Tamil Villages – The Ancient Spiritual Heart of Tamil Nadu, Part 2


The Ancient Traditions are still alive in Tamil Villages

Ancient traditions are still alive in Tamil villages today, with traditions that may date back as much as 8,000 years, to the dawn of the agricultural age. Certainly, Tamil traditions seem to date back to the Indus Valley Civilization of about 4,000 years ago, which seems to have been an early major Dravidian civilization, that later migrated to South India, moving away from the Aryans in North India.  I discussed this more in the first post in this series.

This post shows some current Tamil village spirituality: Village Gods, Goddesses, Guardians, and Sacred Groves. There are many photos, most from the Tiruvannamalai area. Most were taken by my wife and me, and some are downloaded from the Internet.

Tamil Village Guardians, Gods and Goddesses

Tamil guardian spirits are known as Kaval deivam. These are nonAgamic gods: established before the introduction of Hinduism, not found in sacred Hindu texts, nor performed by Hindu priests.

Some of the guardians are gods. Peaceful gods, like Mariamman, will be in the center of the village. The Warrior gods, like Ayyannar or Karuppaswamy will be placed on the outskirts, to better protect from outside dangers. Some are warriors elevated to hero status and called upon now to bring protection, like Madurai Veeran, a Tamil hero, now elevated to Guardian. Some are guardians for Siva or Parvati (sages turned into warriors).

Painted terracotta (clay) figures are often used to represent these gods and protectors.

Important village deities


(From Wikipedia)


It is likely that Murugan was brought to South India by the Dravidians, long before the introduction of Vedic Hinduism.

In 2006 a Neolithic hand-held stone axe inscribed with Indus Valley script was discovered in Tamil Nadu, establishing a clear link between the two civilizations. The stone was of local origin, so the Indus script had to have been inscribed locally in Tamil Nadu. In this script, from both the north and south, is a figure thought to represent Murukan, then a powerful spirit warrior. They are very similar:


“47” is the Tamil character. “48” is the Indus Valley script,  While the megalithic/Iron Age pottery in Tamil Nadu is datable between 800 B.C. and 3 A.D., the Indus script belongs to a much earlier period, 2,600 BCE to 1,900 BCE, of the mature Harappan period.

These findings prove two things:

  • The Neolithic people of South India had interactions with Indus Valley people.
  • They either shared the same language or both the languages were from the same language tree, Dravidian.

Murugan is the archetypal Tamil male—attractive, masculine, a great warrior; the ideal male. Murugan’s long history with the Tamils is recorded in the Sangam writings more than 2,000 years ago (The Sangam was an ancient academy or assembly of Tamil scholars and poets in Madurai starting about 2,300 years ago). However, it looks like Murugan goes back much longer, to the Dravidians in the Indus Valley. It is said that the history of Murugan is the history of the Tamil people. Prominent among the Tamils, he was incorporated into the Hindu set of gods as Hinduism moved into South India.

Baby Murugan is beloved by Tamils. (From this site)

baby murugan

Murugan was originally a formless Dravidian god of the hills, and worshiped as a spirit to begin with, then later in the form of a tree and stone, and finally as a Hindu god represented by a murti (a living god in the form of a stone idol). From the evidence just presented, we can conclude that Murugan was a Dravidian god, probably worshiped by the Dravidians in ancient Indus Valley Civilization cities like Harappa and Mohenjo-daro 5,000 years ago.

Murugan was an ancient Tamil protector of villages. According to the Tamil devotional work, Thiruppugazh, “Murugan never hesitates to come to the aid of a devotee when called upon in piety or distress”.

As settlements grew and states formed, Murugan also became a model Warlord-King. So whenever a king won a battle he was compared to the god Murugan. Gradually Murugan gained human attributes and accumulated more myths. By the late Sangam period (from about 300 BCE to 400 CE) the myth of Murugan the warlord-and-lover was popular all over Tamil Nadu.

Pictured below, a village  temple dedicated to Murugan.

422 murugan shrine_thumb

In front of the temple is an array of Vel, Murugan’s spear.

423 murugan shrine 2_thumb

Thai Pusam Festival

Body piercing

Body piercing is also done for Murugan, at his annual Thai Pusam festival, to express gratitude and to ask the god for something special. This piercing seems to be a Tamil specialty, and is done for other Tamil Gods and festivals.

Photo from ynaija.com


Photo from indiatvnews.com



Mariamman is a Tamil goddess that protects the people within the village.

(from Wikipedia)


Mariamman is an ancient goddess, whose worship probably originated from a pre-Vedic mother goddess cult of Dravidian people before the arrival of the Aryans with their Brahmanic religion. She is the main South Indian mother goddess, predominant in the villages of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.

Mariamman later became closely associated with the Hindu goddesses Parvati and Durga during the Hindu expansion into South India.

In Tamil, the word maari would mean rain and amman would mean mother, but here it is more like “mother nature.” She was believed in and worshipped by the ancient Dravidian people to bring prosperity. This includes bringing rain and fertility, and curing disease. She is still a very important village goddess.

(from chennaionline.com)

302 mariamman chennaionline_thumb[1]

The village “belongs to” the goddess. She is thought to be there before the village and to have created it. Sometimes she is represented only by a head, indicating that her body is the village and she is rooted in the soil there. The villagers live inside or upon the body of the goddess. She protects the village and is the guardian of the village boundaries. Outside the village there is no protection from Mariamman.

Mariamman Shrines

Mariamman shrines are common in the center of villages. They often include an anthill that could be the resting place of a cobra. Milk and eggs are offered regularly to propitiate the snake. The anthill is thought to be a manifestation of shakti, the divine feminine creative power of the universe. Mariamman is a fertility goddess, full of this shakti. Devotees pray to Mariamman for things such as fertility, healthy progeny, or a good spouse. The most favored offering is pongal, a common Tamil rice dish.

Mariamman as Family Deity – Kula-theivam

Mariamman is the family deity for many families in Tamil Nadu, their Kula-theivam. For any family occasion, such as a wedding, it is usually a family custom to first worship the family deity. Many families invoke the family deity as the first step for all occasions in the family. This family worship of the Kula-theivam is considered more important than any Hindu festival. The worship of the family deity runs through many generations of the family, passed from generation to generation.

Mariamman Festivals

Nearly all members of a village participate in the goddess’s festival, now even Brahmins and Muslims. Blood offerings of animals are commonly sacrificed at festivals of Mariamman. For these festivals, the different castes can mix freely. I think this is because the festival predates the caste system. My guess is that the Aryans brought the caste system about 3500 years ago (with them sitting on top of it as Brahmins and Kshatriyas – the high castes). The Indian castes are first found in the Vedas, which are Aryan scriptures.

March and April are epidemic months of small pox, chicken pox, and measles in South India.  Mariamman cures these so-called “heat-based” diseases. During the summer months in South India (March to June), people perform a ceremonial walk carrying pots of water mixed with turmeric and neem leaves for miles to ward off illnesses.

Mariamman Festival for Rain

Late summer festivals are held during the Tamil month Aadi to ask for rain. We attended several of these rituals and witnessed some of the ancient activities still practiced today. Here are some photos from one of these celebrations:

Trance dancing

Trance dancing Sami Aduthal – is often part of a Mariamman celebration. Men and women work themselves up into a trance state, to where they feel the god has “taken over” them. The reason for the “dance” is to ask something of the gods that they have been unable to get by any other form of prayer or pooja.  The dance is wild and uncontrolled. It is done in a circle, so the people gathered can prevent the dancer from hurting him or herself. This ancient form of dancing was documented in Sangam writings over 2,000 years ago.

Here is a man dancing in a trance.

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A woman trance dancing.

302 trance dancing

Here is another women in a trance. We were told that her village neighbors consider her to be crazy, mentally unbalanced. She holds out her hands to be whipped by the (non-Hindu) priest. This will remove the craziness from her.

303 trance dancing

Karagams (or Garakams)

Before the trance dancing begins, Karrigams are made on a structure built over a purna kumba, a holy pot filled with water and turmeric with a coconut on it that is a temporary ceremonial god.  It is then covered with neem leaves and flowers. The photo below shows one being constructed.


After the trance dancing, the karagams are carried through the village, to bring the gods to each family’s house for a blessing.

Below, a photo of the house-to-house procession with the karagams.

304 karigams_thumb

A short pooja is given to the gods at each house.

305 karigam pooja_thumb

For more on this Mariamman festival, see this post: Special Celebration for the Rain Goddess Mariamman


Some Mariamman festivals also have firewalking as one of the rituals, to help the participants find a balanced life and to see the good in everything.We have not seen this, so downloaded a photo for you to see.

Photo from inspiredtraveler.ca


Other Guardians

In addition to the main village god in the center of the village, often Mariamman, there are a number of different guardian gods, usually placed on the village outskirts. Most are male, some female. I will give the most details on a male guardian, Karuppaswamy, to give you an idea of all of what is involved with these guardians. Other than this, most descriptions will be brief.

In addition to these Tamil gods and goddesses, there is a class of male warrior figures, munis, that are always associated with Siva or Paravati. Because of their association with Hindu gods and goddesses, they may be Hindu, not purely Tamil, I really do not know. If anyone knows anything more definitive about this, please let me know.

Guardian Gods

There are a number of folk deities who perform Tamil village protective roles, of whom Karuppaswamy and Ayyannar are archetypes.


Karuppaswamy is the God of Justice. He has no tolerance of evil.

Karuppu means “black” in Tamil and is associated with darkness, night, etc. This refers to the legends of the origins of Karuppaswamy, as (almost) a son of Rama, black due to the test Rama gave him to verify his paternity. He is both a protective warrior, and one who can grant the requests of the village people.

429 karuppasami wikipedia_org_thumb

The Karuppanar Kovil (“shrine”) is always found in the outskirts of the village. The maintenance of the temple is done by the whole of the village. His shrine is usually in the open space and will not have traditional gopurams, “towers,” like Hindu temples. There will be big statues with weapons. Karuppaswamy is usually depicted as black, wearing a turban and a dhoti with flowers and garlands. He wields an Aruval— a long machete resembling a scimitar, or sometimes a lance, a trident, or a smaller knife. The Aruval is a very significant weapon in Tamil Nadu and is considered a symbol of Karuppaswamy. Some Aruvals may reach the height of 5 feet.

There may also be statues of other goddesses (Kannimaar — the 7 Virgins, called Saptha Kannimar), in his shrines. Animals, Karuppaswamy’s companions, like a hunting dog (Vettai Naai ), or a lion, and his mount — a white horse– are usually also found at the shrine.

429 wikipedia Sangilikarupar_thumb

Often, as part of his worship, a cigar will be lit and placed in the Karuppaswamy’s mouth. He is also offered Naravam (“toddy,” a locally distilled alcohol) or some form of modern alcohol. The local village priest might offer flowers or vibhuti (holy ash) to the gods, and may play the role of an oracle. Various members of the family or clan are identified to play to the role of oracle, taking their turn for one year. They undertake vradham (a vow to produce a spiritual benefit, needed for the function) and maintain chastity and purity, before Karuppaswamy festivals. Community members will approach the oracle with problems such as family troubles, financial issues and local community and social issues. This message from the oracle is believed to be directly from Karuppaswamy, “pure and without human bias.” Whenever the wishes of the people are granted, they give their offerings to him based on what they vowed to offer.


Ayyannar is a another guardian deity who protects the village. Just about every village in Tamil Nadu has an Ayyannar shrine. Terracotta horses are usually found outside the temple. These are given to the god as mounts for his nighttime patrols. He will patrol each night to keep the village safe from harm, patrolling its outskirts.

Ayyannar with his mounts, white horses.

430 ayyanar skyscraperciity_com_thumb

A small Ayyannar shrine in the forest near Arunachala, with horses. This was built by village people in this spot because they “hear the footsteps of God” here.

432 village shrine_thumb


Muniyappan is the protector of the innocent and the valiant. He also may have horses as mounts.

450 muniappam panoramio_com_thumb

Sudalai Maadan

Maadan, or Sudalai Maadan swamy (Sudalai means burial ground/pyre and Sudalai maadan means “guardian of burial ground”). He is now considered to be the son of Shiva and Parvati (as he has been Sanskritized). He seems to have originated as an ancestral guardian spirit of villages.

He is the god of the dispossessed.

470 Madan_in_a_village_shrine_in_South_India_thumb

Guardian Goddesses

Most names are a form of Amman, mother.

Kateri Amman

Kateri means “vampire.”

480 karteliii_thumb[1]

Kateri is worshiped also as a Kaval Deivam – a guardian spirit. She accepts all alcoholic beverages, now mostly with white and brown rum. Followed with cigars or cigarettes.

Kateri Ammam uses the white rum for healing. She would ask for a female to offer her white rum, white meaning “pure,” so when it flows through the body of the female it can cure and cleanse from the inside. One doesn’t drink the alcohol, but only offers it to Kateri Amman. The white rum will stream through the body and burn out the problems.  Her power and Shakti can cure you when she “drinks” the alcohol. The main issue that Kateri Amman takes care of is belly problems and women with menstrual cycle problems.

Angala Parmeshwa

Ankalamma is a name given to the Tamil village deity Angala Parameshwa. Ankalamma is another non-Vedic deity who originated as a fierce guardian figure. In the rituals dedicated to her, she is appeased with blood.

Ankalamma’s shrines are usually located outside of the village in groves of trees. They are usually not proper temples, but very simple stone structures.

She is considered one of the fiercest forms of the mother goddess Amman.

490  Angala Parameshwa_thumb

Her primary festival is Mayana Kollai, celebrated for her the day after Maha Sivaratri. During this festival in Tiruvannamalai, men and boys will dress up as the goddess, and perform body piercing, to wear “shirts” made of lemons on strings sewn through their skin. All celebrants will do pradakshina (“circumambulation”) around the Arunachaleswara, the big templein Tiruvannamalai.

Here is a man dressed as Ankalamma.


491 dressed as Angala Parameshwa_thumb

Another man wears a “shirt” of lemons. This is extreme tapas (austerities) for a big boon asked from the goddess.

492 Mayana Kollai  _thumb

You can see these lemons are sewn onto the skin. As he walks around the temple, he will grab a handfuls of lemons and throw them to the people watching him.

493 lemons-sewn-on_thumb

More of this celebration can be seen in this post: Mayana Kollai Celebration in Tiruvannamalai

Kali Amman

Kali or Kali Amman was considered as the cause for cholera. She guards against the disease and is sometimes a village guardian.

494 kali amman_thumb


Periyachi Amman. The fierce guardian of children and mothers. Don’t mess with her!

495 Periachi_thumb

Hero Protectors

The Muniandis

Muniandi refers to the Munis worshipped by the Tamils. The Munis are a grpoup of male guardians which are classified as Siva Gana, attendants of Siva (and Parvati). The Munis could refer to former warriors, kings or sages who achieved the status of a Muni after their human death.

Whether these are Hindu or Tamil is not clear. There are ancient associations with what appears to be Siva in the Indus Valley Culture, which is thought by many to be the precursor to the Tamil culture. Because of this, I include them in this post the ancient guardians.

Here is a row of seven Munis at Pachiaimann Koil, in Tiruvannamalai.

496 Muniandi_thumb

Madurai Veeran

Madurai Veeran, a legendary hero and warrior, often protecting Mariamman shrines.

Here is a Madurai Veeran shrine in Tiruvannamalai, on the eastern slopes of Arunachala.

440 maduari veeran_thumb

More of these shrines can be seen in this post: Shrines along the way: Between Tiruvannamalai and Tirukkoyilur.

Sacred Groves

Called Kovil Kadu, or Swami shola, the establishment of the Sacred Grove is another ancient tradition, probably from before the Iron Age. Sacred Groves are also non-Agamic, pre-Vedic Hindu. These too are written of in ancient Sangam literature.

The grove will be consecrated to the local village god,generally Amman, the mother goddess of fertility and health, or Ayyanar, the protector. Snake gods, nagas, are also common. (For more on Nagas, see this post: Naga Shrine near the Inner Path)

There are about 500 Sacred Groves remaining in Tamil Nadu. This is reduced from about 750 groves 50 years ago.

Sacred Groves are cared for either by the nearby community or specific families within the community, as a part of the village’s beliefs. Traditional rituals have been performed in the groves through the generations.  Sometimes the potter who makes the terracotta statues acts as the priest.

Often, special plant species are cultivated and preserved in sacred groves. As part of the specific local traditions about these groves, plants and trees within the groves usually cannot be removed. As a consequence these groves are an important source of traditional Ayurvedic medicinal plants and function as genetic reservoirs of wild species.

Many threats to these sacred groves exist today. 

  • Urbanization.
  • Today the traditional belief systems which were fundamental to the concept of sacred grove conservation are considered mere superstitions. The rituals are now known to very few people, mostly belonging to the older generation.
  • Many groves are suffering due to Sanskritisation or the transformation of the primitive forms of nature worship into formal temple worship.
  • Invasion of weeds such as Eupatorium odoratum, Lantana camara, Prosopis juliflora and Hyptis suaveolens.
  • Human activities that were previously taboo, such as dead wood collection, biomass gathering, lopping of tender branches and green leaves for goats, creation of footpaths, cattle grazing, mining of sand and clay, brick-making and collection of wild fruits, vegetables, medicinal plants, fruit-eating bats and fireflies, are affecting the ecology of the sacred groves.

Sacred Grove near Tiruvannamalai

Entrance to a Sacred Grove about 15 km south of Tiruvannamalai, near Tirukkoyilur.

501 sacred grove_thumb

Guardians at the front of the grove.

503 guardian_thumb

Old terracotta horses near the entrance.

505 terracotta horses_thumb

An altar with stone gods and tridents. These are very old gods.

509 old altar_thumb

A swing for the gods.

511 swing_thumb

Crude terracotta figures.

513 terracotta figurines_thumb

More stone gods. I have seen them being used as the primary goods of the sacred grove, the ones to whom poojas are offered. Traces of a recent pooja remain.

515 mpooja at main altar_thumb

There is also a row of terracotta gods in the back of the grove. These are well kept up with flowers and fresh clean clothes.

517 main shsrine_thumb

In the back of the grove are many discarded gods. I think they are replaced each year by new ones. This must be a big festival.

519 terra cotta figures_thumb

More about this sacred grove can be seen in this post: Sacred Grove near Tirukkoyilur

In our explorations of the villages around Tiruvannamalai, we have discovered a set of Tamil gods and guardians, as well as practices, like those involved with the sacred groves, that were a part of their daily life long before Hinduism ever arrived in South India. These are things you can see for yourself; you just need to get outside the cities and look.


End of Part 2

Look for parts 3 and 4.

Link to Part 1

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7 Responses to “Tamil Villages – The Ancient Spiritual Heart of Tamil Nadu, Part 2”

  1. Suressh Kuhmar Says:

    Dear Mr Richard, I am looking for more information on my village deity or kula deivam. I am located in Malaysia where my ancestors have not prayed to our kula deivam for more than 100 years. Our kula deivam is Shri Poovadaikari Amman. We have no knowledge of our village location in tamil nadu.

    • Richard Clarke Says:

      I am sorry, I cannot help. I am in Mexico now, not India. Perhaps another reader can help?

  2. Chris Narayansawmy Says:

    Dear Richard, Hope you are well. You are truly an amazing person to do all of this, God bless you. the power of the mother is extremely great. I am sure you have felt it, better than an Earthly mothers Love, Do you perhaps have any more pics relating to Shakthi worship, the marieamman temples, kali temples etc. If you do can you please email some..my email is


    Mika Nandri

  3. pumdv Says:

    Dear Ric
    If you can send me your e mail Id I can send you the latest unseen pictures taken from Palani Muruga temple I mean the paintings that was handed over to me by the ASI Tamilnadu circle who is going to renovate the rare paintings

  4. pumdv Says:

    Dear Ric
    The pic and painstaking compilation of live picture is very rare and needs to be well documented . Thanks to you
    But to include more facts I would like to say that Hindu is a non religion but only a way of life. Gods are depicted to remind one what is life and how it evolved.
    Amman is considered as the galaxy and all other gods born from her. Of the gods that evolved from Gauri are Siva , The raw materials of the earth, Brahma the genetic code of life and Vishnu the manifest life that we represent over a period of time and environment. That is why you will find lord Siva the material as linga and Vishnu depicted in various forms as per the era.
    Brahma being the code never holds any temple nor worshiped compared to Siva or Vishnu.
    Now the female consort of the three major gods are Lakshmi goddess of materialistic wealth, Saraswathi knowledge and Parvathi power and energy.
    It is fascinating to know that when Godess parvathi was consumed in flames SIva and Parvathi never were able to produce children and hence Ganesha was born out of the skin of Parvathi and Lord Muruga representing the natchatra Visaka was in fact born out of the semen of SIva that was implanted into the Celestial divine Kanyas . The six mother gave birth to six babies who all joined together into Saravana and Godess Ganga was the foster mother who brought up Karthikeya .
    Actually Lord Karthikeya represents the Visak Natchatra and this is same for that of Buddha . Visaka Patnam name also originated out of this. Buddha was son of Lord Indira who came into he dream of Maya as white elephant. One of the consort of muruga is daughter of Indra so Muruga and Buddha are related. Both come together at Kathargamma SriLanka. V(B)isak is festival for Biddists and the name also exist in Malaysia.
    Now subsequent to birth of Muruga, Siva and Vishnu (in the avatar of a girl) unuited and thus was born Iyappa the balance semen that fell on the Mother earth resulted in birth of Satans (brothers of Iyappa) since they are all sons of Goddess Earth they rule the underworld and most of the Statan temples are in Kerala. Many hindus who were satan worshippers were subsequently inducted into Musllim religion. It was Jesus later in life as messenger of god evolved and most of the literature of Christians will talk of holy spirits or controlling the satans which is also a Tamil origin word.
    Indonesia is still a country where Black magic and satan worship is prevalent. It is also a fact that many important temples like iyappa and Muruga will have a darga and a muslim god to worship it is also true where In Tirupathi there is a muslim goddess. Muslims of south India had a distinct way of worship unlike that of Mid east gulf Muslims. Many believe that the Khaba has a jyorthi lingam now worshipped by Muslims all over the world
    It is also known that SIva never takes action against the satans as they are his children and it is upto worship of Iyappan or Muruga or Ganesha who have the superior powers to deal with problems created by satans. Most of indian Politicians worship as they need super powers to be in power. It is called as Mantreegam.
    Every temple that is built in south India by kings first invoke satans dig huge pits and make them the guardians , That is why the belief is that sivan temple is guarded by satans and it is still true for Tanjore temple where in any ruler other than the descendent of Raja Raja Chola if they get first rights will be destroyed. It is true that it is the only temple where a 20 Tonne single stone in one piece was lifted up to 200 feet and installed and until date there is no scientific explanation other than satan doing this. It also a fact that no govt ever wanted to do kumbabisekam to that temple though many other temples were renovated.
    It is under this background that people who think they are possessed go into trance and worship Muruga who has the powers to neutralise the evil powers of satans. Other than Muruga amman also has this powers. Actually the protector god depicted by you as iyannar is a sort of satan which is kept as guardian of village.
    Hinduism is such a vast way of living that it goes beyond a simple explanation and I am happy Ric has gone so deep in this aspect and explain things in simple way

  5. Layena Camhi Says:

    thank you Richard ………

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