A little festival of tribal origin in Andhra Pradesh has become a major pilgrimage in the last six years. The Samakka festival is held every two years at in Medaram Village of Tadvai Mandal deep in the heart of the thick forests of Warangal district.
The population of the little forest village at Medaram in normal times never exceeds 300. Suddenly, during the month of February it rises to over 3500000! Millions of devotees come from all over Andhra Pradesh and neighbouring states like Orissa, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.
This festival is held in memory of a Koya tribal queen called Samakka who fought against the kedieval dynasty of the Kakatiyas who ruled from Warangal between 1000 A.D.-1380 A.D. approximately. Among the traditional deities of the Koyas and other forest tribes is the Tiger Goddess of whom there is an interesting legend. As the story goes, around 600 years ago, a band of Koyas walking through the thick forest came upon a little girl playing with full grown tigers. They retrieved the infant and the headman adopted her. She was named Samakka. She grew up into fine young woman and married the headman of a neighbouring village. Among her children was a daughter named Saralama. Both mother and daughter were reputed for their kind and helpful nature.
The Koyas were tributary to the Kakatiyas. Once their assistance on the battle field had saved the Kakatiyas. The king, pleased with them, told them to ask for any boon. The Koyas replied that they were content with their peaceful forest life and lacked nothing. When the king insisted the Koyas said in case of need they would ask for some boon later. It so happened that there was a severe drought lasting for years. The Godavari dried up and food stocks were exhausted. At this precise time the Kakatiyas came to collect taxes from the Koyas who were unable to pay up. The king flew into a range. He sent his forces to teach the Koyas a lesson. The Koyas were aghast. The troops discovering the Koyas had hardly enough to eat themselves returned empty-handed reporting that there were no taxes to be collected. This angered the king further. He sent a large force and they committed all sorts of atrocities. The Koyas had no option but to resist. Finally the minister of the king decided to take a look. By then most of the Koya chiefs had fallen in battle. The minister proposed peace and offered Samakka a place in the king’s harem as chief queen. Samakka turned down the offer saying she had no faith in the promises of kings. Besides so many Koyas had been killed and she resolved to continue the fight. Again the battle raged and Samakka received a spear wound. “Now we will capture the heroic Samakka,” thought the king’s forces. They never captured her. She fled into the deep forest solemnly calling the elements saying “If the Koyas are blameless, may the dynasty of Warangal perish.” The grieving Koyas searched for their queen al they found were a red ochre box, bangles … and the pug marks of a huge full grown tigress. The Warangal dynasty was extinguished very soon.
While escaping Samakka had also told here people “So long as you remember me, I shall be there with you always.” The Koyas and Waddaras regularly hold festivals in memory of Samakka. Every two years Koya a priest ceremonially bring the ochre box and standards of Samakka and place them at the food of a tree symbolizing Saralama, her daughter besides other Koyas warriors. It is said that during the festival a huge tiger prowls around peacefully.
The mammoth crowd that descends on Medaram pitch their makeshift tents under the trees. Colourful bedsheets and sarees serve as tent cloth. The crowd treks to a nearby rivulet called Jampana Vaagu, named after a son of Samakka, to take a dip in the waters. Among the pilgrims are childless women. They are put through a ritual conducted by elderly women. On the banks of the river one sees several children getting their first ceremonial haircut. Apparently some pilgrims have had prayers answered.
While the festival has tribal roots, today the bulk of the pilgrims are non-tribals. There are elements of very ancient rites reminiscent of old matriarchal societies. Some men dress in women’s garb for the duration of the festival. Some women behave as though they are ‘possessed’. The official Koya oracle forecasts the general future of the people.
The trees signifying the Koya martyrs are in an enclosure where pilgrims file past. When the priests bring out the ochre box and other relics from a hidden forest location, there is great tumult with frenzied beating of drums, blowing of trumpets and full throated yells. Earlier cocks and sheep were ritually slaughtered. Now offerings are coconuts and jaggery. They are piled at the foot of the trees. By nightfall, the exodus starts. In two days Medaram is deserted. The crowd vanishes as suddenly as it arrived. The long line of buses raise clouds of red dust. Medaram goes to sleep for the next two years