon as the medium has reached a state of trance and begins to speak. The invocational text is usually omitted in the analysis of possession because it is supposed to be of no importance for the following divinatory text (see, e.g., Nuckolls 1991: 77). It shall be dealt with here at some length for several reasons. First, without an invocation, the possession cannot take place, i.e. the deity or the deified dead will not appear temporarily in a human being. Second, although it might not be significant for the divinatory aspects of the following text, it is of great importance for a better understanding of the meaning of possession. The Vāḍabalija see possession mediumship as a ritual event, as a ‘prayer meeting’, as the priest calls it. The priest is a ritual specialist who mediates between people and deities. When animals are offered to the deities it is his task to persuade the deity to accept the offering of a goat, a sheep or a chicken. Until the deity shows her willingness to accept the offering (usually by the sacrificial animal nodding its head), the priest goes on pleading, just as he does in an invocation until the deity is willing to appear.14 In both instances, he uses a similar discourse of convincing the deities. This task is accomplished only with his words. No music or other devices are used for this end. Without a priest, the medium would not reach an altered state of consciousness and the deities would not appear. The length of the invocational text depends on the onset of the trance of the medium.15

  • 16 However, this dāsuḍu does not explicitly mention Jagannātha.

20At first sight, the transcribed text of the invocation may seem unstructured, with random utterances and arbitrary repetitions, but a closer look reveals a conventionalized discourse. Although not reproduced from a written source, the text is nevertheless standardized in form as well as in content. It can be divided into four sections, in which different deities are addressed. The order of the deities corresponds with the cosmic hierarchy: in the first section (lines 1-9), the supreme male deity is addressed, either as great god (mahāprabho) or as father (tandri, bābayya). Since the male deity in its different forms is the supreme and most powerful deity, he has to be honoured and asked first to give protection, to give correct answers, and to give the deified children to their parents (for 7 minutes, i.e., for a short time). Without his permission, not even his younger sisters (the goddesses) will be able “to give the children to their mothers”. Thus, everything depends on the all-powerful male deities, who are perceived by the Vāḍabalija as elder brothers of the female deities. In Puri it is especially Jagannātha, as ruler of the place, who has to be asked first to give permission for all other deities to be present for a short time.16

21In part two (lines 9-27), which is twice as long as part one, female deities who are the younger sisters of the male gods are addressed. This is done mostly by addressing the goddesses as ‘mother’ or ‘great mother’. Only twice is the goddess named in her regional aspect as Nūkala and Ciṭṭamma. The goddesses are first worshipped by naming their characteristic features and by praising their power and then they are asked to do the same things as the male deities before: to give perfect answers, to give the child to its mother, etc. The pleas in part two are repeated several times, thus indicating that the invocation could be ended here, since all important elements have been mentioned now by the priest.

  • 17 Simmādri is a regional deity in Simhacalam near Vishakapatnam. According to the Vāḍabalija, Simmādr (...)
  • 18 Jagannātha in Puri.

22Since the bhakturālu is still not in trance, the dāsuḍu continues with part three (lines 27-32), in which again male deities are addressed and asked to give perfect answers. In this part the deity is addressed as father, by name (Simmādri),17 by epithet (‘black god’)18 and by different titles. And assurance is given that the worship is meant for all deities, even if it is in the name of one specific deity, such as Rāma or Sītā or Simmādri (lines 27, 29).

23Finally the priest goes on with part four (lines 33–45), in which again female deities are asked to give answers. They are addressed either as ‘great goddess’ or, in regional terms, as Bhadramaṅkali or Kottarājulu. Since the medium still doesn’t show any sign of falling into trance, the priest uses the word ‘edamma’ four times in this part. It can be translated as “isn’t it?” or “don’t you think so?” and is used in conversation either to persuade one’s audience or to get approval for a certain argument or point of view. In this context it seems to be the last effort of the priest to convince the deities to appear before the audience. He finally succeeds.

24Whereas the beginning of the invocation is marked by various terms of address (mahāprabho, kannatandri, etc.), the end is not defined by the priest’s utterances, but by the fact that the deity begins to speak. (Although in this case, the priest has indicated by repetition that the invocation might be ended.) The course of the invocation is marked by several standardized structural features. The text is characterized by lexical cohesion and, depending on its length, by a certain degree of repetition, which has a persuasive effect, but is also due to the fact that the priest has only a rather narrow semantic field to choose from. As repetitive items, we have various terms of address, epithet, the plea for divine protection and help, the plea for ‘perfect answers’ and the plea for the dead child’s words. Consid-ering the length of this particular text, the priest has to repeat his words or larger lexical units several times in various combinations. Certain inconsistencies, such as in line 15 “you are the guarding father, mahātalli (great mother)” and line 41 “god who gave shape to Gaṅga” (in a section dealing with goddesses), are probably due to the speed with which the priest speaks. Thus, the art of invoking the gods neither depends exclusively on the creative abilities of the priest nor on his ability to reproduce a given ritual text without any mistakes. Despite a considerable stylistic freedom in using the combinations, certain rules have to be observed. The deities have to be addressed in the correct way and in the correct order to assure the effectiveness of the words of the priest. He has to take account of the cosmic hierarchy of the deities and he has to worship them by referring to their power. Male deities are the elder brothers of the female deities and are therefore asked first. The deceased children are in the realm of the deities, but at a lower status in the hierarchy. Therefore they cannot be asked directly to come and give answers. Only the deities have the power to give people their children for seven minutes.


25Whereas the text of the priest is in prose form, the text spoken by the medium is a singing recitation of verses. The lines are of approximately the same length and the symmetry of the verses is further enhanced by repeating the same lexical beginnings and endings. In addition, the end of every line is characterized by a stylized breathing which in some cases resembles a kind of sobbing. The divine discourse is not a monologue by the divine being but a dialogue between living persons and their deceased relatives, whom they ask for advice. In the following case it is the dialogue between a mother (Lakṣmī) and her deceased daughter.

  • 19 However, the cosmic order is maintained by other mediums. See Schömbucher 1994: 49.

26Like the invocation, the text spoken by the medium can also be divided into several sections: in the first section the possessing goddess (Kottarājulu) greets the different deities. Here, the cosmic order which was observed by the priest is not maintained. Instead, male and female deities are asked alternately to allow their younger sisters to come into the body of the medium.19

The Greeting
Salutation to you, bābu
to you, elder sister, who is ruling the forest (vana)
salutations, salutations to you, elder sister
salutations to you, father (tandri)
salutations to you, father (ayya)
salutations to you, golden one
salutations to you, Nūkamma
praise to you, elder sister
father Jagannātha
father Gōvinda-nu-ra
father Simmādri-ro
abba silver God of the earth
abba praise to you
abba to the seven bamboo sticks
abba the five ways (divine way)
abba ōlē you have to give
you transfer to your younger sister Bhadra
abba do not obstruct
abba do not stop
abba goddess of the seven bamboo sticks
abba the five (divine) ways
abba how the world is
abba to the children, elder sister
abba I am making the door
abba properly
abba show us the ways
abba salutations, salutations, elder sister.

27The priest has asked the gods and goddesses to give the divine children to their mothers. In this first section it is the goddess Kottarājulu who is speaking. She is the personal deity of the medium. Usually she speaks through her medium on Thursday. Now she is greeting the other deities. Especially Jagannātha has always to be greeted, as ruler over Puri. The deities are addressed by their personal names, by kinship terms (father, elder sister) or by epithet (golden one, ruling the vana, etc.). Like the priest, here the goddess, Kottarājulu, asks the other deities to show the “five ways” or “how the world is” and thus to transfer their knowledge to her as their younger sister. She even states: “I am making the door to the children”, i.e., “I am the mediator between deities, deified humans and human beings.” This first section is ended by the phrase, “abba salutations, salutations, elder sister.” Then the various sections follow in which the clients ask their deceased relatives for advice. Thus, the deity who usually possesses the medium speaks first, and only after she has greeted the other deities (who are elder and thus of higher status than herself) and asked for their help, does she give way to the deified children.


28Lakṣmī’s dialogue with her daughter is one of six sections on this day. Sometimes, the client initiates a section with a general question, whereas sometimes it is the deity who starts talking to the next client. Each section begins with lines of salutation and ends with the standard phrases, “do not be afraid” and “I am leaving, amma, I am leaving.” Lakṣmī’s section comprises about ten minutes and is initiated by her rather general request for advice in her present situation.

  • 20 Amma, literally ‘mother’, is also used to address women and even young girls.
  • 21 ‘Nuvvu ayina ’ is a standard phrase; ayina is used here as a conjunction and gives a strong emphasi (...)

Lakṣmī. –Which way do I have to go not to lose my way, amma?20
[Divine Daughter]
Oh mother, you21
our father Śiva
our father Jagannātha
our father Jagannātha
salutation to you, Lokanātha
our mother Ciṭṭiamma
praise to you, my mother
so many goddesses
inumerable [protecting] hands, our mother
many greetings to Gaṅga
what, my mother
on the side of my brother
I have become [his] support
on the side of my father
I have become [his] support
my mother, you
you have not forgotten
I have not forgotten
I, on that day, you, mother
I would have lived
I was eaten by the goddess, mother
I was eaten by the goddess, mother
uncountable answers
what kind of pain came to me
what kind of pain came to me
in those seven minutes, mother
in my stomach, mother
so much pain came to me
you do not know, mother
I, in that hospital
when I was given medicines
the goddess became angry
the goddess took me away
oh, my mother (amma), you
oh, my mother (talli), you
I, under the guidance [with the support]
of [the goddess] bhūśatti [lit.: Bhūśakti]
I became a goddess (thakurāni)
I became a respectable [noble] woman
I became a Yoginī [female ascetic]
to Bhūśakti only
you offer namaskār, mother
do not be afraid.

29The first part of the text spoken by Lakṣmī’s daughter is characterized by general statements and the recapitulation of the events of the past. As usual, this part begins with the daughter greeting her mother, and then several deities. Śiva is mentioned first, since he is the main deity worshipped in Lakṣmī’s family. Greeting Śiva is rather exceptional in this context. For Vāḍabalija clients only Vaiṣṇava deities are greeted in the beginning. In this case, however, greeting Siva is correct, since Lakṣmī belongs to a Śaivaite sect. Lakṣmī considered the fact that her daughter greets Śiva first as one of the proofs that it is really her daughter who is speaking.

  • 22 She doesn’t call herself a vīruḍu, but a thakurāni and yoginī, whereas the Vāḍabalija generally ref (...)

30After greeting the deities, the daughter states that after her death she has become the support of her family, explicitly mentioning only her brother and her father, but not her mother. Concerning her mother, an even stronger sense of belonging together is elicited by referring to the situation of the death and by stating that neither of the two of them has forgotten this painful incident. The narration of her death is followed by narrating the process of her deification. With the support of the goddess Bhūśakti, the daughter has entered the realm of the divine. She has become a goddess (thakurāni) herself or at least an ascetic (yoginī) subservient to the goddess Bhūśakti.22 This is a prerequisite for becoming a support of her family members and not haunting them. As such a divine being she communicates now with her mother.

31This first part ends with the standard phrase, “do not be afraid.” With the narration of the past the daughter has given evidence of her presence. It is the proof that it is really Lakṣmī’s daughter speaking and that she remembers everything that has happened. Moreover, the daughter establishes in this section a specific relationship with her mother. Although there is always a strong sense of belonging together between the two (as mentioned by the daughter), the relationship which is established now is temporary but intense. For seven minutes, i.e., for a short time, mother and divine daughter will be together in one room, the mother being able to pose questions and to ask for help and the daughter willing to give answers and support.

32Part two of the dialogue is opened by Lakṣmī with a specific question about the two things which are most harmful to her: her ill health and her dismal familial situation.

Lakṣmī. – My health is not good, there is no stability in my house.
[DIvine Daughter]
My mother, you
you, do not be sorrowful
do not be frightened
do not be in pain
you are the happiness, my mother.

33After only five lines, beginning with the standard phrase, “my mother, you”, lines in which the daughter does not respond directly to Lakṣmī’s ill health but instead mentions sorrow, fear and pain (and thus gets to the heart of the matter), Lakṣmī interrupts her by repeating her problem and adding that nothing she does is successful.

Lakṣmī. – My health is not good, nothing is stable,
whatever I am touching, it does not belong to me.
[DIvine Daughter]
you stop wandering about, mother [i.e., your troubles will cease]
oh my mother, you
Lord Iśvaruḍu [Śiva]
(even) before you went to the temple
you, goddess Santośamma
you worship [her] for support [protection]
you are increasing your interest
you, in this goddess
you will value [the goddess], mother
the troubles you experienced
your grief will come to an end
your righteousness (moral values) to you
justice will be given to you
I will give happiness to you
do not be afraid.

34The continuation of the discourse is conventional in the sense that Lakṣmī’s daughter advises her that she should increase the worship of one specific deity and her troubles and grief will vanish. Again exceptional is the choice of the goddess: Santośamma, who is generally not of importance for the Vāḍabalija. Again, the daughter terminates this section with the standard phrase, “do not be afraid.”

35Lakṣmī continues the dialogue with a new topic, the fact that she is all alone and that her son is not here living with her, but staying in her mother’s house and attending school there. (Note that she is not referring to him as “my son”, but as “your elder brother”, thus addressing her daughter.)

Lāksmī. – But your elder brother is there in the deśam (home country),
how is he studying? There is no letter about him. To me nobody is near,
everything is beyond my reach.
[Divine Daughter]
Regarding my brother
do not be afraid, mother
about you they are telling, mother
how is she getting along
how is she living
like that they are talking
people are talking like that, mother
whoever is talking in that way
do not be afraid.

36The divine daughter talks only in two lines about her elder brother. After that she mentions an even greater problem of Lakṣmī’s which has not been touched upon by Lakṣmī until now. In seven lines it is stated in a rather general manner that people are talking about her, that they are gossiping about her familial situation.

Lakṣmī. – But you are there for all of us. I am criticized by everyone.

37Lakṣmī readily takes up this topic by reaffirming that everyone criticizes her but also by challenging her daughter to help her in this respect, since she “should be there for the whole family,” i.e., she should feel responsible for the well-being of all family members. (For Lakṣmī, this serves as another proof that her daughter speaks the truth, since it is she who mentions this problem first.)

[Divine Daughter]
For seven minutes, my mother
do not go to anyone’s house
do not think about anything, do not talk about anyone
Lakṣmī. – Why should I think about somebody else?
I have thirty-three [many] problems.

38After only three lines in which the daughter advises her mother not to go to anyone’s house and thus (perhaps) to stop the gossiping, she gets interrupted again by Lakṣmī, who rather impatiently refuses to accept this advice. The daughter continues:

[Divine Daughter]
At whatever time, on whatever day, mother
the people who are talking about our household affairs
they will experience their own fate (karma)
their own fate, my mother
I will put them under control, my mother.

  • 23 She still identifies herself with her mother’s household, although she stays in the realm of the di (...)

39Irrespective of Lakṣmī’s objection, the daughter unwaveringly reassures her mother that she will support her by sanctioning these people who are talking about ‘our’ household affairs.23 Lakṣmī continues the dialogue by repeatedly referring to her son’s well-being (and indirectly to her problem of being deprived of both her children and thus of emotional support).

Lāksmī. – But how is your brother there in the [home] town,
I don’t know anything, whether he is studying or not, I don’t know.
[Divine Daughter]
At whatever time, on whatever day, my mother
at the side of my brother, my mother
if he is studying for one
I will make it fourfold
I am becoming support, mother
I am becoming support, mother
the studies my brother is doing
I am giving them to my brother, mother
why are you sorrowful, my mother
do not be sorrowful, my mother
if you are sorrowful, my mother
you will not be in a happy condition
from the day when you are happy, mother
you will not get trouble in your health, mother
whatever the time, whatever the day
you have to be happy, my mother
whatever the time, whatever the day, I am also
becoming your support, my mother.

40The daughter reassures her mother in a rather poetic way that she will support her elder brother in school and that whatever he is doing, she will increase his success. And then, rather abruptly, without any transition, she goes back to answer Lakṣmī’s specific question about her health. She introduces this topic with the question, “why are you sorrowful, my mother?” and tells her that her ill health is the result of her unhappiness and that once she stops being sorrowful, her health will be all right. Here, the relation between psychic and somatic problems is clearly stated and it is argued that Lakṣmī’s state of general unhappiness is the cause of her somatic problems. Lakṣmī leaves this as it is and we do not know if this argument convinces her. She again introduces a new topic, the problematic way of life of her husband. She gives an account of the present state of affairs and begs her daughter to change him and to put him on the right path.

Lakṣmī. – But will stability come to your father, amma?
Even now there is no stability in your father.
He is roaming around in the same way.
He must be put on the right way.
[Divine Daughter]
Mother, how my father was in the beginning,
the world knows, mother
I brought one fourth change to him
my mother, you
one fourth change was brought
my mother, you
by going seven steps away from you
he used to abuse you
when you told him good, he took it for bad
he used to shout, he tried to separate from you
with those bad habits he used to wander in the city
such a kind of father I changed, mother
I will provide him a better [lit.: higher] job, mother
if I cannot bring my father into prominence
you can tell me on that day: “my small daughter
you have failed in your protection, you have put hope in me”
you may curse me on that day with five sins, my mother
do not give such a frightening curse to me, my mother
you keep on showing the light to Santośamma, mother.

41The daughter begins her answer by talking about her father’s character. She refers to the condition as it was during her lifetime. The content of this narrative is more or less known to the whole neighborhood and she even goes into the details of his ‘bad habits’, such as abusing his wife and trying to separate himself from her. However, the daughter states that she has changed her father already (which in Lakṣmī’s eyes was the truth, since he was not beating her anymore). Moreover, the daughter promises to change her father even more and to be of support to him (finding him a better job). And now, for the first time, the daughter sets herself an ultimatum, i.e., that in case she fails to protect and support her family, her mother can curse her. However, in the next line she asks her mother not to do this, but to keep on worshipping Santośamma for support, thus acknowledging that both of them need the support of a more powerful divine being.

Lāksmī. – But I am doing this. For twenty-four hours a day
I am doing pūjā for them.
[Divine Daughter]
... everybody has to suffer grief
when I was not there for seven seconds, those who criticized
[lit.: judged] you
I am stopping them, mother
I am giving them a lot of pain, mother
our family is not a minor one, mother
even in our family there are troubles, mother.

42Lakṣmī interferes and states that she is doing pūjā for Śiva and Santośamma every day (and indirectly assumes that this alone cannot be the solution to her manifold problems). Since I had to change the tape here, a few lines are missing, but obviously the daughter has again introduced the topic of criticism. It indicates that this is not only one of Lakṣmī’s main problems but that Lakṣmī’s neighborhood is also aware of the discrepancy between her caste status and her way of living. The daughter even refers to their higher caste status ( “our family is not a minor one”) and states that there shouldn’t be problems of this sort.

Lakṣmī. –Yes, there are. Wherever I am going,
they are taunting me. They are abusing me.
I cannot stay in the house.
[Divine Daughter]
Do not be afraid, mother
I shall go now, my mother, you
do not forget Lord Śiva, mother.
Laksmi. – I am not forgetting. For twenty-four hours a day
I am worshipping Siva.
[Divine Daughter]
My mother Santośamma, don’t forget her, mother.
Lakṣmī. – I am worshipping both of them. I am thinking
of them as my mother and father.

43Lakṣmī eagerly takes up the topic of criticism by confirming that what her daughter says is true. Her daughter announces, with two standard phrases, that her time is over now and that she intends to leave the medium and her mother, telling her again not to forget Siva and Santośamma. Lakṣmī repeats that she is worshipping them all the time, thus again indicating that this is not the solution of her complex problems.

44The daughter then introduces another new, and also the final, topic. She announces that she will console her mother in the form of a cockroach.

[Divine Daughter]
I, at whatever time, on whatever day, my mother
I, for the next time, when I am staying
while you sit, I shall climb into your lap
while you sit, I shall climb into your lap
I shall hide myself in your lap
please do not kill that cockroach, mother.
lāksmī. – I did not kill it. Twenty-four hours a day
I am thinking of you.
[Divine Daughter]
You think about me, mother, my mother, you
you offer your namaskar to your daughter
you leave me, mother, even if you are my mother
you crushed me under your feet three times
I am telling you at least once a month
you are my hope and love, don’t remove me, mother
I am climbing into your lap and I am enjoying the touch
don’t take my hope away, my mother, you.

Lāksmī. – Don’t I have hope in my daughter, don’t I have hope?
In twenty-four hours there is no moment of hope.
[Divine Daughter]
I am hiding myself in your lap
under your foot I am hiding myself
at least I am looking at you with my eyes
I am going away, mother
my mother, you.

  • 24 Incidentally, for Lakṣmī, this is another proof that her daughter speaks the truth.

45Lakṣmī confirmed later that her daughter had promised earlier that she would come in the shape of a cockroach and that indeed there is a cockroach that comes in the evening that she never chases away.24 After Lakṣmī has indicated that her daughter’s words make sense to her ( “I did not kill”), the daughter feels encouraged to continue telling her mother that she will come in the shape of a cockroach and that she as well needs the comfort and loving attention of her mother. When the mother again complains that she gets no hope or consolation from her daughter, the daughter for the last time reassures her that she will console her mother (by looking at her with the eyes of a cockroach) and she indicates the end of the dialogue by the final lines, “I am going away, mother, my mother, you.” But Lakṣmī, still clinging to her daughter’s voice, insists again on news from her home town. Her younger brother had promised to send news when he left Puri.

Lakṣmī. – There, what about your maternal uncle (mother’s brother)? Since he went away to the deśam from here, there is no letter, no good news, no bad news.

46In one final line, the daughter replies that a letter will come. After that, the medium begins without an interval with the opening lines for the next client.

[Divine Daughter]
It will come, in these days it will come, don’t be afraid
my mother, you, ōḷē, my mother
my mother, Gantule Nagura
my mother Gantule, my mother Nagura...


47Whereas for the Vāḍabalija and for Lakṣmī it was her daughter who had spoken to her for several minutes, from an outsider’s point of view, it was the medium who was extremely sensitive to Lakṣmī’s problems and could be said to have acted as an indigenous psychotherapist. In the dialogue with her deceased daughter, all of Lakṣmī’s complex major problems were mentioned, either by herself or by her daughter. Whereas Lakṣmī referred to her ill health, her dismal familial situation and the absence of her son as her main problems, the daughter mentioned sorrow, fear and, more important, the fact that Lakṣmī cannot live according to her caste status and is therefore looked down upon by the other inhabitants of Pentakota. Lakṣmī said later that her daughter spoke well and that, since she is a divine being, she knows everything (which has been proved by her answers). What is it that makes her daughter speak so well? Or, in other words, what makes the text convincing as the speech of a divinity? What, on the other hand, makes the dialogue with a divinity therapeutically effective? I will attempt here to bring the two perspectives together and to show how the two discourses, the divine and the therapeutic, interact with each other.

48From the therapist’s point of view, Lakṣmī’s problems were presented in a forum which is open to everybody, and the audience often interferes in the dialogue between mother and daughter (or client and medium) by utterances of consent or disapproval. Lakṣmī’s problems and her daughter’s advice might be further discussed after the possession by the other members of the audience, who judge if the daughter’s advice is valuable, i.e., if “the daughter has spoken well”. Lakṣmī, as well as other clients, present their problems within the neighborhood. The medium is usually selected by a client because they know each other. The public at possession mediumship consists of persons who are acquainted with the client’s problems. Presenting one’s problems in such a setting is a way of discovering various perspectives. We have seen that Lakṣmī’s perspective differs from what the medium or the neighborhood might think about the causes of her problems, but she is sensitive to their point of view, as could be seen in conversations after the possession. On the other hand, the medium cannot have a completely new perspective but has always to test whether her different perspective is still acceptable to the client. Therefore, the therapeutic effect, if any, cannot only be ascribed to the dialogue between mother and daughter, but is also achieved by the empathy and support of the audience, by negotiating with other persons about different perspectives, by an eventual agreement upon the causes of the problem, and, perhaps, by discovering that other people’s problems might be even bigger.

49Besides being a kind of indigenous therapy for individual health problems or an explanation for various kinds of personal misfortune, possession mediumship is seen by the Vāḍabalija as a ritual event or ‘prayer meeting’. In fact, the priest calls it so in his invocation of the deities. The audience comprises both “persons who sit” and “persons who ask”. Persons “who only sit” without asking questions to the deity or deified dead, name as the reason for their coming that they “want to be near the deity” or that “one has to go near the deity.” The explicit goal of a prayer meeting, as formulated by the priest, is getting darśan of the divinities present, i.e., seeing the deities and being in their presence. Besides darśan, there are other elements which make possession a ritual event: offerings are made in front of the medium, and are later distributed as prasād; the gods have to be convinced to be present and to accept the offerings, just as in any pūjā. The text shows several elements which characterize it as a divine discourse: in the first part, the deceased daughter greets other deities and narrates the process of deification, thus establishing her authority. She demands worship of other deities, such as Śiva and Santośamma. With their assistance the daughter is able to take care of her family. There are several instances in which the daughter shows her divine power: she promises to sanction persons who gossip about Lakṣmī’s household and she promises to help her brother in his studies. She even sets herself an ultimatum and thus confirms her power.

50Attending possession mediumship and thus worshipping the deities serves as a preventive measure against coming misfortunes. It is a well-known fact in the literature on village deities that goddesses or deified dead help in times of distress when properly worshipped, but that the same divine beings can create problems when neglected (Brubaker 1978; Blackburn 1985). The worship of deities that are present temporarily in human beings is similar to their worship in a temple, with offerings and words of persuasion by a priest. According to Gold, Rajasthani villagers interpret possession as degenerated divine presence in the Kali Yuga: ߵߵ ... possession–where deities act through human vehicles [...] is, in effect, a reminder of the gods’ removal or remoteness from this world: in the Kali Yuga they no longer manifest fully the [...] splendor on earth.” “Some say that, formerly, the gods appeared on earth in their ‘own form’ (svarūp) or as ‘descended incarnations’ (avatār), giving darśan to their devotees and directly acting for human benefit.” (Gold 1988: 41)

51Since many Vāḍabalija live only temporarily in Orissa, their deities stay behind in the villages in Andhra Pradesh. Only three village goddesses are represented in temples in the settlement in Orissa. The others are invited to be present in the body of a medium for a short time. Therefore, among the Vāḍabalija, possession mediumship is of importance for the worship of their village deities while they are living in Orissa. Moreover, the deified dead (vīrullu) do not reside in temples. One way of worshipping them and communicating with them is via medium.

52It has already been mentioned that clients choose a medium with whom they are acquainted. Therefore, the choice is limited, although there are several mediums in Pentakota. The possessing deity of the acquainted medium might be more fierce and frightening than others (but also more powerful). A person who has a vīruḍu to talk to, might be unlucky in having lost a child, a sibling or a spouse, but is lucky in having a vīruḍu for help and advice. In the cosmic hierarchy, deified dead are of low rank and not as powerful as the deities. But a vīruḍu is much more benevolent than a deity. Although a divine being, the Vāḍabalija explained, a vīruḍu is still a member of the family, with a great deal of emotional attachment. In dealing with faults of human beings, a vīruḍu is supposed to be much more lenient and kind-hearted than a deity. Lakṣmī’s daughter is extraordinarily benevolent. She has only consolation and encouragement for her mother, no reproaches or accusations. She only demands to be worshipped when she is present in the form of a cockroach. Lakṣmī reassures her divine daughter that she worships her dutifully and thus guarantees that her daughter is able to protect the whole family. Without proper worship, the divine daughter would be unable to protect her family and would therefore be the cause of Lakṣmī’s problems, rather than part of the cure. Thus, asking divinities for help also means ascertaining, by listening to their words, whether the cosmic order has been disturbed, whether the divine beings are powerful enough to protect human beings, and what should be done, if necessary, to set things right again.

* *

53A closer analysis of possession mediumship shows that both the text and the ritual performance have a certain structural coherence. Possession mediumship is a performative event with only minimal spontaneous action and a maximum extent of planned and predictable action. For the divine beings to be present, certain ritual preconditions have to be met. The deities have to be invited in the proper way to be present at a certain time and at a certain place. Only a priest can persuade them by invoking them in the correct order and with the appropriate words. Human time and divine time have to be coordinated. A daughter for seven minutes for Lakṣmī is the same as the blinking of an eye for a deity. Space, both the place where the possession is to take place and the medium as ‘vessel’ for the deity, has to be ritually purified.

54Only after time and space have been ritually prepared can the divine speech be performed. The text has to fulfill certain preconditions to be authoritative and effective both as a therapeutic and as a divine discourse. In the oral performance of the text, the medium has to be capable of bringing together the two forms of discourse, i.e., referring to individual problems and putting confidence in the power of the divine beings. As therapeutic discourse, the text is marked by general patterns of interaction. In the course of the dialogue, different perspectives are negotiated. With his or her reaction, the client can either approve of what is said by the medium and encourage her to continue, or express disapproval and thus challenge her to find another explanation or advice for his or her problems. To make the dialogue meaningful for the client, the medium has to respond to the questions more or less directly.

55As divine discourse the text has to have several formal elements in order to make it effective and authoritative. For the divinity to speak, the medium has to be in trance. As divine speech, the text has to differ from ordinary speech. Speaking in verses with standard passages makes the divine speech a formalized event. It also helps the medium to speak fast and fluently over long periods of time. The standardized structural features of the divine discourse include the greeting of the other divinities by the possessing entity at the beginning of the session. The greetings in the various individual sections are standardized to a certain degree as well ( “oh mother, you”), but they must also refer to the individual situation of the person in question (greeting Śiva in the case of Lakṣmī).

56The formal structure of the text and the symmetrical character of the lines make the oral performance of the text predictable and therefore comprehensible to the audience. Usually, the opening line after a question in the dialogue is “my mother, you” and the closing line is often “do not be afraid.” The divinity speaks in lines which are of approximately the same length. The formal character is increased by insertions like ‘amma ’ to mark the end of a line and by lexical markers of the beginning of a line, such as ’amma, ‘abba Every now and then one of the lines is doubled, without an apparent pattern of repetition. Sometimes it might increase the fluency of the text, as do the lines “our father Jagannātha” or “oh my mother, you”; sometimes important facts might be emphasized, as in “what kind of pain came to me” or “I was eaten by the goddess, mother” or “while you sit, I shall climb into your lap.”

57Even concerning its content, there are standardized and predictable features, such as the standard advice to increase the worship of a specific deity. Frequently, the cause of a problem is seen in the fact that some specific deity has not been worshipped properly. But the advice of the divinity cannot only be stereotypical, or it would not be effective as therapeutic discourse. If the divinity does not refer to the specific situation of the clients, they will challenge her to ‘speak well’. Often the divinity sets herself an ultimatum; this is again a stereotype, but one that also relates specifically to the client’s situation.

58For the Vāḍabalija, the medium is a person who has been chosen by the deities as a temporary vessel to enable them to communicate with human beings. The reputation of the medium depends on “how well the deity comes on her head,” something which in turn depends on her way of life. For the analyst, the medium has to be seen as both a (divinely inspired) therapist and a ritual specialist. The medium has to follow certain rules in performing the divine discourse and she has to fill into this frame her remarks on the individual situation. The therapeutic effect of the divine words is complex. Possession mediumship is an institutionalized forum to discuss personal problems publicly. Talking with a deceased child might be consoling for a mother. And even if there is no immediate solution or satisfactory explanation of the complex problems, there is still the darśan (seeing) of the divine being and the assurance that the cosmic order has been re-established.*



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Notes de fin

1 This definition follows the distinction made by Claus (1979: 29).

2 More of the earlier literature on possession is quoted, for instance, in Nuckolls 1991.

3 Several life histories of mediums and ecstatic healers are now available (MCclain 1989). Especially in cases of female healers, diviner-mediumship is seen as an avenue for escaping stress and the gender role expectations of women or as a protest against the subordinate status of women (MCclain 1989: 137; Lewis 1990: 27, 28). Female mediums are not seen as ritual specialists with extraordinary capabilities but rather as persons searching for a strategy against oppression (Obeyesekere 1977; Singer & Garcia 1989: 184). On the other hand, various psychic problems (Obeyesekere 1977) and a general status of oppression are ascribed to female clients or patients who come to a medium, healer or exorcist for advice (Kakar 1983).

4 The settlement at the seashore of Puri is named Pentakota, after the village in Andhra Pradesh from which the Vāḍabalija who first came to Puri originated. In this text, Pentakota only refers to the settlement near Puri in Orissa. The names Pentakota and Puri are used interchangeably.

5 There are many stories about how much money they earned, about both women and men wearing huge numbers of golden earrings, and about almost unbelievable numbers of tons of prawns.

6 Lakṣmī’s husband frowns upon her consulting the medium. It is not supposed to be a sophisticated way of solving problems, especially for higher caste Hindus. However, even women of Brahmin families tend to consult such media, although they wouldn’t confess this eagerly to outsiders.

7 Telugu: vīruḍu, singular ‘hero’; vīrullu, plural ‘heroes’.

8 Bhaktuḍu (male), and bhakturālu (female) is the general Telugu term for devotee. To denote a medium as bhakturālu reflects the important prerequisite for a medium to devote herself to one specific deity.

9 When asked about the persons who will attend the possession on the following day, the media usually declared that they don’t know, but some of them told me the names of the persons and also gave their own interpretation of the problems on the day before the divine interpretation. This is an important fact to answer the question, who is the author of the text? Has the divine discourse which is spoken in an altered state of consciousness its origin outside the person, i.e., is it culturally defined, or to what extent is it an idiosyncratic discourse of the individual woman?

10 The extent to which an invocation is structured and predictable and the extent to which it is the creation of an individual dāsuḍu can only be elucidated by comparing several invocational texts. I plan to do this in a separate article.

11 The deity is addressed with the personal pronounߵnuvv ’ (second person singular) instead of ’mīr’ (second person plural). This implies a rather intimate relationship without formalities.

12 Dharma kacceri, prayer meeting or place of prayer.

13 Ciluku Simmādri is a standard term used by Vāḍabalija media. Literally ciluku means ‘parrot’. S. V. Ramana Murthy suggested to translate this as ‘attractive’ Simmādri.

14 The dāsuḍu also acts as a diviner. With the help of different oracles, he can find out causes of problems, especially whether spirits are involved in the etiology of a disease or any other problem (Nuckolls 1992).

15 This can be after a relatively short time. The medium in the present case however is well known for the long time it takes for her to attain a state of trance.

16 However, this dāsuḍu does not explicitly mention Jagannātha.

17 Simmādri is a regional deity in Simhacalam near Vishakapatnam. According to the Vāḍabalija, Simmādri is the eldest brother of the regional Vishnuite gods on the East coast, i.e. Jagannātha in Puri, Gōvinda and Veṅkaṭeśwara in Tirupati. The temple in Simhacalam is one of the main pilgrimage centers for the Vāḍabalija.

18 Jagannātha in Puri.

19 However, the cosmic order is maintained by other mediums. See Schömbucher 1994: 49.

20 Amma, literally ‘mother’, is also used to address women and even young girls.

21 ‘Nuvvu ayina ’ is a standard phrase; ayina is used here as a conjunction and gives a strong emphasis to nuvvu. It is translated here as ‘you’.

22 She doesn’t call herself a vīruḍu, but a thakurāni and yoginī, whereas the Vāḍabalija generally refer to the deified dead as vīrullu.

23 She still identifies herself with her mother’s household, although she stays in the realm of the divine.

24 Incidentally, for Lakṣmī, this is another proof that her daughter speaks the truth.


Heidelberg Univ.
South Asia Institute

© Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 1999

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