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The little-known tradition of offering terracotta objects to Lord Ayyanar in the villages of Tamil Nadu has been documented by photographer Julie Wayne. The pictures, collected over a decade, are an introduction to the unique ritual. By S Mallik
When photographer Julie Wayne came to south India in search of artworks to take back to her gallery in Paris, she never knew she would stumble upon some unique traditions in the villages of Tamil Nadu. One of the tradition was the festival for God Ayyanar. The uniqueness of the festival lies in the fact that terracotta objects that are offered to the Tamil god are among the largest in the world. The rituals form the fundamental element of Tamil village tradition and culture, where agriculture is the foundation of life.
The tradition of terracotta offerings and the festival fascinated Wayne and she spent over a decade documenting the culture through photographs. In an exhibition at the IGNCA titled From Earth to Earth: Devotion and Terracotta Offerings in Tamil Nadu, over 90 selected photographs have been displayed to familiarise people with the unique tradition and the many aspects of the living cult of Ayyanar. There are another 300 photos on a slideshow and a 30-minute documentary which highlight the lesser-known facts about the tradition.
Wayne’s pictures take us on the journey of the tradition. The preparation of the festival starts in March and continues till mid August. “According to the Tamil calender, they choose three to four of the hottest months,” Wayne points out. It starts with potters of every village making terracotta horses and other figures — mostly small dolls, cows with two heads and elephants. Once they are made and dried they are baked either in a brick kiln or in a makeshift one. One photograph shows a makeshift kiln made with mud and straw with white smoke billowing out from the top. Wayne says, “More than direct fire it is the heat that is needed, that’s why the hollow spaces that are left between the objects are stuffed with coconut coir and straw.”
In one of the pictures we come across the making of a 20-foot tall terracotta horse. The head potter Kashi Ranjan of Aranthangi village is the only one who makes such a huge offering. Owing to the magnitude of the figure, the horse is built inside the kiln, which is dug several meters to allow the potter to reach the required height. It is called the Urekudrai (uru means village and kudrai means horse) and is considered as the principal offering. Every village has its own principal offerings. Although Julie has had the opportunity to visit about 85 villages she believes that there are “more than a 100 other villages that follow the tradition.”
Once all the terracotta objects are complete, they are whitewashed and painted with water based paint. Earlier they used vegetable paint. “What was interesting to note was that women did not take part in the crafting of the terracotta objects. In some villages they were not even allowed to paint the offerings,” says Wayne.
The three-day festival generally begins on a Monday and ends on Wednesday. The offerings are taken to ‘their final resting place’ — the Ayyanar’s sacred shrine. The journey that the villagers take is punctuated by diverse rituals and ceremonies, during which God Ayyanar and his various forms are summoned into the body of a villager or a few villagers called sami-adi, to reaffirm his sovereignty and to bless ‘devotees’. They inhale sambrami (a resin, which when burnt emit a strong fragrant smoke, believed to ward off evil) as an indication to God entering their body. When God inhabits the mortal body, the sami adi become sami and is capable of enduring the pain of whiplashes and walking on nailed sandals.
“Villagers make a halt between the village and the shrine which is generally located in the outskirts. It is there that the principal offering is awakened. The head potter of every village drops one drop of rooster blood in both eyes of the horse and then the journey resumes,” Wayne shares. Once the villagers reach the shrine of Ayyanar, they offer terracotta objects and perform the puja. The sami, however, is not allowed to go inside the shrine because of the presence of the real God. During the three days of the festival, the villagers do not leave the vicinity of the shrine. “It is overwhelming to see the amount of devotion that these people have. During the months preceding the festival, they only make terracotta objects for their God,” Wayne adds.
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