Ever heard of a Terracotta Horse Temple? Maybe you know them as the Ayyanar Temples? No?
Well, I hadn’t either till I stumbled upon one near Karaikudi. After visiting this one (the local name being Andavar Solai Temple), I am looking forward to visiting more of the Ayyanar Temples of Tamil Nadu. If you are wondering why this sudden fixation on these temples – well, you just have to see that for yourself.
Quirky and Vibrant with the rows of Terracotta horses, the Ayyanar temple of Chettinad was quite unlike the other South-Indian Temples. I saw a picture of them in a hotel brochure. The picture and description made me really curious – enough for me to squeeze it into my Karaikudi itinerary. And Gosh! It sure was worth the inclusion. My tour of the Ayyanar temple in Chettinad revealed plenty of interesting things about the cultural sect. I am sure once you go through this virtual journey, you will be as fixated on visiting at least one Ayyanar Temple when in Tamil Nadu.
The Legend of Ayyanar God
The mysterious Ayyanar God is a village deity (Gram Devatha) in various parts of Tamil Nadu and even, Sri Lanka. It is believed that he protects his villages by riding around them on a white horse or an elephant. The man with a lofty mustache is generally depicted with a blade in his hand and stands around his white stallion. Besides protecting his territory, he blesses his village with prosperity and ensures they get enough rainfall and harvest for the year.
Besides his graceful ride, Lord Ayyanar is often depicted alongside his helper – Karuppusamy. The helper is generally depicted as dark-skinned with a tiger by his side. In some cases, his two female consorts – Purana and Pushkala replace Karuppusamy. Purana is generally dark-skinned and holds a blue lotus while Pushkala on his left, is fair and holds a noose.
The followers of Lord Ayyanar have their own religion and customs. One theory even believes that the famous Sabarimala God – Lord Ayyappan has evolved from the Ayyanar God. While one can debate if that is true or not, the fact remains that Lord Ayyanar still thrives in the small villages of Tamil Nadu.
The Tradition of Terracotta Horses at the Ayyanar Temple
With that mythological lesson, you would have got the connection between the Terracotta horses and the Ayyanar Temple. Though, I bet you are wondering why so many horses. Well, every year, the devotees of Ayyanar celebrate a grand festival in March. During this festival – called the Maha Magam the villagers offer these pretty clay horses to their Lord as a gesture of gratitude and love. For some, donating a horse is a manner of asking for a boon. One can even give an elephant instead of a horse.
The Terracotta horses of the Ayyanar Temple are made by one of their biggest devotees – the Potter community. The orders for the horses are placed months in advance. On the day of the festival, a small animal sacrifice (usually chicken) is made and the blood is smeared onto the horse for Lord Ayyanar. These symbols are lined up in the Ayyanar Temples until next year when they get replaced.
Visiting my first Terracotta Horse Temple – Andavar Solai Temple
The one characteristic feature of an Ayyanar Terracotta Horse Temple is that is it built on the edge of a village, usually by a pond. This stems from the belief that their Lord circles the village perimeter. Naturally, our hunt for the Andavar Solai Temple – the Ayyanar Temple in Chettinad, took us to the edge of a village – Palathur. The pin of Google Maps showed a place in the middle of no-where and that was enough to get my hubby to argue that we should skip it. However, my best puppy eyes and logical reasoning of it being just 15 minutes from Kanadukathan palace convinced him to give it a shot.
There were no landmarks, no signs and no people around as we set off on the designated route. Thankfully, Google was right this time and we reached our destination in a matter of minutes. A placid and gorgeous village pond welcomed us to the Andavar Solai temple.
The Colorful Facade at the Ayyanar Temple in Chettinad
Smiling clay horses around the temple pond indicated that we were at the right temple. Shoes left in the car, we literally skipped over the scorched road to the brightly colored gates of Andavar Solai temple. The Gopuram (temple gate) might not have been as elaborate as some of the South Indian ones like the Thanjavur temple but the colors just enhanced its appeal. The larger than life dwarapalas (gate keepers) dominated the facade but it was the smaller carvings that held my interest.
Meet the rare Aadyanatha Prabhu – half Ganesha and half Hanuman. This unusual form of the deity is found across Tamil Nadu – not necessarily in the Ayyanar temple. Worshipping this form is almost like killing two birds with one stone. The Ganesha part represents bright and good beginnings while Hanuman symbolizes the longevity of good long after the evil is dead. Frankly, like the Ayyanar temple, meeting this Lord was one of my firsts.
Sanctum Santorum of the Ayyanar Horse Temple in Chettinad
Young women are not allowed into the Sanctum Santorum of the Ayyanar Temple in Chettinad. So for the rest of the tour, I had to either stand around the edge of the prohibited area or request my hubby to take some pictures. Like the mansions of Chettinad, the ceilings of this temple were just stunning. I particularly loved the green roof with the floral paint at the entrance of the Sanctum Santorum.
Some of the other ceilings had a very 3D effect, especially with the lights in the center. Even the curtains over the plinths and eaves felt real. In general, this particular temple was quite well maintained and clean.
The clay horses of the Ayyanar Temple in Karaikudi
Across the Sanctum Santorum, were the quirky clay horses of Ayyanar. Lined along the border, these white clay creations were the offerings made by the devotees in that particular year. With the next festival, new ones would take their place. Somewhere in between those horses, I could see a small elephant or two.
A large statue of the horse stood right across the Ayyanar idol in the temple. This horse was permanent and was worshipped during the festival. Huge garlands would be made and put over the horse. The blood of the sacrificial chicken would be applied on its forehead. Around the elephant, were figures of Lord Ayyanar himself along with his assistant and the tiger.
The tree near the horse statue had various sets of bangles tied to them. They represented a ritual for the women – possibly similar to Vat Savitri. However, there was no one around to confirm this.
I would have loved to get a closer look at those terracotta horses but decorum and faith had to be respected. I was glad that at least I got to see this much. However, this rare encounter of the Ayyanar horse temple has me curious as to what the other larger temples would be. And now, I bet you understand why I will be chasing the terracotta horses across Tamil Nadu.
Other Ayyanar Temples in Tamil Nadu
After visiting the Andavar Solai temple in Karaikudi, I did a little research on the popular Ayyanar temples in Tamil Nadu. Sharing the two that can be done from Karaikudi – just in case you make it to them before I do.
Pudukottai Ayyanar Temple
This temple is also, called the Perungaraiyadi Meenda Ayyanar Temple. It is around 70 km from Thanjavur and 40 km from Karaikudi. The temple is known for the largest horse statue in the world. This one is around 37 feet high with its front legs in the air. They say that over 1000 garlands cover the horse during the Magi Magan festival – leaving only its nose visible.
Namanasamundram Ayyanar Temple
This one can be done from Karaikudi as it is just 18 km far. The temple is supposedly bigger than the Andavar Solai temple and has a combination of elephant and horse statues.
Well, tell me – what you think of these unusual temples. And remember to bookmark this! So that you have it handy when you go around Karaikudi.
How to get to the Ayyanar Temple in Chettinad?
- Karaikudi has its own railway station with very good connectivity to Chennai.
- In terms of airports, you can find the nearest one in Madurai or Tiruchirapalli. Both of these are 100 km from Karaikudi. You can either get into a public bus or hire a car to get to Karaikudi by road.
- Once in Karaikudi, set your GPS for Andavar Solai Temple and follow the route through the villages. The roads are narrow but the direction is fairly accurate.
- Please respect the culture of the temple. Remove your shoes at the entrance. You can leave them in your car instead of the temple gate.
- Women are not allowed in the inner sanctum but they can be around the temple. Please be cognizant of the same.
- There is no entry fee or donation to be given at the temple.
- For any kind of travel shopping or even home shopping, you can go to Amazon through this link.
- Consider booking your stay in Karaikudi through Booking.com. They have plenty of heritage hotels and guest houses listed.
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Popularly referred to as a Restless Ball of Energy. My Mom refuses to entertain my complaints about my equally restless daughter & assures my husband that I was born with a travel bug.
I am a Post-Graduate in Marketing by qualification and a travel blogger by passion. Besides travel, I enjoy photography and if you don’t find me at my desk, I would be out playing badminton or swimming or just running. I believe in planning for every long weekend through the year. And when I cannot travel physically, I travel virtually through this travel blog. My travel stories have also, got published on various websites and magazines including BBC Travel, Lonely Planet India and Jetwings. I have recently published my first book – When Places Come Alive – a collection of stories that are based on legends, landscapes, art and culture of a place which is available in both ebook and paperback format.