The Ayyanar Trails : Terracotta Army of Tamil Nadu

Dr. Shan Eugene Palakkal
Assistant Professor
Department of History, Stella Maris College (Autonomous)

He is a god less in himself than in the role he maintains in the village pantheon. In oral tradition, he was born from Shiva who was seduced by the feminine form that Vishnu had assumed, in order to free him from a threatening Asura.

Ayyanar may be represented either as a warrior on foot or riding a white elephant or horse or as seated between his two wives, carrying a scepter or whip and wearing a meditation band (a cloth girdle circling round the back and supporting the knees of a seated person). Outside are found horses usually made of terracotta. These are offered to the God and his suite for his nocturnal rounds. The escort is composed either of the god’s generals or vassals or of demons. Ayyanar is occasionally associated with the rain. In any case, his temple is usually situated on the bank of the reservoir in which rainwater is gathered for irrigation purposes. There may be a daily cult or a yearly festival. Most officiating priests are from a local lineage that had initiated the cult generations ago. They hail from a community of potters. At night, Ayyanar is said to patrol the village on horseback. Terracotta horses are the most popular votive offerings, because Ayyanar protects the village on horseback but there are also horned cows and elephants with curled trunks.

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There is this Ayyanar shrine in Tamil Nadu. Almost every village in Tamilnadu has an Ayyanar shrine, but that of called Urepatti in the village of Narthamalai, is one of the most spectacular. Here Ayyanar shrin are humble yet enchanting because they are hidden away in remote villages. Narthamalai is a magical landscape of small villages, paddy fields and ponds amidst huge concrete structures. Next to the Ayyanar shrine, there is a 9th c. Jain temple built of stone.

Recently, archaeological enthusiasts. S. Ravikumar, K Ponnusamy, S. Sadhasivam and S. Velusamy from the Virarajendran Archaeological and Historical Research Centre stumbled upon an 800-year old Ayyanar sculpture at Erakarampatti village near Kundadam in Tirupur district. This village was a part of the ancient trade route that connected two port cities – Muziris Pattanam and Poompuhar. The traders could have worshipped the sculpture. Regarding Ayyanar’s historical significance, ‘the tribal people could have considered Ayyanar as the leader of the tribes and worshipped him with utmost devotion. Such hero worship has also been seen in Kalithogai (a Sangam literary work). Ayyanar worship was part of the ancient Siru Deiva worship before Peru Deiva worship came into dominance, after the beginning of the Vijayanagar empire in the mid-13th c. Ayyanar is shown sitting in maharajaleelasana posture on a throne. His two wives – Puranai and Puiskalai are also seen. From the posture and style of the sculpture, the artifact could belong to the 12th c.

In ancient days, villagers worshipped ‘Veerakal’ or hero stones which were erected in the memory of fallen soldiers. These later became cult shrines. Ayyanar is often referred to as a ‘viran’ or a brave one who rides horses, brandishes a trident and fights demons and protects the villagers. His associate is Karuppusamy who rides a tiger. Sometimes, horses and elephants stand close to a tall colourful statue of the deity. In some places/villages, the deities are small and are placed below trees or near the open fields.

Votive offering of terracotta horses by farmers grateful for good rainfall and a good harvest and made by velars (members of the potter community) to Ayyanar form a part of the puravi eduppu or kudirai eduppu, ritual. The entire village takes part in the thanksgiving ritual. Festivals are elaborate. A few dance in trance and small animals are sacrificed even though it is banned.

During my visits to Kerala, I passed through many road side shrines of fierce male deities with idols of horses and elephants placed around some of which are mentioned.

The Tamil country is dotted with little statues of terracotta horses as well as more than life-sized, colorfully painted cement horses, often with warriors astride them. These warriors, considered as guardian deities, are an integral part of the Tamil landscape. While Ayyanar, Sudalai Madan and Karuppanna Sami are commonly found guardian deities, a Muslim Ravuttar in the role is a rarity. The Ravutta Kumarasami temple belongs to Kannan Kottam of Kagam, a clan which is part of the industrious Kongu vellala gounder community at Kulavilakku, Erode district. From the entrance to the sanctum sanctorum, there are sculptures of bearded Ravuttars, either seated or erect with a sword in hand or mounted on their steeds with swords drawn. Inside the sanctum sanctoram, the Ravuttars are depicted sitting majestically with raised swords next to Lord Murugan (Kumara Sami).

With the Islamic influence dating back to more than a millennium in the region, it should not be surprising to find Muslims as deities among the various Hindu cults or worship orders. Be it the Tulukka Nachiyar at Srirangam, the Vavvar Swami of Lord Ayyapa at Erumeli or the Muttala Ravuttan – the gurardian deity of Draupadi Amman at Melacheri (near Ginjee) – one finds the incorporation of Muslims as lesser deities among the Hindu pantheon of gods. However, what distinguishes this temple is that the Muslim Ravuttars are revered almost like a ‘kula devam’ so much that some in the Kannan Kottam have the name ‘ravuttan’ as a prefix. Ravuttars were known for their inland trade – mainly of horses, and they were known for their valour as cavalrymen. Apparently, many centuries ago, when a clan member was in distress, it was the Muslim Ravuttars, who offered them protection and ensured the survival of the clan. Hence the Kannan Kottam of Kagam adopted the Ravuttars as their guardian deity.

I once visited the Nataraja temple at Chidambaram, and then I traveled 56 kms towards the village Anaikarai in the Tanjore district as there was a diversion. The village is inhabited by farmers and fishermen. There is a wonderful Ayyanar temple on this island, west of Anaikarai – Villaiyandavar Koil. Huge terracotta horses and elephants surround a small temple. When I visited the temple there were three devotees there to worship. It seems that the god has protected that village very well so far. I came to know of another story – when the British were building the Anaikarai dam in 1900s, an elephant damaged the foundation, preventing construction. The British then built a huge elephant statue – in his trunk he holds a coconut and he has guardians all around. They honored the elephant and the destruction ceased, the construction thus continued and the dam still stands today.

Namana Samudram, is an Ayyanar sanctuary located in a sacred grove. The path leads to a big elephant and to Ayyanar and his horse. But the amazing sight is that hundreds of small terracotta horses, elephants, cows, a bestiary painted in bright colours, are lined up on both sides of the path. Some of the statues are hollow. But some people around the place told me that the damages are not due to vandalism, but that the drought cracks the terracotta and the rain washes out the colours. Every year there is a festival at Namana Samudram with ritual songs and dances, and the devotees replace the animals that are severely damaged. To show their happiness at Ayyanar’s protection, the villagers ask the potters to make laughing horses. Also, I got to know that the villagers do not cut the trees or collect firewood from the sacred grove, as it invokes the anger of the God.

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There are still more to explore. Ayyanar statues are spread all around Tamil Nadu and I have seen few many of them while travelling from Tamil Nadu to Kerala. I am yet to travel to these places where one can find these Ayyanar figures: Kochedai (outside Madurai); Nagamalai mountains (Melakkal); Kuzhandaikkuppam (Cuddalore); Manjamalai, Palamedu (Madurai); (Kulamangalam) Pudukkottai; Sivagangai; Dindigul and interiors of Salem .

Recently I came across another Ayyanar figure hidden by trees inside a tiny village, 5 km from Medavakkam. It is a tall statue on an elevated platform. This is the biggest statue that I have ever seen. There is also a Karupanna swami statue in a wooden fence and on the other side is an Amman temple and a tank behind the statue.

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In rural Tamil Nadu, village gods are legends and the stories surrounding them are not myths but oral traditions carried from generation to generation. Ayyanar shrines and statues are connected to cultural meanings, but its significance can reach the contemporary world. This article could lead to further research to expose the mysterious cult of Ayyanar and a way to pay tribute to the potter community in Tamil Nadu which is now disappearing.

Sources

The Times of India, 12 July 2018.
The Hindu, 7 October 2016.
The Hindu, 28 October 2019.
The Frontline, 10 April 2020, (Horses of a little tradition).
Travel writing by Self (Dr. Shan Eugene).

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