Fortunately, our Tamil native driver knew the way along back roads to this location whose name, if any, has been worn clean from decades of weather. Immediately we were in sight of more than 1000 terracotta horses which line the drive. The horses are offerings to the Ayyanar. In South India, particularly Tamil Nadu, the Hindu village god Ayyanar is a popularly worshiped deity. He is known as the protector of rural villages and interestingly, the priests are usually non-Brahmins. Beginning from the dusty village road, the horses continue on past trees and shrubs for several minutes where it finally deposits visitors in a dead end. Located several kilometers from the villages of Chettinad, a region in Central Tamil Nadu known for its pottery, tilework, and unique spicy foods, lies an Ayyanar temple. To say this destination is a temple that doesn’t fit the traditional model of what tourists come to expect. Nor the rules of Hinduism. Vedic laws state a complete temple must have a roof and finial in order to house the essence of the gods. Yet upon arrival, my travel partner and I discovered one of the most fascinating, spiritual, and peaceful sights to date.
The population of predominantly potter caste villagers has worshiped Ayyanar since ancient times. Their religion, although Hindu, exists more as a clan-based worship system. Temples are generally found on the edges of villages, free from the usual monumental buildings found around South India. As village life revolves around nature and community, so too does worship which takes place in open grounds near trees and stresses the importance of family life. Ayyanar worship represents a non-learned, non-Vedic form of worship. Often community life and family values are valued than individualist life mode.
Two young kids, one boy, one girl, met my travel partner and me as we walked past the painted bodies of full, partial, and crumbled horses. Asking for pens or chocolate, the kids became unofficial tour guides. Unfortunately, they knew very few other English words so we had to rely on hand gestures and facial movements as simple ways to communicate. Initially, we were both frustrated by the children’s’ attendance. Up to this point, we were walking quietly in our thoughts with little conversation between ourselves. Once the kids arrived, their loud voices and behavior, as if they had traveled this path thousands of times for other tourists, numbed them from appreciating our desire to see this sight in peace.
“Shoes, Shoes!” they exclaimed as my travel bud and I passed the elephant carvings so well known by Ayyanarianfollwers. We had now reached the inner sanctum of the outdoor temple. No markings, no signs of any kind would have alerted us to our location. A few steps further into the dead-end square before us lied a strip of various small clay idols and figures. Behind that, lies a graveyard of broken clay shards and finally, the thick trunk of a tree whose branches provided the shade to gather here even in the hottest of sun-soaked days. The young girl pulled an art plate from behind a short wall offering us the symbolic tilak. Although we were inside the temple, I didn’t feel we were paying proper respects or performing puja. With that thought, I waved her off without my mark.
The four of us were alone. Our visit in the late afternoon didn’t correspond with the village life of chores and jobs. Where these kids belonged, and to whom, was a mystery. The serene settings and significance made us want to stay longer. Our new-found friends stuck closely to us clinging to their hopes of some offers. As we slipped on our shoes and made our way back to the car leisurely, coins clanged together in their miniature palms. Both examined the shiny metal tokens we had handed them while offering the best smiles this hard, village life would afford them. Back at the car, our faithful driver Selvam was swarming with elderly beggars who had seen the tourist number plates and chance to earn spare change.