Goddess Traditions and Kingship in Mysore


A review of The Goddess and the King: Cāmuṇḍēśvari and the Fashioning of the Woḍeyar Court of Mysore by Caleb Simmons.

Caleb Simmons’ dissertation, The Goddess and the King: Cāmuṇḍēśvari and the Fashioning of the Woḍeyar Court of Mysore is a welcome addition to the field of South Indian history, to the study of South Asian religions, and to the study of śākta goddess traditions more specifically. This very erudite dissertation conceptually bridges the fields of history and religion and gathers together an ambitious and diverse set of scholarly interlocutors including Rachel Fell McDermott, Kathleen Erndl, Daud Ali, Nicholas Dirks, and Partha Chatterjee. Drawing upon Stephen Greenblatt’s concept of “self-fashioning,” this dissertation asks, “how and in what ways did the Woḍeyar dynasty of Mysore fashion themselves through a set of genealogical texts called vaṃśāvaḷis?” In attending to the particularities of their self-fashioning, Simmons argues that these texts served to establish and develop a relationship between the Woḍeyars and their tutelary deity, the goddess Cāmuṇḍēśvari. The elevation of Cāmuṇḍi from village goddess and purāṇic slayer of the buffalo demon to universal mother goddess reflects broader shifts in Woḍeyar power from the local and imperial to the incorporeal. This dissertation suggests that the Woḍeyars cultivated political power by elaborating an affiliation with the goddess.

This dissertation is comprised of six substantive chapters along with an introduction and conclusion. Simmons’ dissertation begins with anecdotes about his personal interactions with the former Mahārāja Śrīkantadatta Narsiṃharāja Woḍeyar, and ends with observations upon the Mahārāja’s death during 2013. The rich ethnographic details dispersed throughout the dissertation deeply enrich its historical and literary observations. This connection to the present also serves to enforce Simmons’ overarching point: the current relationship between the Mysore royal family and the goddess Cāmuṇḍi is the product of a long and highly strategic process, one that commenced in the medieval period.

The first chapter introduces the goddess Cāmuṇḍi of Mysore through literary, epigraphic, and ethnographic accounts. The second chapter explores the untapped genre of the vaṃśāvaḷi or lineage text and takes seriously the historical and religious perspectives that they offer. Chapter 3 considers the continued purāṇization of the goddess, as well as various Hindu sectarian affiliations in Woḍeyar vaṃśāvaḷis. Chapter 4 shows how vaṃśāvaḷis were used to reimagine and analogize conflict between the Woḍeyar kings and their daḷavāyi ministers. Chapter 5 argues that Haidar Ali and Ṭīpū Sultān did not represent a radical break with past, but instead represented a moment when previously established Woḍeyar devotional and political practices were redeployed to address the changing world of early modern South India. The sixth and final chapter asserts that Woḍeyar kingship under colonial rule was reimagined within the spiritual realm in ways that were both incomprehensible and immaterial to British rule. The place of the Goddess Cāmuṇḍi and her role within the ritual program of the Woḍeyar court tie all of these chapters together.

The goals of the first chapter are three-fold: (1) to provide a literary-historical context for the goddess Cāmuṇḍi; (2) to trace the development of her character; and (3) to understand the historical roots of her connection with the city of Mysore. To this end, the chapter begins with an exhaustive literature review that considers the origins of the goddess in the classic Sanskrit text the Devīmāhātmya as well as in Bhavadbhūti’s Mālatīmādhava and the Dēvībhāgavata Purāṇa. Taking us from the world of the text to the world of the goddess on the hill, Simmons carefully builds the argument that Cāmuṇḍi began as a village deity or grāmadēvatā who accepted animal sacrifices. In this fierce local form the goddess became a magnet for local chieftains and kings who sought to access her martial power through pre-battle propitiations. Elevated through her increasing political importance, Cāmuṇḍi became Sanskritized as the pan-Indic Goddess Durgā, the slayer of the buffalo-demon Mahiṣa found in the Devīmāhātmya. The complex shifts that Simmons brings to the fore are greatly enhanced by his ethnographic account of the grāmadēvatā festival and the Cāmuṇḍi Utsava held in 2014. Through these festivals, Simmons demonstrates how developments in the goddess’ persona have resulted in a figure who accumulates qualities without truly shedding any of them. In the context of the festivals we learn that the Sanskritization of the goddess had clear caste implications in the makeup of the temple priests. The traditional priests of the Cāmuṇḍēśvari temple were Śivārcākas, a non-brahmin agricultural caste from the Mysore region. These caste-based priests were removed in the early to mid-nineteenth century and were replaced by brahmin priests imported from Tamil Nadu by the Woḍeyars. This shift in priestly caste facilitated the modification of ritual culture, which at the same time formalized Cāmuṇḍi as a Sanskritized Pan-Indic goddess. However, this early village form of the goddess is still annually celebrated during the grāmadēvatā festival, when the non-brahmanical quality of the goddess is highlighted through the sacrifice of goats at the thresholds of non-brahmin homes. But Cāmuṇḍi’s local role in Mysore extends beyond her persona as grāmadēvatā. The purāṇic story of the goddess slaying the buffalo is so central to the city that local legend holds that the name Mysore (Maisūru) is derived from Mahiṣa, the buffalo-demon. Taking on these local claims, Simmons explores the connection between Mysore and the buffalo-slaying narrative from early references in a fifth-century Kadamba inscription to the region as “buffalo country” (mahiṣaviśaya) to a seventeenth-century Woḍeyar inscription that conflates Cāmuṇḍi with the goddess Mahiṣāsuramardini from the Devīmāhātmya. This chapter establishes an image of the goddess that is carried through the rest of the dissertation: Cāmuṇḍi is malleable and elastic and, at the same time, she possesses an abiding religious importance for the region.

In Chapter 2, Simmons takes us to one of the more important interventions of his dissertation, namely, his use of vaṃśāvaḷis or lineage texts, in this case of the Woḍeyar dynasty of Mysore. While colonial scholars such as Mark Wilks relied heavily on this genre in writing the history of the region, contemporary scholars such as Sanjay Subramanyam have largely dismissed this genre for its “lack of historical detail” (p. 62). Simmons mounts a compelling case for its evidentiary value, saying “It is my contention…that lineage texts and origin stories are precisely the site in which the courts of medieval South India attempted to construct a ‘center’ by articulating not only descent but demonstrated devotional and institutional alliances and orienting themselves spatially as the cosmological center of the South Indian sacred landscape and temporally as the culmination of Purāṇic time” (pp. 62-63). Simmons is writing a history of the Woḍeyar kings and their relationship to the goddess through these texts, but it is a different kind of history than imagined by Subramanyam. Instead of the dates of military battles and the details of fiscal organization, Simmons shows us how political power was imagined, captured, and fashioned in a late medieval/early modern court. In this chapter, we get a rich account of what origin stories are and how they do this work, from connecting lineages back to the Solar and Lunar dynasties to the tropic account of kingdoms founded through the propitiation of a local goddess. Lineage texts and the origin stories therein are inherently unstable; they adopt previously established paradigmatic purāṇic formulas that are redeployed to address a contemporary political and religious landscape. It is this instability that leads Subramanyam to devalue their historiographical value. Yet, what Simmons shows is that, by carefully attending to use, reuse, and accumulation of tropes and figures within a set of vaṃśāvaḷis produced by one single dynasty we can actually draw many historiographical conclusions about religio-political change.

Chapter 3 zeros in on the continued purāṇization of the goddess coupled with changing Hindu sectarian affiliations within the dynasty’s religious program at a moment when the Woḍeyars were transitioning from local chieftains to regional kings. Here Simmons focuses more on the historical chronology of the Mysore kings and their religious and military exploits than the larger stakes that these events may signal. Starting with the reign of Rāja Woḍeyar (reigned C.E. 1578-1617), the Woḍeyars began to celebrate the Mahānavami festival—more locally known as Dasara—that commemorates the victory of Durgā over the buffalo-demon. Modeled on prior Vijayanagara precedent, this festival served to mark the beginning of the Woḍeyar military season. In what Simmons calls the “imperial mode,” Rāja Woḍeyar celebrated Cāmuṇḍi in her purāṇic form rather than simply a fierce local goddess. Another innovation of Rāja Woḍeyar’s court with lasting effects was the creation of a ministerial position of the daḷavāyi or minister of war (I mention this here because the position of the dalạvāyi will come to be of great consequence in later chapters). Ensconced in his new capital at Śrīraṅgapaṭṭaṇa, Rāja Woḍeyar continued to implement new changes including the adoption of Vaiṣṇavism; he went on to patronize Nārāyaṇa temples throughout the Mysore region. The Cikkadēvarāya Vaṃśāvaḷi even attests that Rāja Woḍeyar adopted Lakṣmīkānta as a tutelary deity. For Cāmarāja Woḍeyar (r. 1617-1637) and Raṇadhīra Kaṇṭhīrava Narasarāja (r. 1638-1659), Rāja Woḍeyar’s successors, literary production was central to the process of continuing their predecessor’s attempt at fashioning the Woḍeyars into a imperial power. Cāmarāja’s Cāmarājōkti Vilāsa provides a record of his devotion to the goddess Cāmuṇḍi and Kaṇṭhīrava Narasarāja’s Kaṇṭhīrava Narasarāja Vijayam named her as the Woḍeyar tutelary deity (maneya dēvate). The latter Doḍḍa Dēvarāja I (r. 1659-1673) gifted the village of Gavunahaḷḷi in service to the goddess at the same time that he injected a new Śaiva element into the cult of Cāmuṇḍi. For instance, he installed a colossal statue of Nandi, Śiva’s bull-mount, on the hill. But he also began to regard Cāmuṇḍi as the consort of Śiva in the form of Mahābala, thereby “constricting her volatility by associating her with domestic life” (p. 137). Finally, we come to Cikkadēvarāja (r. 1673-1704) who implements Śrīvaiṣṇ̣avism within royal protocols. The connection between the public stature of the kings and changes in ritual practice is also addressed in this chapter. That is, Simmons persuasively makes the case that increasing devotion to Cāmuṇḍi as the purāṇic slayer of the buffalo-demon “effectively mirrors the Woḍeyars’ transition from being outside the Purāṇic courtly framework to the upholders of the tradition” (p. 125).

Chapter 4 brings us to a fraught Woḍeyar court amidst a power struggle with their Kaḷale daḷavāyis with whom they had intermarried. The vaṃśavāḷis of this period, such as the Mysūru Nagarada Pūrvōttara (ca. 1732-1734), incorporate the purāṇic goddess into the origins of the dynasty, but this time explicitly fashion the Woḍeyar kings as vanquishers of evil who are coping with ill-conceived marriage alliances. The connection between these texts and the reality of the court is unmistakable: the struggles of the Woḍeyars are analogous to the divine struggles in the texts. The Mysūru Nagarada Pūrvōttara also attempts to connect the floundering Woḍeyar dynasty to the Vijayanagara Empire through the composition of similar origin stories involving a pair of brothers. Following Nicholas Dirks, Simmons points out that after the fall of Vijayanagara all successor states emulated Vijayanagara. However, Simmons takes this point a step further in arguing that the case of the Woḍeyars extends beyond emulation to complete conflation; “They were not like the Vijayanagara kingdom: they were the Vijayangara kingdom” (p. 165). Attempts to fashion and project a stable empire through Vijayanagara analogies failed when in 1734 the Kaḷales took over control of the kingdom and established Kṛṣnarāja Woḍeyar II as a figure-head king. The Kaḷale inserted their own Śaiva-inflected genealogical materials (Nañjuṇḍēśvara was their tutelary deity) alongside traditional Woḍeyar Vaiṣṇava origins in ways that overshadowed the central role of the goddess. At this moment, Daḷavāyi Mysore became involved in a protracted conflict over the city of Tiruccirāppaḷḷi. Simmons argues that the inter-regional conflict over Tiruccirāppaḷḷi has been mistakenly read as inter-religious conflict when, in fact, the city itself represented a path for all to regional supremacy. By delineating sets of political relationships that crossed religious boundaries—such as the Navāb of Arcot’s alliance with the Marāṭhas—Simmons demonstrates that the “South Indian game of thrones” had far more to do with political efficacy than religious sentiment (p. 172). The ill-fated Daḷavāyi attempt to gain Tiruccirāppaḷḷi eventually shifted power back into the hands of the royal family. The Woḍeyars and the Kaḷales entered into a power-sharing arrangement that was quickly usurped by the elevation of Haidar Ali into the employment of Kṛṣṇarāja II.

Chapters 5 and 6 are the most novel in terms of arguments and materials. Here, Simmons creates a rich picture of Haidar Ali and Ṭīpū Sultān as participating in, and perpetuating, traditional modes of South Indian kingship rather than representing a radical Islamic departure from previous forms of rule. Even as Haidar Ali exerted increasing administrative and military control over the kingdom, he continued to recognize the ritual centrality of the Woḍeyars. For example, Haidar Ali’s celebration of the Dasara festival was grander than it had been for many decades. Through Dasara and other festivals, Haidar Ali—like those who came before him—continued to participate in a pre-established culture of devotion and Woḍeyar courtly ritual life As Simmons notes, “Just as the Woḍeyars’ had appropriated Dasara from the Mahānavami ritual of the Vijayanagara kings after conquering Śrīraṅgapaṭṭaṇa; so too Haidar Ali adopted these rituals from the Woḍeyars after he took the fort. All this suggests that Haidar Ali fashioned himself as a South Indian king and not as an Islamic king” (p. 215). Ṭīpū Sultān, even more than his father Haidar Ali, has been characterized in radically different terms. Partha Chatterjee has described Ṭīpū as embodying an instance of change away from the medieval to the modern, a change exemplified by Ṭ̣īpū’s apparent disregard for established traditions and norms. The Ṭīpū that Simmons uncovers for us, particularly in a previously untranslated set of forty-seven Kannada letters to the jagadguru of the Śṛṅgēri Śaṅkarācārya Maṭha, depicts a far more complex figure who strategically invokes the past as he creates new forms of being in the present. In these letters, Ṭīpū Sultān sponsors a spate of goddess rituals to be performed by the jagadguru, including a Caṇḍi hōma and Caṇḍi jāpa. Moreover, like his Woḍeyar predecessors, Ṭīpū Sultān capitalized on the symbolic meaning of Dasara in 1785 to launch a military strike against the Marāṭhas (who had looted the Śṛṅgēri Maṭha, which Ṭīpū Sultān consequently had repaired). And again, like the Woḍeyars, he called on the goddess for victory against the Marāṭhas and the British. Here Simmons contributes new facets to what we know about Ṭīpū Sultān. He has artfully melded Islamic and South Indian forms of kingship as a way to address the changing landscape of late eighteenth-century Mysore.

Chapter 6 draws our attention to the very specific ways that Woḍeyar kingship was fashioned under colonial rule. In this chapter Simmons argues that as the Woḍeyar kings increasingly ceded power—administrative, military, revenue-collecting, and otherwise—to the British they sought to redefine kingship in the realm of the transcendent, a realm that was both irrelevant and illegible to British power. The Woḍeyars ruled over what Simmons calls an “incorporeal empire.” The vaṃśavāḷis produced in the courts of Mummaḍi Kṛṣnarāja III (r. 1799-1868) and Cikkadēvarāja (r. 1673-1704) laid claim to “the events of their medieval predecessors within a realm of divine-human interaction—‘re-newing the medieval’” (p. 264). The Śrīmanmahārājavara Vaṃśāvaḷi continues with the established tradition of equating Cāmuṇḍēśvari with Mahiṣasuramardiṇi, but also significantly names her as ādiśakti or primordial goddess, and as jagajjanani or mother of the universe. Here Cāmuṇḍi is no longer simply a Pan-Indic goddess but rather now elevated to be the goddess at the center of the world. In the remainder of this chapter, Simmons supplements his readings of vaṃśāvaḷis with a wide range of visual materials including devotional images of the Woḍeyar kings carved on temples called bhakti vigrahas, along with murals in the Woḍeyar’s Jaganmōhan Palace and the nearby Vēṅkaṭaramanasvāmi Temple. Most compelling among the art historical evidence are the temple murals in the citramaṇḍapa of the Vēṅkaṭaramanasvāmi temple. These murals trace a pan-sectarian devotional landscape across both North and South India including: Tirupati, Haṃpī, Melukoṭe, Gaṅgotri, Kāśi, Mathurā, and so forth. These murals represent the pilgrimage of a saint named Subbarāyadāsa, who was also a servant of Kṛṣṇarāja III, and whose journey was funded and facilitated by the king. Simmons productively reads Subbarāyadāsa “not just [as] a pilgrim, but a royal emissary on a devotional mission. He acted like the emissaries of the medieval period, who traveled to the far reaches of the imperial territory to collect tribute from vassals… He traversed a sacred domain collecting tribute with metaphysical significance: the significance of which was far outside the purview of the British” (p. 302). Subbarāyadāsa’s journey ends by anointing Kṛṣṇarāja III with water from the sacred Gaṅga River. With this act the Woḍeyar king is coronated into an incorporeal empire. This realm stretched across the devotional landscape of South Asia, but is nonetheless centered around Cāmuṇḍi, the primordial goddess of the world who resides on a hill overlooking Mysore.

In a dissertation that spans the medieval to early modern periods, Caleb Simmons shows us how many perceived changes and shifts during the colonial period are merely in the eye of an unlearned beholder. A history properly grounded in the pre-colonial is capable of seeing continuity and development. This is not to say that Simmons makes a continuist argument, but rather that it is through tracking continuities that change itself is illuminated. A question arises, then: how would colonial studies absorb the force of his argument? More specifically, how would his interlocutors like Partha Chatterjee or Sanjay Subramanian respond to the later chapters of this dissertation? We look forward to seeing how this project develops. The dissertation maintains a useful tension between a commitment to a genealogical method of understanding political power through reading a new body of texts (vaṃśāvaḷis) and a strong historical sensibility that asserts itself at many fortunate and unfortunate moments. If Simmons can productively marshal this tension in his monograph, this promises to be an excellent future book. As it stand, the dissertation is already an enormous scholarly contribution.

Sarah Pierce Taylor
Department of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania

Primary Sources

Kuvempu Institute of Kannada Studies Manuscript Library, University of Mysore
Government Oriental Manuscripts Library, University of Madras
Mackenzie Manuscript Collection, British Library
Images photographed with permission from the Jaganmōhan Palace, Mysore; the Cāmuṇḍēśvari temple, Mysore; the Celuvanārāyaṇasvāmi temple, Mēlukōṭe; the Nañjuṇḍēśvara temple, Nañjaṅgūḍu; the Lakṣmīnarasiṃhasvāmi temple, Śrīraṅgapaṭṭaṇa; the Prasana Kṛṣṇavāmi temple, Mysore; the Tṛṇēśvarasvāmi temple, Msyore; and the Vēṅkaṭaramanasvāmi temple, Mysore
Additional images also provided courtesy of the Jayacāmarājēndra Art Gallery, Mysore

Dissertation Information

University of Florida. 2014. 354 pp. Primary Advisors: Vasudha Narayanan and Travis L. Smith.

Image: Mahārāja Śrīkaṇṭhadatta Narasiṁharāja Woḍeyar being garlanded by Nāgēndra Dīkṣit in the presence of Cāmuṇḍi during her chariot festival (rathōtsava) (photograph by the author).

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