Growing up in a small town joint-family with an incessant stream of visiting grand aunts and uncles fed my fascination for mythology, and left me with a fair knowledge of the Hindu pantheon and the stories they inhabit.
But the blue skinned equestrian ‘God’ sticking out of the pile of polished antiques was unlike any I had seen before. His swarthy complexion had me mistaking him for Krishna – our ‘playboy’ God – at first. The facial hair and the cobra around his neck however, suggested he might be Shiva: the destroyer. But the ‘vehicle’ was all wrong. Shiva is almost always depicted astride his Nandi, a bull. Intrigued, I decided to ask our friends, but by the time we extricated each of them from the dank, dusty interiors of the Ali baba caves lining this Karaikudi street, it completely slipped my mind.
It was at the Solai Andavar (Lord of the forest) shrine in the Chettinad village of Palathur the next morning, that I discovered he was Karuppusami – ‘the black deity’ – and chief associate of the village guardian Ayyanar. And neither belong to the populous Hindu pantheon!
Ayyanar is a pre Vedic Tamil deity, usually enshrined with 21 sub deities (including Karuppusami). His origins are shrouded in mystery and any historical facts buried in tradition. He could very well have been a flesh and blood chieftain mythically transferred into the realm of the divine. It is generally believed though, that he evolved from the Dravidian Shakti cult with the advent of mainstream Hinduism from the North, and the resultant shift from animist Goddess worship to the worship of male Gods.
Over time the process of merging indigenous beliefs into organised Vedic religion transformed Ayyanar into ‘HariHaraPutra’: the son of Vishnu (Hari) in his female form as Mohini, and Shiva (Hara). This served to unite rival Shaivite and Vaishnav groups, while the (ex utero) nature of his alleged conception added legitimacy to his admission into the pantheon. And although polygamous to begin with, and depicted with his two consorts, he began to be identified with the more popular 11the century celibate deity Ayyappan, with an extended scope of influence beyond the boundaries of the village. I suspect that might be the reason pre-menopausal women – excluded from the puritanical Ayyappan cult – are banned entry into the sanctum in some Ayyanar shrines like the Solai Andavar.
As the principal guardian deity, Ayyanar is charged – beyond the tasks of granting boons and ensuring bountiful rain and harvests – with the protection of the village from all calamities. And he is said to fiercely fulfil that duty by patrolling his fiefdom each night. Sword in hand. Astride his shining white stallion.
Traditional votive offerings in Ayyanar shrines therefore, are terracotta horses. Commissioned by grateful devotees and crafted by attendant Velars (non Brahmin potter-priests) in sacred ceremonies that involve processions from the priests’ houses to clay pits in temple premises. A mixture of (smooth and grainy) clay along with sand, straw and paddy husk is kneaded and shaped in specified order, before being fired in resident kilns. They are then consecrated through rituals known as “Kutirai Etuppu’ (horse dedication) that are accompanied by trances and in some instances, animal sacrifice*.
That these beautiful clay steeds arrayed along the periphery of the remote shrines of Tamilnadu continue to watch over the night time perambulations of their lord even after all these centuries, is a comforting sign of their resilience. But with younger generations moving to cities in the wake of globalisation, this hereditary pottery tradition is as much under threat as the craft of the artisans of Kumartuli. A shift to moulded concrete horses has already begun.
*Animal sacrifice is banned by law.
Related: The Mansions Of Chettinad