Amy Allocco, assistant professor of religious studies, spent the past summer in South India completing the final stint of ethnographic fieldwork for her book project on contemporary Hindu snake worship traditions. This summer’s work served as follow-up to the dissertation research on the expansion and increasing popularity of snake goddess worship by Hindu women that she carried out there during several periods between 2004 and 2008, including 14 months of continuous research from 2006-2007. Allocco’s primary research site is Chennai, the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu and one of India’s largest cities, though she also undertook fieldwork at Hindu temples elsewhere in the state and in South India in connection with her project. Within the broad repertoire of snake goddess worship, which includes personal vows, public ritual expressions, and festival religion, Allocco is focusing on a negative condition called naga dosham, or snake blemish. This astrological condition is believed to manifest in inauspicious planetary alignments in an individual’s horoscope and to result from having harmed or killed a snake in this or in a previous life. Naga dosham is blamed for what are understood indigenously as the “modern” problems of late marriage and infertility, both of which are understood to be increasingly prevalent in contemporary times. Allocco is especially interested in the range of remedial rites individuals perform to counter naga dosham and is analyzing these ceremonies in terms of the shifting social, economic, and religious dynamics of contemporary South India to advance the argument that these innovating ritual traditions constitute a particularly local, culturally inflected “vernacular modernity.”
Allocco’s summer research yielded some exciting finds, including new Tamil-language materials connected to her project that offer vernacular textual evidence that particular temples are self-consciously positioning themselves as uniquely powerful for mitigating and removing naga dosham and attempting to situate these sites vis-à-vis the anxieties engendered by India’s rapidly changing social and economic contexts. Such widely available Tamil-language sources have played a significant role in popularizing naga dosham traditions, its ritual remedies, and particular snake goddess temples and are intimately related to the expansion of and ritual innovations in these forms of worship. In this short fieldwork period she also witnessed two new ritual performances intended to counteract naga dosham: an extensive domestic fire sacrifice and a “removal” ceremony performed in the cremation ground of a popular Tamil goddess temple. She was able to conduct a number of interviews with temple priests, ritual drummers, astrologers, and other ritual specialists as well as with a range of devotees. Allocco intends to engage in participant-observer fieldwork at the Hindu Temple of Atlanta in Spring 2012 during the performance of a remedial ritual associated with naga dosham and will incorporate material on the emerging popularity of these ceremonies in transnational Hindu communities into the final chapter of her book project. In Fall 2012 she will focus on translating and analyzing the relevant vernacular materials she has collected and will aim to have a complete draft of the manuscript in 2013.
Photo above: Allocco examines ritual markings at the well at a popular Hindu goddess temple in Chennai.