Dodda Ullarthi is a village on the fringe of the sprawling grasslands of Amrit Mahal in Challakere. Old men banter under giant Peepal trees around various shrines scattered within rows of Mangalore-tiled houses. The grasslands, or kavals as they are known here, are named after an indigenous breed of cattle that is reared on their pastoral richness. It is much-sought after by farmers for its strength and stamina, and often commands high prices in cattle fairs. The erstwhile rulers of Mysore, acknowledging the significance of the breed, used it to pull cannons and artillery.
The unique ecosystem of the Amrit Mahal kavals also supports a diversity of animals, including the endangered Lesser Florican and Great Indian Bustard, and the highly threatened Blackbuck.
In the last few years, there has been a lingering disquiet in these parts as communities battle a situation that is threatening not only their livelihood, but their cultural identity as well. The government, with a swift stroke of bureaucracy, has snatched away their ancient pastoral lands, apportioning them to military, industrial and nuclear projects. This was carried out with no active consultation with the pastoral and agrarian communities (spread over 70 villages) that depend on the grasslands for sustenance.
The close relationship of the communities with the grasslands is witnessed during ‘Gowramma Jathre’, the annual fair of Gowramma that takes place at Dodda Ullarthi. It is a celebration of female Shakti (energy) in the form of Gowramma, the deity considered to be the protector of the pastoral communities and their livestock. In an all-night spectacle, Gowramma, made crudely of turmeric and mud, is carried around in a procession to different shrines in the village. As she proceeds slowly through the many lanes, women join the procession with oil-lamps and offerings of flowers. The festival culminates with men rolling themselves over in front of the main shrine as a mark of intense devotion to Gowramma. ‘Urulu’ in Kannada means roll over and ‘Arati’ means offering — giving Dodda Ullarthi its name.