Arriving at one of the sacred groves in the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu is quite a surreal experience. We expected to be confronted by ticket booths and all the rest that you get in tourist sites in India, but not at all.
There is a rather grand entrance, but nobody, apart from the odd monkey and a few grazing goats – the place is completely silent.
As you walk down the dusty pathway, lined with terracotta horses, elephants and other figures of various ages, you start to realise the scale of the place.
The next thing that hits you is the almost total silence – we only saw a man tending his goats for the whole time we were there – which adds to the almost mystical atmosphere.
At the end of the pathway, flanked all the way with terracotta statues, many with flower garlands or bright textiles placed on them, is a shrine to the earth deity named Ayannar.
A black statue of Ayyanar stands among flower garlands, candles and offerings of fruit and rice. All of the flowers look fresh, so it is clear that it is visited often by praying villagers, but none were to be seen. In fact, on closer inspection, the monkeys had eaten the fruit and left the empy skins on the shrine.
You feel alone here, but it’s not a scary alone, it could be the multitude of eyes of the statues that follow your every move, or it could be the absolute silence.
It seems that every village in this region has some sort of Ayyanar shrine, always on the edge of the village , which they worship in duality with worship in the Hindu temples in the centre of the villages.
Ayyanar is a god who rides a white horse and protects the villagers from evil spirits – at night he is believed to patrol the village on his horse.
The cult of Ayyanar predates Hinduism and probably dates back to the 3rd century. Some of the statues here clearly look Hindu, even the statue of Ayyanar at the shrine had a red Bindi, but none of the Ayyanar statues have entered Hindu shrines.
The best way to get here is by driver, Ellangudipatti lies around 8 kilometers from Pudukkottai, about 120 kilometers from Madurai, 390 kilometers from Chennai and about the same from Kochi.
If you are in the area, then you are probably here to visit the elaborate houses of Chettinad, but do go and visit another pretty unique place with cave temples on a mountainside at Vijayalaya Choleeswaram in Narthamalai.
Final thoughts & recommendations
This is an almost must-see place to visit while on your travels, not only for the quiet beauty and heritage, but also for the uniqueness – there really is nothing like this anywhere, but in Tamil Nadu.
Take water with you and something to eat as there are no facilities for tourists here, which makes it an even better experience.
After visiting Ellangudipatti, explore the outskirts of other villages in the area as you are sure to find other sacred groves and statues dedicated to Ayyanar.
In summer, at a time decidied by the village elders, a festival is where the newly-made terracotta horses and statues are carried in a procession from the kilns where they are baked to the village’s Ayyanar shrine. The terracotta statues are placed beside others from past years, so that Ayyanar might grant the village bountiful rains and good harvests.
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