Devotion to Mariamman

Doctrines India has always been a land of villages and in the context of village life the most important and powerful divine presence is the gramadevata, a deity identified with the village. A village may have several gramadevatas, each with its own function. Village deities are more numerous than Indian villages, though some are known throughout a region and one of these is the goddess Mariamman (Also called Mari, Mariamma, Maryamman. In the Puranas she is known as Marika.) who has devotees all over South India.
The village belongs to the goddess. Theologically she was there before the village and in fact she created it. Sometimes she is represented only by a head on the soil, indicating her body is the village and she is rooted in the soil of the village. The villagers live inside or upon the body of the goddess. The goddess protects the village and is the guardian of the village boundaries. Outside the village there is no protection from the goddess. The village is a complete cosmos and the central divine power of the village is the goddess. The relationship between the village and the goddess is primarily for the village as a whole and not for individuals. Mari can mean sakti, power, and amman is mother, so she is the mother-power of the village.
However, this relationship is not a simple one. In some places, Mariamman is invoked three times a year to regenerate village soil and protect the community against disease and death. Other places may have an important Mariamman festival. Mariamman is not a peaceful and benign goddess. She can be vindictive, inexorable, and difficult to propitiate. Essentially she is a personification of the world's natural forces, but specifically she is a goddess of smallpox, chickenpox, and other diseases. Her role is ambivalent for she both inflicts the diseases and protects the village from them. The onset of disease or disaster causes special worship or a festival of the goddess, for they are caused by demons let in because the goddess's defences have broken down or because the goddess is angry at being neglected. Mariamman reminds people that their ordered world can be shattered at any time and worshipping her makes one's view of reality less fragile. When the villagers are afflicted, so is the goddess invaded by demons. The villagers and the goddess are suffering the invasion of the village together and that is why one can say that the goddess causes the epidemic. The goddess suffers most but cannot contain it all and spreads it to the villagers, who help her deal with it. Mariamman is especially favourable at this time to those suffering from the disease, for they are helping her bear the burden of the demonic attack.
Blood offerings of animals are commonly sacrificed at festivals of Mariamman, but this is not invariably the case. Whitehead in his classic study The Village Gods of South India (1921) found at the village of Vandipaliam in Cuddalore district that at an annual festival of ten days to Mariamman no animal sacrifices were ever offered or on any other occasion at the shrine. At Shiyali in Tanjore district during the sacrifices of animals to other gods at the festival (of all the village gods) a curtain is drawn in front of Mariamman.

History One story about the origin of Mariamman is she was the wife of Tirunalluvar, the Tamil poet, who was a pariah, outcaste. She caught smallpox and begged from house to house for food, fanning herself with leaves of the nim or margosa tree to keep the flies off her sores. She recovered and people worshipped her as the goddess of smallpox. To keep smallpox away they hang nim leaves above the doors of their houses.
Another story involves the beautiful virtuous Nagavali, wife of Piruhu, one of the Nine Rishis. One day the Rishi was away and the Trimurti (an image with three heads representing Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva) came to see if her famed beauty and virtue was true. Nagavali did not know them and, resenting their intrusion, turned them into little children. The gods were offended and cursed her, so her beauty faded and her face became marked like smallpox. The Rishi returned, found her disfigured, and drove her away, declaring she would be born a demon in the next world and cause the spread of a disease which would make people like herself. She was called Mari, meaning 'changed.' Both stories are reported by Whitehead and he remarks that in Mysore he was told that Mari meant sakti, power.
Mariamman is an ancient goddess, whose worship probably originated in the tribal religion of Dravidian India before the arrival of the Aryans and the brahman religion. According to tradition, among the Dravidian mountain tribes as in Coorg in southern Karnataka, human sacrifices were offered to Mariamman. These were replaced with animals and as we have seen, in some villages no animal sacrifices are offered. Here we can see a historical gradation.
Local goddesses such as Mariamman who protect villages and their lands and represent the different castes of their worshippers have always been an important part of the religious landscape of South India. However, we can note periods of special significance. The eclecticism of the Vijayanagar period (1336-1565) encouraged folk religion, which became more important and influenced the more literate forms of religion. In the last century and a half there has been a rebirth of Tamil self-consciousness (see Devotion to Murukan). In the middle of the present century deities such as Mariamman have become linked to the "great tradition" as the strata of society which worship the goddess has become integrated into the larger social order.

Symbols At the centre and source of the village is a boddhu-rayee, navel stone, with which the goddess is associated. As mentioned in doctrines, the goddess may be represented by only a head on the ground, as her body is the village. To protect the village, shrines and symbols of the goddess are often placed at the boundaries of the village. These symbols are usually simple, rough, unhewn stones, five or six inches high and blackened with anointing oil, or there may be a stone pillar. If there are shrines these will often be crude simple structures.
Mariamman's colour is yellow and sometimes a stone is adorned with a yellow dress, only a small part of bare stone emerging at the top. Sometimes there is only a spear or trident thrust in the ground in place of the goddess-stones. In larger villages a slab of stone may be carved with a rough figure of a woman, who may have four, six, or eight arms, or none at all, and the arms hold various implements such as a knife, a shield, a drum, a bell, a devil's head, and a three-pronged fork. It is common to have a fixed stone image in the shrine and to use a small portable metal image in processions. Mariamman can be represented as riding naked on an ass with a winnow on her head and a broom and water-pot in her hands. Sometimes there is no image and the goddess is represented by a brass pot of water decorated with nim leaves. The nim tree is sacred to Mariamman. In poor villages an earthenware pot is used.
During the ceremonies of the goddess there is a symbolic marriage. Although the goddess is sometimes said to have a consort, she is really married to the village, so the goddess and village can nourish each other.
A blood sacrifice at her festival can appease the goddess to withdraw her anger symbolised as the heat of disease or it can symbolise the defeat of the invading demon. Traditionally a buffalo was offered. After it was beheaded, its leg was thrust into its mouth, fat from the stomach was smeared in its eyes, and a candle was lit on its head. It was then presented to the goddess. This humiliation of the victim symbolises the defeat of an enemy, the demon who causes the epidemic or disaster.
Village festivals are filled with symbolism. At a festival in Karnataka, the Mariamman image is first painted in bright colours and put in a shelter of nim leaves and a sheep sacrificed to placate the goddess. Then a he-buffalo is sacrificed by untouchables and the head put in a pit before Mariamman. The blood and parts of the buffalo are mixed with rice and put in a large basket. This is caraga and it is carried in procession by untouchables followed by other villagers carrying sickles and weapons to guard it. At other shrines sheep are sacrificed and mixed with the caraga, which is then sprinkled on the fields and along the boundaries of the village, thus regenerating the soil and protecting the village. Even vegetarian farmers believe that the soil needs blood and if it is not given then human lives will be taken.
Festivals without animal sacrifice may offer boiled rice, fruit, flowers, cakes and sugar, and incense and camphor are burnt. There is Abishegam, ceremonial washing of the image twice a day, with water, oil, milk, coconut milk, turmeric, rose water, sandalwood, honey, sugar, limes, and a solution of the bark of certain trees, separately in a regular order. The image of the goddess is carried twice a day on the shoulders of devotees around the village and there may be a car procession one day. Under brahmanical influence, the image can be towed around a tank.
At many festivals an important role is played by a Matangi, a low caste woman who is unmarried and holds the office for life. She is a living symbol of the goddess and becomes possessed by the goddess, dancing wildly, using obscene language, spitting at devotees, and pushing people around with her backside. The festival reverses social norms and the Matangi's behaviour, which would ordinarily be highly polluting, is purifying and people seek out her spit and insults.

Adherents Millions of villagers across South India worship Mariamman, especially in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Mariamman is one of the deities worshipped in almost every Tamil village. Nearly all members of a village participate in the goddess's festival, even brahmans and Muslims. The different castes to some extent mix freely. This is not the case in daily life. The ritual topography of a village in Karnataka, for example, has an inner village inhabited by the purest castes and the rest live outside this. The shrines of the goddess would be in the outside part of the village. The oldest, largest, and most important Hindu temple in Singapore is the Mariamman Temple, which was established early in the nineteenth century.
Pilgrims at a Mariamman festival wear mostly yellow, the colour of the goddess. Some men dress as tigers and other animals. Pilgrims may come because of a specific fear or debt or because one of their family has a disease associated with the goddess or they themselves have recovered from the disease. Particular castes are associated with Mariamman, such as fishermen and builders on the coast of Tamil Nadu. Pilgrims fast before the festival and bring offerings, such as money in a propitious amount, say one hundred and one rupees. Some pilgrims have made vows to Mariamman to walk on fire, carry burning pots on their heads, or perform covadi, when they swing suspended on hooks through their flesh.

Headquarters/
Main Centre
 There is no one main centre for Mariamman.