Undoubtedly, Periyachi Amman has the most frightening appearance of all Gods in the world. She tops the list when compared to Hindu Goddess Kali, Mayan God Ixchel or any of the Greek mythological creatures. While seated comfortably, she disembowels a woman and chews on her intestines. Simultaneously, she tramples on a man while impaling him with her trident. All this happens while she is holding a baby in one of her hands with her face showing murderous rage. Why do women put their newborns under this God's feet and pray? What is the story behind this Goddess with such a terrifying appearance?
|Periyachi - Impales a man below, disembowels a woman eating her entrails while holding a baby|
Around 1400 A.D, Periyachi was a woman who was working as a maruthuvachi (doctor) in Kondithoppu village in Thondai Nadu (now Chennai, India). She was well known for her proficiency in delivering babies. It is also mentioned that she was well versed in martial skills such as sword fighting, and spear throwing.
|Periyachi Amman statue - The small stone altar in front, used for animal sacrifices|
Periyachi was dragged to the forest in the middle of the night to deliver the baby of Vallalan. It was a complicated delivery due to two reasons. One, it had to be done in the forest where there were no facilities. Two, Vallalan was a strong believer in astrology who believed that the baby should not touch the earth.
Periyachi performed this delivery skillfully. She put Kaarkuzhali on her lap while seated on a boulder in the forest. She delivered the baby by cutting open her abdomen (Caesarean section) and held the baby in one of her arms. At this point, both the mother and the baby were in good condition.
|Periyachi Amman - Serving Justice|
Periyachi became a hero for killing the bandit who was terrorizing Thondai Nadu. She was praised by people for saving the baby's life. During her lifetime, Periyachi became an icon among pregnant women. It is said that no matter what, Periyachi will ensure the safety of babies. Tamil folklore often praise her of being the best obstetrician and pediatrician.
Ingenious Tactic: Periyachi advocated that couples should not stay together during the Tamil month Aadi (July-August). Why? How could separation during a certain month be beneficial? If a baby was conceived during Aadi month, it would be born in the month of Chithirai (April-May) which is the height of summer in South India. The infant mortality rate would peak during this month, due to the scorching heat. This temporary separation is still practiced today in the name of faith, oblivious to the scientific principle.
Medical Enhancements: Periyachi is also known for creating several surgical instruments and enhancements in the field of medicine. Note that surgery was invented in India, around 6th century B.C. Her innovative instruments were depicted on the original Periyachi statues, although the current ones may not reflect history accurately.
|The ancient Periyachi statues held surgical instruments along with weapons|
The first Periachi Temple was erected in Kondithoppu village, soon after her death around 1475 A.D. In modern days, it would have been called "Periyachi Memorial". She was awarded the suffix "Amman" which comes from Tamil words "Amma Aana" (one who became mother). Her foster son Seeralan acted as the first priest of this temple. The temple was small with a crudely cut, single black stone. Note that the creation of memorials was an ancient Tamil tradition called "nadukkal". Pregnant women and mothers with sick infants became regular visitors. Also, women who are infertile prayed to her to become pregnant.
Distribution Of Temples:
Periyachi Amman's fame spread like wildfire and resulted in thousands of temples in South India, mostly in Tamil Nadu. Sporadic temples were also built in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. The first Periyachi Amman temple built abroad was in Malaysia in early 14th century, by Tamil traders now called Malacca Chitty. While Periyachi Amman statues are still in good shape in Malaysia and Singapore, her home country has neglected her in the past century. Periyachi Amman temples have become a rarity in Tamil Nadu, although some do exist.
|A Periyachi Amman Temple in Villukudi village, Thiruvarur in Tamil Nadu|
Like most Tamil or Dravidian temples, Periyachi Temples are on a rapid decline. In Tamil Nadu, Periyachi Amman Temples have slowly been converted into Shakti or Kali temples in the past century. This is done to gain the "Agamic Hindu Temple" status, which is beneficial to acquire donations and Government funds. Chennai, her hometown, has no known Periyachi temples today. There are just a handful of temples in Tamil Nadu, particularly in Thiruvarur and Tiruvannamalai districts. These temples are on the verge of demolition, due to lack of funds. The current age Tamils do not support the ancient Tamil temples and often look down on them. Many Periyachi temples have been shut down or moved into jungles due to ban on animal sacrifices as well.
|A Periyachi temple left midway during construction in India, due to lack of funds|
|Periyachi Amman dolls are sold in Little India, Singapore|
There are four phases in which women worship Periyachi actively.
Non - Pregnant Women: Ladies who are deemed infertile or who are longing to become pregnant pray to her everyday. Recently married women visit her temple and make a silent wish to become pregnant. The women wear black saris when visiting the temple and generally bring rice, meat or fruits and leave it near the statue. Unlike Hindu practices, these women are encouraged to eat meat or fish before visiting the temple.
|A side view of Periyachi - Mariamman temple, Singapore|
Newborn babies: 7 days after the baby is born, it will be placed at the feet of Periyachi Amman. The mother of the child will back away and leave the child for several minutes, to show her loyalty to Periyachi. It is believed that during this time, the Goddess talks to the baby and heals any sickness. A black hen will be sacrificed on the stone altar of the temple. This sacrifice is called "Karum Kozhi Padaiyal". The flesh and blood of the hen will be placed near the Goddess and will then be cooked for the devotees.
|A priest goes into trance and will provide remedies for sick women and children|
The Tamil month of Aadi (July-August) is famous for Periyachi Amman rituals. This is the time when the women stay temporarily separated from their husbands. The important days of worship are Tuesdays and Fridays.
|Periyachi Amman - Adorned with lemon and flower garlands|
Entertainment: Different Tamil dances such as Karagaattam and Oyilaattam are performed inside the temple. Drama such as Therukoothu and Songs through Villupaattu are used to spread the history of Periyachi Amman.
|Carrying fire pots, frightening make up and self imposed punishments are done to appease Periyachi|
|Periyachi temples are moved to jungles, to operate without Government's intervention|
Note that Periyachi Amman belongs to Tamil or Dravidian religion as opposed to the Hindu religion dominant in India. The name Amman comes from the Tamil words "Amma Aana", meaning "the woman who became the mother". A similar female figure, Madurai Meenakshi Amman built a fantastic temple in Madurai. The similar attachment given to Tamil male gods is "Aandi", which comes from the word "Aandavan" which means ruler.
|A Periyachi statue inaccurately named as "Pechi Amman"|
|Another Periyachi Idol erroneously labeled as "Pehchai Amman"|
|On the right - a woman offers her baby to Periyachi, the most fearsome Goddess in the world|