By Sharon St Joan
Going up a dirt pathway from the road, one comes to a sacred ant hill.
The tall ant hill looks a bit like a yellow rock with many shapes and indentations. Inside it termites live, called white ants. One doesn’t see any of the white ants, only the mound itself, and cloths that have been tied, with reverence, around it. Inside cobras live too, who come and go as they please – the cobras also are not visible, but they are sacred – invisible presences of the earth.
This particular sacred ant hill represents Ponni Amman, the Rice Goddess. Her worship here at this site is very ancient going way back before any of the nearby temples were carved into the rocks in the eighth century during the time of the early Pallava kings. It’s unclear how long the sacred anthill has been here, perhaps for centuries. Maybe the white ants build and rebuild it.
Off to the left, up a short incline, is the tiny opening to a cave in the rock. The adventurous may climb up, then lying down, may look in through the small entrance to catch a glimpse of the real Ponni Amman in the form of a natural stone inside in the darkness. This stone has been worshipped here for thousands of years.
The sign below by the road says “Panchapandavar Malai,” meaning the hill of the rock-cut cave temples. One of these is an ancient rock-cut Jain temple a few hundred yards away. The hills here are covered with great granite boulders, and this region is the source of the stone used to make all the temple icons in Tamil Nadu.
The city of Vellore lies at a driving distance from Chennai (Madras) of 137 kilometers (85 miles). The Vellore District is just northwest of the Kanchipuram District.
Evidence has been found of the cultivation of rice in the Vellore area going back to around 4,000 B.C. Going south through Tamil Nadu, the entire countryside is covered in miles and miles of green paddy fields, where people tend the rice carefully by hand. Also widely grown in the northeast of India – and nearly everywhere in Asia, except in the most northern countries — rice is the stable food of hundreds of millions, perhaps two billion, of the world’s people.
Nearby, in the town of Arunkundram, is a little temple dedicated to Ponni Amman. Closed at first, it opened later, and the priest performed a puja for the Goddess. Inside were the icons of the Seven Mothers – the seven forms of the Goddess, with one of these being Ponni Amman. To the left of the front entrance was the head of Ponni Annam – just the head standing alone — and this is a distinctive portrayal of this Goddess which one finds in numerous fields and temples. The reason that the head sits directly on the ground is because the body is Mother Earth, who provides rice and food for the whole world.
The Tamil word for rice is “arisi” and is the source of the English word and most European words for rice; the word “rice” first appeared in English in the middle of the thirteenth century.
In her book A Compendium of Essays on Indian Iconography, Dr. Nanditha Krishna writes, in the essay Ponniyamman, A Tamil Rice Goddess from South India that Ponni is a particular variety of rice widely grown in Tamil Nadu; the Tamil name means “like gold” because rice is so necessary for survival. The River Kaveri is also named Ponni, and perhaps this variety of rice took its name from the river, who is also a Goddess.
Long ago, when a tributary of the Kaveri River flowed through the land of Thondaimandalam in this region, there were severe floods one year. After the villagers set up a statue of Ponni Amman near Kanchipuram and prayed to her, apparently she listened because the floods halted.
Throughout the Kanchipuram and Vellore Districts and also in Madras are several temples to Ponni Amman, where she is worshipped as an incarnation of Mother Earth, who gives life and sustenance to all her children.
Worshipping Mother Earth as a sacred ant hill or as a stone form in a hillside cave may seem like a rather quaint idea. But if we think about it – suppose one day we all woke up with a renewed reverence for Mother Earth, maybe we as a species would stop destroying the planet – thereby freeing the wild animals, the earth, the air, the oceans and ourselves from impending doom, and then a whole host of the problems that beset us would be gone, like the wind.
Photos: Sharon St Joan
© 2016, Sharon St Joan