Tamil Nadu is an agricultural state in Southeast India with many villages. Village life—to the inhabitants’ detriment, benefit or both—often appears to me to preserve centuries of tradition in spite of modern amenities like vehicles and electricity. In Tamil Nadu, India, we visited a couple of village shrines to the deity called Ayyanar. These simple shrines are found in uncultivated areas like small woods, whose trees are not especially ancient except perhaps for a few old, revered trees. Often those old trees provide the site for the Ayyanar shrine and other devotions.
These photos were taken at a remote shrine that we got to by following some back roads past fields and woods (with our driver stopping frequently to ask directions.) The terra cotta animals in this shrine looked very old: as if they have been offered, renewed and rearranged for centuries.
As I understand it, Ayyanar is a local village god who rides through the village at night to protect the inhabitants. The shrines are entered via avenues of terra cotta horses and other animals. The avenue is then marked by a gateway that contains larger, freshly-painted statues. The newest terra cotta horses are grouped near the shrine itself. (I didn’t photograph the idol of the deity itself; I remember a small, black, fairly unremarkable statue of a man.)
Perhaps someday I’ll have a conversation with someone who has lived in one of these villages and can tell me more about some of the ways that people relate to these shrines and their very local deities. At this point I can only speculate about the fears and hopes of village inhabitants throughout the centuries, and the comfort and reassurance that might have resulted from occasionally hearing soft, rapid hoofbeats going past the house in the middle of the night.