Each spring, Thiruvananthapuram shuts down for a day while over a million women of many religious communities and classes line the streets with their pots to cook porridge for 'Attakul Amma'. They are performing a women's ritual deeply rooted in ancient Kerala mythology and cultural tradition that also has a powerful meaning for women today.
While it might seem that offering rice porridge would not be empowering to women because it reinforces gender stereotypes concerning food preparation and cooking, the fact is that offering cooked food to deities in south India is an ancient practice with deep ritual significance. Only male priests can make this offering in the Sanskritic temple context but women have retained this important right in the Dravidian, non-Sanskritic rituals.
Interviews with women revealed that they believed the ritual to be empowering for themselves, and their offering is necessary to increase power of the goddess and her capacity to help all her devotees, says Dr Dianne Jenett, from the California Institute of Integral Studies and the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology.
Is it possible to empower women without disregarding all their traditions? Yes, said scholars at the recent seminar 'Shaktika On the Ascent: Reframing Gender in the Context of the Culture of India', in Bhubaneshwar, Orissa. Representing a spectrum of disciplines - anthropology, history, political science, sociology, art history and religion - they advocated the selective reclaiming of tradition, within a democratic ethos.
Dr Madhu Khanna of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), convener of the seminar, voiced the urgent need to rescue cultural resources, including "powerful feminine icons in oral and written tradition, myths and legends, lifestyles of primal communities and grassroots traditions" from "the dustheap of history".
Dr Khanna presented her painstaking research on the 'kumari' (girl child) in ancient texts. Although there is a general emphasis on and preference for a male child, her search yielded several instances where parents aspire for a girl child. Such verses and stories could well be utilized to strengthen contemporary campaigns for the girl child.
Historian Dr Nilima Chitgopekar from Delhi University described the Yoginis of Bheraghat as proud, independent figures of magnificent proportions. Rita Ray, professor of sociology at Utkal University, discussed local village goddesses - gramdevis. Ordinary rural women worship these non-Brahminical deities directly, unmediated by any priestly intervention.
Significantly, Dr Brenda Dobia, lecturer at the School of Social Ecology and Lifelong Learning, Sydney (Australia) cautioned against uncritical use of Hindu mythology and symbols. As a legacy of patriarchal traditions, Hinduism as well as other religions provide positive as well as negative images, symbols and resources. These same sources can be misused as justification for reaffirmed patriarchy, communal violence and religious superiority.
An overwhelming concern expressed by several participants was the need to reclaim the 'wisdom traditions of women' including ordinary women, as contained in everyday life practices and survival systems. Women's movements in India have helped mould feminist, humanistic ideologies and practice. They have developed a specific idiom, what with tying Rakhis to trees (the Chipko movement), supporting women's traditional skills (SEWA), and the coming together of women from all religions, classes and castes in struggles against violence, for food security and the provision of shelter and legal aid.
"Women must identify and know their own power," said tribal activist Tulsi Munda. Adivasi (tribal) culture already understands and appreciates equality between women and men. Yet, dispossession, lack of literacy and loss of identity has drained the self-confidence of tribals. Alcoholism, early deaths and unemployment mar their lives. Large numbers migrate to cities in search of a livelihood. Supportive policies are required for empowering these people. "Why are simple things so difficult people in Delhi to understand?" rued Munda.
Dr Indira Goswami, renowned writer and Gnanpith Award winner, brought alive the human spirit dwelling in inhuman situations. Many of her central characters are women. "My women are all real women," she notes. "I have a special power to mould them..." Her stories bring out terrorism, sexual exploitation and human struggles for a better world.
Well-known Oriya writer Pratibha Ray spoke of her novel, 'Yagyaseni', which "was born out of revolt". Yagyaseni or Draupadi had a fiery character, was anti-war, and deeply concerned about the plight of downtrodden humanity. Pratibha Ray has also reclaimed Ahalya, who was married to Gautama, but attracted to Indra. Ahalya felt no guilt because she experienced love as an integral element fulfilling life. Yet Ahalya was punished: turned into stone, cut off and isolated from the world.
Sanskrit scholar Dr Minoti Kar from Santiniketan University explored the philosophical contributions made by 'Brahmavadinis' or women seers, including well-known figures like Gargi, Maitreyi and Sulabha, as well as a number of lesser-known ones.
Dr Vasudha Narayanan, President of the American Academy of Religions, noted that "large numbers of women have contributed to Indian literature". In Tamil Nadu, Andal in the 8th century and Tarigonda Venkamba in the 18th century were well-known poets. Andal is deified, has temples and is worshipped widely not only in south India but also in Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Malibu and Chicago. Her poems form part of the repertoire of Bharata Natyam dancers. Yet her role as a social exemplar has not received due attention; for instance, her refusal to marry.
Living traditions considered empowering by women who participate in them include the menstrual festival - Ambuvachi of Kamakhya, Assam - explored by cultural anthropologist Dr Julia Jean.
As a cross-cultural dialogue, the seminar marked a rich contribution to debates on culture, religion and plurality in the country. The Indian women's movement needs to strengthen and deepen the spaces for a democratic feminist politics, embedded within everyday lives, popular arts and legends, and traditions sacred to different peoples in India - whether Adivasi, dalit, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Parsi or Buddhist.
We will do well if we relearn, reclaim and reinterpret the multiple sources of our common heritage.