Connecting two worlds in one: Assistant Professor Amy Allocco goes beyond classroom and continent

Article and Video by Erin Valentine

NaŸga doŸsam – noun – “snake blemish;” condition caused by ill-fated planetary alignments in an individual’s horoscope; faulted for infertility or failure in marriage

Amy Allocco has spent 18 years of her life researching in India,  Photo by Erin Valentine

Amy Allocco has spent 18 years of her life researching in India,
Photo by Erin Valentine

Focusing her research on this multi-faceted affliction, Amy Allocco, Assistant Professor and Distinguished Emerging Scholar in Religious Studies at Elon University, has spent the past 18 years of her life traveling the world, dividing the majority of her time between the U.S. and India. And eight of those years have been spent on studying naga dosam.

India was never originally on Allocco’s radar. She studied abroad there for a semester in 1995, and now the South Asian country has become a major aspect of her research and identity.

She has received 25 grants, published five book chapters, participated in 22 conferences and given 31 invited and guest lectures.

Yet, none of these numbers really show what Allocco has completed in her years of research.

Her passion for education and learning is clear as soon as she begins speaking about her areas of study. Just one look around her office, which is filled with photos of snake statues and bookcases packed with information on South Asia and snake goddesses, makes her dedication abundantly clear.

Allocco's office is filed with images of snake goddesses and artwork from her travels,  Photo by Erin Valentine

Allocco’s office is filed with images of snake goddesses and artwork from her travels,
Photo by Erin Valentine

Catalyzing curiosity

Allocco’s pedigree is lengthy. She received her bachelor’s degree from Colgate University, a small, liberal arts college in central New York, and earned her Master’s in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and her doctorate from Emory University.

She is no stranger to the classroom or to the resounding effects of great professors.

“Those relationships shaped me and really inspired me to want to be that kind of force for change with students, and also a force for intellectual development,” Allocco said. “I’m interested in catalyzing students’ curiosity about new and different topics and subjects and places.”

“I didn’t want to go somewhere that I could potentially navigate just fine on my own,” Allocco explained. “I didn’t want to go to a country where I might go as a backpacker and could easily be self-sufficient. I wanted to go to a place where I really needed a professor’s disciplinary expertise to help me navigate that culture.”

Allocco encourages students to heed the same advice she was given: If you think something is an important topic, consider contributing to its study by undertaking research on it.

Developing a “second skin”

Allocco spent 1997 and 1998 working on a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, researching Hindu women’s rituals in South India. She focused on following Hindu women through the ritual calendar.

She joined a family as the eighth member in a small apartment. She was able to experience everything with her new extended family from birth to death as well as to celebrate all of their rituals and festivals.

Alloco with Amudha, the daughter-in-law of the family with whom she has lived periodically in Chennai, India, Photo courtesy by Amy Allocco

Alloco with Amudha, the daughter-in-law of the family with whom she has lived periodically in Chennai, India,
Photo courtesy by Amy Allocco

“Having to adjust my own rhythms, even bodily rhythms, to the cultural expectations of where I was living was sometimes challenging,” she recalled.

Allocco was surprised to find that activities like “vegging out” were not really an option. There was much less “down time” and almost no time spent alone. People study in their free time, cook, go to the market, visit relatives and go to the temple.

“India has a logic, sometimes an illogic, all of its own,” Allocco explained. “It was important for me to develop strategies for giving myself over to that rhythm and logic, rather than resisting it. The real moments of connection and encounter, the really transformative ones, came when I was trying to align with local rhythms and logics, rather than trying to impose my own.”

When she began her research, she only communicated in English. This limited her to only speaking with upper middle class women.

As a way to readjust her rhythm, Allocco began to take advanced language courses in Tamil.

Allocco with Dr. S. Bharathy, the Head of the Tamil Language Program on which Dr. Allocco studied from 2003-2004 in Madurai, India. Dr. Bharathy hosts and lectures to Elon students who study abroad in South India on Dr. Allocco's winter term trip, Photo courtesy of Amy Allocco

Allocco with Dr. S. Bharathy, the Head of the Tamil Language Program on which Dr. Allocco studied from 2003-2004 in Madurai, India. Dr. Bharathy hosts and lectures to Elon students who study abroad in South India on Dr. Allocco’s winter term trip,
Photo courtesy of Amy Allocco

Once she was able to add Tamil to her tool belt, her research expanded to include interviews with lower class women to learn about their religious rituals.

“That’s the material that has been less researched in part because of language learning, but also because of the way the Western academy has privileged certain kinds of knowledge,” Allocco said.

Recently, Allocco has had to make some changes.

She was able to stay with her same extended host family up until her last research trip. Her host mother has begun to feel the pull of time, and Allocco’s busy schedule can sometimes be a bit straining. Instead, Allocco has begun to stay in the guesthouse, which has given her a taste of give and take.

“I feel a bit like I’ve grown up and this is one of the things that came with growing up that I didn’t necessarily like,” Allocco said. “Not staying with the family is giving something up, it really is.”

Since Allocco began working at Elon five years ago, she only has summers and some winter terms available for research in India.

Allocco viewing the ritual markings at a well located at a popular Hindu goddess temple in Chennai, India. These markings are created as part of the rituals to honor and propitiate the spirits of deceased relatives, ceremonies which are the focus of Dr. Allocco's next major research project, Photo courtesy of Amy Allocco

Allocco viewing the ritual markings at a well located at a popular Hindu goddess temple in Chennai, India. These markings are created as part of the rituals to honor and propitiate the spirits of deceased relatives, ceremonies which are the focus of Dr. Allocco’s next major research project,
Photo courtesy of Amy Allocco

“It’s become much more challenging to do extended, intensive ethnographic research in India,” Allocco explained. “Because now I have a place I have to be. I have a full-time job.”

Every other year she takes students on her winter term study abroad course, “India’s Identities: Religion, Caste & Gender in Contemporary South India.”

Uncovering naga dosam 

While Allocco was enrolled in her advanced Tamil course in 2003 and 2004, she was reading a pamphlet released at the New Year that talked about rituals around this condition called naga dosam. This pamphlet led her to the focus of her research for the next decade.

She then began to realize that the temple priests didn’t install the snake stone statues she had seen in so many Hindu goddess temples. They didn’t just appear magically, either. Women, afflicted with naga dosam, had hired priests to consecrate and install each and every one of them.

Those afflicted with naga dosam will worship at certain temples and shrines, sponsor specific rituals to honor snake deities and take religious vows to rid themselves of the “snake blemish.”

“Suddenly, they weren’t sculptures and stones anymore,” said Allocco. “They were stories of people’s experiences – real experiences of hardship, particularly with difficulty getting married and, even more so, infertility. And so then I wanted to access all those stories because it’s the narratives – women’s personal narratives – which I’m most interested in.

Women worshiping snake stones and the sacred tree at the Alaiyamman Koyil in Chennai, India, Photo Courtesy of Amy Allocco

Women worshiping snake stones and the sacred tree at the Alaiyamman Koyil in Chennai, India,
Photo Courtesy of Amy Allocco

Allocco began to ask questions. What were these stories of hardship and suffering? Were they stories of foreclosed possibilities and dreams? How did these experiences and stories manifest in ritual activity?

Installing the snake stone in a temple is not an inexpensive, or private, ordeal, Allocco realized.

“I would watch women – I have hundreds of photos, probably even thousands, of women worshipping those snake stones,” Allocco explained.

Allocco didn’t realize it, but she had had jotted questions about the snake stones in her field notes from the beginning of her work in South India. She had so many questions that she hadn’t followed up on, but now could.

Adorned and decorated snake stones at the Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple in Madurai, India, Photo courtesy of Amy Allocco

Adorned and decorated snake stones at the Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple in Madurai, India,
Photo courtesy of Amy Allocco

“I kind of realized in retrospect that I was really attracted to them and that I kept returning to those shrines and talking to people,” Allocco said. “But I hadn’t dug deeply enough yet. It wasn’t until I had access to the Tamil primary sources that it all became clear to me.”

Embarking on to the next adventure 

Allocco is speeding up and moving forward with her research and travels. She says that with a book in the works, the perfect set of courses and dedicated students, she is looking at the future with eyes full of hope and excitement.

She expects to finish her book project, which focuses broadly on snake goddess traditions, and more specifically on naga dosam rituals, in the next year.

Interest in snake goddess traditions has been very resurgent in South India recently. Old traditions are being revived, revised, and re-contextualized due to changing social, political and economic realities.

Allocco plans to continue to balance her work in India and Elon. Even at home, her worlds collide in the best of ways.

“This life always includes some corollary existence that is located in South India,” Allocco explained. “India surrounds me. I eat Indian food all the time. I interact with my Indian friends via social media. I’m always planning for my next study abroad or my next trip to India.”

Allocco’s husband is also a professor specializing in Hinduism and Indian religions.

“India is very much a part of our worlds,” Allocco said. “Our conversation is peppered with Hindi and Tamil words.”

She expects to spend 2015-2016 in India on a sabbatical leave. She hopes to spend large chunks of the year, in stretches of three months and six months, in India as well as Sri Lanka. This research would be the start of a new major project for Allocco, one focused on possession by the spirits of the dead.

Allocco will be continuing to study abroad with students over winter term. One of her advisees, Elon junior Bailey Nugent, will be joining her on the trip. Allocco was one of the first professors Nugent had at Elon, and she is the reason Nugent decided to become a religious studies major.

“I’m known as an ‘Alloccolite’ because she corrupted me into the major,” joked Nugent. “And as an advisor, she’s been supportive of whatever I want to do.”

With a double major in Religious Studies and Sport and Event Management, Nugent has a unique course load at Elon, and gives a lot of thanks to Allocco for guiding her along the way.

“She really connects with her students,” Nugent said. “I had dinner with her a couple weeks ago and it’s nice to know her outside of professor and advisor and advisee relationships. I know her as a friend and a colleague.”

Allocco will continue to teach her Elon courses, ranging from Ghosts, Demons & Ancestors in Asian Religions to Women in Islam to Hindu Goddesses: From Myths to Movies.

Allocco's Women in Islam class meets Mondays and Wednesdays to discuss the history of the treatment of women in Islam, Photo by Erin Valentine

Allocco’s Women in Islam class meets Mondays and Wednesdays to discuss the history of the treatment of women in Islam,
Photo by Erin Valentine

“Being at Elon has meant that I have been able to teach exactly the courses I want to teach,” Allocco said. “It’s an incredible opportunity to teach right in the areas that I’ve been trained in. And I have really engaged, interested students who want to take those courses. I have about the most perfect lineup of courses that I could imagine for myself. And that’s pretty incredible.”

Katie Maraghy, a junior at Elon, is a student in Allocco’s Women in Islam course.

“Allocco’s class is fabulous,” Maraghy said. “Hands down the most informative, fast-paced and thought-provoking class I’ve ever taken. If I were to do the math as to what each credit cost us as students at Elon, I’m confident the price would be completely worth it.”

With an engaging personality, quick wit, and deadly intellect, Allocco will continue to exposure students to the world. Between splitting her time in different hemispheres to planning her next research venture, Allocco continues to catalyze curiosity not only in her students, but also in herself.

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