Hetthai Amman – An Outsider’s Perspective

In the wee hours of 23rd January 2023, the students of Light & Life Academy set out to tell a story of the celebration of Hetthai Amma — Goddess of wisdom and knowledge, and most beloved of the Badaga tribe, natives of Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiri District.

‘Badaga’, meaning ‘Northerner’, is a term that dates back to the Muslim Invasion of Mysore, in 1565. The community migrated from Mysore to The Nilgiris as a means of survival, and the hills have been their home ever since. An ethno-linguistic group, the Badagas live in nearly 400 villages, called Hattis, peppered across the hills, making them the largest community in The Nilgiris.

In general, Badagas use fields around the villages to practice mixed farming of millets, barley, wheat, and a variety of European vegetables, two of which—the potato and cabbage—have now assumed major commercial importance. Progressive attitudes have made the Badagas an unusually successful farming community.

The Hindu Badagas, including these Lingayat clans, worship quite a number of gods, as “aspects” of Shiva. These include Mahalinga and Mariamma (the smallpox goddess), together with many deities unknown outside the Badaga community – among them the ancestral Hiriodea and his consort, Hetthai.

The Hetthai Amman festival is celebrated to invoke and welcome the Goddess Hetthai – who’s arrival heralds the beginning of a year of good crop, dairy produce, and cattle.

The students’ first challenge was to get into the good graces of the closed-cultured Badaga community – a people who are as shy as they are curious, and as reserved as they are fascinated, by the idea of their tribe receiving exposure in such a manner. A kind people, who leave their doors wide open while a festival of thousands ensues in the dead of the night, to invite you, an outsider, in for warmth and coffee – but also a people who are as fiercely protective of their own privacy, as they are their Goddess Hetthai’s.

The only way for the students to document the festival, was to experience it – use sight, memory and curiosity… and exercise their people skills, while they were at it.

The night before the festival, there was a traditional gathering around a holy spot. Around this, there were prayers sung, music played, and chanting; there were oracles and soothsaying. The goddess manifested herself in a village elder, and spoke through them to a lucky few tribes people.

Then, on the morning of the big day, a large procession, with men and boys all dressed in white, danced and sung their way up to Hetthai’s new abode on the top of a hill. A boisterous mela sprung up, with shops selling everything from plastic toys to sweet corn and watermelon. Large loud speakers sang praise to Hetthai Amma, as about 20,000 people were fed at the anna danam.

What you see here in this documentary is a testament, then, to the trust built between the students of LLA and the Badaga community. A story gathered from their designated window into the world of Hetthai and her devotees.

Championed by their thirst for knowledge, and endowed with the responsibility of representing the culture of this illustrious community, the students of LLA created ‘Hetthaiamma – An Outsider’s Perspective’ within the span of a week.

This here is the first foray by Batch ‘22 to work as a team, and to create a piece of valuable communication.

Written by:
Gitanjali Sreenivas

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