The Goddesses' Henchmen: Gender in Indian Hero Worship

The Goddesses' Henchmen: Gender in Indian Hero Worship

The Goddesses' Henchmen: Gender in Indian Hero Worship

The Goddesses' Henchmen: Gender in Indian Hero Worship

Synopsis

The Rajputs ruled the vast majority of the kingdoms that were joined together after Indian independence to form the state of Rajasthan, "Land of Kings." An important part of Rajput religion is the worship of "heroes" who have died in battle. This practice has attained new significance in recent years, as right-wing Hindu activists have deployed narratives about heroism in Rajput wars with Muslim emperors. In this book, Lindsey Harlan explores the idea of the Rajput hero. She is particularly interested in the role played by gender in stories about heroes and in their worship. She looks at the differences between female and male storytellers, the relationships of the hero to the women in his tale, and the relationship of the hero to the goddess for whom he is both sacrifice and henchman. She obtains her materials from interviews with Rajput families and their servants, from songfests, from bystanders at shrines, from ritual specialists. Ultimately she shows how heroic traditions encapsulate and express ideals of perfection and masculinity, defined most visibly against the backdrop of domesticity and femininity. More broadly she argues that heroes reflect ever-changing valuations of history, and serve as sources of inspiration for facing contemporary challenges (domestic, communal, national) and concerns about the future.

Excerpt

Like many travelers in India, I have spent long hours in battered taxis bumping along single-lane highways. During the past ten years I have crisscrossed the state of Rajasthan many times on such highways and watched its rocky yellow landscape speed by as my intrepid drivers played chicken with oncoming cars, scattered inattentive pedestrians, and sliced through herds of sheep and sleepy buffalo. It is impossible to nap in these taxis: crackling radios blare popular film anthems, dusty air roars in through rattling windows, and high-pitched horns broadcast insults and indignation. and so I have watched the desert lands and parched farms stream by while slipping into fantasies about long cool showers and sweet hot tea.

Frequently my reverie has been interrupted by shocks of color from roadside shrines displaying images adorned with shiny silver, magenta, and aqua foil or with flecks of real silver strewn across encrusted vermilion. Situated between scraggly cactus fences and gritty road shoulders, the shrines are modest structures'usually slightly elevated cement platforms bearing crudely carved stelai or aniconic rock images'but finding them compelling, I have annoyed more than a few drivers by pleading, “Stop! Back up! Seriously! Let's see those images!” Not sharing my enthusiasm, the drivers have inevitably muttered something like, “Nothing to see, madam, just some village gods and goddesses or someone's ancestors. ” No doubt they have wondered: Why waste time on these meager monuments when we were off to see some grand ancient temple or maharaja's palace?

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