Shakti Sadhana

One of the most popular Goddess particularly in the Southern India, Sri Langka and in the South East Asian region especially amongst the speakers of Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam or Tulu. SHE is also one of the most popular village goddess, and just like any other great goddess she is often identified with several other names such as Kalmariyammal, Bhadramariyamma, KaruMariyamma, MuttuMariyamma, Ammae and Marimuthu

" She is often associated with disease especially Small Pox, Cholera and Chicken Pox.
She has also been credited with causing and relieving Tuberculosis. There are two terminologies when associated Mariyamman with these disease : "Little Mother" and "Big Mother"

Little Mother : when one describe her capacity to cause and prevent Chicken Pox Big Mother when she is associated with more serious infectious disease
There are some who have understood Mariyamman to be another form of Durga or Kali, but the rituals and mythologies involved are quite different from any of these goddess.

Several etymologies have been offered for the names of Mariyamman.

a) Muttu is a word that means `pearl'. This is also a suggestion that `pearls' refer to the pustules often contracted duringthe onset of Chicken Pox or Small Pox.

b) Mari is associated with pertilencec and disease, which then give one possible meaning as `the disease mother'. Some have associated the word Mari with her ability to change suddenly. There form Mari can also means `to change' in Tamil. This word`change' to describe her as having an unpredictably dangerous capacity for anger, heat and violence. Another group have proposed that "Mari" means "rain". She has been described, sometimeseuphemistically, as a cool goddess, or as a goddess whose image likes to be cooled with water. Because she is traditionally most active in the peak of the hot season, when contagious fever post great danger, and when rains are desirable, she is approached by worshippers requesting coolness and rain.

c) Ammae means Mothers. This term is more of honorific than descriptive. Mariyamman is often depicted as without children. Most of the story of Mariyamman; she is either a widow, a little girl or a woman cast out of her home by her husband.

These are three version of the Story of Mariyamman that I have found so far, and they are:-

1. A young Brahmin girl is courted by and eventually married to an untouchable who has disguised himself as a Brahmin. On discovering the trick, the woman becomes furious and kills herself. She is transformed into a goddess and in her divine form punishes the untouchable by burning him to ashes or otherwise humiliating or humbling him. Another version to this story is that, Goddess Parvati implanted herself [ classic case of Parthenogenesis ] in the womb of a Brahmin Woman, and was born. In school she met a Pariyan boy [ an outcast ] who fell in love with her. He went to her father, concealing his caste and asked for her hand in marriage. The father not suspecting, consented to the marriage, only to discover it later on. However they also realized that nothing could be done since the wedding had already taken place. Later, contemplating the discover of her marriage to a man of such inferior status, the new bride became furious. Looking at her husband with rage, she became immediately changed, and the fire from her anger engulfed his body. He pleaded with her to stop the burning, but she replied that even though he was her husband, he must never again enter the house. Instead, he was to stand outside forever. His body was reduced to ashes by the heat , and where the ashes fell a margosa tree grew. The young woman had become a changed person : Mariyamman.

2. She [ Renuka ] is an extremely pious, pure wife who is married to a devout holy man. She is so pure that she can perform miraculous tasks such as making jars out of loose sand and boiling water simply by placing a pot of water on her head. One day, however she sees two gandharvas making love and feels envy for them. Thereupon she loses her miraculous powers. Discovering this and suspecting sexual disloyalty, her husband commands their son [ Parasuraman ] to kill his mother. The Son obeys his father and decapitates his mother. To show his great pleasure to the Son, the father grants him one boon. The Sons asks that his mothers life to be restored. Eventually she is restored to life, but in the process her head and body get transposed with those of an untouchable woman. When she return home [ in her new state : body of an untouchable ] her husband refuse to accept her changed form, and curses her instead. She became the bearer of the "Pearl" which is the name givento Small Pox. She has authorities over this disease. She brings this disease upon the rishis who begs for healing. She offers him healing if she be permitted to go to the four worlds of Siva, Vishnu, Brahma and Yama. The rishis granted her wishes. She went to Shiva and causes the disease on him. In exchange for healing she receives his Shoolani [ a forked weapon] and his cow. She inflicts Vishnu and gets from him his Conch Shell and wheel. From Brahma she gets consent for converting her name. She is no longer Renuka but assumes the name Mariyamman [ the changed mother ]. She then inflicts Yama with and from Yama wife she demanded a huge festival for her only then she remove the"pearl- like' form from Yama face. Another version to this story is that, when the husband refuse to take her back, she is sent out into the village to live from the gifts of the people. Here she utilizes her powers to protect all those who sustain her with food, offerings and worship.

3. Nagavalli is a wife of Rishi Piruhu. One of the nine great rishis in the olden days. She is famous for her beauty and also her virtue. One day when the rishi was away from home Brahman, Vishnu and Siva came to visit her to see whether she was as beautiful and as virtuous as reported. Not knowing who they were and resenting their intrusion, she had them changed into little children. They took offense and cursed her, so that her beauty faded away and her face became dotted with marks like those of small pox. When Piruhu returned and found her thus disfigured, he drove her away and declared that she should be born a demon in the next world, and caused the spread of disease which would make people resemble her. When she was cast out a washerwoman took care of her.

The act of restorating the head, Mariyamman becomes an immortal. As in the Goddess Chinnamasta : the self decapatitating Goddess.

"The severing of ones head symbolically represents liberation.The realization that one is not separate from others but part of the great self. Nevertheless severing the head is not just the end of it, the ability to restore one's head is the completion of the "sacrificial" process in which marked not of death but of immortality."

Satapatha Brahmana, a sacrificial text states that : " when one receives a new head, a transformation occurs which is usually interpreted as receiving a better head" and with reference to Ganesha, when he received his elephant head, he received his`real' head which express his true nature.

Therefore one can apply this logic to the case of Mariyamman. This new state of transformation, She is able to assume various forms. It is said that she can be imagined as the seven sisters. Another form that Mariyamman closely associated is Ellaiyamman. A very powerful Goddess, who protects the people from all evil. And that she have a troops of devils under her control. She protects the villages in all four directions. The only distinctive different between Ellaiyamman and Mariyamman is that, for Ellaiyamman, she has the head of the Untouchables and the body of the Brahmin woman, whilst Mariyamman has the head of the Brahmin and the body of the Untouchable. In some versions the untouchable body is Maatangi. In some of Ellaiyamman iconography she is sometimes represented with the torn-off head of Brahmin woman in her hand.

There are many other stories about Mariyamman, but all of them tends to fall into two categories

a) Mariyamman as an exemplary human female whose harsh and unjust treatment at the hands of callus, indifferent or negligent males causing great suffering and eventually undeserved death. In Tamil nadu, a premature, valiant and unjust death is often the occasion for apotheosis. In this case Mariyamman the human is transmutted into a goddess.
b) Mariyamman born as divine intercession [ as in the classic case of Parthenogenesis ] and as a woman she suffers indignities and assaults by males - human, demonic and divine, until finally she strike back, devastatingly and definitively, becoming a goddess in the process of potential and poised vengence.

Several themes to these [ found in almost every account of Mariyamman ]

1. Is that she begins her life as a virtuous woman or as an exemplary goddess who, in the transformative cycles of rebirth, happens to be born as human. But no matter in which guise she appears, she is confronted and mistreated by male arrogance, violence, deceit or neglect.

2. In almost many of the stories, there is always an unfortunate woman who will comes to the aid of the mistreated or unfortunate Mariyamman providing comfort and shelter. In this Mariyamman becomes a best example of the plight of unfortunate Indian woman : widows, outcasts etc.

If we were to sum up the mythologies of Mariyamman on the whole, it can be seen that the males are being portrayed as the guilty perpetrators of violent or injustices. Women on the other hand are companions in suffering to the goddess, just as she becomes one of them in the world where men must be defeated, punished and humiliated for their transgressions against female virtue, innocence and goodwill.

Symbolism of Mariyamman and Ellaiyamman

Mariyamman is thus understood to have a Brahmin head and an untouchable body, which significant in the terms of both her ambivalent nature and her role as a village goddess exemplifying the social status quo in which Brahmins are at the head of the social systems. But in Ellaiyamman it's the reverse. The head that symbolizes power/knowledge of the Brahmin (erudition in the Vedas and schooling in the proper practice of Ritual, wisdom of orthodoxy and orthopraxis ) is being replaced with the head that signifies the power of the untouchables. This in many sense is a symbolic act of subversion, an inversion of the status quo as propagated by Hindu Myth and Practice.

The story points out to the complex nature of the relationship between the untouchables/low caste population and the Brahmin. In an article presented by Sathiananthan Clarke [ see reference ] in which he states that the story of Ellaiyamman and Mariyamman propound the idea that the Paraiyars or the untouchables are caught / victims of conflicts of the caste system. Another studies carried out by Robert Deliege in to the myth of origins of the untouchables, Hanjans consider their low degraded position as a result of a mistake, some mockery or an accident. [ Replication and Consensus : Untouchability, Casta and ideology in India ]

Ironically they use the symbolism of a woman to associate it victimization.

Just a little story to share : I had a close friend visited me sometime back, and she relate a story of how her elder sister who once contracted chicken pox. This sister have a very peculiar habit, in which she likes to pluck the pustules and feed on it. They tried anything they can think of to stop her from doing such grotesque habit but it does not help. Eventually they consulted an elderly person, who upon seeing such behaviour bow before the girl and asked her : "MAA what is it that you really like to have?" in which the girl replied that she really like to eat chicken. Thereafter the family sacrifice a chicken in the name of Mariyamman, and subsequently cook it and offered to the sister. Within 24 hours all the pustules disappeared and the sister cant even remember about the act of plucking of the pustules. Hard to believe, I discover later on that this is not just an isolated case.


David Kinsley : Hindu Goddess. Vision of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition

Elizabeth Anne Benard : Chinnamasta. The Aweful Buddhist and Hindu Tantric Goddess.

William Harman. Promises made to Goddess : Women's Boon and Men's Fears.

Sathiananthan Clarke: Paraiyars Ellaiyamman as an Iconic Symbols of Collective Resistence and Emancipatory Mythography.

By N. Madasamy

[ Home ] [ About us ] [ SHAKTI ] [ Sadhana ] [Temple] [ Shakta Tantra ] [ The Forum ] [ Resources ] [ Gallery ] [Online Shop]