Sunday, December 6, 2020

Karaikkal Ammaiyar, Sri Lankan Bronze

Karaikkal Ammaiyar, Sri Lankan Bronze
An ancient Hindu bronze figurine representing Karaikkal Ammaiyar, a devotee of Shiva was discovered from the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka and it is presently on the display at the Polonnaruwa Archaeological Museum.

Story of Karaikkal Ammaiyar
The Periya Puranam of Cekkilar (12th century A.D.) is the only source available on the life-sketch of Karaikkal Ammaiyar (Subramanian, 1996). "Karaikkal" is a maritime trading city in Tamil Nadu in South India. According to legends, Karaikal Ammaiyar, who is believed to have lived in Karaikkal around 550 A.D., was born to a merchant community by the name Punitavatiyar (Chandrajeewa, 2019; Subramanian, 1996). She was married to Paramadattan, a wealthy merchant from Nagapattinam (Chandrajeewa, 2019).

One day Paramadattan sent home two mangoes for his midday meal (Craddock, 2010). But before the mealtime, a Shiva yogi appeared in front of the home for searching alms and therefore, Punitavatiyar gave him one mango and kept the other one for her husband. At midday, Paramadattan came for his noon meal and after the meal, he was served the remaining mango by Punitavatiyar (Chandrajeewa, 2019). Paramadattan finished it and asked for the other. Punitavatiyar was upset as she had already given it to the Shiva yogi. She appealed to Shiva for help and mysteriously a mango appeared on the palm of her hand (Chandrajeewa, 2019). She served it to her husband. Paramadattan tasted it realized that the second mango is more delicious than the first (Craddock, 2010). He was suspicious and asked his wife from where she had received it (Craddock, 2010). Punitavatiyar told him the whole truth but Paramadattan did not believe her and challenged Punitavatiyar to produce another mango in the same way she had done for the first one (Chandrajeewa, 2019; Craddock, 2010). She prayed again to Shiva and another mango appeared on her palm. She gave it to Paramadattan, but, at once it disappeared from his hand (Chandrajeewa, 2019). By realizing the divine power that his wife has, Paramadattan left home without releasing Punitavatiyar from her wifely duties (Craddock, 2010).

Paramadattan went to the city of Pandyan and settled down there (Chandrajeewa, 2019). He married another woman, had a daughter and named her Punitavati, after his first wife (Chandrajeewa, 2019). Punitavatiyar, knowing nothing continued to keep up his house and her appearance in anticipation of his return (Craddock, 2010). Meanwhile, the relatives of Punitavatiyar came to know of her husband's whereabouts and took her there (Craddock, 2010). Paramadattan heard her arrival and went with his second wife and child to meet her. He fell at the feet of Punitavatiyar and revealed that he regarded her not as a wife but as a goddess instead (Chandrajeewa, 2019). Punitavatiyar understood his condition and prayed to Shiva to take away the beauty she no longer needed (Craddock, 2010). Her wish was answered and her body was transformed into that of an emaciated female with an eerie appearance (Chandrajeewa, 2019). According to the legend, she made a pilgrimage to the Himalayas, by her hands so as not to defile god's heavenly abode with her feet (Craddock, 2010). Impressed by her devotion, Shiva called her "Ammai" (mother) and allowed her to perpetually witness his dance at Tiruvalankatu, where she spent her rest of life as his adoring servant (Craddock, 2010).

The bronze
This solid cast bronze figurine of Karaikkal Ammaiyar was discovered on 26 October 1960 with several other Hindu statues at Siva Devale No. 5 in Polonnaruwa ancient city precincts  (Chandrajeewa, 2019; Godakumbura, 1961; Jayasuriya, 2016). It was found on the southern plinth of the Siva Devale No. 5, about 11 feet away from the foundation of the building (Godakumbura, 1961). 
The figurine represents an emaciated woman playing Thalam (cymbals) while chanting something. She is in the seated posture and her hands hold a pair of small cymbals connected with a short rope. Her upper body is naked and the lower body is covered with a cloth. The ears,  neck, right arm, and wrists are ornamented with gross jewelry. She keeps the right knee raised and bent and the foot of the leg is placed on the ground. The left leg is also bent at the knee and has kept horizontally to the ground. The figurine is 28 cm tall (Chandrajeewa, 2019).

This figurine is not commonly found (Godakumbura, 1961; Jayasuriya, 2016). Scholars have suggested that the figurine of Karaikkal Ammaiyar represents a unity of the South Indian Chola’s religious beliefs and the craftsmanship of the native Sinhala population (Chandrajeewa, 2019; Godakumbura, 1961). It has been compared by historians and archaeologists with somewhat similar images found in several museums, and in temples in South India such as the Nelson Atkins Museum of Arts in Kansas City, the Metropolitan Museum of Arts in New York, the Vadaranyeswarar temple in Tiruvalankatu, and the Kapaleeshvara temple in Mylapore (Chandrajeewa, 2019; Jayasuriya, 2016).
The artifact has been dated by scholars to the period of Polonnaruwa Kingdom or to the 11-12th centuries A.D. (Chandrajeewa, 2019; Jayasuriya, 2016). Polonnaruwa was under the occupation of South Indian Cholas since 1017 A.D. Cholas controlled the country until they were expelled by King Vijayabahu (1055-1110 A.D.) in 1070 A.D. During the Chola period, many temples for the worship of Hindu gods such as Shiva, Vishnu, and Ganesh were built in Polonnaruwa (Chandrajeewa, 2019).

1) Chandrajeewa, S., 2019. Emaciated Female Playing the Cymbals: A Study of the Ancient Hindu Bronze Figurine in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka. AEMR-EJ, 3.pp.11-16.
2) Craddock, E., 2010. Siva's Demon Devotee: Karaikkal Ammaiyar. SUNY Press. pp.2-4.
3) Godakumbura, C. E., 1961. Bronzes from Polonnaruwa, 1960. Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, New Series (Vol VII. Part 2). Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch). p.241.
4) Jayasuriya, E., 2016. A guide to the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka. Central Cultural Fund. ISBN: 978-955-613-312-7. p.88.
5) Subramanian, V.K., 1996. Sacred songs of India (Vol. 6). Abhinav Publications. p.17.

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