Siri, what is liberation?

She belongs to an evolving folklore of Coastal Karnataka. She inspires festivals that mark women’s liberation from male dominion. Who exactly is Siri?

Karnataka’s coastal region, which has a history of spirit worship, also has an element of social cause in its folk theatre. 

Consider Tulu Nadu’s most celebrated folklore and poem, The Siri Epic. It’s the story of a woman, Siri, with a strong message of women’s liberation from the clutches of male dominion.

In it, she is elevated to the position of a spirit deity. 

Even today, in 30 places around the two districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi, tribal women worship her.

“Call it a folk myth or epic, the Siri jathre has both elements. They go on evolving. What we knew as classical Siri tradition 50 years ago is not that anymore,” says Prof B A Viveka Rai, former vice chancellor of Hampi University and a visiting professor at Wurzburg University, Germany.

“Likewise, the birth of Siri was also a myth, and we still cannot fathom the timeline of her existence,” Rai says. 

Depiction

Many scholars and experts on Siri have tried to depict Siri in their works. Ashok Alva, who released Siri Kavyaloka in April 2019, identifies Siri as a woman from a Bunt lineage (matriarchal), but she was found as a newborn on an areca flower.

Nowhere are there clues about her parents.

She was brought up by Arya Bannaya Dirmu Alva, who was a chieftain, and owned a palace and most of the land in a place called Satyanapura.

Ashok Alva continues the story.

“We cannot pinpoint the location of Satyanapura, but according to the geographical attributes and oral history clues, it could be Sachcharipete in Karkala taluk.

“Siri was married at a young age to Kantha Punja, who later had a fall out with her over the landed property of Arya Bannaya Dirmu.

“Alva is fondly known as Ajja. When
Ajja died, Kantha Punja wanted to take control of the property, but knowing the ways of Punja, Siri refused to accept his demand.

“She was later ostracised by the village with Punja’s influence. Her son Kumara, maid Daru and Siri herself mysteriously disappeared after the palace burned down.

“It’s said that Siri alone carried Ajja’s mortal remains, which drowned her in deep grief.”

A V Navada and Gayathri Navada, Chinnappa Gowda, Arun Kumar and other experts on Siri have narrated different stages of her life.

She even cast a curse that no woman should enter the burial ground or carry the mortal remains of their loved ones.

Experts call it a great quality because she didn’t want any other woman to endure what she did in her lifetime, and in the same breadth it’s a stand against the domination of menfolk over women.

It is this facet of Siri Janapada that is practised even today by the women in Siri alades, the original habitat of the spirits.

Dressed in white, women participants enact the Siri spirit in many ways. Hundreds of women become one in their own rights.

“Many of them dance, roll on the ground, give out eerie shrieks accompanied by gyrations; some act as if they are possessed by a spirit of animal. Though there is a male actor enacting the character of Kumara (Siri’s Son), in the recent days, the enactors of Kumara have been warned by these communities that he cannot use his position as Kumara to conduct himself inappropriately during the festival,” Alva points. 

Places of worship

There are 70 alades, out of which only 30 are now active. Three of them are important — Kavattharu, Hiriyadka and Nandalike. These are the temples where Siri fairs or jathres are held.

“It is a matter of intrigue that despite such opposition from her community, Siri could defy the male domination and empower herself,” Padekallu Vishnu Bhat, a renowned scholar of folklore, writes in the foreword of Siri Kavyaloka.

Siri has attracted two known folklore scholars, Peter J Claus of California State University Hayward and late Lauri Honko of Kalevala Institute of Nordic Studies at Turku University, Finland. They have taken the folklore traditions to the world.

Honko, along with his wife Anelli Honko and Chinnappa Gowda and Viveka Rai, has documented the Siri culture in two volumes, which goes into the world of literature as the second-longest poem in the world.

It’s only six lines shorter than Homer’s Iliad.

The entire Siri Paddana was sung by folk artiste Machar Gopal Naika.

This work made the Siri folklore myth reach international folklore archives. But even as recently as March 2019, a German researcher, Pauline Schuster Lohlau, from the Department of Indology, University of Wurzburg, Germany was awarded PhD on Siri epic texts for his ‘South Indian Oral Epic Traditions as Sources of Personal Shared Identities’.

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