mariamman festival

the portraits i posted in the previous few posts began from this image … i was walking through one of the many metal-working districts in chennai last week when i came across these figures. the guys working on them told me they were for a festival down the street, so i walked into the neighborhood and learned that their mariamman festival was starting the next day.

the mariamman festival started with the setting-up of the stage and the idols, followed by a neighborhood meal; afterward, the temple priest held ceremony in which, traditionally, he asks mariamman if she is ready for the festival, if everything has been prepared correctly. there were a number of women dancing in front of the temple in an ecstatic trance, and one of them took on the role of mariamman and gave what i assume was the appropriate answer.

an artist decorates one of the mariamman statues while other workers prepare the main stage; the initial blessings (pooja) before the dance ceremony.
women dance in front of the temple – a small building tucked in at the end of an alley – while channeling mariamman. given the constrained quarters, my angles weren’t great here, but as people got used to me over the weekend, they made sure i got the best views, as will be evident further on.

i came back on saturday, but not much was going on: kids were playing on the stage, and the girls had had their hands painted with henna. i was tapped to take more portraits, and a few people told me that not much would be happening that afternoon, so i spent about half an hour there and promised to come back.

sunday began with a procession. there was a set of drummers and, behind them, a string of women carrying burning pots. they brought these to the temple to offer prayers to mariamman. the pots smoked a lot, which may have been the point, since the prayers go up to the gods with the smoke, but they didn’t look comfortable to hold, and my eyes stung after just a few minutes of walking with them. after the offerings, the games started, specifically a game that is very much like a piñata, except that the players swing at a clay pot filled with water. the guys running the game invited me to take a swing at it, but i declined. eventually, the pot shattered, the woman who hit it got showered with water and won a plaque, and then the band played and everyone danced.

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those of you who are squeamish about extreme body piercing probably should stop here.

at 3.00 that afternoon, people began preparing for the main event – the religious procession that would wind through the surrounding neighborhoods. the worshippers of mariamman show their devotion by piercing their bodies with needles, vel (spears), and in some cases, hooks. this is not dissimilar to what i’ve heard about in other religious celebrations, such as ashoura or semana santa, and i’d even seen one of these types of processions last year; but i’d never seen how the spears get from a, through b, to c. this time, the people made sure i would.

i’d gone home for a few hours after the dance, so when i returned i was surprised to come upon a man wearing a shirt of apples. “interesting garb,” i thought, but on closer inspection i realized the fruit had been literally sewn into his skin with thread; then i saw men and children all around with fruit dangling from their chests, backs or ears. the adults (and the older kids, some of whose, whose faces had been painted for the occasion) do it for devotion, but when the little ones are sewn with the fruit, it may be because the parents were making this offering in exchange for an answered prayer when the child was sick, or something of the sort. the babies didn’t take to the needles … philosophically, let’s say.

soon it was time for the men and women to line up in front of the temple for their vels. the priest made some incantations for each one, and a guy whom i can only assume is the local expert rubbed their cheeks and “sterilized” the vels with a powder made from burned cow dung, and then …

this went on for a while. meanwhile, on the main street, other worshippers were getting ready for the procession in their own ways.

a boy waits for his turn while another one gets his piercing, and then stiffens as the vel pierces his cheek during his turn; neighborhood boys look on
the master piercer cleans up his work; a devotee is fitted for a harness of vels; a rather unhappy girl waits for the procession to start.

all of this was amazing, and i was grateful to the community for allowing me nearly free rein with my camera; and as they say at passover, “dayenu“. nonetheless, there was only last tableau of the procession that pretty damn remarkable. i saw some guys on a truck and wasn’t quite sure of what i was looking at, until suddenly i was:

Author: cohn17

Photographer and baker of macarons.

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