The most enchanting thing about exploring places of worship in India’s small towns and villages are the many parallel streams of belief that slip in and out of the narrative. Folk deities and epic tribal chieftains may constitute a pantheon of ‘small gods’ but their stories are as compelling as any from the mainstream mythologies. During our journey through the Chettinad region, we stopped at many temples and shrines and listened to tales both fantastical and illuminating. We had a superb guide in historian V Sriram, who explored the culture, myths and artistic heritage of each place of worship along the way in his inimitable way of immersive storytelling, and drew for us a magical map of faith in this corner of Tamil Nadu.
Athmanatha Swamy temple, Avudaiyarkoil
Steam rises from a bowl of boiled rice and evaporates into a shaft of sunlight, as an offering to a formless god in an empty sanctum sanctorum. The Athmanatha Swamy temple asks you to examine your soul, the core of you which animates your every breath. This unusual but deeply spiritual shrine asks you to look deep and find the divinity within.
The temple is said to have been built in the 9th Century AD by a fervent devotee of Shiva, Manikkavasagar, who attained enlightenment at this spot in the town of Perunthurai. Along its walls are marvellously intricate ancient rock sculptures that celebrate the different forms taken by Lord Shiva as well as those of Parvati, the goddess Yogambal, Arjuna from the Mahabharata and Lord Ganesha. Architectural details like a long snaking chain made entirely of granite, musical pillars and mammoth godly figures hewn from single stones speak of the highly sophisticated engineering and design capabilities of the Pandian empire.
Perumal Kovil, Thirumeyyam
This cavernous rock-cut temple, one of India’s 108 divyadesams, was built around the 7th century AD and is a heritage structure protected by the Archaeological Survey of India. Inside, we find ourselves in the presence of Lord Vishnu in two incarnations, as Sri Sathyamurthy Perumal, whose idol stands with his wives facing east, and Sri Thirumeyyar, whose reclining figure measures a whopping 30 feet. He lies asleep yet all-knowing on the coils of many-headed serpent Adisesha, unconcerned about the asuras’ missiles flying at him.
To promote amity between Vaishnavites and Shaivites, the temple shares a wall with a Shiva temple next door so devotees may embrace both cosmic personalities in their circumambulations. All along the pillared corridors of Perumal Kovil, rock sculptures loom overhead—voluptuous figures frozen in graceful dance poses, their stone fingers folded into the most fluid mudras. Other deities in the temple complex include goddesses Ujjeevana Thayar and Andal, and Rama and Hanuman.
Ayyanar Kovil, Narthamalai
Like China’s terracotta warriors, the gigantic horses flanking the path to this Ayyanar shrine are built to protect and serve. But unlike their subterranean counterparts, these beasts are on active duty in this earthly realm. This makes them as mortal as the hands that mould them; they weather sun and wind and eventually crumble to dust, whereupon they are replaced with fresh young ponies from the kiln. These terracotta horses, some rising up to 15 feet tall, are the trusty steeds of Dravidian deity Ayyanar, who likely owes his origins to the pre-Vedic, pre-historic belief system called Shaktism. Read a spirited history here.
He is worshipped largely by the region’s farming community, who believe he defends their land and its bounty; and in a break from tradition, the priests here are usually from the village, and not Brahmin. After a successful harvest, grateful farmers gift the biggest horse figurines they can afford to the Ayyanar shrine nearby, usually located on the outer edges of a village. We visited a particularly impressive stable of these mythical animals just outside Narthamalai, an army of silent sentinels standing amid gentle swaying rice paddy fields.
Karpaga Vinayagar Temple, Pillayarpatti
To our great delight, we learnt that the days our Sarmaya group travelled to Karaikudi in October 2018 coincided with a most auspicious time in the temple calendar. We arrived early that morning for our audience with the six-foot-tall Karpaga Vinayagar idol, and were privileged to witness an abhishekam, the ceremonial bathing. This sculpture of Lord Ganesha was carved out of black rock in the 5th century AD and the bath of milk, curds and sandalwood paste cascading down its massive form makes for a tremendous sight.
Some of our guests were especially blessed to have special abhishekams offered to the idol in their name, making a silent wish during prayer. Karpaga Vinayagar is known for being generous with granting wishes to devotees (it is so named for the Kalpavriksha or Karpagam tree of Hindu mythology) and this temple has grown bigger and richer over the centuries under the patronage of Pandian and Chola kings as well as the Nattokottai Chettiars.