TEMPLES: Isakki is more of a nature Goddess. Her humble temples are constructed within the vicinity of banyan or huge shady trees. Women taking vows are indicated by pieces of women's sarees are tied to the branches and aerial roots of the spreading tree. Those aspiring children hand small wooden cribs. Unlike the temples of the Vedic and Puranic deities, Isakki is beautifully intertwined with Nature worship in that she is likned to Paalkallu, a certain cactus-type plant. When punctured it ooze a milk-like sap evidencing a sign of goddess Isakki.
FESTIVALS: The worship of Isakki Amman is usually a community festival where food for the goddess is cooked in the vicinity of the deity. The deity of the goddess painted in garish colors. Ponggal and tamarind rice are favourite offerings. Isakki shrines are sometimes smeared with a liquid made from mixing lime water and tumeric and which ritually represents blood. Apparently this red liquid is indicative for certain blood sacrifices. Sacrificial rituals are not uncommon in Isakki worship. Isakki worship is not flagged with formalities. Isakki worship usually follows crowd sentiments of the devotees in the village settings. This is sometimes tied to the local tales and her equal treatment of one and all. Their shrines are quite regional.
DEPICTION: Deity of Goddess Isakki is usually portrayed as a young woman. Red dress is the common setting but this suffers in the hands of sculpture painters. Her blouse is tiered and heavily embroidered. Her jewellery is prominent and she wears a heavy necklace, shining nose ring and anklets. In her standing position, She holds a child in one hand and or trident in the other. Otherwise it is in a blessing mudra. Her background depicts beautiful flower garlands. In some sculptures she is depicted to have Kali features.
She is sometimes represented as standing on a man that lies on the ground. This represents her story and equally shows her ties with the Shiva-Parvathi pantheon. She is attended to by two ‘dwarapaalakar’ or protecting attendants. Isakki as Ambika in the Goddess Ambika Temple near Vellore shows her seated in a suhasana pose and is shown wearing a necklace, armbands and a large tiered ‘makudam’ or crown, above which is a tirthankara.
GODDESS AMBIKA: In mythology, Ambika leads a peaceful family life with her husband, Somasharman and their two male children. One day the family performs the ancestral ‘dharpana’ rituals and Soma goes out to take a bath in the river nearby. Food offerings had been prepared by Ambika but she sympathises and gave part of the offering to a sage taking alms. Offerings to the gods could only be served as prasada after prayers so Soma becomes enraged. Subsequently a quarrel ensues and Ambika bolts off with the two children. She wanders until she finds a calm place. Now, it is the usually story. Soma gets into a depression as he misses her presence and what next, he goes looking for her. Husbands or wives should have some sense of aforethought, if there is a learning here. Fearing this, Ambika is said to have given up her life and merged with nature and taking the form of Yakshini in a cactus to take care of the children. Seeing this, Soma returns. We guess he did not want to live with a cactus with thorns!
Apparently Yakshi regained her human form later for the benefit of her children and manifests as Iyakki or Isakki. Legends have it that when she died, she rises to the heavens to become the attendant of Neminatha. She is unable to forget the past. So Indra granted her a boon that she could return to earth and live with her family but provided always that she is a Yakshi. Ambika therefore returned as Isakki with a dazzling golden appearance to prove that she was a Yakshi. When she did so, her appearance was so dazzling that Soma was almost blinded.
YAKSHI: Isakki is a Yakshi derivative. ‘Yak’ means mysterious, marvelous or spiritual apparition. The word indicates semi-divine beings not belonging to any major religion. Hindus or rather the Tamil population worshipped them as guardian deities that resided in nature such as on trees, in rivers, lakes and ponds, and on highways. Yakshis were worshipped for boons and protection against evil. Ritualistic offerings were made to trees, rivers or lakes. Later Jainism and Buddhism took yakshis into the fold and converted them into secondary deities.
Archeological evidence of yakshi cult have been found in Mathura in Uttar Pradesh; Didarganj and Basarh in Bihar; Bhopal, Sanchi and Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh; Ellora in Maharashtra; Udayagiri and Khandagiri in Odisha; Tiruppanmalai, Vallimalai, Anaimalai, Tirumalai, Samanamalai, Sithamur and Sitharal in Tamil Nadu; Aihole and Shravanabelagola in Karnataka; and Nagarjunakonda, Kondapur, Peddapur and Amaravathi in Andhra Pradesh.
Yakshi worship cuts across several major deities. It is said that the features of Goddess Lakshmi is gleamed from the Yakshi attributes. Manimekalai of Buddhist links, one that protects the seas and said to have transported Bodhisattva to Mithila is of Isakki origin. Again the Buddhist Jataka tale mentions of Isakki residing in a tree. It is said that the liberal Vajrayana Buddhism gave birth to various goddesses with special features.
By the 5th century Buddhist female deities seem to be sitting on the Hindu pantheon. Janguli, Sunda, Tara, Saraswati, Brihudi and Hariti were prayed as Buddhist goddesses and it went both ways. Goddess Tara Devi extends out to become Goddess Draupadi Amman. Jwamalini, a Yakshi and the Tamil golden Goddess Ponniyamman are also linked.
In Tamil Nadu, there have been separate shrines for Yakshis since the 12th century. The worship of yakshis in Buddhism spread to Tamil Nadu from neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, where it flourished during the rule of the 2nd century Satavahanas rule and the Ishavakus later. Ancient Kancheepuram coins evidence this.
So Isakki returns where she began – to the villages as Isakki Amman or Pechi Amman. Yakshi worship was prevalent in Tamil Nadu right from pre-Aryan days. The most popular Yakshi from the pre-Aryan era to this day is Isakki Amman. Isakki worship is widespread in Virudhunagar, Tuticorin, Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari districts in southern Tamil Nadu. Many name origins are found in Isakki.
LITERATURE: The Tamil Budddhist text, Manimekalai by Sathanaar mentions Yakshi deities such as Sambapathy, Manimekalai, Deevathilakai, Chintadevi, Chitradeivam and Kandirpavai. Tamil Sangam literature of the 2nd – 3rd century B.C. such as Ettuthogai and Pathu Pattu mention the names of Isakki Goddesses such as Suli, Surmagal, Varaiya Magalir, Kadalkezhuselvai, Kaan Amar Selvi, Pavai and Anangu. Goddess Isakki is vibrant in Tamil Nadu. Cilapatikaaram by Ilangkovadigal mentions Yashki and Isakki which been prevailing in the Tamil country even before the 6th century A.D.
Tamil Sangam literature celebrates the yakshi as "aruganai mudi kavitha bhagavathy ammai" meaning the one who bore the "arugan" or tirthankara linked to Jain culture, in her crown. With the decline of Jainism and Buddhism, Goddess Isakki is back to where She originally belonged – to nature and as a simple village folk deity.
Yogi Ananda Saraswati