History of Periyachi Amman
Picture Courtesy : Periyachi Pattima at SRI VEERA DURGAHAMBIGAI RAJA MUNISWARAR TIRU ALAYAM. TAMAN DAWN , JALAN TUN DR.ISMAIL, TEMPLER, SEREMBAN NSDK.
The history of Periyachi Amman is one of the most intriguing, interesting and fascinating pieces in Tamil religion. Periyachi Amman’s history is over 600 years old and her legacy is carried on mostly by Tamil diaspora in south east Asia. Unlike the Hindu Gods, this is an ancestor who is worshiped as God due to her heroic deeds.
Around 1400 A.D, Periyachi was a woman who was working as a maruthuvachi (doctor) in Kondithoppu village in Thondai Nadu (now Chennai, India). She was well known for her proficiency in delivering babies. It is also mentioned that she was well versed in martial skills such as sword fighting, and spear throwing.
In 1406 A.D, King Vallalan IV, the son of Rajanarayana Sambuvarayar III (1356 – 1375 AD) had been dethroned and was hiding in the jungle with his entourage. He had grown bitter and lost hope of recapturing the throne. He raided and plundered the nearby villages, and had become a bandit. His wife Kaarkuzhali, was about to deliver a baby.
Periyachi was dragged to the forest in the middle of the night to deliver the baby of Vallalan. It was a complicated delivery due to two reasons. One, it had to be done in the forest where there were no facilities. Two, Vallalan was a strong believer in astrology who believed that the baby should not touch the earth.
Periyachi performed this delivery skillfully. She put Kaarkuzhali on her lap while seated on a boulder in the forest. She delivered the baby by cutting open her abdomen (Caesarean section) and held the baby in one of her arms. At this point, both the mother and the baby were in good condition.
However, King Vallalan had other plans. He had been advised by his astrologer to kill the baby as well as anyone who touched the baby with their hands. This means that Periyachi should be killed as well. When Vallalan drew his sword out, Periyachi was enraged and showed her military prowess. She impaled his heart with a spear, and then put him under her legs to ensure his death. The wife who tried to help him, was disemboweled and Periyachi ate her intestines, in a fit of rage. During the entire time, she held the baby safely in her hand which was later brought up as her own child. She named him Seeralan.
Periyachi became a hero for killing the bandit who was terrorizing Thondai Nadu. She was praised by people for saving the baby’s life. During her lifetime, Periyachi became an icon among pregnant women. It is said that no matter what, Periyachi will ensure the safety of babies. Tamil folklore often praise her of being the best obstetrician and pediatrician.
Ingenious Tactic: Periyachi advocated that couples should not stay together during the Tamil month Aadi (July-August). Why? How could separation during a certain month be beneficial? If a baby was conceived during Aadi month, it would be born in the month of Chithirai (April-May) which is the height of summer in South India. The infant mortality rate would peak during this month, due to the scorching heat. This temporary separation is still practiced today in the name of faith, oblivious to the scientific principle.
Medical Enhancements: Periyachi is also known for creating several surgical instruments and enhancements in the field of medicine. Note that surgery was invented in India, around 6th century B.C. Her innovative instruments were depicted on the original Periyachi statues, although the current ones may not reflect history accurately.
Temple Or Memorial?
The first Periachi Temple was erected in Kondithoppu village, soon after her death around 1475 A.D. In modern days, it would have been called “Periyachi Memorial”. She was awarded the suffix “Amman” which comes from Tamil words “Amma Aana” (one who became mother). Her foster son Seeralan acted as the first priest of this temple. The temple was small with a crudely cut, single black stone. Note that the creation of memorials was an ancient Tamil tradition called “nadukkal”. Pregnant women and mothers with sick infants became regular visitors. Also, women who are infertile prayed to her to become pregnant.
Distribution Of Temples:
Periyachi Amman’s fame spread like wildfire and resulted in thousands of temples in South India, mostly in Tamil Nadu. Sporadic temples were also built in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. The first Periyachi Amman temple built abroad was in Malaysia in early 14th century, by Tamil traders now called Malacca Chitty. While Periyachi Amman statues are still in good shape in Malaysia and Singapore, her home country has neglected her in the past century. Periyachi Amman temples have become a rarity in Tamil Nadu, although some do exist.
Current Status of Periyachi Amman Temples:
Like most Tamil or Dravidian temples, Periyachi Temples are on a rapid decline. In Tamil Nadu, Periyachi Amman Temples have slowly been converted into Shakti or Kali temples in the past century. This is done to gain the “Agamic Hindu Temple” status, which is beneficial to acquire donations and Government funds. Chennai, her hometown, has no known Periyachi temples today. There are just a handful of temples in Tamil Nadu, particularly in Thiruvarur and Tiruvannamalai districts. These temples are on the verge of demolition, due to lack of funds. The current age Tamils do not support the ancient Tamil temples and often look down on them. Many Periyachi temples have been shut down or moved into jungles due to ban on animal sacrifices as well.
However, the Tamil diaspora who left centuries ago to Malaysia and Singapore have maintained her legacy abroad. In Malaysia, many of these temples have been demolished in the past decade. One of the most famous temple is located in Penang, Malaysia. It is called “Devi Sri Periyachi Amman Temple”. In Singapore, Periyachi resides as a secondary deity in Veeramakaliamman Temple and Mariamman Temple. Some temples are also present in Mauritius and Fiji. Dolls of Periyachi Amman are also sold in Little India, Singapore.
There are four phases in which women worship Periyachi actively.
Non – Pregnant Women: Ladies who are deemed infertile or who are longing to become pregnant pray to her everyday. Recently married women visit her temple and make a silent wish to become pregnant. The women wear black saris when visiting the temple and generally bring rice, meat or fruits and leave it near the statue. Unlike Hindu practices, these women are encouraged to eat meat or fish before visiting the temple.
Pregnant Women: As soon as women achieve pregnancy, they provide free food in the temple on the nearest Tuesday or Friday. 7 black saris are also donated on this day to other female devotees. Husbands also pray for the well being of the wives and the unborn children.
Newborn babies: 7 days after the baby is born, it will be placed at the feet of Periyachi Amman. The mother of the child will back away and leave the child for several minutes, to show her loyalty to Periyachi. It is believed that during this time, the Goddess talks to the baby and heals any sickness. A black hen will be sacrificed on the stone altar of the temple. This sacrifice is called “Karum Kozhi Padaiyal”. The flesh and blood of the hen will be placed near the Goddess and will then be cooked for the devotees.
Sick Children: Infants and toddlers who get sick often, or who are suffering from extreme conditions will be brought to the temple. They will be dressed in black clothes and will be asked to pray to Periyachi alone. In cases of unidentified sickness among children, the priest (kodangi) will go into a trance and give a solution. It is believed that Periyachi Amman’s psyche enters the priest’s body and provides a solution through him.
The Tamil month of Aadi (July-August) is famous for Periyachi Amman rituals. This is the time when the women stay temporarily separated from their husbands. The important days of worship are Tuesdays and Fridays.
Theemithi (fire-walking ritual): This ritual is performed mostly in evenings or nights. Men and women gather in front of an area where burning charcoal is setup on the floor. Devotees walk on this fiery patch to pay for their wrongdoings.
Entertainment: Different Tamil dances such as Karagaattam and Oyilaattam are performed inside the temple. Drama such as Therukoothu and Songs through Villupaattu are used to spread the history of Periyachi Amman.
Penance: Self imposed punishment for wrongdoings is also very common among devotees. Carrying fire pots with bare hands, tongue and skin impalement and flagellation are encouraged to get rid of devotees’ guilt.
Animal Sacrifices: This was a commonplace practice until the last 50 years, before Governments’ ban on such activities. However, goat and chicken sacrifices are still carried on secretly. Unable to perform animal sacrifices openly, many Periyachi temples have moved to jungles and have gained a “cult like” status.
Note that Periyachi Amman belongs to Tamil or Dravidian religion as opposed to the Hindu religion dominant in India. The name Amman comes from the Tamil words “Amma Aana”, meaning “the woman who became the mother”. A similar female figure, Madurai Meenakshi Amman built a fantastic temple in Madurai. The similar attachment given to Tamil male gods is “Aandi”, which comes from the word “Aandavan” which means ruler.
There is certain amount of confusion that she is Kali, a goddess of Hindu religion. This arises mostly because of the uneducated Tamil people who attach the name Kali to any fierce goddess. In the last few centuries, there has been lots of name changes due to this attachment. Therefore Periyachi Amman is sometimes even called Periyachi Kali Amman. This is similar to the name change of Veeramakali Amman, while the original name of the ancestor is Veerammal. A similar attachment called “Eeswaran” is given to Male Tamil gods as well, for example Muni is changed to Muneeswaran.
Another important point is the name change due to lack of education, and lack of passing on history to future generations. Periachi Amman is often erroneously spelled as “Pechai Amman”, “Pechi Amman”, etc.
In the current state of affairs, Periyachi temples would become extinct in another 50 years. The legacy of a great woman would be erased off the pages of history. Unless the Tamil people actively rebuild and renovate Periyachi Amman temples, the future generation will have no clue about this great hero. Unfortunately, the chances of rebuilding her temples are slim at best and it is quite possible that this immortal Goddess will in fact, perish.