Asaadis (ಆಸಾದಿಗಳು) (asAdi) constitute a group of religious professional singers in Karnataka. They are dalit priests and bards worshipping the Goddess Maaramma. The word ‘asAdi’ is derived from ‘prasAdi’. (One who distributes prasAda, the offerings made to the Goddess.) Another possible etymology denotes a person who is close to Goddess. ‘Cobbler’ is yet another meaning attributed to the word. This word is present in Telugu also. Asaadi is essentially the religious leader of the dalit community in a village.

            Asaadis are mainly residents of Chikkamagalur and Shivamogga districts of Central Karnataka. Antaragatte (antaragaTTe) a small village in Chikkamagalur district is the head quarters of the asaadi community. Most of them attend the annual fare at Antaragatte. This number includes even those who owe their loyalty to the Marikamba of Sirsi in North Canara district. Women who are initiated in to the asaadi community are called ‘rANigA’.

            These singers can be compared to the better known professional singers of South Karnataka such as nIlagAra, dEvaraguDDa and chVDIke singers. Asaadis recite a long epic related to the life and the miracles performed by Maramma(mAramma). This performance often goes on for three to four nights.

            Asadis play an important role during the annual fairs and festivals of Maramma. They wear a white cloak, dhOti, and a red head gear, an angavastram tapering down their shoulders and a percussion instrument hanging down their neck. A big kunkum mark adorns their fore-head and they wear a three beaded necklace. Asaadis are permitted to make fun of the village elders and the people belonging to the upper castes on that day. Asaadi stays near the chariot of the Goddess and sings in her praise. Once in a while he starts criticizing her as well. (nindA stuti)

            Asadis worship Maramma at her temple on Fridays and Tuesdays. After the worship is over they visit the homes of her devotees, sing songs praising her glories and receive alms in return. The temples of Maramma are found all over Karnataka and they are usually recognized by the name of their habitat. antaragaTTamma, lakkavaLi amma, kalkere amma and divAsadamma are a few illustrations.

            Asaadis are accorded a lot of respect and they are treated as the sons, body guards and ambassadors of the Goddess.

            The death of an Asaadi in any village results in a process of selecting his successor. Maramma herself goes round the village in a procession and selects the next Asaadi.  This selected Asaadi who has to be a bachelor is taken to the temple and his head is tonsured. He is given white clothes and made to take an oath in the presence of senior priests. This vow includes non consumption of left over food, not wearing of foot wear and abstinence from evil habits. The initiate Asaadi will learn a prayer, a few songs praising Maramma and the great Maramma epic in that order.

            The epic is sung with the instrumental background of a drum. (halage) This drum is usually made of rose wood, neem wood or tAre wood. The hide of a he buffalo is fixed tautly on either side of the drum. Thus Asaadis earn the respect of the villagers because of their proximity to the Goddess and their upright life.    

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