The Terracotta Horse Temple – The Ayyanar Temple of Chettinad

posted in: Asia, Culture, Heritage, India, Tamil Nadu | 28

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.

The Clay horses of Ayyanar Temple in Chettinad
The Clay horses of Ayyanar Temple in Chettinad

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.

Lord Ayyanar, his horse and his helpers - as seen at the Chettinad Ayyanar Temple
Lord Ayyanar, his horse and his helpers – as seen at the Chettinad Ayyanar Temple

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.

Rows of Terracotta horses in the Ayyanar Temple
Rows of Terracotta horses in the Ayyanar Temple

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.

The Village tank by the Terracotta Horse Temple
The Village tank by the Terracotta Horse Temple

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

The entrance of Andavar Solai Temple
The entrance of Andavar Solai Temple

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.

Adhyanath Prabhu - half Ganesha and half Hanuman - at the Andavar Solai Temple
Adhyanath Prabhu – half Ganesha and half Hanuman – at the Andavar Solai Temple

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

The ceiling of the main shrine area of Ayyanar Temple in Karaikudi
The ceiling of the main shrine area of Ayyanar Temple in Karaikudi

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.

The shrine of Ayyanar Temple in Chettinad
The shrine of Ayyanar Temple in Chettinad
Close up of one of the ceilings in the Karaikudi Ayyanar Temple
Close up of one of the ceilings in the Karaikudi Ayyanar Temple
Painted ceilings and walls of Andavar Solai Temple
Painted ceilings and walls of Andavar Solai Temple

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

The clay horses in the Chettinad Ayyanar Temple
The clay horses in the Chettinad Ayyanar Temple

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 with Lord Ayyanar and his helpers
A large statue of the horse with Lord Ayyanar and his helpers

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.

Bangles on the trees in Ayyanar Temple
Bangles on the trees in Ayyanar Temple

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.

Travel Tips

  • 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.

Booking Resources

  • 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.

Disclaimer: This article includes affiliate links. This means that at no cost to you, I will receive a small commission if you purchase through my link. Thank you for supporting me with this.

 

Share the Thrill of Travel

28 Responses

  1. Linda (LD Holland)

    I never heard of the Terracotta Horse Temple either. But that first view of the colourful horses made me smile. Interesting that the Lord Ayyanar rides a beautiful white horse around the villages to protect them. And it explains the terracotta horses as donations of gratitude. The temple was as colourful as the painted horses. How fun! This would definitely be a sight I would remember!

    • Ami

      It was indeed delightful to visit this and hear the little tales of how those horses came about. I hope to visit some of these other temples across Tamil Nadu – some day!

  2. Anagha Yatin

    Thats an interesting piece of Incredible India! I have never heard about the colourful vibrant terracotta horse temples till I read this post. And there seems to be a great anecdote, history and ritual associated with the temple. Amazing! Thanks for sharing this Ami.

  3. Lisa

    You’re really inspiring me to visit India and photograph these incredible sights and colours Ami! I knew that you had animal gods in India, but these terracotta horse temples are fascinating. That colorful temple is spectacular, and it’s put Chettinad on my radar now!

    • Ami

      Chettinad is offbeat even for the Indians. And this temple in general, is not common. I am glad to have stumbled upon it. Hope you can make it here and see it for yourself.

  4. Debjani Lahiri

    The terracotta temples of Ayyanar reminds me of all the rich terracotta temples of Bankura and Bishnupur in West Bengal . The details are here are so intricate that each carvings tells a tale . I haven’t been much to South Indian temples. But reading your Karaikudi mansion post and now about this teraccotta temple makes me want to pay a visut down south . Oh between do they have restrictions like other revered temples in the south ?

    Heard about Sabarimala temple though.

    • Ami

      You can go upto a point when you visit the Ayyanar temple. So, make sure you seize that opportunity. I have also, heard of the Bankura temples – am hoping to get there in turn.

  5. Kuan Leong

    I find Hinduism and associated art endlessly fascinating. And so colorful. Thank you for sharing these picture and information about Lord Ayyanar.

  6. Amrita

    Ayyanar Temple sounds like an amazing place to visit. I am sure I would have done the same thing if I found about this interesting place in a travel brochure! The temple itself is so colourful. This ritual of offering a terracotta horse is prevalent in a few places, I think. I had seen a small village temple in West Bengal where the villagers offer clay horses to the gods. I need to head down to South India sometime soon.

    • Ami

      I too, have heard of the Village in Bengal and have to see it for myself. Though am glad to have found this one closer to home!

  7. Sherianne Higgins

    I love the rows of terracotta horses, they are so unique I can understand why you would seek out his destination. I’m curious what is done with the horses when they are replaced each year. It would be incredible to see them all and I wonder if the designs have changed over the years

    • Ami

      Funny you should ask that, I too wanted to know what they do with those horses. The locals gave me varied answers – some said they drown it, some say they destroy it

  8. Yukti Agrawal

    Terracotta Horse temple really looks very unique and I was not knowing it. Though I have heard about Lord Ayyanar but not knowing the whole story. Also good to know that Lord Ayyappan has evolved from Ayyaanar God. This really looks worth visiting in Karaikudi and even those ceilings with vibrant motifs look very beautiful in this temple.

    • Ami

      It definitely was a unique stop and am glad I altered my plans to include it. Karaikudi in general, is a fun destination and so, if you ever get there, make sure you explore it all.

  9. Bolupe

    My first impression seeing the colourful terracotta horse was jaw-dropping! The culture is well preserved and that’s amazing. I like the stories too and I wonder if there is a child-friendly book with all these stories and pictures. Like a collection of Myths from India?

    • Ami

      There are a lot of comics on mythology but not on this temple or Lord. He sure is limited to only a few temples. Wish though that one would make it

  10. Manjulika Pramod

    I have some temples around my place in Vijayawada and they are actually in the same colors but definitely this terracotta horse village stands out for the lovely terracotta work. Its so good to know about the culture of India in different forms. I have heard about the ritual of offering terracotta horse before but it was good to read about the temple elaborately and know the stories of horses.Why were young women not allowed near the Sancto Sanctrum?

    • Ami

      No one could give me a clear reason as to why females were not allowed beyond a point. I am on a quest to figure that one out. Nonetheless, it has been good to learn abt this temple

  11. Stephanie

    This is so interesting! I always learn something new and unique when I visit your blog. I would LOVE to see the terracotta horse temple in my lifetime. It’s especially interesting that the preparation for these horses happens months in advance, it reminds me of the float preparation for Mardi Gras. It’s also interesting that a touch of chicken blood is dabbed onto the horses.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.