Ayyanar (ஐயனார் or அய்யனார்) is a regional Tamil male deity who is popular among the rural social groups of South India, specifically Tamil Nadu. In the old Tamil literature he is mentioned as Sathanar and in Vedic stories, Ayyanar is considered as one of the several local manifestations of Sastha. The deity is also popular among vast majority of South Indian & Sri Lankan (read Dravidian) Hindus and some Buddhists in Sri Lanka. He, along with his two female consort deities, is the central deity surrounded by 21 associate folk deities identified as the Kaval Deivam (guardian angel). Ayyanar temples are found in almost every minority Tamil village in Sri Lanka.
This has slowly transformed into the Ayyan or Saathan (Tamil for Sanskrit sasthan) worship system with a symbolic horse riding along with the venerated departed soul. Later transformed into the Vedic phase, Ayyanar has been depicted with two consorts - Poorna and Pushkala. Ayyanar is believed to protect the poor and ensure justice and self-discipline among its believers. Thus there are several local manifestations of Ayyanar along with two consorts in several villages near thick forests and water reservoirs each having its own folk tale.
The unique and inspiring popularity of the system is that the Ayyanar worship system provides an opportunity to its mass followers to trace their place of origin, ancestral roots, native culture and character and clan lineage even after several generations. Such family clan followers of Ayyanar worship system install new Ayyanar worship centres in sacred groves (called as Sastha kavu in Kerala and Kanyakumari districts and vanams or paimbozhil in Tamilnadu) in new locations with the permission obtained from the native Ayyanar deity through an oracle system during the Annual mass conventions.
Ayyanar or Sathanar worship is a very ancient ancestral clan-based worship system linked to nature and fertility worship. The festivals of Ayyanars are celebrated in Sacred Groves during spring season by all the related clan. Ayyanar shrines are usually located at the peripheries or boundaries of rural villages and the deity is seen riding a horse with a sword. Weapons such as a trident or a lance are also associated with the shrine. Most officiating priests are non-Brahmins and derive from local lineages that had initiated the cult centers generations ago.
The worship pattern is non-agamic and is associated with sacrificial offerings of pure vegetarian food. However animals such as chicken and goats are offered to few of the selected 21 associate deities (Kaval deivangal) such as Karuppa samy, Sudalai Maadan samy and some other Amman deities located within Ayyanar temple for favors. In return the local priest might offer holy flowers or Veeputhi (holy ash) to the worshippers. Folk Tales like Koothhu and Folk arts like Villupattu are enacted to bring out the message of the Ayyanar folk story to one and all.
In South India, Aiyanar God worshipped in open grounds surrounded by trees holds an important position in the local villages because of the values installed in family and community life. Aiyanar System is the base for forming large family clan associations and maintaining family values in rural areas.
Aiyanar worship represents a non-learned, non-Vedic form of worship. Often community life and family values are valued than individualist life mode. So a large number of gods at least 61 divine servant agents are present along with at least 18 to 21 associate deities. A family life or community life cannot be smooth and happy only if there is place to accept and accommodate every kind of people.
But with the divine nature, Often Aiynar is pictured riding on a white horse, fighting against demons and evil gods that are threatening the village.
The Aiyanar temple priests are often from the Velar caste; the potters of Tamil Nadu or within that particular community clan group which forms a large group of family associations. They inherit their role as priest from male family members, and it is not unusual that as many as eight family members hold the same position who often act in the role of Kodangi for solving local issues.
An Aiyanar temple, various clay figure and idols reflects the social hierarchy which exists in the villages of Tamil Nadu. The gods are ranked according to the social and economical hierarchy in the village, and as in social life, the highest ranking gods are vegetarian, whereas the lower ranking ones are non-vegetarian. A temple is often not a building, but one or more figures giving importance to each and every ancestral local god who are collections of people belonging to various community groups.
There are many kinds of festivities in connection with village temple festivals. At the temple for Conai (Sonai), one of the lesser deities associated with Aiyanar, a bull is brought in front of the temple. It is decorated with flowers and painted. A rope made of wet hay is now tied to the bull, and some of the men challenge the bull to chase them.
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