Category Archives: South Indian Deities


Mariyamman is a goddess that is primarily worshiped in Southern India among the Tamil speaking people. She used to be associated with the disease smallpox, but since its elimination she has become associated with other diseases. [For more information on smallpox and its effect on India see Egnor (1984)]. In Tamil Nadu folk etymology, Mariyamman’s name can be taken from maru ‘she with a changed body’ or ‘she in her many manifestations’ (Voorthuizen 254). Mari can also mean “rain” as well as “changed”, which are why she is also referred to as “the changed mother” or “the rain mother” (Egnor 31).  It is believed that she possess a power that is able to cure people even if they seem too ill, as well as to help people overcome other adversities that they may face. The majority of people that turn to her belong to the lower castes but she does assist all classes (Egnor 25). She also deals more with women and problems of fertility but she is also available to men when they need it. Many people continue to worship Mariyamman in order to stay on her good side so that she won’t turn against them and their loved ones. She has often even been described as “bloodthirsty” and is still to this day described as a “wild” goddess (Younger 493). Mariyamman shares many characteristics with Sitala, the north Indian smallpox goddess. [See Dasa (1995) for more on Sitala]. Mariyamman is on par with the other major deities in the area, in terms of her popularity, status, wealth and authority (Egnor 25).

Mariyamman was once thought to have inhabited villages or small towns in Tamil Nadu and to have lived among poor rural migrants in urban areas. At one point it was only low-caste priests that worshiped her, but since then her popularity has grown among the middle-class. To the villagers of Tamil Nadu, Mariyamman is their local deity who protects them against disease and misfortune. Statues of her stand guard at the borders of the villages and protect the people against unwelcome visitors (Voorthuizen 250). Sometimes Mariyamman can be represented as a black figure protected by a cobra; other times she has the head of a Brahman, but the body of an untouchable (Voorthuizen 250).

There are many stories that are tied to Mariyamman and how she is associated with smallpox. She can be both the cause and the cure of the disease. When she is the cause, it is believed to be an act of anger or revenge for improper worship. The disease can also be seen as demons that Mariyamman protects the village from (Voorthuizen 251). Some people believe that Mariyamman manifests herself in the symptoms of smallpox. It is believed that being infected with the disease means being possessed by the goddess. The pocks on the skin are said to be visible signs of her presence and are considered to be her eyes (Voorthuizen 251). The pocks can also be considered to be “pearls”, bestowed by Mariyamman, or “kisses” (Egnor 26).  It is thought that her looks can burn her worshipper’s skin and form deep pockmarks. In some stories Mariyamman herself suffers from smallpox, she walks among the villagers as an old women with a face covered with many pock-like sores (Voorthuizen 251). Some people also believe that Mariyamman is the disease itself and any attempt to remove that disease will only anger her and make it worse (Egnor 25).

Mariyamman has many temples in which worshippers can come to. The temple in Samayapuram has one of the largest incomes and attendances. It is already one of the wealthiest in Tamil Nadu. It even surpasses its ancient and famous neighbor, the Vaisnava temple in Srirangam (Waghorne 232). Temple officials even claim that Mariyamman is the third wealthiest temple deity in India. The complex consists of the main temple, which is dedicated to Mariyamman, and six other smaller temples that are dedicated to other deities. This complex is constantly under renovation in order to hold the large amount of worshippers that visit it daily (Younger 494). Most of the worshippers that come to Samayapuram come from the neighboring city of Tirucirapalli. Worshippers come to this temple to ask Mariyamman to help with problems of fertility, sickness, marital and job problems. The reason that people come from Tirucirapalli is because they “see her as a deity who, like themselves, did not enjoy the respect of learned Brahmanas or kings of old, and does not win the approval of missionaries or the support of westernized civil servants today” (Younger 501). Mariyamman is believed to have stood up to their disrespect and because of that “ they feel that she alone can understand their individual problems, can provide a sense of unity and identity by tying together the jumble of lower castes which make up their society, can give them a sense of continuity with the village roots they still carry with them, and through those roots can tie them to the larger order of the cosmos” (Younger 501).

Another popular temple devoted to Mariyamman is located in a city called Camiyaporam. This temple also attracts a large amount of worshippers. The temple used to conduct blood sacrifices but since the Brahmin’s took control of the temple, it is no longer allowed. The images that are strewn about the temples make Mariyamman look more like a high deity. She is depicted with a white face in a sitting position, holding a cup of blood, which symbolizes the skull, as well as a dagger (Voorthuizen 250). These objects are meant to symbolize her fierceness.

There are many different festivals that are held each year in honor of Mariyamman. The month of Adi, the dry period of July-August, is when the festivals meant to honor Mariyamman generally occur. [See Egnor (1984) for more on Adi]. One of them is a flower festival, held in Pudukkottai. During this festival men and women dress in bright yellow saris and walk for miles carrying pots while families give offerings on bamboo poles. Some even shave off all their hair, while others dance ecstatically and fling themselves around (Waghorne 232). These are just a few of the things you would see during the flower festival. In another Mariyamman festival, in Narttamalai, the managers of a motorcycle plant, along with other businesses, have transformed the old festival into something new. Floats now carry proper utsava murti (portable bronze images) of goddesses on lotus buds (Waghorne 232). These floats and the people who come to see them, crowd along the old road that leads to the ancient Mariyamman temple-complex. One of the biggest festivals in honor of Mariyamman is held in Samayapuram. Approximately one hundred thousand worshippers attend this annual festival (Younger 494). During the second week of April, the road leading up to the temple is packed with people camping on the side of the road (Younger 495). Huge offering boxes become stuffed so full so quickly that a temple official has to stand nearby with a rake, pushing the money and jewelry into the box (Younger 495). This festival starts about a mile or two away from the temple and the trek consists of a hurried walk or dance that the people perform. They continue up the road towards the temple while other worshippers stand on the side of the road and watch. The intensity of the dancing builds up gradually until the worshipers reach the temple (Younger 496). From there they make offerings and gradually move onto the main shrine to worship the goddess (Younger 496). Each person performs their own kind of worship that is different from the others. Some people put themselves through a special ordeal and have a sacred weapon inserted through their cheeks or tongue. [For more information on this practice see Younger (1980)].  Some go even farther and build an elaborate shrine structure around them and anchor it to their skin by thirty or forty wires (Younger 496). Others come suspended by wires from a great boom mounted on a bullock cart and swing far above the crowd (Younger 496). To have your child touched or carried by one of these people is an important blessing. One person usually plays the role of the leader by dancing ahead and leading the party up the road toward the temple. In behind that person comes drummers that set a constant beat, two other people hold the Vowkeeper. [For more on the Vowkeeper and his position see Younger (1980)]. Others follow carrying water that they constantly throw over the head of the Vowkeeper (Younger 496). The movements of the worshippers are always sporadic. Worshippers cluster around women who have gone into a trance and claim to be “possessed” by Mariyamman (Younger 497). Once at the temple these women stand inside and out, telling fortunes to people that are walking past. The point of the festival is to reaffirm village and caste roots, as well as to associate Mariyamman of past heritage with present problems of the city (Younger 504). While the festival is considered to be old, it is the new temple renovations and the “new” power of the goddess that the audience talks about (Younger 504).

Clearly it is hard to label Mariyamman as just a goddess of smallpox when she is associated with so many other things. Her popularity has grown over the past from lower class worshippers to higher class Brahmins. Mariyamman’s popularity, the amount of her devotees and the amount of wealth spent in her worship does not seem to be dependent on the prevalence or even the existence of the smallpox disease (Egnor 27). Although there has been an increase in her popularity there is still very little literature that is connected with her. It is very clear that she is and always will be an important aspect of the Tamil speaking people’s daily lives and that she helps to bring a sense of identity to all her worshippers (Younger 495).

Bibliography and Further Recommended Readings

Dasa, Krsnarama (1995) Encountering the smallpox goddess: the auspicious song of Sitala. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Egnor, Margaret (1984) “The changed mother or what the smallpox goddess did when there was no more smallpox.” Contributions to Asian Studies, Retrieved from ATLA Religion Database.

Ferrari, Fabrizio (2007) “‘Love me two times.’ From smallpox to AIDS: contagion and possession in the cult of Sitala.” Religions of South Asia, Retrieved from ATLA Religion Database

Pintchman, Tracy (1994) The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Voorthuizen, Anne van (2001) Mariyamman’s sakti: the miraculous power of a smallpox goddess. Boston: Brill

Waghorne, Joanne (2001) The gentrification of the goddess. Quebec: World Heritage Press.

Younger, Paul (1980) “A temple festival of Mariyamman.” The Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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Spirit Possession


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Blood sacrifices



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Sacred weapons

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Article Written by: Christina Mills (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

Ayyappan (God)

One of the most widely worshipped deities in the Hindu world is Ayyappan, although where and when this particular god emerged is still very obscure. Ayyappan has a number of different names he is known by, such as: Sasta, Arya, Hari-Hara-putra, Ayya, among many others. This variety of epithets suggests many different versions of his mythic adventures and origins. Ayyappan is probably most well known the Kerala state of South India (Smith and Narsimhachary 221) and as far away as Bombay.

It is intriguing that in some versions Aiyyappan is not truly a god, but merely a demi-god or magic child. In one such version he is the son of Siva and Mohini (female avatara of Vishnu) and after birth he is left on a stream bank to be found by a childless tribal king. Ayyappan (named Ayappa in this version) goes through life healing and slaying demons up until he enters the inner sanctum of Mt. Sabri and disappears.

Another version of Ayyappan’s myth is as follows. Siva calls on Vishnu for help, who appears in the form of Mohini (seductress) to lure away asuras (demons) from the Elixir of Immortality (amrta) when it was extracted from the Ocean of Milk. Siva is then finds himself attracted to Mohini and they mate and produce a child named Ayyappan. Then he is left in the forest and found by a childless king of Madura, who is also part of the royal family of the Pandyas, and named him Manikantha (“mani”, jewel or bell and “kantha”, neck) because the king either had seen the jewel sparkle or heard the bell sound, which was on a string around his neck. He then grew up noble and honorable becoming the king’s Commander in Chief of the army, and doing a great many of other things including healing people and slaying demons. Eventually Ayyappan became the center of jealous attention. A plot was made by the queen and his fellow officers to kill him; they would send Ayyappan on a perilous journey into a jungle known for the abundance of man-eating tigers and leopards. A traitorous physician approached the king telling him that the only way to heal the queen, who had been pretending to be very ill and fainting, was to bring him leopard’s milk within an hour and a half. The king told Ayyappan of the situation he undertook to everyone’s surprise with no hesitation, showing him to be truly dharmic and fearless. Ayyappan entered the jungle and returned to the palace riding a tiger leading many she-leopards. The king then realized that Ayyappan was not an ordinary person. Ayyappan when questioned about this by the king replies that his father and whole world is God (Siva). Ayyappan then returns to Kerala and thereupon meets Parasurama (human incarnation of Vishnu) at the summit of Sabarimala. In the days that followed the kings received a dream from Ayyappan to come to Sabarimala to meet him. The king obeys the request to building a temple to Ayyappan on the mountain (Parmeshwaranand, 5 1120).

Ayyappan is portrayed in depictions as varied as his many legends. In most depictions he is in a seated posture called paryankabanhana or utkutikasana with a band of cloth called yogapatta around his knees (Smith and Narsimhachary 221). He is also invariably dressed in bracelets, armlets, necklaces, crowns, gem studded waistband and a cincture on his chest. Ayyappan is always depicted with one head, which according to Brunce suggest that the god could not lie, for he could only show one face to the world. By contrast to the demon Ravana, with his ten or more heads, deceit comes easily to one who has more than one face to show (Brunce 2000:5470). Ayyappan is also shown as being youthful. Yet sometimes his portrayed fierce to represent the boundless energy of youth and the power to succeed in all things. Ayyappan is also depicted as being white in color according Brunce (54). May suggest his purity and honor, exemplifying his dangerous quest to save a woman he thought was in need of his help. Ayyappan’s vahana is the tiger, although at times he is seated on the lotus flower. The tiger may represent his triumph on his jungle quest and the lotus flower represents his connection to Siva, with whom the lotus is always associated. The urdhva-pundra is depicted upon Ayyappan’s forehead, which connects him to Vishnu. The urdhva-pundra is called the third eye and represents enlightenment and an all seeing awareness according to Smith and Narismhachary (372). Worshippers of Ayyappan undertake a pilgrimage to Mt. Sabarimala twice a year, once in August and September and again with greater numbers from November to January. The pilgrims dress in blue or black, and carry a special cloth bag called irumudi on their head. Within the bag are two compartments, one for items of worship (idols, dhupa). While the other compartment is for personal belongings, such as pictures of their family for the pilgrimage can be extensively long. In some cases the pilgrimage can be long and pilgrims pack pictures of family, books, and clothes. Around each worshipper’s neck are tulasi or rudraksa-beads (Smith and Narsimhachary 224) [Rudraksa- beads symbolize Siva’s tears for Sati, and Tulasi-beads both connect Ayyappan to the gods who fathered/mothered him]. Prior to undertaking these pilgrimages the worshippers fast, eat simple meals, and are not allowed sex or alcohol (Parmeshwaranand, 1121). Upon reaching the mountain temple devotees call aloud Svamiye Saranam Ayyappan! (Oh! Lord Ayyappan! You are our only refuge!)(1120). After reaching the temple the devotee climbs eighteen steps and give offerings of ghee and vibhuti through the priests, the prasadam which is the remnants of the offering are believed by some to have amazing curative powers. After the worshipper has completed prayers to Ayyappan they then retreat back down the eighteen steps backwards. The temple is to be the last thing seen on this pilgrimage by the worshipper. An aspect that is unique to Ayyappan is that all castes and classes are welcome to worship Ayyappan. However women between the ages of six and sixty are not allowed entering the inner sanctum of the temple. The belief behind this tradition is that women may tempt Ayyappan away from his dharmic lifestyle. This is one of the few instances in which all males are free of class restrictions and an attempt to bring unity among Hindu classes and sects in the Kreala region, pulling them together under one god who embodies both Siva and Vishnu. However today we note that Ayyappan did not replace Siva or Vishnu. Rather he accents both of those great gods, for the Ayyappan shrines can be found within temples to both Siva and Vishnu (Smith and Narsimhachary 226).

Skanda (The God of War)

Skanda (Karttikeya), 5th century, Gupta Period (Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi)
Skanda (Karttikeya), 5th century, Gupta Period (Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi)

Also known as Kumara, Subrahmanya, and Murukan, Skanda “has been hunter, warrior, philosopher… He is teacher… He is the eternal child as old as time itself” (Clothey 2005b:1). Obeyesekere writes that Skanda is viewed as possessed of having six faces, twelve arms, and riding a peacock (382). Throughout Skanda’s history, he has been worshipped for several different reasons. He has been worshipped “as a god of hill and hunt… and avenger of ananku and cur, malevolent spirits of the hills” (Clothey 2005a:6240). During the Cankami period of Tamil India “Murukan was known … as the lord of the hunt” (Clothey 2005b:36). According to Clothey, he has also been worshiped in South India as the son of Siva (Clothey 2005a:6240). Through this several other deities related to vegetation and hunting embodied the name Murukan (Clothey 2005b:36). Clothey also writes that the name Murukan has become commercialized with an array of different industries using his name, for songs and films (Clothey 2005b:1).


Skanda’s origin comes from several different epics, most prominently from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The story of Skanda in the Mahabharata is quite long and can be summarized as follows. Indra, god of lightning and thunder and general of the devas, rescued a damsel named Devasena, who wanted a husband that could protect her. Indra felt the Agni, god of fire, had the ability to generate a son suitable to be Devasena’s husband. Agni went to Brahma, the creator god, for his help. While with Brahma and through the aid of seven rsis, seers, thought to compose the Vedas, Agni fell in love with the rsis wives. Svaha, a nymph, loved Agni. She tricked him by assuming the form of six of the rsis wives. After each session of intercourse with Agni, Svaha turned into a garuda bird and carried his semen to Mt. Sveta, where she deposited it into a golden pot, in a place covered with sara reeds. Kumara (Skanda) was born and was strong enough for battle within six days. The gods fearing Kumara would become more powerful than Indra, enticed Indra to slay him. Indra, trying to slay Kumara with his vajra [thunderbolt], managed to only cut off a portion of Kumara’s right side. Through this side of Kumara, Visakha was born bearing a sakti [lance], which causes Indra to surrender. The gods are pleased with how fearless Kumara was. Through the same piece of Kumara that Visakha was born, several more children were then born coming forth to serve Skanda’s army (Clothey 2005b:51-53).

Clothey writes that “Skanda thus comes to be known as a father, and persons wishing children are exhorted to worship him” (Clothey 2005b:52). The story continues with Skanda declaring Svaha to be his mother, and with Brahma’s advice, identifies Rudra “the howler” as his father. Rudra along with Indra, Varuna, the god of the heavens and water, and Yama, the god of death, come to welcome Kumara in a procession. As Kumara is leaving a Deva – Asura, god and demon, battle begins. Mahisa, the chief of the Asuras was causing the Devas to flee, and is about to crush Rudra’s chariot when Kumara comes to his aid and kills Mahisa with his sakti. This story also shows events in a span of Skanda’s life. He is conceived on the first day, visible on the second day, takes form of a child on third day, grows limbs and becomes the general of the army on the fourth day. He bears Siva’s bow, and is regarded by the devas as the one to save their cosmos on the fourth day, and he takes his emblems of war on the sixth day (Clothey 2005b:51-53). This is one account of the origin of Skanda. The author Vyasa, is represented to be the composer of the Mahabharata.

Another foundation of Skanda’s beginning comes from Valmiki’s Ramayana. Valmiki tells the story to Rama and Laksmana, two young princes. His telling of the story encourages the young princes to heroic aspirations (Clothey 2005b:53). The summary of the story is as follows. Rudra marries Uma, daughter of Mt. Himavat. One hundred years pass and no son is born to them. The devas like it this way, and fearing that a son born to Rudra would be more powerful then them, they plead with Rudra to not have a son. Rudra’s seed however remains on the ground. Dhara, the earth, can bear his sons. Because of this, the devas ask Agni and Vayu, the wind god, to enter Rudra’s seed. Through Rudra’s seed Mt. Sveta is created, and on Mt. Sveta, in the forest, Kumara is born (Clothey 2005b:53-54).

A variation to the story above, also in the Ramayana, begins with Rudra retiring as the general of the army. With no one left to lead, Brahma asks Agni to give his seed, along with the waters of the Ganga River to Uma to bear a son. Unable to contain the power of the waters a flood of golden seed escapes from Uma. This golden flood turns everything in its path into gold. In a golden forest Kumara is born (Clothey 2005b:53-54).

The Ramayana epic also tells how those who worship Skanda will “attain long life, happiness in the family, and ultimate union with the god” (Clothey 2005b:54). How Skanda received some of his names is also recorded in this epic. One of his names Gangeya was given to him because he came from the Ganges water. He gets the name Karttikeya because he was raised by the Krttikas (Clothey 2005b:54).

One of the books of the Mahabharata depicts who Skanda would embrace as a father. Vyasa writes that Rudra, Parvati, she of the mountain, Agni, and Ganga each claim to be Skanda’s parent. In order to embrace all these gods Skanda assumes four forms: Sakha, Visakha, Naigamaya and Skanda. Sakha embraces Ganga, Naigamaya to Agni, Visakha to Parvati, and Skanda to Rudra. The devas give Skanda gifts. He receives a dart and banner from Indra, an army of 30,000 warriors from Siva, a cloth from Uma, a garland from Visnu, along with several other gifts from other gods (Clothey 2005b:55). These accounts of Skanda in the epics are but a few of the rich and varied myths telling of Skanda origins.

The worshipers of Skanda in Tamil India celebrate a festival in October or November called Skanda-Sasti. It is celebrated for seven days reenacting the six day cycle of the gods vocation. Sasti is the sixth day of the lunar cycle, representing the sixth day of the god. Sasti is also important because according to the myth of Skanda, he is born on the night of a new moon. Sasti is also the name of Skanda’s wife. She is known “as the giver of lingering (yapya) disease” (Clothey 2005a:242). Clothey writes that the event takes place through “rhythmical patterns” (Clothey 2005a:242). Some of these patterns are repeated daily. Priests preside over each ritual on each day of worship. One such ritual is the lighting of oil lamps. These lamps represents the “the emergence of the god and the cosmos from primordial darkness” (Clothey 2005a:244). Another daily ritual is the reciting of Skanda’s 1,008 different names. Reciting his names reenacts the words that were uttered at the beginning, thus bringing the divinity of Skanda into current time. One of the high points in the festival is the ornamenting the sacred symbol of Skanda. This is known as vastram. The next step is adorning the symbol. This can be done through offerings of song, holy ash or vermillion. These rhythmical steps occur once to twice a day during the Skanda-Sasti festival.

Skanda is the most popular deity in Tamil Nadu , a state in South India. “Three of the six busiest and wealthiest temples in Tamil Nadu are dedicated to Murukan” (Clothey 2005b:1). Gananath Obeyesekere conducted research in Tamil Nadu which shows that the Skanda deity is the most popular in that area. He found that a total of 1,956 of 2,670 worshipers went to the Skanda shrines over the next three most popular shrines (Obeyesekere 379). Obeyesekere’s research also shows that “for every one person visiting the Visnu and Pattini shrines there are five and six persons respectively, visiting the Skanda shrine” in Tamil India (Obeyesekere 379). His research shows that the popularity of Skanda has been on the rise, and continues to rise.

References and Further Recommended Readings

Clothey, Fred (1969) Skanda-Sasti: a Festival in Tamil India. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Obeyesekere, Gananath (1977) Social Change and the Deities: Rise of the Kataragama Cult in Modern Sri Lanka. London: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.

Clothey, Fred (1987 and 2005a) Murukan. Detroit, Macmillan Reference USA

Clothey, Fred (2005b) The Many Faces of Murukan. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

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Written by Matt Marchesin (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.