Posts Tagged ‘Karakattam’

Special Celebration for the Rain Goddess Mariamman

May 29, 2012

In the South Indian season of Agni (“Fire”), the two hot months of Tamil summer, April and May, it is common in local villages in the Tiruvannamalai area to perform a special worship of Mariamman. Mariamman (meaning “Mother Mari”), I have learned, is a most interesting Goddess. She is ancient, and of Tamil origins. She can be found throughout India, but instead of moving from north to south as did the Hindu deities, her worship went from Tamil Nadu to the north, to the rest of India. Her worship is most democratic, being enjoyed by all castes and sexes together.

The picture below (from Wikimedia Commons) is a typical depiction of this goddess. Their description of the image:

“Mariamman, sits in lalitasana on a throne. Around the throne is a metal frame culminating in a kirttimukha mask. Tongues of fire emanate from her head and shoulders, and two small fangs protrude from her mouth. In her upper right hand she carries a damaru (hourglass shaped drum), for which a cobra coiled around it serves as a handle. She holds a trishula (trident) in her upper left hand, a long sword in her lower right and a kapala (cup/alms bowl) in her lower left. A five-headed cobra rises above her crown.”


Mariamman Traditions

Mariamman is  both the goddess of smallpox (disease), and of rain (and fertility). She is the main South Indian mother goddess, predominant in the rural areas of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. Māri is also closely associated with the Hindu goddesses Parvati and Durga as well as with her North Indian counterpart Shitala Devi. Mari likely originated as a village goddess related to fertility and rain. The goddess would have been a local deity, connected to a specific location, close to a certain tree, a rock or a special spot, mostly in rural areas.

Mariamman is an ancient goddess, whose worship probably originated in the tribal religion of Dravidian India before the arrival of the Aryans and the Brahman religion. According to tradition, among the Dravidian mountain tribes, as in Coorg in southern Karnataka, human sacrifices were offered to Mariamman. Later, these were replaced with animals, and now, in some villages no animal sacrifices are offered.  The village belongs to the goddess. Many times she is represented only by a head on the soil, indicating her body is the village and she is rooted in the soil of the village. The villagers live inside or upon the body of the goddess. The goddess protects the village and is the guardian of the village boundaries.

Local goddesses such as Mariamman protect villages and their lands and have always been an important part of the religious landscape of South India. The relationship between the village and the goddess is primarily for the village as a whole and not for individuals. Mari can mean sakti, power, and amman is mother, so she is the mother-power of the village.

One element of Mariamman worship is that this is most often done without Brahmin priests, but rather by the villagers themselves, without any special priestly assistance. Again unlike most other forms of Hindu worship, Mariamman is worshiped by all castes together, by Hindus and Muslims, and by both men and women together.

Most temples to Mariamman are simple village shrines, where non-Brahmins act as lay-priests using non-agamic rituals. In many rural shrines, the goddess is represented by a granite stone with a sharp tip, like a spear head. This stone is often adorned with garlands made of limes and with red flowers. These shrines often have an anthill that could be the resting place of a cobra. Milk and eggs are offered to propitiate the snake.

There are a few big temples to Mariamman, that are presided over by Brahmin priests. To give you an idea about the devotion to Mariamman, here are a few lines from a famous song to her: Mariyamman Thuthi

Mayi, Maga mayi, mani manthara sekhariye,
Ayi umai aanavale, Aadhi shivan deviyare,
Mari thai vallaviye, maha rasi karumamma,
Mayan sodahariye Mari muthe varumamma,
Aayan sodariye, Aasthana mari muthe,
Thaye durandariyeSankariye Varummma.

Mother, great mother, Who grows like a jewel with chants,
Who became the goddess Uma, Who is the consort of Lord Shiva,
Oh Mari who is very able, Oh great lady protect me.
Oh sister of Lord Krishna, Oh Jewel please do come,
Oh sister of the cow herd, the presiding Mari jewel of the king’s court,
Oh mother, Oh destroyer of ills, Oh consort of Sankara, please do come.

Dikkellam pothum ekkala deviyare, Ekkala deviyare dikkellam ninra shakthi, Kanna purathale karana soundariye, Narananaar thangai ammal nalla muthu mariyare, Nalla muthu mariyare, naga kanni thayare, Un karagam pirandadamma kannanoor medayile,Oh Goddess of all time whose fame is spread in all directions,

Oh Goddess of all time your power stands in all directions,

Oh Goddess who lives in Kannapura, who is pretty beyond reason,

Oh Goddess who is sister of Narayana, who is the good gem Mari,

Oh gem like goddess Mari, who is good, who is the mother of serpent maidens,

Your Karaga was born in the stage of Kannanoor,

In these big temples there are important and major Mariamman festivals. Pilgrims at these often wear yellow, the color of the goddess. Some men dress as tigers and other animals. Pilgrims may come because of a specific fear or debt or because one of their family has a disease associated with the goddess or they themselves have recovered from the disease. Particular castes are associated with Mariamman, such as fishermen and builders on the coast of Tamil Nadu. Pilgrims fast before the festival and bring offerings, such as money in a propitious amount, say one hundred and one rupees. Some pilgrims have made vows to Mariamman to walk on fire, carry burning pots on their heads, or perform covadi, when they swing suspended on hooks through their flesh. They also may be seen with hooks and rods penetrating their skin. They seek her blessings by piercing various parts of their bodies, such as their tongues, backs, chests and cheeks. They are said to feel no pain, being protected by Mariamman.  Below is a photo from the Baltimore Sun that shows this piercing:


The Village Celebration

We were invited this day, May 4, to a Mariamman celebration at a local village, Samuthiram Airi Karat. We were invited by two local women we know, sisters Laksmi and Venilla.

Their house is right across from the Mariamman temple in the village. You can see that it is decorated. Neem leaves are used extensively. They are sacred to Mariamman, the only such leaf holy to her.


Carol greets Venilla and her older daughter, Sushmita.


This is Sushmita and a cousin, Nethra.


A woman is in front of the Mariamman temple, creating a kolam, a drawing with rice powder, in front of it. The two temple guardians standing by the doorway are both woman figures, unusual for an Indian temple.


Here is Mariamman inside the temple. She has a pooja plate in front of her, food and a broken coconut served on a banana leaf. She is nicely decorated with flower malas.


In front of the temple is Mariamman’s vahana (her mount), a lion (the same as other other mother-goddess figures in India, like Durga), and the Bali peetam, the place where a visitor of the temple will leave their offering. The best offering to leave is your ego.


Carol is standing in front of the temple.


In front of the temple is a trident, a Trishul. There are a number of bangles that have been offered. These are offered as a prayer.


Lakshmi wants to make sure we experience the beginning of the festival, where some of the villagers are preparing the processional karagams (more about these below), so she leads us to the field where this is taking place. Carol, Lakshmi, and the girls walk ahead of me. They are near a Ganesh shrine.


Here is Ganesh’s vahana, a rat, specially decorated for today’s festivities.


Ganesh is also nicely decorated and a pooja plate is laid out in front of him.


Carol and Lakshmi. Venilla’s younger daughter, Sweeta, is wearing Carol’s hat.


A Village Cockfight

Along the way, we encounter a group of men standing with their roosters, ready to begin a cock fight. Cockfighting (Vetrukkaal seval porr in Tamil, which means “naked heel cock fight”) is still popular in Tamil villages, and naturally the men gamble on it. This naked heel cock fight is not so bloody as other forms of cockfighting, where a sharpened metal spur is attached to the animals, and damage to the birds, and death is common.

Cockfighting in Tamil Nadu is mentioned in ancient sangam-age literature, 2,000 years old. It is referred to as the favorite pastime for Maravars or the warriors of Tamil country. It is acknowledged as one of the 64 “arts” widely spoken of by the scholars and mastered by the ancestors and scholars of this part of the world.

These men hold their birds proudly.


I ask them if they will have a fight for me.

The men set up and release their fighting roosters. The roosters know just what to do.


They circle each other. Look at the rooster on the left, how his neck feathers now stick out, a display in which he looks bigger and more fierce.


Then they come together and clash.



The action has gotten too heavy. The trainers separate their birds. This man holds his bird back for a moment.


Then the battle is again joined.


Look at them go. The white one tries an aerial attack.



After this, the trainers separate the birds. They think one has won, I don’t know which one, though. I’d guess the white one won. Each man carefully examines his bird to make sure that they are OK, and to see if there are any injuries to treat. It doesn’t look like it.

Preparation of the Karagams

We continue walking toward the site where the villagers are about to prepare the karagams for today’s Mariamman ceremony. Karagam, “water pot,” is the name of the ancient folk dance performed for the rain goddess Mariamman. The dancers balance a water pot that is highly decorated on their heads. This is done, in part, to ask the goddess for rain, during the hot dry season of summer (April and May in Tamil Nadu).

Karagam is the term for both the decorated water pot and the dance and movement that is done with it.

The karagam is ancient, probably predating any Hindu influences in South India. This would make it at least 2000 years old, and probably much older. It is said to be the oldest form of Tamil dance. Just think, if you change the landscape to remove power lines, what is shown in this posting could have been seen two thousand years ago! Sometimes, seeing life in South Indian villages, I feel like I am in a time machine, travelling far into the past. Think for a moment what was happening Europe 2000 years ago. The Roman Republic had expanded into Judea and the Middle East. Julius Caesar had been assassinated. The Roman Empire had not yet been founded. Virgil’s Aeneid had just been written. The British Islands and Germany were ruled by warring tribes. India and China had, by far, the greatest population levels.

We near the place where the karagams are being constructed. This is a typical village scene, fields of growing crops, interspersed with green trees.


People are gathered in the shade of the tree.


We find a path through the fields to the tree. Sugarcane grows on both sides of the path.


Carol, led by Lakshmi and Sweeta, approach the tree.


This is farm country, and water gushes out, being directed to one of the fields.


Under the tree are buckets of flower malas and other items that will be used to build the karagams. Some children have come to watch.

Not everyone can help build the karagams, but only special people, people who know, who feel inside, how to make them.


Nearby is a small area that is covered by a roof made of a sheet of plastic. Just for today this is a temple, a holy place. They have already held a pooja to make this a temporary sacred spot, and to instill the spirit of God into three coconuts that will be used in the karagams.

Near the temple are a number of branches from neem trees. These will be used to construct the karagams.


The karagam is made from a pot and this iron frame shown below, onto which all the decorations will be assembled. A difference from the old days is in this frame. In the old days, they made it from bamboo. In the old days these pots were clay. Now brass pots are used.


Many lemons have been stuck onto wooden sticks. These will be used for decorations. The karagam must have lemons!


There is one metal piece with five curved prongs, each stuck with a lemon. These are like the naga heads often seen shading a god. When the primary Shakti Karagam is finished, this piece will be at the top, and the five nagas will be shielding the god.

Nagas, snakes, especially cobras, are a common form of Mariamman worship. In this village on Friday and Monday they offer the milk and eggs to the village snake. This is also part of the worship of Mariamman.  Snake worship is also quite ancient, and is spread throughout Southeast Asia.


To prepare the water pot as a holy object, it has string wound crisscross around it, and has been rubbed with yellow turmeric, then dotted with red kumkum. It is filled with a mixture of water and turmeric. They put the center of the iron cone into the pot. Nearby is a coconut. You will soon see how this is used. It is vital to the process.


Now they start to tie the iron cone to the pot, using rope. Until the modern era the rope would have been made from coir, coconut fiber. They would have been made in that village, probably.

I saw three different men assemble their karagams. Each used a different approach to tying the metal frame to the pot. It is interesting to me that in such a process, each person, each team putting one together had a different technique for this basic step. Is this something that is passed from father to son?


Very near to us is this deep well. Water is pumped in, periodically, to fill it, then pumped out, as we saw above, as needed to water the fields. The well is about 50 feet deep, and, I am sure, all dug by hand. Then the upper part was lined with brick or stone, and the steps to the right were laid in.


From the look of the brickwork, this well is pretty old.


Right now the water level is pretty low. When they run the main pump and fill it, it becomes a swimming hole for the boys. They can use these steps to enter the water. They can also be used, of course, by someone filling a water jug for the house.


Arunachala overlooks all the preparation. Here Arunachala is a constant presence.


This is another team, starting to tie the pot and frame. They use a different approach, different ideas about karagam engineering.


Remember the coconut? Now they are placing it atop the pot. This is vital. Earlier in the day, these coconuts were the subject of a pooja which instilled them with the force of God. Now they become the gods that are being carried during today’s festival. They will bring the grace of God to each house in the village.


Neem leaves are the only leaf that is holy to Mariamman. They are used as the first plant layer around the karagam.


Branches have been tied to a rope. That rope is then tied around the karagam. This makes the lower layer of neem.


The upper layer is made by pushing the branch into the top of the cone, then bending and breaking the branch to lay down on the side of the cone.


Then, while two men hold this together, the third ties them all down with rope.


Here is what is left after the morning’s pooja: The five-headed “naga,” broken coconuts, lemons, and a Trishul, Siva’s trident. Siva’s Trishul is said to destroy the three worlds: the physical world, the world of the forefathers (representing culture drawn from the past) and the world of the mind (representing the processes of sensing and acting). The three worlds are destroyed by Siva into a single non-dual plane of existence, that is bliss alone.


The man continues to truss up his karagam.


Carol and a friend, Linda, were given chairs to sit a watch. Then, soon after they were seated, a different man came up and asked them to leave. It was not that women were prohibited from this process, but rather where they were seated interfered with the flow of energy into the karagams.


After the neem branches have been tied down, a stick is forced into the top of the cone, sticking about one foot up from the top.


Then they bring the flowers, buckets of flowers strung together. First are yellow and gold marigolds.


One man pulls a flower rope out of the bucket, and passes it to another. Somehow this reminds me of stringing lights onto a Christmas tree.


He starts looping the flowers up and down the side of the cone, tying them to the stick inserted at the top of the karagam.


A few meters away, men sit with their drums, waiting for their time to play. I think these flat drums are called parai. The parai is an ancient instrument. These are modern versions.

The drums will call the attention of all the people in the village.


More items for today’s festivities sit in the shade. These include more flower malas to be used later, as well as shiny, colorful circular decorations for the karagams, and green plastic parrots. Parrots, Kili Paaddu in Tamil, are sacred to Mariamman, so it not surprising to see them in the pile.


Meanwhile, they are making good progress with the marigolds. The karagam is almost covered.


Now that the marigolds entirely cover the neem leaves, another layer is added, this time small white flowers. like those that women tie into their hair each day.


The ladies sit in the shade now, watching the proceedings.


More malas hang, waiting to be used. Some are made from pink flowers, some from green leaves.


The guys are busy, over in karagam assembly.


White blooms completely cover the karagam. Before they do anything else, they tie all the flowers down, using a silver thread.


Now it is time to add the final touches. First the colorful circles are added.



Then the pink mala.


And a green one.


The five-headed symbolic naga has been covered with flowers, and is added to the central Shakti Karagam. This one has the most power.



The many lemons are added. These will be given to people afterward, so they can be used in their household pooja. This is one way that the power of Mariamman gets transmitted from the goddess into each household.

A man is also attaching a parrot.


One more lemon will do it!


Must have the parrots. In older days a paper parrot was used, attached to the top of the karagam, and it would swing in the wind. Now it is a toy plastic one.


Here is the final work of art, ready to be transported through the village. We just need one thing–a person to carry it.


Here are the two daughters of Venilla. Often Indian people, when their photos are taken, stand in a stiff pose. I suggested the saucy hands-on-hips stance. Sweeta took to this naturally. She is a bit of a showgirl.


Now the drummers are getting ready. One of them even woke up from his nap.


Here is the competed Shakti Karagam.


They are then placed in a row at the end of the temple structure where the energy flows in.


To mark the occasion, a young man sets off a “cracker.” (That is what they call firecrackers here). I asked why they did this, and if it has any special meaning. I was told, “They enjoy it.”


We walked away from the action for  few minutes. While walking, one of the girls took me to a man’s house. Behind it was this crudely built bird cage.


For his own enjoyment, this man raises and trains parrots.


The bird is quite tame.



He passed the parrot over to me, where it was quite comfortable sitting on my shoulder.


We walk back to the Mariamman temple, where a woman draws an elaborate kolam, rice flour design.


We sat in Lakshmi and Venilla’s house, and they offered us a bite to eat. South Indians will always offer you food, if they can.


We then returned to the temporary temple, where they were performing a pooja for the three karagams to ready them for the rest of the celebration.


A man, an older man, stands like he is presiding. Over his shoulder he carries a whip. The whip looks like it is made of horse hair, or something similar.


Young men stand in a row. These are candidates for carrying the karagams through the village. You will see soon how the selection is made as to who actually gets this honor. They are all wet, since water has been poured over them as part of their purification and preparation.


The villager who is acting as priest burns some camphor, performing arati. During arati, burning camphor is waved as an offering before the deity to symbolize the dissolution of the ego. Camphor is considered highly purifying and very sacred, and it is used to represent the dissolution of the ego since it burns without leaving any trace


Plates of food have been laid out in front of each of the three karagams. This is part of the pooja.


Now some burning incense is added. Incense burning is ancient in India. There are mentions of it in the Veda-s, more than 3500 years old. Burning incense is a reminder of the sacred power of fire to transform, and the ultimate journey of all physical matter towards spirit. There is also evidence that incense burning is an antidepressant. (See this article for more on this.)


More arati.


The candidates have their heads smeared with vibhuti, sacred ash.


They now stand ready.


A space has been opened between the candidates and the three karagams. This will be used soon for the sacred dance.


Carol stands and watches, trying to stay covered up from the sun. Her hand is held by a small girl who just came up to her. The girl is with her father, her mother could not come today. She just naturally seeks out another woman. And Carol was her choice.


Now the drummer begins to play. The level of excitement rises.


When the drum beats, God comes in, and some people are transported, and will begin a trance dance. This trance dancing is also an ancient Tamil tradition, noted in ancient Tamil literature 2000 years old. This Mariamman trance dancing seems just like the ancient Veriyaattu, a form of ritual-trance-dancing, which is still a common part of Murugan worship in Tamil Nadu today. This dance was done without benefit of priests, and not in temples, but in open fields. Veriyaattu is documented in Sangam literature, 2000 years old.

In the center of the photo, in the back of the circle, a man is taken by God, and his back arches.


He starts dancing in the circle. People will move him back into the circle if, while dancing wildly, he steps out.




Finally he comes to his senses and his dance stops. He seem exhausted, entirely wrung out from the dancing.


Let’s offer some more fire to the gods.


Close to where Carol is standing, a woman in a pink saree starts gyrating. Now holding her new little friend in her arms, Carol also moves to the rhythm of the drum. People stare at Carol, not knowing what to think. Is this Western lady going to go into a trance?!


You can see Lakshmi looking concerned, to the right of Carol.


The lady in the pink saree steps into the circle to dance.


After a bit she holds out her arms, with her wrists and hands together. The man with the whip begins whipping her arms. Why do they do this? To dance in the first place, God comes to the person. The whipping is so that they can become normal again.



Turmeric water is poured over the candidates.


then each candidate is given a neem branch to hold.


Another woman starts moving, getting ready to enter the dance ring.





Her saree top is coming undone. A lady steps in and tries to repair her dress, while she keeps dancing.



Exhausted, she collapses.



The drummers then start to focus their drumming onto the candidates.

First a lemon with camphor burning atop it is waved at the candidates.


It is placed on one man’s head. Then smashed.


The juice is sprinkled onto him and the other candidates.


Then the musicians focus their attention onto this man. The musician in front holds brass shakers, called, I think, salklangu. (If anyone can verify or correct this, I would appreciate it.)


The musicians play, while their target releases himself to God. You can see his hands tremble as is does this.


Then he moves into the ring, abandoned to god’s power.


One of the musicians dances with him.


The whip is brought out and used to bring him back to his senses.



Then in his last moment of abandonment, he reaches back behind him and grabs two of the other candidates by their hair, and pulls them forward. They are now selected by God to carry the karagams.


They are all dressed, a fancy mala and a yellow dhoti. Yellow is the color that Mariamman devotees will wear.



Before they approach the karagams, arati is again done. This time they perform it, not the villager-priest.


They then move back and get ready for the load they will be carrying.


A little bit more pooja action, more arati.


Now they are ready. Cloth coiled on their heads to hold the water pots, vibhuti stripes (Siva marks) on their bodies, and in a crouch, so that the karagam can be placed on their heads.


They get loaded up with their idols. The karagam, with its sacred coconut, is deeply holy.




The drummers move out in front to lead the procession.


Here they come!






Behind the drummers and the men carrying the karagams come many other people.


We arrive back in the village.


The first thing that is done is to visit all the temples and shrines in the village. I am not sure of the meaning, but it feels like we are adding more power of God into the karagams.


First we stop at the Ganesh temple.


The procession then wends its way through the village.


Another small shrine is visited.



We stop at a simple natural shrine at the base of an ancient tree.


The men carrying the karagams walk back towards the Mariamman temple.


We arrive at the Mariamman temple.


Arati is offered to the karagams from the temple.


They walk Pradakshina around this temple.


It is hard to do because of the low roof and electrical lines.


In places they must walk on their knees.


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When done, the procession heads to the edge of the village. The karagams are carried through clouds of smoke from crackers just set off.

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Children lead the way.


This is the first household that is visited.

In the household visit, the people perform pooja to the karagams (really to the people carrying them) and then are blessed. DSCN7098

This woman waits. She has a jug of water and other pooja items by her feet.


The water is used to wash their feet.


A pooja plate is brought out from the house.


The household’s arati flame is lit from one being carried with the procession. This will be taken back into the house, moving the blessings of Mariamman from the procession and karagams into each household.


Turmeric and kumkum are rubbed onto the feet of each of the three men carrying the karagams. This is done by the wife …


and the husband.


Then they head to the next household.


Again people wait with a jug of water.


Then the pooja and blessing process is done again.



Lemons are left for each household.


And the procession continues.




We are so privileged to have watched something ancient today, a festival that is probably more than 2000 years old, and that is still being performed in villages in Tamil Nadu today. Each village will do this in slightly different ways. But they will all worship Mariamman in an important ceremony each year. And, like so many other parts of Tamil ceremonial life, everyone in the village takes some part.

Related Posts

Here are other pares showing posts that you mat be interested in:

Temples, Shrines, and Ashrams in South India
Festivals, Celebrations and Rites in Tiruvannamalai
Life in South India
Touring and Travel in India


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