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The Terracotta Horse Temple - The Ayyanar Temple of Chettinad

Ever heard of a terracotta horse temple? Maybe you know them as the Ayyanar temples? No?

Well, I hadn't done it either until I ran into one near Karaikudi. After visiting this (The local name is Andavar Solai Temple), I look forward to visiting more Ayyanar temples from Tamil Nadu. If you're wondering why this sudden fixation on those temples - well, you just have to see for yourself.

Quirky and alive with the rows of terracotta horses, the Ayyanar Temple at Chettinad was very different from the other south Indian temples. I saw a picture of them in a hotel brochure. The picture and description really made me curious - enough to include it on my Karaikudi itinerary. And my goodness! The admission was worth it. My tour of Ayyanar Temple in Chettinad revealed many interesting things about the cultural sect. I am sure by the time you went through this virtual journey you will be just as fixated on visiting at least one Ayyanar temple in Tamil Nadu.

The legend of Ayyanar god

The mysterious Ayyanar god is a village deity (Grief Devatha) in different parts of Tamil Nadu and even SriLanka. It is believed that he protects his villages by riding a white horse or an elephant around them. The man with the high mustache is usually depicted with a blade in his hand and stands around his white stallion. In addition to protecting his territory, he blesses his village with prosperity and ensures that it gets enough rainfall and harvest for the year.

In addition to his graceful ride, Lord Ayyanar is often depicted alongside his helper - Karuppusamy. The helper is generally depicted as dark-skinned with a tiger by his side. In some cases, his two female wives, Purana and Pushkala, replace Karuppusamy. Purana is generally dark skinned and holds a blue lotus, while Pushkala on his left is fair and holds a noose.

The followers of Lord Ayyanar have their own religion and customs. One theory even believes that the famous Sabarimala god - Lord Ayyappan, evolved from the Ayyanar god. While it can be debated whether this is true or not, the fact remains that Lord Ayyanar is still thriving in the small villages of Tamil Nadu.

The tradition of the terracotta horses in the Ayyanar temple

With this mythological lesson, you would have got the connection between the terracotta horses and the Ayyanar temple. I bet you are wondering why so many horses are. Well, every year in March the followers of Ayyanar celebrate a great festival. During this festival - called the Maha Magam, the villagers offer these pretty clay horses to their master as a gesture of gratitude and love. For some, donating a horse is a way of asking for a blessing. You can even give an elephant instead of a horse.

Ayyanar Temple's terracotta horses are made by one of their greatest followers - the Potter community. Orders for the horses are placed months in advance. On the day of the festival, a small animal sacrifice (usually chicken) is brought and the blood for Lord Ayyanar is smeared on the horse. These symbols will be lined up in Ayyanar temples until next year when they are replaced.

Visiting my first terracotta horse temple - Andavar Solai temple

The only distinctive feature of an Ayyanar terracotta horse temple was built on the edge of a village, usually by a pond. This results from the belief that their master circles the perimeter of the village. Our hunt for the Andavar Solai Temple - the Ayyanar Temple in Chettinad - naturally led us to the edge of a village - Palathur. The Google Maps pin showed a spot in the middle of nowhere and that was enough to make my husband argue that we should skip it. However, my best puppy eyes and the logical justification that it is only 15 minutes from Kanadukathan Palace convinced him to give it a try.

There were no sights, no signs and no people around when we set off on the intended route. Fortunately, Google was right this time and we reached our destination in minutes. A quiet and beautiful village pond greeted us in the Andavar Solai Temple.

The colorful facade in the Ayyanar Temple in Chettinad

Smiling clay horses around the temple pond indicated that we were at the correct temple. Left shoes in the car, we literally jumped across the burned road to the colorful gates of the Andavar Solai Temple. The gopuram (temple gate) may not have been as elaborate as some of the south Indian ones like the Thanjavur temple, but the colors only added to its appeal. The bigger than life Dwarfs (Goalkeepers) dominated the facade, but it was the smaller carvings that piqued my interest.

Meet the rare Aadyanatha Prabhu - half Ganesha and half Hanuman. This unusual form of deity can be found all over Tamil Nadu - not necessarily in the Ayyanar Temple. Worshiping this form is almost like killing two birds with one stone. The Ganesha part represents bright and good beginnings, while Hanuman symbolizes the longevity of the good long after the bad is dead. To be honest, like at Ayyanar Temple, it was one of my first to meet this gentleman.

Sanctum Santorum of the Ayyanar Horse Temple in Chettinad

Young women are not allowed to enter the SanctumSantorum of the Ayyanar Temple in Chettinad. For the rest of the tour, I either had to stand on the edge of the restricted area or ask my husband to take some pictures. Like the villas of Chettinad, the ceilings of this temple were simply breathtaking. I particularly liked the green roof with the flower color at the entrance to the Sanctum Santorum.

Some of the other ceilings had a very 3D effect; especially with the lights in the center. Even the curtains over the plinths and eaves felt real. In general, this particular temple was quite well maintained and clean.

The clay horses of the Ayyanar temple in Karaikudi

On the other side of the Sanctum Santorum was the quirky clay horses of Ayyanar. These white clay creations along the border were devotional offerings for that particular year. With the next festival, new ones would take their place. Somewhere between these horses I could see a little elephant or two.

A large statue of the horse stood directly opposite the Ayyanar idol in the temple. This horse was permanent and was worshiped during the festival. Huge garlands would be made and placed over the horse. The blood of the sacrificial chicken would be applied to its forehead. Around the elephant stood figures of Lord Ayyanar himself with his assistant and the tiger.

Various bracelets were tied to the tree near the horse statue. They represented a ritual for women - possibly similar to Vat Savitri. However, there was no one to confirm this.

I would have loved to take a closer look at these terracotta horses, but decency and faith had to be respected. I was glad that I could see at least that much. However, this rare encounter with the Ayyanar Horse Temple made me curious about what the other larger temples would be. And now I bet you understand why I am going to chase the terracotta horses over Tamil Nadu.

Other Ayyanar temples in Tamil Nadu

After visiting the Andavar Solai Temple in Karaikudi, I did a little research on the popular Ayyanar temples in Tamil Nadu. Share the two that can be done from Karaikudi - just in case you make it to them before me.

Pudukottai Ayyanar Temple

This temple is also called the Perungaraiyadi Meenda Ayyanar Temple. It is around 70 km from Thanjavur and 40 km from Karaikudi. The temple is known for the largest horse statue in the world. This one is about 37 feet tall with his forelegs in the air. They say that over 1000 garlands cover the horse during the Magi Magan Festival - only the nose is visible.

Namanasamundram Ayyanar Temple

This can be done from Karaikudi as it is only 18 km away. The temple is said to be larger than the Andavar Solai Temple and has a combination of elephant and horse statues.

Well tell me - what do you think of these unusual temples? And remember to bookmark this! So that you have it to hand when you are out and about in Karaikudi.

How do I get to Ayyanar Temple in Chettinad?

  • Karaikudi has its own train station with very good connections to Chennai.
  • In terms of airports, the closest one can be found in Madurai or Tiruchirapalli. Both are 100 km away from Karaikudi. You can either hop on a public bus or rent a car to get to Karaikudi by road.
  • Once in Karaikudi, set your GPS for the Andavar Solai Temple and follow the route through the villages. The streets are narrow, but the direction is pretty accurate.

Travel tips

  • Please respect the culture of the temple. Take off your shoes at the entrance. You can leave them in your car instead of the temple gate.
  • Women are not allowed into the inner sanctuary, but they can be around the temple. Please note the same.
  • There is no entrance fee or donation in the temple.
  • For any type of travel shopping or even home shopping you can go to Amazon using this link.
  • Book your stay in Karaikudi through Booking.com. You have listed many historic hotels and guest houses.
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