Published in The Hindu, June 7, 2018
Though horses are not native to South India, the Tamil country is dotted with little statues of terracotta horses as well as more than life-sized, colourfully painted cement horses, often with warriors astride them. These warriors on horses, considered guardian deities, are an integral part of the Tamil landscape. While Ayyanar, Sudalai Madan and Karuppanna Sami are commonly found guardian deities, a Muslim Ravuttar in the role is a rarity.
The Ravutta Kumarasami temple at Kagam in the heart of Kongu country, complete with a mix of small minarets, a dome, gopuram and a vimana, is testimony to shared history in a not-so-distant past, where basic human values were revered. The temple, belonging to the Kannan Kootam of Kagam, a clan which is part of the industrious Kongu Vellala Gounder community, has sculptures of Ravuttars all over it. From the arch at the entrance to the sanctum sanctorum, there are sculptures of bearded Ravuttars, either seated erect with a sword in hand or mounted on their steeds with swords drawn. And there is also a Ravuttar draped in a lungi, smoking a cigar and reclining above the doorway. Inside the sanctum sanctorum, the Ravuttars are depicted sitting majestically with raised swords next to Lord Murugan (Kumara Sami).
With the Islam influence dating back to more than a millennium in the region, it should not be surprising to find Muslims as deities among the various Hindu cults or worship orders. Be it the Tulukka Nachiyar at Srirangam, the Vavvar Swami of Lord Ayyappa at Erumeli or the Muttala Ravuttan — the Guardian deity of Draupathi Amman at Melacheri (near Ginjee) — one finds the incorporation of Muslims as lesser deities among the Hindu pantheon of Gods.
There are also local stories across Tamil Nadu in which Muslims are remembered reverentially by people of other communities for having stood by them in the most trying times. However, what distinguishes the Ravutta Kumara Sami at Kaagam is that the Muslim Ravuttars are revered almost like a family deity, so much so that some in the Kannan Kootam have the name ‘Ravuttan’ as a prefix, like Ravuttana Goundan.
So how did Ravuttars, a division among Tamil Muslims, historically known for trading in horses as well as being part of the cavalry, end up being deified among a clan of Kongu Vellala Gounders? One finds a common thread in narratives ranging from Vellaiyammal Kaviyam, a ballad by poet Kannadi Perumal, to various contemporary oral accounts. Apparently, centuries ago, when a clan member was in distress, it was the Muslim Ravuttars, who offered them protection and ensured the survival of the clan. Hence, as an expression of their gratitude, the Kannan Kootam of Kaagam adopted the Ravuttars as their Guardian deity.
As one tries to make sense of what seems incongruous, one is struck by the many connecting elements. Ravuttars are one of the three Tamil Muslim groups known for inland trade, mainly of horses. They were also known for their valour as cavalrymen. The 15th Century Tamil poet Arunagirinathar praises Lord Murugan as the Ravuttar who killed the demon Sur (’Sur kondra Ravuttane’) and the Ravuttar astride a peacock (’Maamayilerum Ravuttane’). Interestingly, a few decades ago, Murugan came to be added as the abhishekamurti, when the clan decided to build a conventional temple for their Ravutta Kumara Sami, who was till then seated underneath a thatched roof in the middle of a field. “As the new Ravuttar deities were made of Vengai wood (Indian or Malabar Kino tree otherwise known as Pterocarpus Marsupium), known for fury (incidentally Vengai is a Tamil word for the fearsome Jaguar), our sthapathi (traditional temple architect) suggested that it was necessary to have Murugan as abhisekhamurti to cool the fury,” says Mahalingam of the clan, who is the priest.
While fruits and flowers are offered inside the sanctum sanctorum, at the entrance above which the Ravuttar is found in reclining position, Mahalingam and his brother offer intoxicants and meat to the deity, as is the practice for family deities across the region.
Mondays and Fridays, Amavasya and Pournami, members of the clan, spread over the surrounding villages and towns take turns to worship with a clearly marked calendar. While the Kannan Kootam of Kaagam holds their grand temple festival (Pongal) once in three years, on any auspicious occasion in the family, clan members make it a point to visit the temple and seek the blessings of their beloved Ravutta Kumara Sami, in the firm belief that they will be protected as their forefathers once were.