Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Origin of Goddess Marriammen

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The Origin of Goddess Mari Amman

Goddess Mari Amman is revered and worshiped widely among Tamil villagers across Sri Lanka and South India, where she is regarded as having the power to bestow or remove life-threatening fevers like smallpox and chicken pox. Despite Mari Amman’s great popularity to this day, the origins of her cult remain obscure. The oral tradition concerning her origin, however, may be summarized as follows:

In ancient India there once lived a rishi named Jamadhakni together with his sahadharmini (nowadays called ‘wife’) Renuka Devi and their four sons. They had built an ashram on the bank of the river Ganges, the holy river descended from the heavens in Hindu mythology, where they lived an austere but happy life spent in prayer, worship and meditation.

Jamadhakni would customarily wake up from sleep as early as 4 a.m. and ask Renuka Devi to bring a vessel of water from the Ganges for his early morning pujas. Rishis like Jamadhakni would perform pujas and meditation between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m., which is known as Brahma Muhurtham, i.e. before sunrise. It is said that, after the sun rises, the sun god takes half the punyam or blessings accrued from one’s pujas. So the ideal time for pujas is before sunrise.

Renuka Devi used to go down to the Ganges empty handed, without any vessel, and due to her tapa balam or benefits obtained through austerities, she would wade through the waters of the Ganges, collect riverbed mud, mould an earthen pot on the spot, and use it to bring water for her husband’s pujas. This miracle was a daily occurrence.

One day as she entered the Ganges, however, she happened to see in the water the reflection of a Gandharva flying nearly over her head. Her mind seized upon the beauty of that Gandharva and inwardly she retained his image. Her mind began to waver, as she reflected that there were also handsome young men in the world, whereas her husband and his fellow rishis were old men having long matted hair and gray beards.

In the process, Renuka Devi’s inward chastity collapsed and, on account of this, she found that she was unable to mould a clay vessel out of the riverbed mud. Without wasting any further time she went back to her husband and expressed her inability to mould the earthen vessel.

Jamadhakni prayed to God Shiva, and came to know the reason for her being unable to mould the vessel. Accepting the command of Lord Shiva, he decided to punish her severely— by beheading her.

He ordered their sons—first, second and third—to behead their mother Renuka Devi. But all refused, pleading that there was no precedent. However, their fourth son, Parasurama, agreed to carry out his father’s severe order. At once, Parasurama, the avatar of Maha Vishnu, beheaded his mother with his axe weapon.

On beheading his mother, Parasurama turned to his father and said that he had carried out the order. Jamadhakni was pleased and offered to grant his son Parasurama a boon befitting the heavy task assigned to him.

On being assured that the boon would surely be granted, Parasurama requested that his mother be back to life. Jamadhakni, though indignant at the outset, was compelled to grant the boon to maintain his word.

Jamadhakni said that the water for that day’s puja had not yet been fetched. However, a remnant of the previous day’s puja water kept in a kabandalam (vessel with handle and spout) was found and sprinkled on Renuka Devi’s body, attaching the severed head.

On sprinkling water on the head and torso, Renuka Devi came back to life. However Jamadhakni told her that she no longer had any place in the ashram as she was an incarnation of goddess Parvati, henceforth called Mari Amma by order of Lord Shiva.

Renuka Devi, or rather Mari Amma, was starting to leave the ashram when from a distance an army of brigands approached Jamadhakni asking for drinking water. The rishi was now in deep meditation (dhyana) and could not hear the tumult. The warlord of the brigands turned wild and told his followers to cut off the head of the rishi, which they did. Since Jamadhakni died in a sacred place surrounded by ashrams, his body could not be kept for long and, accordingly, a funeral pyre was built and his body was cremated.

Renuka Devi, on seeing her husband’s body being burnt, returned and leaped upon the funeral pyre, as a last mark of respect for her rishi husband. Indra from heaven ordered Varuna, the rain god, to drench the fire with sudden heavy rain so that the fire would be extinquished. But in the meantime, Renuka Devi had been severely burned and her dress was also burnt partly.

Then, badly burned but still alive, Renuka Devi managed to walk to a nearby village where, on seeing her familiar face, the villagers made her lay on a long plantain leaf coated with castor oil and applied turmeric powder and neem leaves. One woman touched Renuka Devi and, finding her feverish, ordered that she should be given tender coconut water and butter milk. Then Renuka Devi went to the next village inhabited by washer men who, upon seeing Renuka Devi’s burnt sari, offered her a pure white sari and a red sari that is normally worn by Mari Amma.

On descending from Mount Kailasa, Lord Shiva appeared before Renuka Devi and pronounced her as none other than Uma Devi, Parameswari or Jagadeeswari. Ever since then, Renuka Devi has been called Mari Amman and other names according to local traditions. Because of her association with burning fever, Goddess Mari Amman is respected as omnipotent in every village, guarding people from severe fevers like small pox and chicken pox.

Velamur Veeraraghavan Seshadri (b. 1925) toured villages of Tamil Nadu for twelve years from 1983-95 with Samayapuram Mariamman, singing bhajans and expounding Hindu religious principles. He presently serves as Administrative Officer of Sri Teyvayanai Amman Temple, Kataragama, Sri Lanka.

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