Horses of a little tradition

Print edition : May 12, 2017

Terracotta horses offered as part of "puravi eduppu" at the Ayyanar temple at Kottur Melavasal in Pudukkottai district. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

Small terracotta figurines of a horse, cow and "madhalai" (infant) at the Ayyanar temple at Kottur Melavasal in Pudukottai district. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

An array of terracotta horses at the Ayyanar temple at Kottur Melavasal. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

Karu. Rajendran, a retired schoolteacher, epigraphist and an authority on the history and archaeology of Pudukottai district, seen with the terracotta horses of Kottur Melavasal Ayyanar temple. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

An 18-feet tall stucco "seema kudirai" at the Villakkada Ayyanar temple at Rendivayal-Virachchilai village. The caparisoned horse is shown as emerging from a dragon's mouth. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

Ayyanar depicted riding a horse. Villagers believe that Ayyanar protects them from evil spirits by keeping vigil at night. Painted and plain terracotta horses abound in this sacred abode of Ayyanar located in a scrub jungle on the outskirts of Nakkheeran Vayal. Photo: B.Velankanni Raj

A lavishly decorated elephant with howdah, carrying a king in all his regal splendour at Kulamangalam-Kannangudi Kovil. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

Decorations on terracotta horses at Kulamangalam Kattu Kovil. Photo: THE HINDU

Thousands of terracotta horses lined up along the pathway to the Ayyanar temple at Ilangudipatti village. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

At a sacred grove at Naarthamalai hill, a serene abode for Ayyanar. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

A gallery of terracotta horses and cows near the Poi Solla Mei Ayyanar temple at Moolangudi. Photo: THE HINDU

The sanctum of Sammandha Karrupar at Kulamangalam hamlet. The human figurines represent those killed in a riot that took place in the area 500 years ago. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

Seated Karuppars, embellished with moustaches and ornaments at the Ayyanar temple at Urapatti village. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

The potter P. Prabakaran, who is the priest at the Poi Sella Mei Ayyanar temple, with a terracotta cow he had made. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

A 20-foot tall stucco sculpture of a caprisoned elephant in front of the Azhagar Ayyanar temple at Saluppai village in Ariyalur district. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

The Urappatti Ayyanar temple has a remarkable accumulation of big terracotta horses with applique decorations, such as the one portraying Gajalakshmi. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

C. Mariappan, the potter of Urappatti at his kiln. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

Terracotta hoses and Saptamatrikas (seven mother goddesses) at Odugampatti village. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

WHEN you travel by road in the interiors of Tamil Nadu, you will not miss the symmetry of the vibrantly coloured stucco images of mounted steed, sometimes depicted as rearing, with the hooves of its forelegs placed on the shoulders of a standing man; gigantic, decorated elephants; a wide-eyed and moustachioed Ayyanar seated on a huge pedestal, sometimes congruent with the images of his associates, Veeran or Karuppusami; and a retinue of human and animal figurines in the kaatu kovils (unenclosed temples for unusual gods on the periphery of villages). While these king-sized images dominate the scene in the open landscapes of lake bunds and ponds, hidden among overhanging creepers in scrub jungles is Tamil Nadu’s own “terracotta army”.

For instance, on the outer edge of Ilangudipatti village in Pudukottai district, you will be transfixed by what you see: thousands of terracotta horses in rows of two, three or four on either side of a road for a distance of up to 700 metres. Midway down the road is a stucco elephant, flanked by two equally big stucco horses. (Stucco consists of lime, sand, mortar and other materials.) At the end of the road, under the canopy of an ancient tamarind tree, there is a stone statue of Ayyanar, the protective guardian of the village, depicted as seated holding a sword pointed upwards in his right hand. There is an accumulation of several hundred more terracotta figurines, some in deteriorated condition, around the sanctum in the shade of trees.

Votive offering of terracotta horses, commissioned by farmers grateful for plenty of rain and a good harvest and made by Velars (members of the potter community), to Ayyanar form part of the puravi eduppu, or kudirai eduppu, ritual ( puravi and kudirai in Tamil mean horse and eduppu means procession). The entire village takes part in the thanksgiving ritual. Farmers believe that Ayyanar protects them and their village from harm.

Karu. Rajendran, a 76-year-old retired primary schoolteacher at Melappanaiyur village in Pudukottai district, guides you through the legend of terracotta horses and the Ayyanar worship in the district. At the nearby Kulamangalam Kattu Kovil is a shrine dedicated to Adheena Milagu Ayyanar, located on a broad mound along a dry lake. Two rearing horses and an elephant stand there facing the shrine. There are several terracotta horses, about three to five feet tall. “There were more than 50 terracotta horses here. Now there is nothing left,” says Rajendran.

About 40 m away, there is a shrine dedicated to Sammandha Karuppar, another village deity. Inside the shrine are terracotta figurines of Sammandha Karuppar, a Hindu warrior, a bearded Muslim warrior, a Hindu woman, and a Muslim woman wearing a scarf. Sammandha Karuppar is depicted as holding a sickle in his right hand and a club in his left, and the armed warriors are riding horses. Reading our thoughts, Rajendran explains: “There was a clash between Hindus and Muslims in this village about 500 years ago. There is an inscription about this incident. The figurines of men and women belonging to the two communities are dedicated to those who lost their lives in the riots.” Adheena Milagi, the priest of the Angala Amman shrine nearby, who returned to the hamlet after living in Port Blair for 25 years, officiates as the priest there.

Driving down a metalled road for a few kilometres, you reach a scrub jungle, and a beaten path through the jungle takes you to a broad track where you will see hundreds of terracotta horses on both sides. The horses, some small, some big, have beautiful carvings on their foreheads, intricately carved necklaces around their manes and other decorations on their bodies. There are also hundreds of terracotta figurines of cows, bulls, hooded serpents, large-breasted women and babies called madhalai. At the centre, Ayyanar is seated imperiously on a platform, holding a whip in his right hand. Nearby is a figurine of Pidari Amman, also a village deity. Rajendran, who is an authority on the history and archaeology of Pudukottai district, estimates that the temple is about 500 years old and that the terracotta horses have been there for 100 years. He says the Ilangudipatti temple was built about 600 years ago but most of the votive horses were dedicated 500 years ago.

Rajendran, who has discovered about 500 Tamil Vattellutu and latter-day Tamil inscriptions, megalithic burial sites and rock-art sites in the district, says farmers pray to Ayyanar for copious rains and a good harvest. When their wishes are granted, they offer custom-made images of horses. If they wish for the good health of their cattle or the safe delivery of babies, they offer animal and baby images. There are references to kudirai pandhi (a line of horses) in the later Chola and Pandya inscriptions, he says.

Although Ayyanar goes by the common names of Kadan, Peruman and Sastha, in some temples he takes prefixes such as “Adaikalam Kaatha” (the one who provides protection) or “Adheena Milagu”. A stucco sculpture of an elephant is usually installed in front of the bali peetam (a platform where food offerings are made) in Ayyanar shrines. There are massive images of rampant horses called sema kudirai. Animal sacrifices are not done for Ayyanar. When a goat sacrifice is made to Karuppar in an adjacent shrine, the doors of the Ayyanar shrine remain shut.

Hero stones and Ayyanars

Puravi Eduppu, a documentary film produced by S. Sampath Kumar, a former producer with Doordarshan and now a faculty member in Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, and the Tamil writer Sa. Kandasamy, won an award at an international festival in 1987. Kandasamy, who wrote the script for the documentary, says: “The origin of the Ayyanar worship goes back to hero stones, which has a long tradition. It is a 2,000-year-old tradition.” Hero stones were dedicated to brave men of the village, who became heroes after fighting cattle raiders or killed tigers or wild boars that had entered the village. The stone slabs, with carvings of these heroes, were erected outside the villages under a tree or on the banks of a lake as a mark of gratitude. “The heroes were called Iyan [leader]. Any person entering that village for the first time would notice the hero stone and inquire of the people there, “Indha ayyan yaar [who is this ayyan] and what is the brave deed that he did?” The word “Ayyanar” is derived from “Ayyan yaar”, says Kandasamy.

“Thus, the heroes portrayed on the hero stones became Ayyanars over a period of time. In the old tradition, he was a warrior. Later, he was elevated to the status of a god,” says Kandasamy. During the process of Sanskritisation, Ayyanar began to be referred to as Sastha. While the hero stones showed the hero in action (fighting cattle raiders, battling a tiger, stringing a bow, wielding a shield, swinging a club and so on), Ayyanar began to be depicted as a seated or a standing deity. “Ayyanar is believed to keep vigil at night by going around the village on horseback, with the bells in his anklets tinkling and his dog following him barking loudly,” Kandasamy says.

Sampath Kumar says the size of the votive terracotta horses depended on the economic status of the villager. While farmers with small landholdings offer a small horse, affluent farmers pay for big horses, about 3 m tall. On a particular day in the Tamil months that coincide with April or May, those who commission the horses bring them in a procession to a maidan, or village square, with people singing and women performing kummi attam, kolattam and other folk dances. The next day, the terracotta horses are once again taken in a procession to the Ayyanar temple and installed there under the trees, Sampath Kumar says.

Rajendran refutes the argument that there is a connection between hero stones and Ayyanar worship. To buttress his argument, he points out that animal sacrifices are done only for hero stones, not for Ayyanar.

Many Ayyanar temples have sub-deities called Peria Karuppu, Chinna Karuppu, Brammar, Urumar, Pidaran and Sannasi, and women deities such as Rakkaiyee Amman or Kamalayee Amman and Saptamatrikas (seven mother goddesses). “These are all village deities, or parivara devatas [subsidiary deities], which were added later to the Ayyanar temple by the villagers,” Rajendran says.

P. Muthadaikkan, who officiates as priest at the Ilangudipatti Ayyanar temple, says only sweet pongal (a rice dish), ven pongal, coconuts and fruits are offered to Ayyanar. He is upset that no puravi eduppu has been held in the temple for the past five years because of a feud among cousins belonging to the villages of Sivapuram, Sellapatti, Keezha Themuthupatti, Ilangudipatti and Arasangapatti. They together normally fix the date for the festival.

Urappatti’s horses

If there is one village that can rival Ilangudipatti in the sheer grandeur of its gallery of terracotta horses, it is the Urappatti village, 6 km from Naarthamalai, which houses the Adheena Milagu Ayyanar temple. Urappatti has a mind-boggling variety of horses, elephants, cows and bulls. The terracotta horses are superbly painted with an eclectic mixture of colours, predominantly white, blue, red and yellow, and are adorned with intricate decorations. The larger horses have designs embossed on them, portraying the image of Gajalakshmi seated on a lotus in a pond, with two elephants pouring water on her from pots held in their trunks. One marvels at the craftsmanship of the village potters, who makes these images. The Urappatti temple is situated on the edge of a well-designed tank surrounded by groves, about 4 km from the village.

The potter’s art

At Urappatti, C. Mariappan, the potter and his wife, Amudhu, explain the process of making the votive animals. Mariappan says they select fine clay from the bed of a lake or a pond, make the torso and legs of the horse on a potter’s wheel, hang the torso with the help of ropes and attach the legs to them using clay. The various body parts are made separately and melded to form the image of the animal. The completed animal form is then decorated with embellishments. Then the entire finished product is baked in a circular kiln.

Says Mariappan: “A thick carpet of twigs is spread on the floor of the kiln. The finished horses are kept on the twigs and covered with hay. Soil is sprinkled on the hay and the twigs and hay are set afire. The flames are continuously fed with logs of wood to keep them alive. After more than 24 hours, even as the embers burn, the figurines are pulled out of the kiln.”

Then the images are painted in white, blue, yellow and red. “We make terracotta animals for about 10 villages. For each village, we make about 50 to 60 animals,” Mariappan says. Each horse costs between Rs.3,000 and Rs.10,000 depending on the size of the horses and the decorations.

After the horses are ready, the eye-opening ceremony of the terracotta horse takes place to bestow “divinity” on and infuse life in the horses. This is done by cutting the toes of a hen or a goat and applying its blood on the eyes of the horse. “Villagers would start singing to celebrate the event,” says P. Singaram, another Velar. People belonging to various communities participate in the grand procession, carrying the votive horses, cows and bulls on a palanquin-like structure, Mariappan says. As the procession wends its way from Urappatti to Adheena Milagu Adaikalam Kaatha Ayyanar temple, elaborate ceremonies are held to summon the gods and dedicate the horses to Ayyanar. The new horses are installed and the old and decrepit ones are pushed to the back rows. The worn- out horses are never thrown away. They lie there until they meld into the earth.

Kottur’s temples

Kottur can be proud that it has three Ayyanar templesat Kottur main village, Kottur Melavasal and Kottur Keezhavasal where puravi eduppu is held. Kottur Melavasal stands out because of its location. The open temple is surrounded by hillocks, boulders, scrub jungles and eucalyptus plantations. A large rock forms an off-beat backdrop to the sanctum: the images of Ayyanar; Karuppar, holding a sickle in his right hand; Pillaithachi amman, a female deity with a child; and other parivara devatas are found in the sacred abode. As you enter the temple precincts, you are greeted by rows of small and big terracotta horses on two sides. There are big sema kudirais and dogs with bared teeth.

P.L. Vellaisamy Velar, the priest of the Kottur main temple, says after a decision is taken to conduct the puravi eduppu, the pidi mann (a fistful of soil) ceremony takes place. The ambalakkarar of the villages offer to the Velar a fistful of soil on a platter, along with a coconut, betel leaves, areca nut and flowers. The soil is added to the first terracotta horse that is made for the procession. Besides hundreds of votive horses, two horses called aranmanai (palace) kudirai and ur (village) kudirai attract attention during the procession. While the aranmanai kudirai represent the “raja”, ur kudirai represent the people. (The villagers pay for the making of the palace horse.)

What sets apart Kulamangalam-Kannangudi Ayyanar temple is the ambaris, or howdahs,mounted on terracotta elephants. The howdahs bear the image of a king in regal splendour. Rajendran says: “Every terracotta elephant here has all the decorations one finds on royal elephants: nettri pattam on their foreheads, necklaces and bells around their necks, and decorations on their ears.” The ambaris, too, are elaborately decorated with carvings and their roofs are topped with “ kalash”. The temple has a majestic sema kudirai, which was made in September 1920.

When it comes to sema kudirais, the Villakkada Ayyanar temple at Rendivayal-Virachchilai village walks away with the prize. The temple, located on the edge of a tank, is both open to the sky and enclosed. A tall compound wall has newly come up around the temple. As you step inside, what surprises you are the hundreds of terracotta horses and elephants installed on all sides. In front of the temple is a towering sema kudirai, rising to a height of about 18 feet. It is depicted as prancing in the air, the hooves of its forelegs resting on the shoulders of a warrior who has a club and a knife in his hands. Even the club has decorations on it. There is an image of a bird between its ears. The caparisoned horse is shown emerging from a dragon’s mouth. The dragon’s head is not shown but its eyes are portrayed. On the left side of the horse are fierce-looking moustachioed men armed with swords and muskets. Yet another man is shown driving a long knife into a rearing tiger and a dog is shown biting the tiger’s belly. Incongruously, there is the sculpture of a dancing woman. On the right side of the horse is a danseuse, flanked by men playing musical instruments.

No puravi eduppu has taken place for the past four years in Pudukottai’s villages as rains have failed.

Moreover, times are changing. Potters are a vanishing breed. For the past several years, masons have been making votive horses in stucco or cement.