How to cure chicken-pox – The Muttaiamma festival

Fire pot for Muttaiamma

This festival, which lasts for four days, is specific only to the two villages closest to where we live – Athoor and Akkarapatti – and two days ago was the main day for celebrating.  The festival is in honour of ‘Chicken Mother’, the goddess who is believed to be able to cure you of illness, particularly of chicken-pox.  (In Tamil ‘muttai’ means egg and ‘amma’ means mother).  Regardless of your views on the Hindu pantheon (see my earlier post about Ganesh) there was a great deal of devotion and spirituality on display at this festival.

I was privileged to be invited along to join the celebrations and share in a family meal afterwards.

This is a family festival, as are all Indian celebrations, and these children have the day off school to attend.

An extra day off school!

Each village closes its school for the local festivals but have to make up the time elsewhere so that all schools are open for the same number of days during the year.

In the evening the goddess will be paraded around the village in this vehicle, and those who have taken part will share in a special dish made from seven varieties of rice, dhal and beans.

Bathing in the river

But first the main participants will bathe in the local river (the level rather low now that summer is here!) with their family supporters looking on and drummers creating a rhythmic backing.

Each participant carries a clay pot of fire from the river to the temple, over a kilometre away.  To create the fire they burn neem wood and ghee (clarified butter).

The pots are carried in the bare hands – no gloves – and everyone is milling around to try to stay close to family and friends. 

There seems to be no such thing a ‘health and safety’ at a celebration like this!

 It takes incredible devotion to carry two of these pots at the same time.

Circling the temple

 All of those carrying the pots (both men and women) wear garlands of flowers.  Once they reach the centre of the village they walk once around the temple before going inside.

Inside the temple

 The interior of the temple is very hot and filled with smoke (hence the poor quality of the picture!).  The pots are taken to the altar for a blessing and then the people move back outside.

This pot is being carried by Satish who works for us at Lakeside. 

To show her devotion this woman is being rolled along the ground around the temple.  I don’t know if she was rolled all the way from the river or just at the temple – I had varying explanations!

As you can see, her clothing is wet.  This is not just from the river but because we had our first rain of the year that day too – a very auspicious sign for the festival.

Using neem leaves to protect from burns

There are obviously burn injuries during the festival where people brush up against the pots, or just from carrying them.  The burns are treated with crushed neem leaves; this man is using neem leaves to carry his pot (he has probably already burned his hands). 

The neem is a large tree (growing up to 35 metres tall) and is valued for its medicinal properties – hence its use at the festival of a healing goddess.

The pots are carried from the temple to the other side of the village where they are floated on ponds.

As evening draws nearer this family are watching the father take the pot down to the water.  The Sirumalai hills make a perfect backdrop.

This young boy has just recovered (or maybe just recovering?) from an illness, possibly chicken-pox, and has been painted to attract the mother-goddess’ attention and to ask for her healing.  He is wearing bundles of neem leaves.

The pots are carried into the water and carefully floated on the surface.

If you look closely you can just see our ‘little blue boy’ on the right hand side of the picture.

The paint is washed off of the boy by his father whilst prayers are said for his recovery and in thanks to the goddess.

After releasing their pots the participants have a final ritual bath in the water.

Offerings to Muttaiamma

 To see the pots floating on the water in the gathering dusk is a truly beautiful sight.

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