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17th Century Aiyyanar Bronze.jpg
17th century bronze representation of Aiyanar in Chennai Museum
Sanskrit Transliteration
Tamil language ஐயனார்
Affiliation Form of Sasta, Harihara putra or Ayyappa, Deva
Mount Horse or Elephant

Ayyanar (also spelt Aiyyanar, Ayanar or Iyenar) (Tamil: ஐயனார்) is a Tamil village god, worshipped predominantly in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and Tamil villages in Sri Lanka. He is primarily worshipped as a guardian deity who protects the rural villages. His priests are usually non-Brahmins, who belong to mostly the potter caste, but other caste members also officiate in his temples. The temples of Aiyanar are usually flanked by gigantic and colorful statues of him and his companions riding horses or elephants. There are number of theories as to the origins of the deity as well as the etymology of the name. He is associated with god Aiyanayake by the Sinhalese people of Sri Lanka.

Etymology and other names[edit]

Terracotta companions of Aiyanar. Sanskriti Museums
Ayyanar on elephant,16th century

The Tamil word Aiyānar is derived from the root word Aiyā which is a title often used by Tamils, Malayalees and Telugus to designate respectable people. There are number of conflicting etymologies for the word Aiyā, generally it is thought to be derived from Proto-Dravidian term denoting an elder brother. It is used in that meaning in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam.[1] Yet others derive the word Aiyā as a Prakrit version of the Sanskrit word Ārya which means 'noble'.[2] According to Fred Clothey, Aiyanar is a Tamil adaptation of Aiyan, the chief deity of Ay chieftains who ruled parts of Kerala adjoining Tamil Nadu when both areas were collectively known as Tamilaham. He also states that the term Aiyar meaning a cow herd and a protector is an appropriate appellation for both the Ay chieftains and their deity.[2]

Another name for the deity is Aiyanar-Sasta or Sasta.[3] Sasta is a generic Sanskrit term for a teacher. In South India Sasta became deified starting from 855 C.Es. Sasta cult is particularly well developed in the state of Kerala where independent temples to Sasta are known from the 10th century CE. Prior to that Sasta veneration was within Shiva and Vishnu temples who are the premier gods of the Hindu pantheon. Sasta is also used to describe number of other deities. Brahma-Sasta is another name for Skanda and Dharma-Sasta is used to describe Ayyappa. Sasta also has a sanskriting legend that makes him the son of a union between Shiva and the female form of Vishnu.[2] Other names of Aiyanar include Gajavahana and Satavahana.[4]

Origins and development[edit]

The earliest reference to Aiynar-Shasta includes two or more hero stones to hunting chiefs from the Arcot district in Tamil Nadu. The hero stones are dated to the 3rd century C.E. It reads "Ayanappa; a shrine to Cattan." This is followed by another inscription in Uraiyur near Tiruchirapalli which is dated to the 4th century C.E.[5]

seated between his two wives

Literary references to Aiyanar-Cattan is found in Silappatikaram, a Tamil Jain work dated to the 4th to 5th century C.E.[4] From the Chola period (9th century C.E) onwards the popularity of Aiyanar-Shasta became even more pronounced.[3]


Ayyanar idols near Gobichettipalayam

An Aiyanar is usually represented either as a warrior on foot; or riding a white horse or elephant. He is also represented as seated between his two wives, carrying a sceptre or whip and wearing a meditation band, a cloth girdle circling the back and supporting the knees of a seated person, from the Sanskrit Yogapaţţa or Tamil Vāgupaţţai.[6]

Consorts and attendants[edit]

The Aiyanar is often represented with an escort, usually composed of the god's vassals, sometimes comprising demons. Consistent with this practice, terracotta horses are usually placed outside the temple. These are given up to the god as steeds for his night time perambulations. The attendant priest for the Aiyanar is generally the potter who fashions idols and clay horses and is a non vegetarian.[6]


Ayyannar Car festival (ஐயனார் திருத்தேர் Ayyaņār Tiruttēr), Thungapuram
Tamil folk artists presenting a Villuppattu near Tirunelveli during a festival (panguni uththiram) at an Ayyanar temple.
Ayyanar murti near Madurai

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.[7]

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.

Terracotta shrine figure of Aiyanar in the National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum, New Delhi

Aiyanar worship represents a 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 can be smooth and happy only if there is place to accept and accommodate every kind of people.

Aiyanar is often 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Indrapala, K., The evolution of an ethnic identity: The Tamils in Sri Lanka C. 300 BCE to C. 1200 CE, p.#
  2. ^ a b c Smith, B. L., Religion and Legitimacy of power in South Asia, p.6
  3. ^ a b Williams, J., Kaladarsana, p.62
  4. ^ a b Williams, J., Kaladarsana, p.66
  5. ^ Williams, J., Kaladarsana, p.67
  6. ^ a b 'A Folk Deity of Tamil Nad' by L. Dumont, in Religion in India ed. T.N. Madan
  7. ^ Mark Jarzombek. "Horse Shrines in Tamil India: Reflections on Modernity" (PDF). Future Anterior 4 (1): 18–36. doi:10.1353/fta.0.0031 


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