Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Village Gods and Heroes

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Village Gods and Heroes

Article excerpt

Potters enjoy a special status in Tamil Nadu. Unlike potters in other parts of India they wear the "sacred thread" of the "twice-born" (see caption page 13), which elsewhere is reserved for higher castes, and they frequently act as unofficial guardians of the smaller village temples. This hereditary task enhances their standing in the community and gives them the material advantage of a share in the offerings made to the gods of meat, fruit and money. Although their main activity is the making of pots and similar domestic utensils, Tamil potters are famed for making the largest terra-cotta statues in the world. Figures of horses, which can be as much as seven metres in height, are much in demand as offerings, especially to the god Ayanar. They are believed to serve as chargers for his warriors when they make their nocturnal patrols to keep demons away from the villages. Terra-cotta images of popular deities (wise men or heroes) are also sometimes of monumental size, although in recent years these have tended to be made of brick and cement. Traditional methods are still used, however, for small or medium-sized ex voto objects or statues offered to a deity--a statue of a child in thanks for its birth or recovery from sickness; models of feet, hands or other limbs or parts of the body, for recovery from injury or illness; even of animals (usualy cows and more rarely dogs and cats). The presentation of a statue to a temple often involves the performance of quite complicated rites, but, even for the most humble votive offering, the critical moments is the placing in position by the potter of the eyes, the final, essential, life-giving gesture before installation in the temples.

Although it is the monumental architecture of India's classical temples which usually overwhelms the visitor, it is the country's folk temples, several times greater in number, that reflect the living faith of the people.

India's village temples owe their origin to a belief in the various manifestatiions--malevolent and benevolent--of the spirit of nature, and to a conviction that God dwells in all animate and inanimate phenomena--trees, rivers, mountains, water-tanks, the sea, lightning and the wind.

They are also connected to the fertility cult so widely prevalent throughout the ancient world. Faith in the Mother Goddess led to the personification of every village settlement in a grama devata, a village Goddess who protects the villagers, decides their fate and guides them like a fond mother.

Another concept that has made an important contribution to the development of village Gods is the worship of heroes who laid down their lives for the sake of their country or community. These heroes were commemorated and worshipped by the erection of Hero Stones or Memorial Stones, thousands of which are found in Tamil Nadu and other parts of India.

The erection of Hero Stones and the adoration of the dead hero as the saviour spirit of the community may be considered as an extension of the prehistoric cult of erecting megalithic tombs. The Hero-Stones are in the form of a dolmen with three upright slabs erected in the form of a small chamber on the back slab, facing the front. The representation of the hero on the slab takes various forms. The simplest shows him in the act of fighting with a spear, or bnow and arrow.

In a number of cases the event relating to the death of the hero, the period and the people who erected the stone are recorded in the local language. In Tamil Nadu over 600 inscribed memorials dating from the fourth century A.D. almost until the present day have recently been found.

It is necessary to know something about Hero Stones in order to understand the social background of the village temples. Often the Stones stand beneath shady trees in simple surroundings. Long swords, spears, or tridents are placed in front of them, as well as terra-cotta horses painted in folk style. …

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