Envis Centre, Ministry of Environment & Forest, Govt. of India

Printed Date: Saturday, January 22, 2022

Sacred Animals of Tamilnadu

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sacred animals are found in various cultures throughout the world. In Tamilnadu, several animals have been considered sacred by one or more communities. The tradition of attributing sacred qualities to plants and animals may go back to the days of hunter-gatherers and shifting cultivation.

 

 

Sacred animals became the mounts of various Hindu gods and goddesses, symbolizing the character of the deity and integrated with the iconography. Sometimes animals developed sanctity by this association, such as the swan, eagle and bull who are the vehicles of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva respectively. Some of the animals are sacred themselves, such as Ganesha the elephant headed deity, Hanuman the monkey god and Naga the snake god.

 

 

The following are some of the animals considered sacred by the people of Tamilnadu

 

 

 

Peacock

 

 

 

Peacock (Indian Peafowl) is the national bird of India because of its continuing association with the life and culture of the people. Its status as the vahana of Subrahmanya or Kartikeya, son of Lord Shiva, and its role in Hindu mythology has offered it some protection over the years.

 

 

According to legend, once, when all the gods took the form of various birds, Lord Indra chose that of a peacock. Thus, when Indra brings rain to the earth, all the peacocks dance with joy. It has the ability to forecast rain by dancing at the first appearance of clouds. This led to its association with the goddess and its continuing veneration as an aspect of the earth Mother.

 

 

The Ramayana has many references to this bird. There is a belief that Sita was born from the egg of a peahen. It is also connected with Lord Krishna, who always wears peacock plumes and was often represented with peacocks.

 

 

The peacock was predominantly distributed in certain places and hence the place named after the bird. The examples include Mylapore in Chennai, Myladudhurai near Kumbakonam and Mayilam near Tindivanam. It is believed that the goddess Parvati performed penance in the form of a peahen (mayil) at Mylapore, where she worshipped Shiva. The Pallava Ruler Nandi Verman III bore the title of Mylai Kaavalan or the protector of the city of peacocks. Mayilam has a legend that the demon Soorapadman was destroyed by Skanda, assuming the form of a peacock. Soorapadman performed severe penance here and hence this place took the name Mayilam.

 

 

Today we cannot find any single peacock in any of these towns, because of development activities and urbanization. Viralimalai in Pudukkottai district area is said to abound in peacocks whose habitat is the sacred hillock where there is a temple dedicated to Lord Muruga.

 

 

There are 27 constellations (star) in Hindu astrology. Each star is associated with an animal or bird. Accordingly, peacock is associated with the Krithika nakshathiram. Thus this bird is not only associated with the deity but it also associated with a constellation (nakshathiram in Tamil).

 

 

 

Crow

 

 

Crows in Tamilnadu are associated with the goddess Alakshmi (goddess of ill luck). It is also a vahana of planet sani (Saturn). It is associated with the constellation (nakshathiram) bharani.

 

 

 

Cow

 

 

The most sacred of all the animals is the cow which is regarded as a substitute mother. She is Kamadhenu, the giver of plenty and all desires.

 

 

The gopuram (city of the cow) or entrance gate of the south Indian and South East Asian temples is derived from the early Vedic gate which was used to prevent the cattle from escaping. The original wooden gopuram is replicated in stone at Sanchi and travelled as far as China and Japan.

 

 

The Tamil word for cow is pasu, which also means animal in Sanskrit. Thus, the cow personifies animals in general, sanctifying all animals.

 

 

The cow is also associated with the constellations (nakshathirams) avittam and uthirattathi.

 

 

 

Buffalo  

 

 

 

The buffalo is the vehicle of Yama, the god of death. The female buffalo is considered to be an incarnation of Savitri. The Toda tribes of the Nilgiris in Tamilnadu were a pastoral people, their mode of subsistence based on raising buffaloes. The buffaloes (especially females) are sacred for the Todas, they occupy an important place in their rituals. The female buffalo is also associated with the constellation (nakshathiram) Hasthma and the male buffalo is associated with the constellation (nakshathiram) swathi.

 

 

 

Milk produced by the buffalo has ritual significance and is the only offering to the deity. The Todas construct a separate house, denominated as the temple to house the sacred buffalo and the priest who looks after the sacred animal.

 

 

 

Central to Toda religion are sacred places associated with the community’s dairy-temples, their buffalo herds, accessories and priesthood. These are not simply places where gods reside, but are themselves divine, the “gods of the places”. The outsider is strictly prohibited entering a Today dairy-temple which is located within the munds themselves.

 

 

 

Fruit eating bats (Indian flying fox)

 

 

 

Pazhamthinni vavval (Bats), commonly called Indian flying foxes (Pteropus giganteus), are considered sacred in Tamilnadu. Some populations of these fl ying foxes are protected because of their sacred status in and around Madurai, Tuticorin and Ramanathapuram districts of Tamilnadu. One colony of around 500 Indian fl ying foxes roosts in a huge banyan tree in the small village of Puliangulam, about 40 miles east of Madurai. An identical colony is found in Keelarajakularaman, Sri Vaikundam, and Ramanathapuram in Tamilnadu. The colonies are considered sacred and treated with special care.

 

 

 

According to the villagers, the bats seek protection from a Muniyandi (village deity) who dwells around the tree. They never disturb the bats and do not permit others to do so, even for a glimpse. It is the duty of all the villagers to protect the bat: if a villager fails to do so, even in circumstances beyond their control, they believe Muniyandi will punish him. Punishment can be rendered in the form of a business loss, an accident, or can be as severe as a death in the family. Those who are punished approach the God and seek forgiveness by offering prayer and pooja, a customary ceremony. After pooja sweet rice, coconut and banana are distributed to those in attendance. But while the live flying foxes must be protected at all costs, freshly dead bats found on the ground are consumed as food, but only after prayers are offered to Muniyandi, whose shrine is beneath the tree. However, bats in unprotected area are killed as a source of protein and also because they are thought to possess medicinal powers.

 

 

 

Snake

 

 

 

Snake worship is very popular in Tamilnadu. There are references in Sangam literature about people were offered assist to gratify the snake (Nagam) god who lived under the marudham tree (Terminalia arjuna).  Many places are named after the snake, such as Nagapattinam, Nagamalai, Nagarcoil and Nageswaram. There is a temple dedicated to snake god (Lord Nagaraja) at Nagarcoil in Kanyakumari district. Many stone images of snakes are still found inside the temple. The sacred tree of the temple is also the Naga pushpam (Couropita guinensis), which is symbolic of Nagaraja and is believed to be guarded by snakes. Innumerable devotees conduct their worship every Sunday and during the Anuradha constellation by offering milk and eggs.

 

 

 

Nagaraja is worshipped in the Nageswara swami temple at Thirunageswaram near Kumbakonam. It is believed that the Nagaraja took a bath in the temple tank, and thus it got the name Naga teertham (Sacred water).

 

 

 

Tamilians also worship the puthu (anthills), a residing place of snakes, and offer oblation on the auspicious days. Puthupet near Pondicherry is named after a sacred puthu.  

 

 

 

A temple at Sankarankoil in Tirunelveli district is popularly known as Pampoo koil (snake temple). Even today one can find many anthills with living cobras inside them.

 

 

 

Apart from this, worshipping the snake in the form of the Nagakkal is prevalent throughout Tamilnadu. A stone slab carved with a single or intertwined pair of cobras and groups of such stones are installed in temples and under the shade of peepal and neem trees in most villages of Tamilnadu. Some of the stones represent the Linga encircled by snakes with their hoods over it.

 

 

 

At Chintadripet in Chennai there is a temple known as Nagathamman temple. In the sanctum sanctoram, the main deity Amman is in nagapasam posture (an anthill over which there is a serpent which serves as an umbrella). There is a belief that an infertile woman can conceive if she offers prayer to the goddess Nagathamman. Vows are sometimes made at a snake shrine with the object of conception, and if a child is born, it is named Nagappa or Nagamma (Thurston, 1975). Killing a cobra is considered to be a sin in Tanjavur district and is believed to lead to the premature death of the killer’s children.

 

 

 

 

Brahminy kite

 

 

 

In Tamilnadu, it is known as Garuda. It is the vahana of Lord Vishnu and is said to be an embodiment of wisdom. Astrologically, Garuda is associated with constellations Maham and Pooram. The emerald stone traditionally deemed as the antidote to poison, is also associated with Garuda. He is not worshipped separately an independent god, but together with Vishnu. In some temple there is a separate shrine for Garuda.

 

 

 

At the temple of Vedagiriswarar situated on top of the hill Thirukazhukundram, there is a tradition that two Brahmany kites visit the temple on the hill every noontime when they are fed. Thus, the place is named Thiru Kazhukundram. Besides, places such as Kazhugumalai are named after the Brahmany kite or Garuda.

 

 

 

It is believed that this bird is the remover or destroyer of obstacles. It is worshipped by the farmers and merchants every Thursday after 6 p.m (evening) in order to obtain wealth and prosperity.

 

 

 

 

Boar

 

 

 

In Tamilnadu there is a temple dedicated to the boar at Srimushnam near Vridhachalam in Cuddalore district. It is supposed to be a suyambuvakta kshetram. Srimushnam’s presiding deity is Lord Bhuvaraha. Because of this, it is also called Varaha kshetram. The icon is made of saligrama stone and is also called Yagna Varahan. However, the utsavamurti does not resemble a wild boar in deference to the desire of Varaha’s consort. This is the only place where all the deities are Varaha.

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

 

 

 

The relationship between each animal and its supporting deity is an intricate web, the unravelling of which will be a fascinating exercise going back two thousand years. Many of these relationships are lost in the mists of time. As a result, the sanctity attached to several contemporary sacred animals remains unexplained or untraced.

 

 

 

 

There are umpteen instances of sacred animals all over the Tamilnadu. This was an ancient Indian tribute to the contribution of animals to the environment and development. This tradition needs to be nurtured as part of our ecological heritage.