Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Feminine Force

American Dianne Jenett, an ardent devotee of Goddess Bhadrakali, of the Attukal Devi temple in Thiruvananthapuram, talks about her experiences

Photos by BP Deepu

By Shevlin Sebastian

Dianne Jenett carefully holds the steel plate, which contains upturned lemon rinds, on which oil has been put and a wick is burning. She places them one by one on a large circular stand, just before the entrance of the Attukal Devi temple in Thiruvananthapuram. Her concentration is intense. So, she is oblivious to the curious stares and tender smiles that she gets from the other women.

But later, she says, “I love these women. They are always so welcoming. Most of them want to take selfies with me. There is nothing that I enjoy more than being in the middle of a crush of them going to see the Devi.”

Dianne stands out because she is a foreigner, who is wearing a saree. And within the temple precincts, nearly everyone – the administrators, security-men, priests and female helpers – all know her. That's because she has been coming annually to the temple for several years now.

It all began in 1993, when the California-native had come to Thiruvananthapuram. Somebody told her about a big festival at the temple. “When I first came, there were long queues of women and I wanted to know what was happening,” she says. “I was interested in rituals that had female deities and was women-centred.” Incidentally Dianne has retired as a professor of women’s spirituality from the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology at Pala Alto, California.

During the course of one of her visits, Dianne became friends with Dr. MS Hema, an academic. And it was with Hema's help that Dianne was able to submit a successful doctoral dissertation on the temple at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Ever since then, she has given presentations at academic conferences and at the American Academy of Religion. “The people were fascinated,” she says. “They told me that they would never look at cooking in the same way.”

That’s because, during the annual Pongala festival, which was held on March 11 this year, the women made Pongala (a mix of rice with ghee, coconut and jaggery) on small pots out in the open. And it is offered to the Goddess to please her.

And it was also Dianne who ensured an international spotlight on the event. She submitted a successful application to the Guinness Book Of World Records in 1997 stating that the annual Pongala festival has the single largest gathering of women for a religious activity. In fact, the number of women who participate today is well over 30 lakh.

Over the years, Dianne also developed an intense devotion to the Goddess Bhadrakali. Asked about the qualities of the Devi, Diane says, “She is everything: fierce and tender, a mother as well as a warrior. And she provides emotional solace.”

So, when, some years ago, her four-month-old grandson, Simon, fell seriously ill, and hovered between life and death, at a hospital in California, Dianne prayed fervently to Devi. “I felt her presence very strongly,” she says. In the end, Simon survived.

Once at the temple, a women told Dianne she had to testify in court regarding an automobile accident and felt very nervous. “But when she prayed to Devi, she felt a courage and discovered her voice,” says Dianne.

Finally, when asked about the attractions of the temple, Dianne says, “Everyone is equal and the same before the goddess. We are all connected to each other. All are welcome here. There is a tolerance. This is something the world needs right now. ” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

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