Renuka: Beyond the Mother of Parsuram

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Tensing Rodrigues

Today we veer on a queer quest: to explore the persona of Renuka, beyond being the mother of Parsuram. She is worshipped as a tutelary deity across northern Karnataka, western Andhra Pradesh and southern Maharashtra – what could be called the core of Brhatkomkan; she is the gramdevata (protector of the village) of Ratnagiri. [Kale, 2015: Beyond Parshuramaʹs Mother: Place of Renuka in Coastal Maharashtra, in Heritage: Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies in Archaeology, 526] According to Jaganathan, most of the village guardian deities in south India seem to have a common base for their origin based on the Renuka myth. [Jaganathan, 2013: Yellamma Cult and Divine Prostitution: Its Historical and Cultural Background, in International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications, Vol. 3, No 4, 1] Renuka is said to have been changed into one hundred and one Sakti, which have become the village goddesses. [Elmore, 1915: Dravidian Gods In Modern Hinduism: A Study Of The Local And Village Deities Of Southern India, 83] This suggests that perhaps Renuka may not be a definite historical person; she may be more of a symbolic construct for the valiant chieftain queens who continued to defend the dignity of their people after their husbands were killed in the blitzkrieg by Parsuram, or more correctly by the brahman-ksatriya confederation.

Two of the most popular shrines of Renuka are found at Mahurgad near Mahabaleshvar in Maharashtra and at Yellamma Gudi near Savadatti (Saundatti) in Karnataka. Sri Ksetra Mahuragada Sri Renuka Devi Mahatmya narrates the ‘history’ of the Mahurgad Renuka temple and the deity worshipped therein. According to the mahatmya, when a war was being waged between the dev and asur, and the dev were losing out, they approached Visnu for help. The latter promised them to take birth in the womb of Aditi (Renuka), and eradicate all the asur. Renuka was the daughter of king Renu who had his kingdom on the banks of river Bhagirathi (one of the tributaries of river Krishna) in the Sahyadri, near Mahabaleshvar. When she came to be of marriageable age king Renu married her to Jamadagni, the son of Rucik, and offered him his kingdom. [Atre, 2009: Sri Ksetra Mahuragada Sri Renuka Devi Mahatmya, 4] We need to understand that Renu’s was one of the small principalities that functioned either independently or as feudatories of the larger kingdoms; such principalities made up most of the Deccan at that time. Three points in this description are worth noting. One, the context or the cause of the birth of Renuka: the conflict between the bramhan and the Deccan natives; two, Renuka as the daughter of a king; and three, Renuka’s father giving away his kingdom to Jamadagni. Though the rest of the mahatmya follows the popular story of Renuka, these highlights give us a very valuable insight into the possible historical persona of Renuka. Joshi describes Renuka as a queen of the region that is now Vidarbha. According to him, since Jamadagni found it wiser not to confront her in an outright war, he feigned infatuation for her and married her, resulting in accession of her kingdom. Eventually he found an opportunity to kill her. [Joshi, 2016: Grik Navik Te Pesvai, 73] Probably Joshi’s conclusions are based on Mahurgad Renuka; Mahurgad lies on the fringes of Marathwada and Vidarbha regions.

Moving to Karnataka, the local traditions describe Renuka (Yellamma) as the daughter of Yellappagoudar from the village of Haralakatti, about 17 km from Savadatti. [Bradford, 1983: Transgenderism And The Cult Of Yellamma, in Journal of Anthropological Research, 308] Goudar or Gowda refers to a Kannada farming community. That, however, does not give us sufficient information to place Yellappagoudar/Renuka in one of the two communities in Deccan formed as a result of the mixing of the native Indian ancestry with the Near Eastern ancestry. [The Formation of Kumlbi and Deccan Ksatriya, 05 April 20] But the ‘kingly’ connection makes it almost obvious that she was a Deccan ksatriya.

The local traditions in the Belagavi region too suggest the possibility that she was a queen. The story which comes out through the songs sung by Yellamma devotees speak of how she went to fetch water from the Malprabha river and got aroused when she saw a king playing naked in the river. [Bradford, 1983: 308] Renuka having access to a place frequented by a king suggests that she did belong to a ‘kingly’ community. The story also speaks of how she had married Jamadagni against the wish of her parents; according to the story, when she sees the king, she thinks “If only I had listened to my parents.” This is a fairly clear pointer to the fact that she could have married a king; that is, she was of ‘kingly’ pedigree. We need to see this in the context of the historical fact that there existed a number of small chieftain kings in Deccan, some of whom rose to be bigger kings. And all of them were of goatherd/shepherd descent.

The temple at Yellamma Gudi near Savadatti is supposed to have been built by Bomappa Nayak in 1514. Though it is not yet established, this Nayak could be one of the Nayak chieftains who ruled in different parts of the Kannada territory in the 16th and 17th centuries. They seem to have acquired the title of Nayak after establishing their power; originally they were Gowda or Goudar. Gowda itself has an element of ‘chiefship’ in it; it is cognate with gaudo, the kumlbi/kurumba word for the ‘headman’ or the ‘chief’. The temple at Yellamma Gudi near Savadatti seems to be much older; archaeological evidence points to the existence of a temple here either during the early Rastrakut or late Calukya period from the mid-8th to the mid-11th centuries. [Kadambi, 2007: Negotiated Past and Memorialized Present in Ancient India: Chalukyas of Vatapi, in Yoffe : Negotiating The Past In The Past,  156] Be it the Rastrakut or Calukya, what was their motivation to build a temple to Renuka (Yellamma)? It is difficult to say. Could it have been built by one of the feudatories of these dynasties, who belonged to the same clan as Renuka? Could the event of Kartavirya trying to carry away Kamadhenu be an allegory for the king trying to rescue Renuka?