Magical Hair as Dirt: Ecstatic Bodies and Postcolonial Reform in South India

Original Paper


This paper offers an ethnography of the medicalization of matted locks of hair (jade) worn by female ecstatics in a South Indian devi (goddess) cult. These jade are taken by devotees of the devi Yellamma to be a manifestation of her presence in the bodies of women who enter possession states and give oracles. At her temples across the central Deccan Plateau, Yellamma women can be seen wearing heavy locks of matted hair anointed with turmeric, the color and healing properties of which are identified with this devi. Under a recent government-sponsored campaign, reformers cut jade and hand out packets of shampoo as a means of reforming the extended and illicit sexuality of these women. Associations between sexuality and hair practices have long preoccupied anthropologists interested in the relationship between the body and culture. In this paper, I draw on this literature and more than 2 years of field research to consider the encounter between biomedical and Shakta epistemologies of the body dramatized in these jade cutting campaigns. This effort to remake the body as a fit site and sign of modernity elaborates the postcolonial politics of sexuality, gender and religiosity in India.


The body Medicalization Women and Hinduism Devadasis Postcolonial governance Sexuality 



I am first and foremost indebted to the Yellamma women who taught me about their lives. Parts of this article were presented at the Anthropology Department at Cornell University, Indiana University and Butler University, on panels at the annual meetings of the Society for Medical Anthropology (2006) and the Society for the Anthropology of Religion (2007), and the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii, Manoa Colloquium on the Body in South Asian Contexts (2008). For their inspiring comments and provocations on those occasions, I especially want to thank Janice Boddy, Lawrence Cohen, Elise Edwards, Stacey Langwick, Rachel Prentice, Ramnarayan Rawat, Suman Seth, Micol Siegel, Lee Siegel, Fouzieyha Towghi and Brackette Williams. For useful readings of the entire draft, I appreciate Srimati Basu, Erin Koch, Cristiana Giordano, Katherine Lemons and Saiba Varma. I am very grateful to two anonymous reviewers whose generous critiques helped me to reorganize and clarify this material. Forms of institutional and material support for portions of this research were provided by the Study for Sexual Culture at the University of California, Berkeley, the American Institute of Indian Studies, the Mellon Foundation and the University of Kentucky. An earlier version of this article was awarded the Kenneth W. Payne Prize (2006) by the Society for Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Women’s Studies in ReligionHarvard Divinity SchoolCambridgeUSA
  2. 2.Department of Gender and Women’s StudiesUniversity of KentuckyLexingtonUSA

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