At the Heart of Ayyanar Cult

Photographer Julie Wayne talks about the ‘aesthetic shock’ she got in Tamil Nadu and her 10-year-long treasure hunt that culminated in photo essays on terracotta offerings made by devout villagers

Published: 14th September 2015 03:52 AM  |   Last Updated: 14th September 2015 03:52 AM   |  A+A-


QUEEN’S ROAD:Serendipity introduced French-American photographer Julie Wayne to the terracotta offerings made to Lord Ayyanar in rural Tamil Nadu. While on a quest to take some artworks to her gallery in Paris, she was fascinated by the rituals surrounding the cult of Ayyanar and found that the terracotta offerings, made by devotees to ‘assure’ their well-being, were among the largest in the world.

For over 10 years, Julie documented everything she saw. She was recently in the city curating an exhibition titled ‘From Earth to Earth’ that captures the inner world of the Ayyanar cult. Julie shared with City Express anecdotes on her creative journey and how important it was for her to not miss a thing on the way.

The spark

cult1.jpgI happened to be the co-owner (with my husband) and director of the gallery Shantala in Paris. We opened Shantala in 1999 as a space to present traditional and  popular pieces of art from South India, mostly from the early 20th Century. One of the many perks of this was frequent trips to South India, particularly Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. We sourced the arts and crafts via a small network of middlemen in various towns. We also travelled to small and remote villages. In 2002, we were led to a small shrine in the middle of nowhere by one of our contacts in central Tamil Nadu. I was immediately smitten by everything! The offerings, the shrine, the sacred grove. It was like a

revelation. And it drove me to search out other shrines as if on a treasure hunt. I quickly realised that this aesthetic shock was anything but gratuitous, that these offerings were the material remains of something deeper, richer and mysterious.

I met the potters and they were my conduit to the cult. They gave me access to their world, they elucidated the details of their art and also introduced me to every other aspect like the pujari, the sami-adi (oracle), the committee members and the village elders. In June 2007, I participated in a festival in honour of Ayyanar. After that, I was really hooked.

A dying craft

cult2.jpgAfter participating in a few festivals, it became clear that the potters were slowly being phased out by time. Even though the energy and fervour around the potters’ contribution to the celebration of Ayyanar remain intact, very few know how to create the offerings now. Even fewer  are teaching the craft to their children. And because the craft is practised within the confines of a caste, an artisan outside the caste cannot create the offerings. This gave me a sense of urgency as I documented all possible aspects of the cult, especially the potters who I feel will disappear.

Memories that linger


The festivals are the colourful and energetic culmination of weeks of preparation by the villagers. The devotees often make financial sacrifices and some travel from afar to participate.

The annual festival is nearly always the most important event in rural Tamil Nadu and I was astounded by the lengths to which the villagers went to ensure “the best festival ever”. 

Each and every festival I went to had me feeling that I was witnessing the creation of the world. I was warmly welcomed by all of Ayyanar’s devotees to their homes, villages, shrines and festivals. Being a European woman was actually an advantage. I had no  pre-conceived ideas and this made people open up to me easily.

Meaning of the offerings

The type of offering varies from shrine to shrine. That said, three effigies are the mainstay of a majority of Ayyanar shrines: horses, cows and humans. These three representations are by no means exclusive. Their presence, and their size, depends on local customs and history, the characteristics of neighbouring villages, the energies associated with the shrine and the features of the presiding deity.

There are two categories of offerings. In the first category is the horse — the most important offering. In fact, the horse is the mount of Ayyanar the supreme ruler, of Karappu, the general of his army, and of the warriors under Karappu. They ride the mighty horses during their night-time excursions around the villages to drive away dangerous intruders and evil spirits.

In the second category are the cows, the human-like figures and most of the other figures like goats and babies. These offerings are the material manifestations of the devotees’ wishes. They are gifted to Ayyanar to ask for divine intervention, protection and to give thanks.

Clay is Earth

In Karnataka, as well as all over the country, there is a very old tradition of terracotta creations, both utilitarian and sacred. Indeed, clay is the primary material everyone once used to create objects for home and spiritual use.

Even today, clay remains the material of choice for many reasons. It continues to be used because of its sacred value. Local traditions all over India attest to this. However, Ayyanar celebration is something truly unique to rural Tamil Nadu.


The exhibition 'From Earth to Earth', organised by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, Southern Regional Centre, in association with National Gallery for Modern Arts, will be open till September 27. It is being held at Manikyavelu Mansion on Palace Road. Apart from over 90 photographs on display, there is also a slide show with around 300 pictures and a 30-minute documentary highlighting the lesser-known facts about the Ayyanar cult.

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