Hinduism Māriyammaṉ
by
Perundevi Srinivasan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 October 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0067

Introduction

Māriyammaṉ is a goddess, widely worshipped in Tamilnadu in South India. Although she has been predominantly identified as the smallpox goddess, she is said to govern approximately fifteen varieties of contagious afflictions, including chickenpox, German measles, and herpes. The goddess is believed not only to cause and cure these afflictions but also to “arrive” upon humans during these afflictions. In her association with pox afflictions, she is similar to Śītalā, a goddess worshipped in connection with poxes in northern and eastern India. During Māriyammaṉ’s “arrival” in the form of affliction, the house of the afflicted person receives a distinct mark in the form of a bunch of margosa twigs hung over the entrance to indicate the goddess’s “presence” at the house. Margosa is special to the goddess, and one often comes across this plant in her iconography, myths, and rituals. In addition to her worship during affliction, the goddess is also celebrated in connection with rain, as indicated by the Tamil term māri, which means rain. On the occasion of drought, it is a common practice to conduct a festival at Māriyammaṉ’s temple, with special prayers to her to bestow rain. Even though Māriyammaṉ is often referred to as a “village goddess,” worship of her prevails in towns and cities as well, cutting across caste and family lineages. Further, Māriyammaṉ’s deep-rooted and distinct connection with a locality or place is reflected in names such as “Bannari Māriyammaṉ” and “Collector Nagar Māriyammaṉ,” where Bannari and Collector Nagar refer to a small town and a neighborhood, respectively, in Chennai. Like place names, her attributes also form part of her name. For instance, karu, meaning “dark” in the name KaruMāriyammaṉ, indicates her dark complexion. At the same, the name also indicates her vengeful nature as a black cobra on the one hand and her compassionate nature as a dark rain-bringing cloud on the other, as her myths articulate.

Early Ethnographies

Māriyammaṉ finds a cursory reference as a tutelary deity in charge of a locale or a village deity in early ethnographies. Such references occur mostly in the context of her worship in relation to epidemic and disease in Tamilnadu. Dubois 1906 does not include Māriyammaṉ in its classification of Hindu deities but speaks of the prevalence of her worship in connection with smallpox. Caldwell 1887 derides the worship of female deities, including Māriyammaṉ, in relation to pestilences. Whitehead 1976 refers to her as the goddess of smallpox in “Tamil country” and provides a story and description of worship practices, including annual festivals at temples and a special invocation of the goddess during epidemics in the Tamil villages. Ziegenbalg 1984 includes her in its list of village goddesses and brings out her connection with diseases, by referring to her as the “mother of death, or of contagious diseases.”

  • Caldwell, Robert. “On Demonology in Southern India.” Journal of the Anthropological Society of Bombay (1887): 91–105.

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    Refers to Māriyammaṉ in the category of demons that are “semi-divine and semi-diabolical beings” and as a goddess belonging to a religious system in contrast to Sanskritic Brahmanical religion.

  • Dubois, Abbe J. A. Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies. Translated by Henry K. Beauchamp. Oxford: Clarendon, 1906.

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    Mentions her as a “cruel smallpox goddess” and briefly discusses a few pain-inflicting debt vows, such as hook swinging, conducted toward her. Originally published in French in 1806, the work was revised and enlarged by Dubois in 1821.

  • Whitehead, Henry. The Village Gods of South India. Delhi: Sumit, 1976.

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    Briefly discusses Māriyammaṉ worship in the Cuddalore, Tanjore, and Trichy districts. Also refers to the annual festival of Māriyammaṉ temple in Kannanur, near Trichy, specifically to the practice of bringing and leaving animals and birds, such as goats, cows, chickens, parrots, and pigeons, live at the temple. Originally published in 1921.

  • Ziegenbalg, Bartholomaeus. Genealogy of the South-Indian Gods. New Delhi: Unity Book Service, 1984.

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    Briefly discusses her iconography and temple structure; daily offerings; guardian deities (“demons”), such as Kāttān; her rule over smallpox and spirit possession; and temple festivals. Originally published in 1713.

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