The afternoon heat did not seem deter the thousands of devotees thronging the Bhavani Amman temple in Periyapalayam, a village 40 km to north of Chennai. A human chain snaked along the walls of the temple with people waiting to catch a glimpse of the goddess around whom many folktales have been woven.
It was the second Sunday of the Tamil month of Aadi, which starts in mid-July and goes on till mid-August and is a time of year considered holy. There was a constant flow of devotees entering the temple, passing rows of almost-identical shops selling garlands of marigolds and roses, strings of lemon and neem leaves, bangles and coconuts.
All around the temple, pilgrims performed prayers and made offerings – they boiled pots of pongal, sacrificed goats and hens, shaved their heads or rolled on the ground around the temple.
The 14-week festival of the Amman goddess at the Periyapalayam temple has begun. The festival starts in the month of Aadi and is marked by special prayers and ceremonies.
The goddess of Aadi
It was around noon. Chennai resident P Ganga and her companions were visibly exhausted and decided to rest under a tree behind the temple. They had walked 35 kilometres to the Bhavani Amman temple, beginning their journey at 6 pm the previous day.
“We usually come by bus but because Aadi month is special, we walk here,” said Ganga. “Lakhs of people come by foot every year. It is one of the things we do so that Bhavani Amma grants our wishes.”
Around mid-July, farmers in Tamil Nadu begin to sow their crop. They pray to the village deity – who is usually a goddess referred to as Amma or Aatha – to bring water to the rivers and protect them from ill-fortune.
“Aadi is a very special month for Amman,” said M Nagavarthinam, a priest at another temple dedicated to the goddess in Chennai. “She becomes very powerful at this time of the year and can cure all diseases. She is especially known for healing chicken pox and small pox.”
This is a commonly held belief. A number of young women and men do rounds of the temple wearing only a costume of neem leaves, praying for protection from disease.
The goddess is found in numerous forms across South India, representing the various avatars of Parvati. While some, like Bhavani Amman, are depicted to be smiling benevolently while holding a conch and a flower, others are shown with long teeth and an angry expression, inciting fear.
“There are two kinds of goddesses,” says M Nagavarthinam. “One is peaceful, like the Kancheepuram Kamakshi Amman or the Madurai Meenakshi Amman. The other type possess great anger – these goddesses are usually shown holding a weapon or stepping on a demon.”
Situated on the banks of the Arani River, the Periyapalayam temple is one of the most famous temples dedicated Bhavani Amma. It isn't clear when the shrine was built. But countless legends of the goddess and her powers are narrated by elders with relish.
The temple records link Bhavani Amma to a tale from Lord Krishna's life. It was prophesied that Lord Krishna's uncle, Kamsa, would be killed by the eighth child of his sister, Devaki. Kamsa then had Devaki and her husband, Vasudeva imprisoned and all their children killed. When the eighth child – Lord Krishna – was born, Vasudeva exchanged the baby with that of another family and sent Krishna to safety. A baby girl was presented to Kamsa, who turned out to be Bhavani Amma. When Kamsa tried to kill her, the infant revealed herself as a goddess and told Kamsa that the one who was destined to kill him was still alive.
Popular folklore also abounds with stories.
According to one such tale, the place where the temple now stands was once a forest where cows from a nearby village used to graze, said Usharani, who works at the temple. At exactly noon, one of the cows would drink water at the river and spray milk on a small rock nearby.
The cowherd could not understand why this cow never had any milk for him and resolved to sell the animal. But before that, he decided to observe the cow for an entire day.
When he saw the cow give all its milk to the rock, he took an axe and cracked the rock into two. Immediately, the cowherd fell, bleeding from his mouth and nose. Out from the broken rock stepped a woman dressed in yellow and red. She told him that if he would build a shrine for her, his life would be spared. And thus was born the Bhavani Amman temple.
Other legends at Periapalayam revolve around sightings of the deity.
K Aadilakshmi, a 46-year-old priestess of a shrine devoted to the snake goddess, said that when she was around 10 years old, she and her friends used to often see Bhavani Amman at night.
“We would wake up to the sound of her anklets,” said Aadilakshmi. “She had long, black hair. We have never come face-to-face with her, but at midnight, she would walk towards the river in a yellow saree.”
Business of devotion
Since Aadi is a month of austerity and devotion, worldly celebrations such as weddings, betrothals or house warming ceremonies do not take place, affecting the markets of consumer goods, so much so that special sales are held and discounts are offered to lure customers to shops.
At Periyapalayam, however, business thrives. S Radhika owns a beauty parlour here, but every year, for 10 weekends, starting from the first Saturday of Aadi, she and her husband set up a small shop selling refreshments by the temple.
“Even though we have our own businesses, we have got used to setting up this shop during Aadi,” she said. “Lakhs of people visit our village every weekend. So everybody tries to make as much money as they can in these two months.”
On the dry bed of the Arani river by the temple, tents made of asbestos sheets or dry leaves are put up and rented out by the locals. Devotees from across South India stay here over the weekend, bringing with them a whole range of household products, like mixers, grinding stones, stoves and vessels.
“It’s like a family picnic when we come here,” said Ganga. “You get fresher goats and chicken here, since you’re in a village. You even get good fish here during the rainy season. So everyone cooks food and eats together here.”
According to Usharani, who has worked at the temple cattle stall for 30 years, the temple supports livelihoods not just in Periyapalayam but surrounding villages too. “Goatherds, poultry farmers, barbers and small shopkeepers from all over come here for work during these two months,” she said. “Many locals are into farming, but even then we are all dependent on this temple. The Amma is the one who gives us all food.”