Yellamma is a South Indian goddess (also known as Jogamma, Renuka & Holiyamma) and it is widely believed that her worship is related to the Devadasi system, possibly due to the fact that her worship sometimes involves devotees dedicating themselves or their children into the service of the goddess, in exchange for the fulfillment of their desires. This aspect of Yellemma devotion has received a great deal of attention due to the association of devadasis with prostitution and sexual slavery.
Female initiates of Yellamma are referred to as Jogathis, or Joginis and males as Jogappas. Yellamma is said to sometimes appear in the form of a young neem tree, and devotees reportedly decorate themselves with neem leaves. Other sources (and this appears to have generated a great deal of prurient interest) say that Jogathis perform Yellamma puja naked. The most famous Yellamma temple is near the village of Soundatti, in the state of Karnataka.
Yellamma is considered to be beneficient by her devotees, and is believed to be able to cure barreness in women, and to cure diseases. She also is said to have the power to change the sex of devotees – and the gender-liminal status of some of her devotees is considered to be a result of divine possession by the goddess. Jogappas who dress as women are often popularly conflated with Hijras.
The central myth relating to Yellamma says that Renuka was originally the wife of a Rishi, Jamdagni, and that they had five sons. Renuka would go to the river each day and fetch water for the sage’s rituals. One day, Renuka saw a group of Gandharvas engaged in love-play in the river and consequently was late in returning home (in one version of the myth she is said to have become ‘aroused by the sport of a Gandharva king and his four queens, and in another, that she actually fell in love with the Gandharva) and Jamdagni, suspecting her chastity, ordered his five sons to kill her. Four of the sons refused, and were burnt to ash by the Rishis’ curse, or, in another version, became eunuchs. The fifth son, named as Parshurama, complied with his father’s wish and beheaded his mother. In one version of the story, Renuka’s head multiplied and appeared in different regions, causing her eunuch sons (and others) to worship her.
In another version of the myth, Parshurama asked his father to bring his four brothers, and Renuka, back to life. It is said that Renuka’s head had vanished, so Parshurama cut the head from a woman of the matang caste (a low-status caste) and the Rishi revived Renuka using the matangi’s head. In this version, although Renuka is brought back to life, the Rishi curses her with leprosy and banishes her from his house. In a third version of this myth, after Renuka is slain, she becomes an angry demoness. Another variant says that when Parshurama attempted to behead Renuka, the goddess Durga appeared in the form of Yellamma – a celestial Apsara with thousands of heads. Durga/Yellamma created an illusory form of Renuka – which was beheaded (and subsequently revived) whilst the ‘real’ Renuka became the companion of Durga.
The similarities between the Yellamma myth and that of Mariyamman are striking. Yellamma may well be another example of a ‘village goddess’ who has gained a wider following.
The etymology of Yellamma is uncertain. There is one suggestion that the goddess may originally have been called Ellamma (the Tamil root ‘el’ means, bright, light, auspicious) and that Renuka is a sanskritised form.