They shed sweat, blood and toil to safeguard idols

Police remain mute witness as thousands clash with clubs in the centuries-old ritual during Dasara festival

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Two groups fight it out for the idols in Devaragattu.  Mohammad AleemuddinFor centuries, every year during Dasara festival, devotees armed with sticks from three villages descend on the streets of Devaragattu, a small town in the Alur mandal of Kurnool district in Andhra Pradesh, and fight to grab the idols of the presiding deity of the Mala Malleswara Swamy temple. The “fighters” beat the hell out of their opponents with sticks in an effort to “steal” the idols. The roads leading to the temple turn red as hundreds get hurt during the midnight madness that goes on till dawn.

In 2001, on the intervening night of October 7 and 8,  at least 100 people were injured, 13 of them critically, in this centuries-old ritual called Gattu Mallaiah Banni utsavam on the hillock near
Devaragattu. Despite several awareness campaigns and heavy deployment of police personnel, residents of Neraniki, Neraniki tanda and Kothapeta villages braced themselves for midnight stick fight.

It all started at 11 pm on October 7 with people from the three villages congregating with the idols of Aswamurthulu at Dollabanda and vowing to save their idols in the utsav. Amid bursting of crackers, a few minutes after midnight, Malli Goud of Neraniki took permission from the police for the procession of deities. After the celestial wedding of Malleswara Swamy with Mala Devi, the priest and residents of Neraniki, Neraniki tanda and Kothapeta villages escorted the procession of the deities while over 10,000 people witnessed it.

To protect the idols from being stolen by people from other cluster villages, they resorted to a mock fight with sticks and clubs against those who tried to intrude. At Rakshasapada, the priest pierced his leg with a needle and spilled blood to appease demons.

After performing puja at a Shami Vriksham, they made their way back to the temple. On the return journey, too, they have to defend the idols from others. Surprisingly, many people who were injured in the riotous ceremony rejoined the festivity after treatment. The ritual concluded when the idols were seated at the Sivasana katta at dawn of October 8.  Injured were treated at a medical camp set up nearby and the severely injured were rushed to Adoni General Hospital. Hundreds of policemen were only spectators when the stick fight took place, according to sources.

The police claimed that the Banni utsavam ended on a quite note. Kurnool  Superintendent of Police M Sivaprasad had thanked the people, distri­ct officials and members of the utsava committee for “their support in conducting the ritual peacefully without bloodshed.”  The SP had claimed that they had checkposts to contain hooligans and ensured the prohibition of arrack and added that same people brought sticks to the event.

In 2007, the Andhra Pradesh State Human Rights Commission advised the Kurnool district
administration to educate people about the dangers of the no-holds-barred stick fight. Challappa, the then Secretary of State Human Rights Commission, advised the district administration to constitute a high-level committee to oversee the arrangements at Devaragattu festival. He reviewed that year's incidents at a meeting in which the then Collector M Dana Kishore and Superintendent of Police Sankabratha Bagchi and others were present.

The commission clarified that it did not intend to meddle with the celebrations at Devaragattu, but wanted it to be a peaceful event. Challappa had also said that the people enjoyed absolute freedom to celebrate the festival but it was up to them to continue with the festival or celebrate it with
certain modifications. The commission had pointed out certain lapses after a visit to the place and sent a detailed report to the district administration with a set of suggestions. Among them were a road to the shrine, proper illumination of the place, sanitary measures and awareness among public against the violence.

The commission noted the low literacy in the area with concern and asked the administration to set up schools, especially residential schools for girls. The SHRC said the excise officials made some efforts to ban liquor in the area on the eve of the festival but it should be more organised.

After this, the casualties have come down considerably. No coercive methods are employed to stop the “Banni” ritual, but a multi-pronged approach like awareness campaign, creation of amenities and prevention steps have been adopted to reduce the violence, as the authorities are worried that
banning the festival altogether will take religious overtures.
JBS Umanadh in Hyderabad

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