The temple at Yellamma Gudi near Savadatti (Saundatti) could have been built by a king who belonged to the same clan as Renuka. Given the facts that Savadatti was the home of the Ratt clan and that Jamadagni had his asram there, the odds are very much in favour of the hypothesis that the ‘king’ who attacked Jamadagni was from the Ratt clan. If it be so, then it would be natural for a king of that clan to build a temple for Renuka.
Savadatti was the capital of the Ratt roughly from 875 CE to 1230 CE; Ratt was one of what Reu calls the ‘petty principalities’ of Rastrakut younger off-shoots’; after the decline of the Rastrakut, for the most of the time they were feudatories of the Calukya. The Rastrakut-Ratt relation is not wholly substantiated; but that the Ratt were the feudatories of the Rastrakut and then of the Calukya is an established fact. Based on inscriptions, Reu concludes that there were two Ratt branches. The first beginning with Merad and ending with Santivarman. The second beginning with Nanna and ending with Laksmideva II; of the fourteen kings in this branch, four were named Kartavirya. [Reu, 1933: History Of The Rashtrakutas, 100] That rings the bells; could one of these Kartavirya be the king who attacked Jamadagni and tried to snatch away his cow Kamadhenu? Or, more probably, could he be an earlier king (chieftain) of the Ratt clan? Repetition of names, particularly of reputed kings, is a common practice among many dynasties. Given the facts that Savadatti was the home of the Ratt clan and that Jamadagni had his asram there, the odds are very much in favour of the hypothesis that the ‘king’ who attacked Jamadagni was from the Ratt clan. Could the event of Kartavirya trying to carry away Kamadhenu be a metaphor for the king trying to rescue Renuka?
If Renuka was indeed a local queen, it was her dharm to stand for her people and protect them against the political, cultural and genetic onslaught by the brahman; particularly in the context of what we have noted above: “… at that time when the earth was bereft of Kshatriyas, the Kshatriya ladies, desirous of offspring, used to come, O monarch, to the Brahmanas and Brahmanas of rigid vows had connection with them ….” [Mahabharat, Book 1 : Adi Parva : Adivansavatarana Parva : Section LXIV] Could there be a connection between this orgy of mass murder and defilement of the Deccan ksatriya, and the community of patitya (fallen) women whose progeny lives today around Savadatti, and elsewhere, as jogappa and jogamma, who are ‘possessed’ (kadat) by Yellamma/Renuka?
There have been several studies of the phenomenon; but none has managed to grapple with its complexity; nor do I expect to find a definitive explanation. All that may be possible is to touch some of its aspects, with the hope that it will eventually lead to the emergence of a clearer picture. Leprosy and hard-to-cure skin diseases are said to bring people to Yellamma. The goddess herself is supposed to have been afflicted by the dreaded disease upon a curse by Jamadagni. Does leprosy here stand for a medical condition or what it has always been associated with in all societies: a social stigma? Could it be that Jamadgni’s curse upon Renuka signifies her patitya, her lost chastity, even if it be only mental? Could that be the symbolic representation of the state of the numerous women who faced defilement upon the slaughter of their husbands? In that situation they had only one person who could empathise with them and protect them: their queen Renuka. Till today, they are all seeking asylum in her. It comes beautifully in the words of a jogati (jogamma), quoted by Ramberg: “She is my husband, she takes care of me.” [Ramberg, 2011: When the Devi Is Your Husband: Sacred Marriage and Sexual Economy in South India, in Feminist Studies, Vol. 37, No. 1, 28]
The story of Renuka/Yellamma may not be the story of just one person; it seems to lead us into the story of an entire community. The tragedy might not have befallen the entire Deccan ksatriya community across the peninsula; at least not to the same extent. While we do not have the sources to investigate the rest of the Deccan, the Yellamma story gives us a deep insight into the outcome of the brahman – Deccan ksatriya conflict in a small region in the environs of Savadatti on the modern Maharashtra – Karnataka border. Nevertheless, what is true of this region could be true to lesser or greater extent of the rest of the Deccan; the Yellama cult is spread across ‘northern Karnataka, western Andhra Pradesh and southern Maharastra’. [Ramberg, 2014: Given to the Goddess – South Indian Devadasis And The Sexuality Of Religion, 5] The Parsuram story does not tell us much about the battles; frankly it tells us nothing about the two sides; the only names we know of are Parsuram and Kartavirya Arjun. Obviously there were many more warriors fighting for brahman, possibly under the leadership of Parsuram; and many more small Deccan ksatriya chiefs fighting against them. All that we know of is the outcome: the Deccan ksatriya lost the war, and lost it badly: ‘the earth was bereft of Kshatriyas’.
But perhaps this was not the worst of the outcomes of the conflict; we know that it was not. In the next millennium and half, a number of kings arose and spread their authority far and wide. But those who did not rise, the mass of the Deccan ksatriya were relegated to the bottom of the social scale – they became the sudr, the dalit, the low caste and the outcaste. Even those who rose to power remained subservient to the supremacy of the brahman. It is in this context of the rout of the social economy of Deccan ksatriya that we need to understand the rise of the Yellamma cult. Deprived of both their dignity and livelihood, the victim communities of the Savadatti holocaust sought to rebuild their lives on a new basis: an economy of religious sexuality; and their only saviour and strength was Yellamma.