Indian women declare independence

Posted: Aug 07, 2003 12:00 AM

TAMIL NADU, India -- Pundits often write of inequalities in America, but they're minor compared to the daily contrasts here. Imagine an America so technologically and economically divided that families living on dirt floors underneath thatched roofs and eating fly-covered rice and vegetables live down the street from homes with high-speed Internet connections. That's India.

But description of that sort is easy. More startling, as India prepares to celebrate its Independence Day next week, on Aug. 15, is the way many women are declaring their independence from traditional subservience. Of the dozens of Indian communities I visited last month, three stand out for me in this regard.

One site was Pandi Koil in Madurai, the great temple city of southeastern India. Three decades ago, the temple was merely a small shack in a sacred grove owned by five families. Then, slowly, it gained a reputation as a place where women, usually in their 40s, could come to twist and shriek, in the assumption that they are temporarily possessed by a male god named Pandi and must come to the temple every Tuesday and Friday for the next 10 weeks.

Pandi Koil has become so popular that five years ago it installed railings like those at theme park rides to keep the crowds in check. Many women troubled by stomach pains or a colicky child vow to Pandi, "If you cure me of this, I will come to your temple." If the pains or the crying go away, they come to a place where they don't have to respond to the entreaties of husbands or fathers, but can wail and flail all they want.

Branches of Pandi Koil have now sprung up all over the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, as have over 100 congregations of women called Adhiparashakti. In traditional Hinduism, women are not permitted to offer puja (worship) in a temple's Holy of Holies -- but in this new demonination, only women do puja. Ironically, a man -- Bangaru Adigalar, now 63, --established the congregation: His devotees address him as "Mother" and say he has merged with the goddess Shakti.

This concept has caught on so quickly that one group in Madurai, which until recently owned merely a memorial stone and several bells, now has a small building decorated with two calendars featuring Adigalar portraits and six other pictures of the guru that depict him with a halo and red marks on his hands and feet. The group next year plans to erect a new, elaborate temple at a cost of 5 million rupees, or about $109,000.

That's a lot in an economy where 100 rupees per day -- little more than $2 -- is a decent income.

I visited a third empowering site in the poor, Anakaputhur section of Chennai, the city formerly known as Madras. Many women in that area had become economically dependent on tannery work for 50 cents a day, plus the likelihood that their hands would be ruined by acid and their hearts sickened by a daily dose of managerial abuse. But six years ago, an Indian couple, Samuel and Prema Sundar Raj, started a needlepoint enterprise where young women receive $2 a day making exquisite tablecloths and napkins. Sometimes, the women talk as they cross-stitch, or receive information about hygiene or nutrition. At other times, someone reads the Bible out loud, as fingers ply the needles.

One woman, Sugila, said this about her new situation: "Before coming here, I was not able to pay school fees for my children. Now, my two children study at school. In days to come, God will work out better things for all of us."

Another young woman, Abya, said she had no father and her mother is a housemaid, so she is happy to be able to help her whole family. Others -- Jaya, Stella, Mymuna, Rajkumarai, Selvi and Radha -- noted similarly that they had been touched by hope.