Mylapore means land of the peacocks. “Mylai” means peacock. It is the oldest section of the city of Madras, in Tamil Nadu, and it was once a village surrounded by forests where peacocks roamed.
There are written records of this village going back to the first century BC.
In Mylapore, there is a small, simple temple to the original village Goddess Mundakanni Amman. Amman means Mother Goddess.
On the left of the courtyard is the sacred temple tree, an old banyan tree. Packed tightly around the foot of the tree are many small stone statues; most, except for one or two ganeshas, are nagas – naga is the snake god, a fertility god. The stone statues and the prayer cloths tied around one of the branches are offerings given to the tree along with prayers for the birth of a child.
When children are born or when a couple is newly married, they are presented to the village Goddess for a blessing.
At the center of the temple, the Goddess sits, a tiny figure who looks very much like a rag doll. Around her is a big metal structure, maybe eight feet high and eight feet across — a metal covering over stone, which forms a sort of halo around the Goddess.
Half a dozen worshippers stand nearby as the priests perform the daily puja for the little sitting Goddess. First she is given a bath as they pour over her curd, coconut milk, and honey. One of the priests breaks coconuts on the stone floor with a loud cracking sound. After her bath, they drape over her a clean cloth, with a lovely pattern. One can see clearly poking out from under the cloth, which is her dress, two small feet – the feet of the Goddess.
The woman standing beside me presents another beautiful cloth to the priest, and it too is placed on the Goddess as another dress. She has three dresses altogether. The priest sings a chant. Two of the devotees standing on the right have brought a child to be blessed.
Above is a roof over this part of the temple where the Goddess sits; it is a simple thatched roof, the kind people have over their homes in rural Indian villages today.
Singing a chant, the priest waves his offering tray in circles before the Goddess.
The tray holds the sacred fire and a little container of kum kum, which is powdered turmeric and lime. When the priest goes around to each of a half dozen worshippers, he places some of the powder in their hands, and they in turn place it on the center of their forehead as a way of receiving the Goddess’s blessings. There is a little container of ash on the tray where one may put an offering of money. Bananas are also offered to the Goddess, and lovely pink and lavender flowers are given to the worshippers.
Then one can circumambulate the temple, going in a clockwise direction, all the way around back behind the walled thatched roof section. Directly in the rear are the remains of a very, very old tree. Only part of the trunk has survived. This was the earlier sacred tree, now replaced by the other one in front.
There is also to one side an alcove for the seven sacred mothers; also doll-like figures, they stand in a row and have a place in many Indian temples.
In a small alcove apart is a single naga stone statue, bearing the outline of a snake. There one may pause to worship the divine naga.
Further along is another old tree, with only the trunk remaining, stretching up through the roof. This one is a neem tree.
Around in the front again, there are thirty to forty women sitting on the ground, who have been there the whole time – off to the right of where the main statue of the Goddess is. The women hold hymnbooks and sing hymns to another icon of the Goddess, who is in front of them; this icon is not made of stone, but entirely of metal, and this is the one that is carried in processions through the streets. The stone statues are the primary sacred forms of the deities; they always remain inside the temple and are never taken outside.
At the exit to the temple, is a little pail in which are pieces of paper. These are for wrapping up the extra kum-kum (what remains after having put the dot on one’s forehead) so it can be saved for later blessings since it is sacred and comes from the temple.
The little village Goddess, Mundakanni Amman, has been here in her home for perhaps two thousand years, perhaps longer, perhaps forever. Each day she is bathed, dressed in new clothes, and given food to eat. She receives the requests of, and imparts blessings and the answers to prayer, to her worshippers, like the Mother Goddess that she is, in a spirit of immense kindness and innocence, sweet and gentle like the scent of the offering flowers and the drifting incense.
Top photo: Wikimedia Commons / author: Jebulon / GNU Free Documentation License
Second photo: Sharon St Joan
Third photo: Wikimedia Commons / released into the public domain by its author, Manjunath Doddamani Gajendragad at the wikipedia project