Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, 33:501

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

Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s11013-009-9147-1

Cite this article as:
Ramberg, L. Cult Med Psychiatry (2009) 33: 501. doi:10.1007/s11013-009-9147-1


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 bodyMedicalizationWomen and HinduismDevadasisPostcolonial governanceSexuality

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