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A Goddess in the Making

"Did you see it?" Yeah I did!

"See what?"

"AIDS-amma temple," said Girish, pointing to a white stone about ten meters to my left. I saw what looked like a gravestone, only it was painted white and set in a square of cemented ground. At the edge of the road in front of the high school, the only shelter this "temple " had was a canopy of sun-dried sugarcane branches.

"Wow," I said solemnly, masking my shock at its paltry stature. "This is it, the famous AIDS-amma temple." I had come halfway around the world for this. I had read about the temple in India Today magazine and written up a research proposal. I read books and took notes and asked advice. I pored over maps in a Bangalore bookshop trying to find this village of Menasikyathana Halli on a map, any map, only to discover that it was a village too small even to warrant a dot on a map. I rode the crowded bus amongst the gawks and gossip reserved for the once-in-a-lifetime sighting of a white woman on a local bus.

I guess I expected the temple to have walls. I knew that in India, everything from small stones to tree bark to jugs of water could be invested with sacred qualities, but the word "temple" suggested architectural fortitude. I imagined a building. Perhaps if there had been people chanting or on their knees praying, I would not have been so disappointed, but I could not even call the "temple" empty, for there was nothing to enclose it.

The whitewashed stone featured solid black silhouettes of a man's and a woman's torso. The figures were standing back-to-back. In the middle of their merging heads was a large red circle. Near the chest, Roman letters exclaimed "HIV!" Girish, the schoolteacher whose idea it was to create a new goddess of AIDS, told me that the Kannada letters said "AIDS-amma Temple" at the top and "Scientific Temple" at the bottom. Across the cemented floor, which covered an area of about sixteen square feet, purple chalk letters spelled the English word "Welcome," and a fresh garland of white and yellow flowers draped the stone.

A troop of barefooted children came running over, one after the other, and stopped haltingly before me. "They are so curious to see you," said Girish.

The schoolboys fought over who would carry my water bottle, the girls over who would take me to the bathroom or the field, as it were. The men climbed coconut trees to get me a mid-morning treat. The women brewed me tea.

As I hung out by the AIDS-amma temple, I got the sense that the villagers came less to see the temple than to see me at the temple.

People in Menasikyathana Halli, a village of 2,000, first heard the word "AIDS" in 1995 when a man from a neighboring village fell ill and went to the hospital. The man had AIDS; his wife did too.

"We would eat at the restaurant but we didn't know that they had AIDS," one local fieldworker told me, referring to the roadside food stall operated by the couple. "When the doctors told us they had AIDS, we stopped going there. Only then did we hear the word AIDS. We isolated them. Nobody touched them, because we thought that if we touched the person, we would die." Julappa, a village elder, said, "AIDS is a very cruel disease. It is bad for our country and society."

Girish told me that the couple died of starvation. "When there are no customers," he said, "there is no business, and when there is no business, there is no food." Others claimed that the husband died in the hospital and still others said that the man died when "doctors gave him an injection." According to a village leader, the wife was kept in a shed for the remaining days of her life. She had to cook her own food and eat in solitude.

Even when she died, they refused to touch her. "They lifted her corpse with sticks," one young man told me, "and burned her." Girish, though, said that the villagers would not grant her the typical cremation rite, but "with the help of sticks, dug a place for the body and buried it with sand and mud." Other villagers denied this, but couldn't offer alternative accounts. The hotly contested question about cremation rites is not surprising, given their crucial status in the local religion. These rites control the pollution occasioned by death, and also usher the soul from one life to another. For the villagers, failing to offer the deceased an honorable burial represents a drastic means of demonstrating moral disapproval.

"So my students told me about the couple's deaths and I took interest," Girish said. By the time Girish arrived in Menasikyathana Halli to serve as the science teacher at the newly erected high school in 1996, the couple with AIDS had died. What was left was their story, told by Girish to his students and by others, and then transformed into an impetus for action.

Girish's idea was to create a goddess (or "amma") of AIDS and to build a shrine for her. "Just to create phobia, I started AIDS-amma," Girish said, "but the people don't know that." He explained that this "phobia" (or "dread") of god has always served practical ends. For example, when one goes to the temple of Mari-amma, the goddess of chickenpox, one must keep one's skin dry and rub it with neem leaves. Neem works medicinally on the body, Girish explained, but devotees think that the goddess cures them.

On AIDS Day, December 1, 1997, Girish planted the AIDS-amma stone under a tree outside the school. He paid for the stone and the paint out of his own pocket, which, with his modest teacher's salary, did not reach so deep. He told me this with the defiant dignity of a first-time owner, looking over at his goddess-in-the-making. Girish intended the figures of the man and woman to represent religion, and the red circle to represent the HIV virus, or, more generally, science. On the stone pillars to the right of the shrine, he painted "slogans," kernels of information he got from the World Health Organization. For several months, Girish gave weekly lectures at the shrine about AIDS, speaking first about more familiar diseases like malaria and chickenpox.

"Actually, they don't have information about anything," Girish said. "They are very innocent. How to teach them about such a modern disease? How to reach the village people? NGOs do publishing, but the village people don't know how to read, so how can the publications teach them? It is impossible, impossible! So, to reach them by means of phobia, I created a shrine."

Girish was careful to point out that he does not tell people that AIDS-amma will cure the disease. Other disease goddesses like Mari-amma are thought to cause as well as cure the disease for which they are named. The critics of AIDS-amma believe that by creating another disease goddess, Girish is only adding to the superstition that pervades the rural areas. Swami Agnivesh, the head of a Hindu reform movement called the Arya Samaj, and critic of the AIDS-amma temple, said in an interview that this new goddess would lead people to believe the deity's power was all they needed to protect themselves against the disease. But Girish says he entreats them to ask the goddess only for knowledge, not to be cured. "Please AIDS-amma, bless me with information."

"You want to see puja. I will arrange for it," Girish said. This is not exactly what I had in mind—staged worship—and I explained that it was important to my research to see puja under "natural conditions." Puja typically involves some kind of priestly incantation, the offering of fruits, flowers, and other gifts, and either ecstatic song or solemn prayer. In the case of the village mother-goddesses, it may also involve the sacrifice of live animals.

Girish insisted that the villagers did puja daily at the AIDS-amma temple, but too early in the morning for me to reach the village in time. A few days later, my translator and I left Mysore before dawn and arrived in the village while it was still asleep. We watched from a window in an open schoolroom and waited for the worshipers to arrive. They never did.

On Friday, three or four women did straggle over from the larger Pataladamma temple, which was set back another twenty meters from the AIDS-amma shrine. With the sound of Pataladamma's priest chanting in the distance, one of the women, a young mother, lit a stick of incense for AIDS-amma, while the others pressed their folded hands to their chests. The women were reluctant to discuss the temple or its subject. "We don't know anything about AIDS-amma," one said. "We don't know anything except that there is a disease called AIDS." I asked if there were a connection between the disease and the goddess and she told me that that is what educated people had told her.

The men in the village were more forthcoming about their knowledge of AIDS-amma. Most claimed to go to the temple every day and to pray for a "clean" or "clear" mind. They perceived the man and woman painted on the "idol" to be having sexual intercourse—a pictorial lesson in how the disease is transmitted. One man said, "The idol is quite fearsome. It's a woman and man because [AIDS] travels from woman to man."

AIDS in India is typically transmitted through heterosexual sex. Perhaps because a high percentage of prostitutes are carriers of the disease, it is a common misconception that women are the source of AIDS. Villagers also cited skin, lice, and saliva as carriers of the disease. An adolescent girl told me that one can contract the disease just by sitting next to an infected person.

And what were the powers of this new goddess to act on this disease? One man said that AIDS-amma was not going to cure the disease, because there is no cure. Another said that AIDS-amma causes as well as cures the disease. And one middle-aged woman, with whom I managed to speak privately, railed against the temple and said that some people stay away from it because they think that they will get AIDS if they go.

One night in April 1999, about three months before my visit, someone—allegedly people from the neighboring village—slashed the temple stone in two pieces and painted over the slogans in a wash of red. The new AIDS-amma temple, which stood close to the border between the two villages, re-fueled a longstanding rivalry between them.

When I went to the neighboring village to learn something from AIDS-amma's detractors, most people looked the other way. Under the pretext of wanting to learn how jaggery (a solid cooking sugar) was made, my translator and I managed to get one man talking. He said that they did not object to forming a new temple, and cited a new temple in his village that is said to cure boils. Their concern had to do with the way in which Girish had gone about it. It was their understanding that AIDS came from sex, so they said it was morally wrong for Girish to build a temple for AIDS, because it associated sex with religion.

Some of the newspaper articles Girish carried in his binder claimed that he had even considered placing a box of condoms at the temple as prashad (offering). But such an open display of contraception would incite too much religious opposition, Girish told me.

"Nobody will go to the temple, that's for sure," said the man in the jaggery factory. "You've been staying in the village since early morning. Have you seen anyone?" I hadn't.

If the vandalism accomplished anything, it was to rally the villagers of Menasikyathana Halli together in support of the shrine. The morning after the temple had been demolished, people from Menasikyathana Halli assembled themselves, passed around a collection, from which they got about 1,500 rupees, and got to work on rebuilding the shrine.

Immediately after the shrine was rebuilt, a union was formed to protect and develop it. The union treasurer, Chandrashkar, a man in his late twenties, spoke some English, and wore trousers, an urban distinction. "I don't ask anything of AIDS-amma," he said. "I don't want anything. I just want to advertise it and make people know there is a temple of AIDS-amma. I want people to be aware. Instead of thinking it is a deity, our union thinks it is a way of advertising the union's name."

People in the other village shunned publicity. They didn't want to be saddled with the reputation for having AIDS. (It was in their village that the couple had died of AIDS five years ago.) If ever the people of Menasikyathana Halli shared the same fear, they all but eradicated it. They seemed to have faith that the publicity would bring them good fortune.

"We will collect funds from the people," Chandrashkar said. "Our union has spent a thousand rupees already. I feel that AIDS-amma is not as popular as Basava (the popular South Indian deity for whom a shrine is built in the village center), but once people believe that it is important, they will be ready to help to any extent."

On my last day in the village, I asked Girish if there was anything further that he wanted to be sure I included in the story of AIDS-amma. "You should tell them this is a unique temple on Earth, not only for Mandya [district], India. It is a unique temple on Earth. Solely [for that reason], it is attracting media."

From the time of the temple's original inception, dozens of publications from Bombay to Chennai had picked up the story. Wherever he went, Girish carried a red-spined portfolio with clear plastic sheets protecting hand-dated newspaper clippings about the AIDS-amma temple.

The articles were about the ostracized couple, the "innovative" temple, and AIDS-amma's resemblance to other disease goddesses. They also told about "devotees thronging the new temple" and buses stopping at the temple "to allow passengers to have a quick darshan [viewing] of AIDS-amma."

I had come in the trail of journalists, the temple's secularly minded pilgrims. "If you came from such a developed country to study my work," Girish said, "I will do a little more."

Yet Girish could not be sure what would come next. The typical evolution of a temple would lead to the presence of a priest and sacrifices. These measures might increase the religious clout of the temple among villagers, but they might also dim the educational components of the "scientific temple." The secularly minded writers and readers of newspapers, many of them suspicious of religious trappings, might call it a sham. And as one insightful villager put it to me, "We can't name a priest for this goddess, because others will think that it has been created to earn money."

For the most part, the villagers seemed to want to defer to Girish for making decisions about the development of the temple. One villager said, "If they tell us to give sacrifices, we will." When I asked who "they" are, he replied, "Girish master. He created it, so he should say. He is the man behind this."

Girish may be the man behind the goddess. He seemed much like the proud and protective parent of an infant child as he anticipated her growth and, indeed, walls on her shrine. I kept on wanting to separate man from goddess. I wanted to distill in some pure way the "truth" about the goddess from Girish's claims. I became fixated on the question of whether AIDS-amma was a "real" goddess in the minds of the villagers, but they would not grant me the clear-cut answer I hoped for. They told me simply to "wait and see." I had a flight back to Boston in two weeks and little patience for this "trial and error" method of sorting out the divinities from the quacks.

Yet if AIDS-amma turned out not to be "real," her shrine might still be important as a vehicle for AIDS education. Clearly, misconceptions still circulated about how the disease spreads, but I wondered if a greater number of people had become educated about the disease because of the AIDS-amma. This proved equally difficult to determine. Estimates by villagers of the percentage of villagers aware of the disease and how it spread ranged from 20 to 90 percent. Outside the village, people were similarly in disagreement about whether this shrine had raised awareness. I once found myself in the middle of a friendly argument between an area doctor, who thought that the shrine had made people more aware, and a representative from the health department, who said that it had made no impact whatsoever.

And while people from the health department and from the newspapers and TV stations, and one from an American university, tried to figure out what kind of significance this new deity had for AIDS education, health, and religion, the villagers themselves went on with their daily lives. They irrigated the fields, carted crops to the city in ox-pulled wagons, filled jugs of water at the well, rinsed clothes in the stream.

They just come and go, a village elder told me when asked about the effect of the media. And that is what I did. I may have left a trail of gossip in my wake, and unwittingly drawn exaggerated attention to the new goddess, but I came and went and didn't stay long enough to know what they know.

I very much feel that I contributed to the shrine's significance. I often say that as the first white person most of these people had ever seen, I felt that I was a walking billboard for the shrine. A TV show filmed a segment about AIDS-amma on my last day there—they didn't want to miss me, they said, for my picture really made the story for them.

My feelings about the sacred did change with all the reflection I did upon returning and preparing for my thesis. What strikes me about this situation is that a divinity is emerging (or not) in the midst of all this human contestation. As a student of religion, I kept looking for signs of the sacred (i.e., ritual, myth) when it was staring me in the face. Here are people who have been in this village for generations without the outside world paying any attention, and all of a sudden, people are interested in them and their village. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I saw nothing inherently sacred, and more or less gave up the idea that there is anything inherently sacred. I feel instead that the village contestation over local identity, the human longing to be known, the fear inspired by AIDS—these are the dynamic sources that may ultimately anchor the shrine as sacred.