The name Murugan is only one of over 100 names by which this God is known. In the North, he is called Karthik, the warrior. In the South, he is Murga, the wild man of the hills. With so many distinct manifestation, he is not well known and is often confused across different parts of the country. But even if Hindus do not know the name of Murugan, his character is an important one to the mythology. There are few temples devoted to him exclusively, but in Pondicherry there is one small temple of which he is the principle deity, and about 30km outside of Pondicherry proper, the rolling hillside of the village of Mayilam is home to a large Murugan temple.
The small Pondicherry temple, just near the central train station, was built by a Muslim man. In his adolescence, he had attempted suicide but was saved by a Hindu devotee of Murugan. Since deciding to build a temple to honor the God, the man has been shunned and threatened by other Muslims and Hindus alike, but Murugan has kept the man in his grace. At the time of our visit, the temple was under construction, and the tower was obscured by wooden scaffolding and tarps. Inside, new cement sculptures were being crafted, at that time simply figures with blank faces and wire armatures protruding from their shoulders. Murugan’s vehicle, a peacock known as Paravani, sat stoically in black stone facing the principle shrine; a prayer to Murugan was inscribed in stone panels on the western wall; and outside the temple, along the eastern wall, a stone carving depicted the intertwining life forces of the spinal cord, forming links around lotus shaped chakras.
Beautiful in its own right, this small temple would have been overshadowed had it been anywhere close to the Mayilam temple. The latter is actually quite an important Tamil attraction, with a long winding entrance drive, a toll fare, and an admission fee to enter the central shrine. The attraction is understandable: the surrounding hills, rolling across the horizon like the feathers of Murugan’s peacock, are a beautiful sight, and the temple itself shines in brightly colored paint.
The principle tower is adorned, though not overly crowded, with carved depictions of Murugan, Shiva, and Murugan’s two consorts Valli and Deviyanai. Central over the tower entrance is an iconic image of a six-faced Murugan riding his peacock. The temple has a large portico with bright orange columns and ceilings painted with mandalas and lotuses. Near the main entrance, there are four frescos: one showing Murugan, Valli, and Deviyanai; one showing Murugan’s peacock; and two showing different seated sages. At the far end of the portico, old stone pillars remain, showcasing bas relief carvings of the warrior God and his devadasis, or temple dancers. Though temple dancing – the ancient form of female devotion which auspiciously linked the cosmic, the religious, and the sexual – has been outlawed in modern India, these temple carvings serve as lasting remnants of a once respected art form.
Inside the temple, the exposed black stone creates a less vibrant and more somber setting. A queue leads the way to the principal sanctuary, which is set far back from visitors, hidden in shadow but illuminated by the light of small candles around the outside of the shrine. Many visitors stand in line to pray in front of the shrine and receive a blessing from the priest, who offers flower garlands, coconut milk, and the traditional red and white powders to mark the forehead. Some devotees come with shaved heads, covered in turmeric powder to keep their scalps cool in the sun. As is traditional in most Hindu temples, the principal shrine stands in the middle of the structure, and is surrounded by an open walkway. Smaller shrines stand in the corners, and stone carvings adorn the external walls. Along one of the walls is the grated alcove which houses the statues made of precious metals. Shining in golds, silvers, and bronzes, the statues are often wrapped in small swaths of elegant fabric, and one in this temple even wore a coat of armor.
Murugan’s primary symbolism is most frequently exhibited by his six faces, his spear, and his peacock.
Each of the six faces are said to serve a different purpose:
One face sheds rays of light and removes the dense darkness shrouding the world; another lovingly showers boons on his devotees who praise Him with Love and Joy; the third watches over the sacrifices of the Brahmans who perform them without deviating from the strict Vedic traditions; the fourth face, like the full moon which brightens all the quarters of the world, lights the sages’ minds to enable them to search for hidden Truth; the fifth, with raging heart, battles and destroys His enemies; and the sixth smiles lovingly on His young consort, the pretty daughter of the hunting tribe.
His spear, the Holy Vel, is the most important weapon for hunters and warriors. The Vel is the object of dance rituals performed by devotees seeking remedies for misfortune and affliction.
The peacock symbolizes Murugan’s destruction of Ego, which came in the form of the demon Tarakasur, who was destined to be killed by a son of Shiva. It is believed that Murugan was born, as a ball of fire to the great meditative energy of Shiva and Parvati, for this sole purpose of destroying Tarakasur. Sometimes Murugan is depicted with an image of a rooster, which is the form Tarakasur took after being defeated.
Additionally, Murugan’s wives, Valli and Deviyanai, are daughters of Vishnu. And as Murugan is the son of Shiva, the marriage therefore serves as a link between Vaishnavism (worship of Vishnu) and Shaivism (worship of Shiva). In Tamil literature and song, Murugan was actually praised as a Supreme force behind the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva. Thus Murugan is not a God to be overlooked in Hindu mythology. It is only a matter of knowing him when one sees him and not being misled by his many other names.
O Lord who is the beginning of all things… who is the Lord of all things, who is beyond everything, who is the essence of all things, who is Brahma, who is Vishnu, who is Siva, who is beyond this trinity; who is all things here, who is what everything anywhere is, and who comes as the sweetness of all things.
- Thiruppugal poem No. 433: “Agaramumaagi”