The peacock is the national bird of India.


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.


The gopurum over the temple of the village Goddess

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.


A different temple, in Karnataka, dedicated to another village Goddess, Renuka

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 

Land of sacred anthills

The sacred anthill at Puthupet
The sacred anthill at Puthupet

Gold and red cloths are draped around the sacred anthill, with a blue one near the top.  Posters stand on thin stakes.  Nearby colored cloths hang from the branches of a sacred tree, some enclosing written prayers.  A trident stands in front of the anthill, where village people have placed their offerings of incense and flowers.

The anthill is near the entrance of the ancient grove of Puthupet, not far from the coast of the Bay of Bengal, near Pondicherry, on the east coast of India.  Really, it’s a termite hill, but these are commonly called anthills, and the insects are called white ants.  The home they have built is elaborate, several yards (meters) across—and rising maybe five feet (one and a half meters) high; it is home not just to ants, but to many other creatures as well, notably cobras.  It is known that cobras do often live in the anthills.

The trees form strange shapes

Everything here appears to be sacred, and the respect accorded the grove is no doubt the reason that it all continues to exist.  The sacred grove of Puthupet is thousands of years old.  It used to be that all of India was dotted with sacred groves and forests.  Some of these do still exist, and some have been reconstructed, but many have, sadly, been neglected in this modern age when the old ways are followed less than they used to be, and the lure of more secular life beckons.

A botanist with the C.P.R. Environmental Education Center has done studies of these sacred groves all over south India, and it seems that Mr. Amirthalingam knows every plant and tree—not only both their common and scientific names, but also the traditional medicinal use that they may have. (Perhaps he knows them individually too—one wouldn’t be surprised!) Of the thick, turning vines that wind themselves into fantastic shapes, he says that they are a thousand years old at least.  Puthupet covers an area around 40 acres (16.2 hectares).

As we walk along a broad path, to the left lies a shrine made of concrete—perhaps twenty feet long  (six meters) by ten feet wide  (three meters).  Along the span of one wall are lined up many impressive, standing terra cotta figures. These are the spirit Ayyanaar and his band of brothers.  He reminds me a bit of Robin Hood, as a folk hero, though that may be a mistaken comparison.

Every night Ayyanaar rides around the perimeter of the village with his companions,  encircling the village and the grove to protect them.  Most often he rides on a horse, though sometimes on an elephant instead.  A family is there at the shrine, with three children, to leave offerings to honor Ayyanaar.

Children, with their family, making offerings

As is true of ravens everywhere, the black and gray ravens of India are garrulous; they are having a cheerful squabble over a bit of food.  Not far away, a statue of the mythical swan, Hamsa, looks on, detached.  The stone she is made of is black from the incense offered to her.  The flight of the Hamsa recalls the escape of the soul from the wheel of life and death.

Hamsa, the mythical swan

Ahead is an army of horses in a clearing beside some stalls where offerings are being sold. Hundreds of horses—big and small ones.

Ayyanaar, his little dog by his side, along with a lion, under one of the horses

They can be bought and given as offerings to Ayyanaar, I guess to help him with his nightly rounds.  Under one of the horses, Ayyanaar stands, along with a friendly-looking lion and a dog at his feet. On the ground in one of the stalls where a man is standing—(it’s not clear to me whether he is a village priest or an artisan who makes the terra cotta horses—or maybe he is both)—are standing off to the side three stone snake statues; each one is two snakes, entwined together.

Sacred snakes in stone

Dr. Nanditha Krishna, the Honorary Director of CPREEC, who is an authority on the iconography of Tamil Nadu, says that the snake is a symbol of fertility and of wealth that comes from the earth. “The snake knows the secrets of the earth.”  On the back of his head the cobra has markings that resemble eyes.

A Hindu god normally has a snake to exemplify power or knowledge; for example, Shiva wears a snake around his neck, and Vishnu reclines on a snake.  Ganesha, the elephant god, wears a snake as a belt—a living snake, of course.  Kartikeya has both a snake and a peacock.  A snake canopies the head of Shakti, the Mother Goddess.

From the nearby village and from farther away, people come every Tuesday and Friday to make offerings to the sacred beings of the grove.  They bring a rice dish called pongal and offer lighted lamps.  Animal sacrifices can still sometimes take place in India, but not here. At Puthupet all the offerings are vegetarian.

17 varieties of vines grow in the grove, along with 12 different herbs, 20 species of shrubs and 42 different kinds of trees.  Dogs lie happily in the shade that falls from the plants.  A young girl is collecting fallen branches for firewood, along with her little brother.

The grove seems immensely peaceful, a place well-cared for and protected—thanks to Ayyanaar and his nightly rounds—and thanks to the respect and reverence that local people feel for that which is sacred in nature.

On the way north outside of Puthupet, we pass huge salt fields where men and women are collecting salt and drying it in large mounds.  There is a lot of salt available in these areas not far from the coast.

One of the ancient trees, with Mr. Selvapandian of the CPREEC

Puthupet is one of very few ancient sacred groves that have lasted intact through the centuries.  Next we will visit one that has been restored and brought back to life again.  Nenmeli, like so many others, had been neglected and forgotten and had become a wasteland, until it was restored by CPREEC, who have restored 50 sacred groves in south India.

To visit the website of the C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre, go to <>

To read the story of Nenmeli, scroll down to the one before the previous one.

Photos: Sharon St Joan