[Accounts of the Great Opening of Malayali society of the 20th century acknowledge the rising of empowering spirituality, but it is almost always the male spiritual seers and practitioners who are celebrated – Sreenarayana Guru, Poikayil Appachan, and others. There is a gap to be filled here for sure: there were many women who sought a spiritual life, both among the first generation of educated women, as well as outside. Of them, not many sought an active public life, but Janamma, who rose to the leadership of the Pratyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha initiated by Poikayil Appachan which advanced a powerful emancipatory project among the caste-oppressed dalit people of Travancore in the early half of the 20th century, was a striking exception. After Appachan’s passing, she led the movement (from 1941 to her passing till 1985) with considerable force and exceptional diligence, preventing it from fragmenting and protecting its core of faith. Known widely as ‘Ammachi’ – mother – when she rose to leadership, Janamma married Appachan at the age of fifteen in 1925. She was born and raised in Neyyatinkara, Thiruvananthapuram and her parents were early adherents of the Pratyaksha Raksha faith. She studied in a Christian school till Class Four but was unable to continue her education. Initially reluctant to marry him, she apparently changed her mind totally on seeing him. Before their wedding, he made her promise that she could care for the Sabha and also give him two sacred offspring. He is said to have addressed her as ‘akkachi’, which is, in Malayalam, a respectful way of referring to an older woman, an elder sister.
After his passing there was much trouble and dissension, includes disputes over the Pratyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha’s assets. A decision was taken to send Janamma and her two young children back to her natal home, but a chief disciple of Appachan, Nhaaliyakkuzhi Asan, resisted this. It took time for his disciples to accept a young woman, considered inexperienced, as their leader, but in 1941, she was officially accepted as president of the Sabha – she was just 31 at that time. Janamma faced many hurdles, including the hostility of the very disciples who first supported her, but ably overcame all of those, taking over the leadership and even fighting court cases.
This is an excerpt from a memory of her shared by K C Vijayan who joined the PRDS through her. This describes his first meeting with her and reveals her style of spiritual teaching. From the volume Divyamathavu:Orma Anubhavam, Thiruvalla: PRDS Yuvajana Sangham, 2010, pp. 53-71]
… There were some rattan chairs on the veranda. Come, [I said], let us sit down. All three of us sat down. A little later, a girl came running, saw us, and quickly went off. A mother – Amma – came in suddenly. She looked fit and healthy. She looked at us closely. ‘Vandanam’, she said, greeting us. We were not familiar with the practice of greeting others saying ‘vandanam’. We too responded with ‘vandanam’. Who are you, Amma asked. We are pastors, we told her. We did not get up when she came up to greet us. The little girl who we had seen before came and stood beside her. Amma told her, koche, bring another chair here, let me too sit down with the sahibs. The chair was brought and Amma sat down in it … She asked us — what is the meaning of ‘vandanam’? We admitted that we did not know. She replied – [it is] the right which is the place of the masculine and the left, which is of feminine, join together and are pressed on the breast. The soul which resides in the heart bows to the supreme soul that resides in God. The soul resides in human, the supreme soul, in the Divine. Vandanam refers to this relation. Amma sang for us this song (song no 11, ‘I journey to reclaim the progeny of the Oppressed…). Who is God’s true heir? The relation between the soul and the supreme soul is eternal. Even when we die, we are dissolved in this relation. We understood the vandanam only when Amma told us all this. This is an important gesture that children of God must adopt when they meet and part. When we enter a shrine of the Divine, we must offer vandanam there and then also to the faithful assembled there. Amma taught us these things.
Then Amma asked us a question. When will Yesu (Jesus) come? Who told you of it? From where will he arrive? How? Tell me, tell me. But there is not a word in the Book that tells us when he will come. He was seen ascending to Heaven. And he will return in the same way. But nothing is said about the time of his return. The three of us broke into cold sweat unable to answer her. This Amma is no ordinary mother. She is endowed with divine grace…
After that, Amma asked, the Hindus have many sacred places and spiritual refuges like Kashi, Rameswaram, Varkala, Sivagiri, Palani, Sabarimala, and so on. Islam has Mecca and Medina and pilgrimage centres and sacred spots. The Temple of Jerusalem has become the spiritual refuge and heaven of the people of Israel. If so, do the indigenous Adidravida people who suffer in India have a refuge or a heaven of their own? Tell me, tell me quickly. I told you so many things. Tell me if you have a single word to put forward with courage. We were struck dumb, without a single word to speak or reply. We began to feel awkward. Because there was no sacred shrine, no refuge, to be seen for the indigenous oppressed people. The Divine Mother asked us again,
‘Tell me, how many doors does the Temple of Jerusalem have?’
Twelve, I said.
‘Why are there twelve doors?’
Don’t know, I replied.
Her Divinity was revealed then. She said,
The Twelve Doors of the Temple of Jerusalem
are meant for Heads of the Tribes.
Ruben, Simeon, Levi, Yahuda, Issakhar, Sebbalune, Naphthali, Gad, Asser, Yoseph, Benyamin.
The Divine Mother said, they are twelve gems… If the Temple of Jerusalem is for the generations descended from the twelve Tribal Elders, if only there was a thirteenth door, the oppressed people of Bharatham could have also entered. We said: there is no thirteenth door. Then the Divine Mother asked us. If so, why walk in those bylanes. Why not come here? Here the oppressed have a refuge, a shrine… (pp. 56-8)