Stories of the Flesh: Colonial and Anthropological Discourses on the South Indian Goddess Mariyamman Open Access
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Stories of the Flesh: Colonial and Anthropological Discourses on the South Indian Goddess Mariyamman My work explores how a body afflicted with poxes (ammai) "matters" (Butler) as Mariyamman, the goddess of poxes widely worshipped in Tamilnadu, south India. It engages in two intertwined tasks: first, it deconstructs the identification of the pox-afflicted body as Mariyamman by unearthing the figurative, iconic imaginaries the afflicted body shares with an anthill and with a cultivated field. Second, the work asks how the goddess is produced as an originary essence, having immanent and eminent authority over a body through discursive practices. Tracing a continuum between the discursive practices at the ammai-afflicted home and the temple festival, it underscores a transformability of bodily states, which are marked with the "presence" of the goddess and/or are subjected to her. The discursive practices performatively constitute the goddess as "styles of the flesh" or a corporeal sign during the affliction of ammai and during the goddess's "arrival" in devotees at her festival, instituting a cosmic personhood. The discursive practices related to Mariyamman operate as a field of power, or "force relations" (Foucault), pertaining to a heteronormative economy and law that revolve around two tropes: chastity (karpu) and purity (cuttam). A critical inquiry into the narratives shows that chastity, which is localized in the feminine/goddess's body, is, in reality, the reiterative heteronormative power that produces the feminine subject/goddess according to hegemonic cultural norms. In habitual practices during ammai-affliction and Mariyamman's festival, sexual abstinence as purity presents itself as a mandatory condition for a body to be identified as the goddess, bringing heteronormativity to the foreground. Considering the exchanges between Mariyamman worship and the colonial smallpox vaccination, this work argues that the vaccination project disregarded the iconic identification of the afflicted body with Mariyamman and thus challenged the cultural notion of a cosmic personhood. Nevertheless, "local" healing of ammai even today manipulates this perpetually constituted cosmic personhood in effecting curative outcomes. "Local" healing incorporates biomedicine, a "sign of the modern," as the sign of the goddess, emphasizing a discursive realm of modern personhood that is not abstracted from the goddess.