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 non–Agamic 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
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)
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.
In front of the temple is an array of Vel, Murugan’s spear.
Thai Pusam Festival
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 – 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.
A woman 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.
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.
A short pooja is given to the gods at each house.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Muniyappan is the protector of the innocent and the valiant. He also may have horses as mounts.
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.
Most names are a form of Amman, mother.
Kateri means “vampire.”
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.
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.
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.
Another man wears a “shirt” of lemons. This is extreme tapas (austerities) for a big boon asked from the goddess.
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.
More of this celebration can be seen in this post: Mayana Kollai Celebration in Tiruvannamalai
Kali or Kali Amman was considered as the cause for cholera. She guards against the disease and is sometimes a village guardian.
Periyachi Amman. The fierce guardian of children and mothers. Don’t mess with her!
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.
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.
More of these shrines can be seen in this post: Shrines along the way: Between Tiruvannamalai and Tirukkoyilur.
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.
- 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.
Guardians at the front of the grove.
Old terracotta horses near the entrance.
An altar with stone gods and tridents. These are very old gods.
A swing for the gods.
Crude terracotta figures.
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.
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.
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.
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.