me: How long is this Aiyannar temple has been there ?
Velmurugan(VM) : I think it’s the fourth generation
me: Who built this temple ?
Old priest : It was built by the Avuniyapuram and Pillayarpalayam village panchayat ?
me: Oh ..You mean two villages ?
Old priest : Yeah … this temple is for two villages because there is only one panchayat for both the villages …like you have one city council for all the different towns within in Madras
me: Can I just record what you are saying in this camera ?
VM: Yeah yeah ! Daralamah (means conveniently) If it is for education purpose you can (while the old priest also nodded)
me: Okay …. tell me about Aiyannar ?
Old priest: From time immorial be it Avuniyapuram or Pillayarpalayam it’s only Durga’s Aiyannar who is safeguarding everyone.Be it the Madurai airport or be it any personal problems of people , Ayanpapavadi Durga’s Aiyannar has never stayed back from helping. So if anyone does wrong in Avuniyapuram or Pillayarpalayam he will be immediately punished and giventhanninnai (make him one with himself). Even today Avuniyapuram is still under his control and influence and these two villages are guarded by Ayanpapavadi Durga’s Aiyannar. I wish his name and fame reaches all over the world and he gives us the same arul (good will) and security he has given us for ages.Arogara
me: You said Ayyanpapavadi Aiyannar ? is it his name ?
Old priest : Yeah his name itself is Ayyanpapavadi
me: And what is “Durga’s Aiyannar” ?
Old priest: That is what he is known as.He gives security to the Amman(showing the central god) here right.Durga is same as Amman.
me: What is Thannillai ?
Old priest: The bad doer will be punished and made ayikkiyam (merge with self) with himself and not be allowed to take birth again.
me: Ohh ! I also heard that we give non-veg to Aiyannar. Is it true ?
Old priest : Yeah it is true but only on vishasham (special occasions)
me: How is it done ? what is usually offered as ‘bali’(offering) ?
Old priest : Well …
VM : (interrupting the old priest) On Amavasya we cut the kaeda( male goat) and give the offering.
me: Oh do you offer it to amman also ?
Old priest: No .. No…
VM: (interrupting the old priest) No no no … the central god is not offered the asaivam(non-veg).In fact once the central god’s puja is done we close the door of the central god’s shrine and then proceed with the offerings and puja for the other gods.
me: Ohhh is it ? but you did not close the door during the puja today ?
VM: (in a low tone and coming closer to me) That is only on visheshams(special occasions) that too when there is Kaeda-vettu (offering male goat to god) .Today there was no kaeda-vettu, that’s why we didn’t close the door.(he went on to explain the same procedure again)Only on occasions when we have a kaeda-vettu we perform all the saivam(veg offerings) to the central god Amman and then close the nadai(shrine in which the central god is enclosed) and then we start the asaivam(non-veg) pujai.
me: What about the Ganesha ? is he also offered asaivam ? his statue is outside right ?
VM: No no … none of the gods from the mael(main) gods is offered non-veg offering, it’s only for the thunai (supporting) gods who is offered non-veg and sometimes also suruttu (cigar) .Sivan , Parvati /Amman , Murugan are cenral or main gods.
Summary of the rest of the interview
NOTE: Some of the terms used by the priests were taken no known to me and slipped my attention during the video interview and also taken for granted by the priests that I knew them.
On asking about the ban on animal offering(bali) to gods
On asking isn’t the animal offering banned in Tamil nadu, the younger priest, Vel Murugan told that actually the bali used to happen inside the temple complex which was opposed by animal rights people but after the verdict given by the Tamil nadu government the bali is given outside the temple complex.
On asking what else is done on visheshams (special occasions) he mentioned about Saami-adis
The younger priest said that apart from the bali there is sami-adis dance.He further said that the Amman god comes comes into the bodies of certain people.It looked like this temple was always frequented by the same god and that god used to call itself as ”Madurai Amman” on Sevvai pongal when theSevvai sattu (a special type of pooja) is done. According to the younger priest there are certain assigned people whom he says are living in Kila Pecheri andMaela Pecheri (probably the localities near by, as he was pointing his fingers in some direction outside the temple) on whom the god will come and they will do the sami-attam(god dance).He added that these days there are hardly any sami-attams happen.When I was 9 years old then there used to be a lot of such instances of god coming on people’s bodies.While Vel murugan was telling this, the old priest interrupted and said that even today we can’t say when she(Madurai Amman) can come and on whom she will come. For this the young priest, Vel Murugan interrupted the old priest and said, he is asking something else and clearly said that there are no Saami-Attams these days.There was a time when it used to be frequent and whoever’s body it came they used to dance on the edge of a naked arruval (machette).The old priest looked humble enough to allow the younger priest talk but to me I felt both were talking the same thing.On asking if the Sami-Adis dancing on the naked machette will it not cut the legs.For this the old priest gave a real big smile and said “That is the power of the god coming to your body and why it doesn’t cut the legs we don’t know and no body else also knows”.
I quickly came back to the ethnography mode and asked few more questions.
The young priest Vel Murugan quickly also added that is possible by a special type of fasting like we have to eat just once a day for around 20-30 days.And the water which they drink should be from the tap and never from any body’s house.The Old priest then gave an account of how he once walked on a bed of nails.Vel murugan also added that on special occasions the temple entrance would be tied with banana tress and a loudspeaker with devotional songs played and the white horse on which Aiyannar is sitting would be decorated with flower.
I asked if you are allowed to climb the white horse statue which is so huge because while climbing our feet would be over the god’s statue for which he said that there is only one person assigned who decorate the statue and that might not be the priest and may be assigned randomly from the temple trust.
Then I asked if there were any set of people who are forbidden to temple to which the priest unanimously said “Muslims can’t come and people from any religion and sect can come here”.
I asked why is it so to which he said that during the medieval ages when the Nawabs of Hyderabad had conquered till Madurai there was a restriction onsilai-vanakkam (idol worship) and hence the real statues of this temple were destroyed by the muslims.
I got little puzzled by the math behind temple’s existence.I enquired about if the temple was really just 4 genrations old to which the old priest said that this temple has been there for more than thousand years but the temple in it’s current form is just four generations old.The major renovation happened when the Nawab’ss influence faded as the British came.The local village panchayat rebuilt the temple to it’s current form.It seems like the huge horse statue in the temple complex was a much smaller statue before the renovation and the central shrine was the only part of the temple that had shade and rest of the gods were simple stone statues and the temple floor was made of mud with cow-dung wash at the surface.
Hearing this I was almost transported to that era and imagined the temple as described by the priest.
The question that came to my mind when I was recollecting the account was “If the original horse statue of Aiyannar was not that huge Since when the statues of Aiyannar statues became so huge ?” I also doubt the new construction techniques introduced by the British (cement and concrete) was behind the metamorphosis of the Aiyannar and Aiyannar horse statues.The next question that comes to my mind is “If concrete is material used for these statues what would have been the material used before the advent of concrete ?” It could not be stones because stone carved temples were a very costly excercise and only kings could afford the labour involved in it. I remember my mentor Ajit Rao sir mentioning about the Terracotta horses of Tamil Nadu.So can it be like this “The horse statues were originally made of terracotta ?” I remember seeing pictures of terracotta horses in the internet but I am yet to see any of them so far except a medium sized horse statue lying along with the abandoned idols in the same temple complex as seen in the picture in any of the Aiyannar temple.
Terracotta takes me back to the interview where I remember me asking what caste the priest belonged to.
me: You belong to which caste ?
VM : Velar caste. Mann-Pannai (mud pot) making community.
me: Ohhh ! I heard that only brahmins are allowed to be priests.
VM: (lowering his tone and coming closer to me) No No … then how can we offer the non-veg offerings to god. Brahmins priests are in different temples. They have separate temples.
(this got me more interested)
me: Separate ?
VM: Yeah ! Actually there are separate temples for higher castes where you can find the brahmin priests and the higher gods are worshiped.In Aiyannar temples you will find all the thunai-deivams/kaaval deivams where you will find velar priests.
me: Ohhh . What are the other differences ?
VM: There are scriptures which only the brahmin priests have access to.Velar priests are supposed to know only the bhakti songs like he (pointing to the old priest) sang. That too is diminishing …look at me.I do not know any songs.I forgot most of them.The old priest knows because he is there even before my era.
(I was pondering over my earlier observation as to why VM was not reading any hymns or manthras while doing the puja)
(VM continued …)
There are separate manthras and hymns for velar priest also but I never seemed to be getting it and I went on like that.God should be in your heart not in your manthras.He will know a lot the hymns and manthras (pointing to the old priest)
(Old priest was having a humble smile on his face)
Reason behind the disfigured state of the central god amman
After a long pause and other discussions the topic came back to the conflict with the muslims while we were discussing the people who are forbidden to come inside the temple complex which included the prostitutes and people who have committed crimes and wrong doing.I was asking about why the central statue looked incomplete to which he said that when the temple authorities were rebuilding the temple as a rebellious step against the tyrannous rulers (Nawabs) of that time the Amman herself came and asked the temple authorities to install the statue in whatever state she is in.That is the reason many people get confused and ask me if the central god is Ganesha.On asking how did the god come and speak was it during one of the Saami-adi dance he said that she came in the temple authorities dream and said this.The old priest added that it was only because the Amman statue was half completed and hardly recognizable the muslims didn’t bother the temple authorities much.
[It didn't occur to me that time to ask what was the state of other statues during the Nawab rule.Was there any horse statue during that time or was that also broken ? ]
Where is the other horse ?
In most of the temples which I found on the NH38 road were having two horse statues.But in this temple there was only from the beginning.One horse has the Aiyannar and the other horse has Karrupasamy (depicted in blue).Here you can see Karruppan (another name for Karruppa samy) in his own shrine.And this shrine was built by one of the temple council members whose lineage god was Karuppan himself in the year 1912.There doesn’t seem to be any specific reason as to why Karruppan in this temple doesn’t have a separate horse to himself.
The priest’s explanation of the hierarchy seemed to match with my observation in other temples.
Aiyannar / Karruppa Samy
On asking who exactly Aiyannar is the old priest said Aiyannar is the father-in-law of Shiva which kind of matched with my online references about one among the Aiyannars(Muneeshwaran).I quickly wanted to confirm if the Aiyannar (Durga’s Aiyannar) is also known as Muneeshwaran the old priest quickly said “Durga’s Aiyannar is not Muneeshwaran”.He added that there are 21 Aiyannars in total.Some temples like Karkoyil and Kalayar (which I visited but couldn’t conduct any interviews) has all the 21 of them.Each Aiyannar has there ownvaralaaru(history) and each one of them is guarded by one kaaval deivams(guardian god) who is known as either Karuppasamy or Pandeeshwaran or sometimes Muniyandi or Mayandi but all of them are one and the same.In Madurai side they are known as Karuppasamy but if you go to Pudukottai side the kaaval deivams are known as Muniyandi.
The question that was coming in my mind was if Aiyannar was the father-in-law of Shiva then was the Amman / Parvati Aiyannar’s daughter and how about all the 21 Aiyannars ?
Before I could ask further question on this VM took advantage of the old priest’s humbleness and said “Actually all Aiyannars are only one, just 21 names to them”.The old priest nodded in disagreement but VM who seemed to be in control of the temple activities more than the old priest asked the old priest to keep quiet (but with respect) which the old priest accepted almost helplessly.I was trying my best to get the old priest into an exclusive mode but before I could do that the old priest got up and left because it was already very late in the afternoon.
I didn’t want to leave the old priest as he seemed to be knowing a lot but the interview was (in a way) being spolied by VM priest.I asked the old priest one last question about Karruppa samy.
The old priest felt happier and started narrating the story of Sita who lived in Valmiki’s ashram after Ram abandoned her.During that time when Sita was away from the Ashram asked Valmiki to take care of Ram’s son.But Valmiki’s son who went missing for a while caused fear in Valmiki’s mind and hence Valmiki created a child out of grass and kept it in the cradle.When Sita arrived back the missing son also came from the missing and hence now there were two kids. Valmiki said since the new kid also came from the same cradle which Ram’s son shared he should also be taken care of. Sita agreed to this and both the kids grew up in the Ashram as Ram’s sons.Then one day when Ram came to the ashram saw two sons calling Sita as mom and hence Ram got angry and asked both the kids for agni-pariksha. Whoever wins the agni pariksha will be the real son of Ram. The kid who was from grass lost the agni pariksha and was hence burnt in the agni-pariksha and was sent on exile out of the kingdom.He went on to become the Karuppasamy and there are 108 avatars of Karuppasamy.
I had read on internet that Aiyannar/Aiyappans were originally called as Sastha or Sattan and hence wanted to know about the same and asked.The old priest said Sattan is not found in Tamil Nadu but found in Kerala.Both are essentially the same but we have just a different name for the same god.I asked another quick question because he seemed to be in a mood to leave the temple.I asked him if Aiyappan and Aiyannar are the same ? To which he said Aiyappan is again a malayala (belonging to) god and doesn’t belong to Tamil Nadu.I couldn’t ask any further because he really seemed to be in a hurry and wanted to go somewhere else.
After this the old priest left the temple much to the relief of the VM priest who later took me around the temple to show the original statues of the temples which were destroyed during the Nawab time. I asked him since there is no threat of Nawabs now to which VM priest said that once there was some efforts taken by the temple authorities to restore the idol of the central god in the temple but during that time one of the temple authorities met with an accident and was bed-ridden.The amman came to his dream and asked him to stop the restoration of the central idol.
After this VM got ready to close the temple and I also recharged my dieing phone and camera battery.I could charge it for only 5 minutes and the electricity went off.
VM and me closed the temple and started off to the bus stand to catch a bus till the Madurai meenatchi amman temple.On the way I learnt that VM’s son is a painter and another is working in a cloth factory in Chennai.
[It didn't occur to me that time that if his son painted the statues in the temple]
Before we caught a bus to Madurai Meenatchi temple VM took me to another temple near the bus stand which was not an Aiyannar temple.It didn’t have any of the angry looking gods except the rakshashas(with horns and potruding teeth) in the gopurams. The priests in this temple were brahmans and seemed to be higher class than the velar priests.I noted this in the way VM was interacting with the priests of this temple.I couldn’t document why I got such vibes because it was very subtle in the body language of their conversation.
While in the bus VM told me to reach the Madurai Meenatchi Amman temple as soon as got down from the bus because the temple was to close by 12 noon as it was a solar eclipse that day.