Traditionally all the villages in Tamil Nadu had clay figures of the village diety Ayyanaar accompanied by his army who guarded their entrance; the belief system was and is till today that these figures guard the villages from evil. There is a temple built for the deities and this temple traditionally located at the entrance to the village, usually in a thicket of trees with a lake or pond nearby. The diety Ayyanaar is known by different names across the villages of Tamil Nadu as he is a folk deity and each village has differing stories and legends of the miracles wrought by him. The sight of these silent sentinels standing guard in a vast group is awe inspiring.
All the figures are made of clay which is specially treated and well mixed to give it a malleable working consistency. The figures are painted in bright colours with each colour conveying a meaning. The figures are made large in size, almost lifesize and each year one or two new figures are added to the army as the old figures lose shape and strength over time. The artisans who mould the Ayyanaar figures make other clay products too, depending on utility, demand and season. Districts like Salem and Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu and parts of Pondicherry are well known for these figures. The fascinating aspect is how these age-old beliefs have stood the test of time and are still strongly and widely prevalent in the region.
Tradition and History
The tradition of Ayyanaar figures as guardians in the village has existed for generations in Tamil Nadu. He is believed to have been created by Lord Shiva and Lord Ayyappan to fight against evil and ensure the good health and wealth of the villages. He is believed to protect the villages from drought and disease from enemies and intruders and from restless departed spirits. Rengaswamy, an Ayyanaar artisan from Mazhaiyur village near Pudukottai in Tamil Nadu says the craft has been in his family for a few hundred years at least and from whatever he has gleaned from the elders in his family, the craft has been passed on without a break in his family for generations.
Ayyanaar has always been regarded as a good and benevolent protector; the rituals associated with him are all Brahminical in nature with no animal sacrifices. However certain members of his army do have animal sacrifices associated with their consecration.
Rengaswamy took the trouble to explain the entire structure of a typical Ayyanaar temple in a village. The main deity is that of Ayyanaar which is a small diminutive figure always presented in a seated position with his two consorts, Pushpakala and Purnakala on either side of him. These deities occupy the main place in the temple. The main warriors are found on either side of the seated Ayyanaar diety, to his left are Veerabhadrar figures, both large and small in size their with long curling moustaches, fierce wide open eyes and large teeth, all the characteristics that inspire fear; to Ayyanaar’s right are the figures of two munis or sages, one of whom is Semmuni who is the special guardian deity for Rengaswamy and his family. There is often a figure of a girl that stands on the side of Semmuni and according to Rengaswamy such figures are made by families that pray for the marriage of their daughters at Ayyanaar’s temple. Once the marriage wish is fulfilled, figures of the girl are presented in gratitude at the temple.
The composition of Ayyanaar’s temple varies from village to village but some basic features remain the same. The Ayyanaar deity with his consorts, the two Veerabhadrar figures on his left and the figures of the two munis on his right are some features that remain the same in all the temples. Along with these, there are some other features that are constantly found in all the Ayyanaar temples too. They are – two fierce looking figures of Sangili (chain) Karuppar and Karuppar. These two figures are found with the figures of two dogs by their side and they are always found facing the Ayyanaar. The other feature of an Ayyanaar temple is the group of seven Saptakannis or female deities which are found in all the temples. The other figures found in the temple are the horses which are made in varying sizes from huge towering ones to small ones; horses are the mount of Veerabhadrar. Elephants are also found in these temples as it is believed to be the mount of Ayyanaar. Figures of bulls are also found in the temple.
The number of figures in a temple vary from village to village and figures are added on every year. When babies are born, thankful parents put in figures of babies in cradles at the temples. At Alangudi, which is about fifteen kilometers from Mazhaiyur village, there are Ayyanaar figures dating back to a thousand years.
The women of the village perform a fifteen-day festival at the Ayyanaar temple every year. A tall pot like structure is made and in it is placed some manure along with a coconut seedling; in another pot also filled with manure, some grains are placed. These are watered by the women after their ritual bath everyday for fifteen days. Then it is taken around the village after which pooja is performed at the Ayyanaar temple. This is followed by a goat sacrifice for some specific deities in the Ayyanaar temple but not for Ayyanaar himself. All this is accompanied by feasting and celebrations in the village.
There are many stories associated with the Ayyanaar temple with each village having its own legends of how the temple was made, how the place for the temple was selected and the how the special name given to the Ayyanaar deity of that village was chosen. There is a special story about how the Ayyanaar temple at Mazhaiyur village was made; this was narrated to us by Rengaswamy. Long time back, there was a man who suffered from leprosy. He tried curing himself by taking dips in all the holy rivers of India; he was not cured and on his pilgrimage he came to the south of India to a small stream running through Mazhaiyur village. When he took a dip in this stream, he was fully cured. He found peace of mind in this area and decided to build a temple. The spot selected was in the jungle near Lord Shiva’s temple, where he decided to make the Ayyanaar temple and that is how, the story goes, the temple came about. The stream was also named a holy stream by him, giving eternal bliss. The folk deity, Ayyanaar, was named “Ennakathan” or the “one who protects me” and is known by the same name to this date.
The making of a terracotta Ayyanaar figure is an important occasion and special practices and rituals are performed right from the time it is first ordered. The figure to be made may be a new one or one made for a festival or it could also be the renewal of an existing figure. A handful of mud used to make the earlier image is added to the mud for the new image, in the last two cases. The order is itself placed on an auspicious day and the eyes and other features or character of the figure is also sculpted only on an auspicious day. The figure is brought to the village on the shoulders of the senior male members and accompanied by celebration, fanfare and sacrifices. The potter himself acts as the priest because his touch of the eyes confers “life” on the idol.
The oldest Ayyanaars and horses are found mainly in the Salem district of Tamil Nadu. Salem and Pudukottai districts are the main centers where large-size terracotta horses are found whereas smaller figures – human, divine or animal- are found all over the state.
Practitioners and Location
The community engaged in clay work in Tamil Nadu is called kuyavar, kulaalar or velalar; they are also called kumbhkars. This is the community that makes the Ayyanaar figures. According to legend this community was born as the result of the union between a Brahmin man and a Shudra woman. This community also traces its origin to Vishwakarma, the divine artisan. This community enjoys a status high on the social ladder and wears the sacred thread. These potters are also priests in those temples where there are animal sacrifices which is not attended by the Brahmin priests.
In Tamil Nadu the artisans who make Ayyanaar and other clay figures are found in Salem, Pudukkottai, Thanjavur, Tiruchirapalli, Madurai and Coimbatore districts. Special mention can be made of some villages which are particularly known for Ayyanaar figures and where most of the families are involved in this craft. They are Mazhaiyur (Pudukkottai district), Chettampatti and Nallur (Tiruchirapalli district), Tirripuyanam (Madurai district) and Vadugapalayam (Coimbatore district). The village of Mazhaiyur lies near the town of Pudukottai in the Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu, which is about fifty kilometres from Thanjavur. There are about fifty families involved in the craft in the village. The main advantage here is that the desired quality of clay is found near the village. The people of this village do not have too much of education. Rengaswamy who belongs to this village has travelled to America, Europe and Australia for long periods of craft demonstrations.
Process and Techniques and Materials Used
The materials used to make Ayyanaar figure is locally available clay. The artisans are very particular about this. The belief is that no other clay is pliable enough for their work. Rengaswamy who has traveled to many countries in Europe, America, Southeast Asia to demonstrate his craft has always carried the mud from his village for his work. One of his longest trips was a craft-demonstration event in Australia for which he took sacks and sacks of mud with him. Wherever he travels for a demonstration he carries his own sacks of mud with him. He says the Ayyanaar figures made out of the other mud crack easily. So the artisans are very firm on this and will never compromise their craft. The mud collected from the villages is mixed with rice and millet husk and homogenised very thoroughly. The mixture is then soaked in water for a few days. The entire composition of this clay was explained in great detail by Rengaswamy. Once the clay is well homogenized, soft and pliable the work on the figures is commenced.
After the drying is complete, the figures are fired in a kiln made up of straw and verati or dried cow-dung; the kiln is then covered with mud and surrounded by unfired pots. The time of firing the clay figures and pots depends on the level of chill and moisture in the air, states Rengaswamy. The firing for very large figures is done separately in parts and the parts are joined together and fired again. It is very important that the figures are taken out of the kiln at the right stage, states Rengaswamy as the colour has to be just right.
The red colour so typical of the unpainted figures of Ayyanaar and his army is achieved only through the firing process. There is no use of red paint on the figures to improve on the colour obtained from the kiln. When the figures are donated as votive deities to the temples or when they are made as additions to the Ayyanaar army in the temple, they are painted in various bright colours. When the faces are painted red, it denotes anger; when the neck is painted blue that denotes calm. Vivid colours are painted on other parts of the body and the decorations.
Rengaswamy says this is the main reason why work slows down in the rainy season – drying is hindered and the firing is affected too. The rainy season which comes in November-December in these parts is used to make the auspicious Pongal pots on the wheel. This activity has to be done as there is a huge demand for Pongal pots and Pongal chulhas in January. All the households destroy the old pots and buy new pots in pairs. They are called Ram-Lakshman and as many pairs as desired are bought. Therefore to fulfill this seasonal demand, work on Ayyanaar figures stops so the artisan can make the pots. Rengaswamy says they dry the pots and chulhas indoors and slot the firing for days when there are light rains.
One other product made during this time is the grain container, in preparation for the harvest-season. The grains harvested and stored are rice, millet and maize. The containers are made in various sizes. One container can hold upto half a sack to three sacks of grain; the container of the next size can hold upto ten sacks of grain. These containers are stored one on top of the other, according to size.
Changes in Tradition
In the past, all the terracotta figures were made separately and fired. There has, however, been an increase in the demand for these terracotta figures in recent times and nowadays moulds are being developed and used on a large-scale basis. Due to the tedious processes being involved to make Ayyanaar figures in clay, stucco is now being used for the same craft. The stucco art has all the embellishments and features of terracotta, but the mobility and versatility of terracotta is absent. The grace and beauty of terracotta cannot be reproduced on stucco, and the figures look stiff and lifeless.
Design, Products, and Pricing
The clay figures made are Ayyanaar and his army of Veerans or commanders and the animals – horses, bulls and elephants. The figure of Ayyanaar is depicted in the same fashion in all the temples of Tamil Nadu – small in size with his two consorts, Pushpakala and Purnakala on either side. The Veerans, mainly Veerabhadrar, are depicted with fierce wide open eyes, large moustache and big teeth. The earlier figures of the Veerans were very simple in appearance, but the later figures had larger eyeballs and more ferocious eyebrows. Over time, the shape of the eyebrows became straighter and there was also an increase in the number of straight and angular lines. The moustache also slowly increased in size and colours began to be used on the figures to be installed in the temples or as part of Ayyanaar’s army.
The figures of horses are said to be the largest terracotta sculptures ever to be built in the history of mankind. The horses range in height from half a metre to over six metres. The horses are also made in small sizes which are used as votive offerings to the Ayyanaar temples. The other figures made are those of soldiers, bulls and elephants – elephants are very popular amongst fishermen.
The pricing of these figures depends on their size and the intricacy of carving and embellishment on the figures. The large Veerabhadrar figures and horses are sold in the range of Rs.3000-Rs.6000 or more. Smaller figures are made in the range of a few hundred rupees or even for less than hundred rupees.
Markets: Traditional and Contemporary
The traditional markets for the Ayyanaar figures are within the village. According to Rengaswamy some figures for the temple are commissioned by the wealthy landlords of the village and this is one basic source of income. Smaller votive figures for the temples are ordered by the people of the same village; these are some of the traditional markets for the artisans. An additional key source of income is during the monsoons, towards the end of the year when all these artisan get involved in making Pongal pots and chulhas whose demand is huge at this point in time. Since Pongal or the harvest festival in Tamil Nadu is in mid-January and is celebrated over many days.
There are some contemporary markets for Ayyanaar figures in the urban centres where the figures are sold through exhibitions and expositions. There are also craft-demonstrations in big cities like Delhi, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Bhopal. When people come to see the demonstrations, they place orders and the artisans are able to earn money through this source. Rengaswamy says that there are many artisans from his village and other villages too who visit craftshops in big cities like Chennai. They make clay figures and sell it there itself and return to the village after such income-generating ventures.