Dance Duel and its divine origins – Story of Goddess in Tamil Nadu

This is a long post. Hence a synopsis – If you have seen Tamil movies surely you would have seen of an arrogant heroine challenged by hero to a dance duel. Hero wins it either fairly or by hook and crook. Heroine arrogance is subdued and she become a fit subordinate women from an independent arrogant one. These themes have origins in many Tamil religious traditions. These are storied of Goddess who lose their independent self to become subordinate Goddess to the Male deity. This is a post to throw light on Goddess who lost their space to male counter part and story of local deities losing space to deities of organized religion.

As I researched on simple topic of similarity of Dance themes in Puranas and Tamil movies, I continuously stumbled upon new details. This blog has taken shape on it own accord and hence it is very long. Now to the post:

Dance Duel in Tamil Cinema

If you are fan of Tamil cinema surely you would have seen a movie where your favorite alpha male star challenges a heroine for contest, wins it and brings the girl down to earth. Immediately after the defeat heroine transforms into a typical homely girl and falls in love with the hero.

To kick of the scenario, the heroine has to be shown modern, rich, uncaring and egoistic. More importantly so she has to be independent. The ritual of dance competition and victory by male is to show the women, she needs a man to survive in the film. If she needs man, she has to become the traditional girl the hero likes.

Leaving aside the philosophy of these scenes, let us review the modus operandi. Hero aka MGR (in Mannathi Mannan), Rajni (in Pandiyan) are humble heroes who are extremely talented but don,t show off. Heroine is a experienced dancer and shows off with pride. Now the heroine is challenged, she gladly accepts to showcase her skills. But unknown to her, the hero is an alpha male who can do everything she can do and do it better. Heroine loses steam or slips and falls to end the contest. She feels ashamed and she realizes she is just a women. Being just a women now she needs the alpha male and hence she falls in love with the hero.

Videos below (only warning don’t ROFL seeing MGR dance)

MGR Padmini dance competition – Mannathi Mannan
Rajni – Kushboo dance duel in Pandiyan

This mode of operation is common in Hero bringing heroine under control. If not dance it is music. Rajni in Chandramukhi is another example.

Another way and more interesting variation of the dance competition has a twist. Heroine is actually a better dancer than the Hero. Hero uses an unfair advantage to win the contest. The most popular example of this variation is from movie Thangamagan, where Rajni rips off his shirt which cannot be replicated by Poornima. At that moment she realizes she is women and cannot be a match for the man. She feels ashamed and eventually shy. Shyness paves way for love and she is subdued and subordinated.

Rajini – Poornima face off – Thanga Magan

Both modes have somethings in common, an independent women who excels in her field is beaten and the shames makes her believe is only an subordinate to the alpha male. She loses her independence and becomes submissive to the hero and falls in love with him. The independent women transitions to a traditional women. This theme would be so common in many Tamil movies especially featuring Rajini, Vijay, MGR.

These themes have a history and the history is associated with divinity.

Divine Origins of the Dance Competition

Legend of divine dance competition has multiple versions. I will details some of the variations here.

Legend of Thiruvalangadu

There are two versions to the Legend in Thiruvalangadu (Scared – fig – forest). One of them is sthalapurana which is Mythical history of the temple. Other one is oral tradition.

Sthalapurana – Tiruvalankaattupuranam

Nimpan and Cumpan destroyed the worlds, and the gods were worried about their thrones. To help them Devi took woman’s form and destroyed the demons with the aid of the Seven Mothers and Camundi.

Raktabija (“having blood as seed “), the son of the younger sister of Nimpan and Cumpan, was attacked by the Seven Mothers; from every blood split
more demons were born. The Mothers prayed to Devi and from her wrath appeared the black-faced Kali. She chopped the demon and drank the the demon’s blood in her skull without allowing the blood drops to touch the earth. Thus the demon’s army was destroyed. Unsatisfied by the blood thirst, Kali devoured everything in her sight in the fig forest – Alankadu. Narada seeing the plight of people, request Vishnu to step in, who in turn advises only Shiva can destroy Kali’s ego.

On Naratha’s request Shiva descends down and interrupts Kali. Kali dares him to dance competition. Shiva accepts the challenge and dances. Kali matched him step for step. Shiva was growing tired and Kali sensed victory. Shiva suggested he dance fierce dance called Pantrarankam. Kali accepted it. Shiva then in a master stoke and

Siva pressed one foot on theearth and lifted other foot straight into the heavens. The constellations fell, universe shiverd, Kali fell to the ground.

Kali acknowledged defeat; shyly worships Shiva. Shiva forgives her and let her be worshiped along side her.

Oral Variations of the Legend

Oral versions have origins much earlier than written Sthalapurana. Oral versions are folk traditions. In oral versions it is Shiva who challenges Kali and tricks her by performing urthva Thandava (One leg upright). Kali being a women is shy to perform the dance and womanliness creeps into her. She worships Siva after that. Siva takes her as Bride.

Legend of Chidambaram

Before the creation of the shrine of Nataraja, there was a worship place for Kali in Thillai Forest. Siva on wishes of devotees, wished to danced Anandha Thandava, the dance of bliss. Kali seeing Siva dancing in his territory challenged Siva to a dance contest. Siva teach her a lesson, so he laid down a condition, whoever won would become lord of Thillai, whoever give up the place of worship. Kali saw Siva perform the Urdhvatandava and felt ashamed that she could not perform that dance bowed her head and acknowledged defeat. Therefore she was forced to vacate her place of worship in the heart of the Tillai forest and go to the boundary of the town. Kali bathed in Sivapriya pond and worshiped the god. Her fierce from vanished and she received a peaceful form as Tillaivanam Udaiya Parameshwari. She resides now in her new temple as Camundisvari and grants boons to those who worship her.

Oral Version

Once Parvathi playfully covered Siva’s eyes on Kailasa. Because of this, the worlds became still. Siva cursed her to remain black as Kali.
To regain from this curse, Kali was sent to Tiruvalankadu. She destroyed everything there and on her way towards Chidambaram. Siva challenged her to a dance contest; whoever lost was to leave the temple and go outside the city. Siva pulled a trick and won by dancing with his leg thrust into the air. Kali was to shy to do that dance. Furious at having lost by a trick, Kali left for the Putakkeni (“pond of the spirits”) in the burning ground to the north of the temple. Brahma came to cool her by reciting the Vedas. She took form of Brahmacamudmuesvari. Pacified, Kali began to perform penance in order to be reunited with Siva.

Origins of the MythLegend of Palaiyanur Neeli

Both the myth have a specific reason and legend serves a purpose to justify either subordination of the independent goddess and appropriation of place of worship of the local goddess.

So lets move on to origins of this Myth. Thiruvalangadu is known to be possessed with a spirit known as Palaiyanur Neeli alias Palavur Neeli alias Alankattu Nili.

Palaiyanur – The location is also known as Pajakanallur/Palakainallur, in some of the folk-versions as Palavur, and the village is situated approximately a mile to the east of Tiruvalankatu.

There are multiple version of legends on her . Nevertheless, all of these stories have a few features in common: the real protagonist is a female who had suffered some sort of great injury; there is an underlying motif of revenge, curse, and preordained fate which cannot be escaped; and all these stories are tragic stories, to a lesser or greater degree gruesome, bloody and “dark”.

Legend of Nili has been modified as used by all religions including Saiva, vaishnava, Jain, Buddhist authors as per their philosophical needs. But the earliest version seems to be in Silapathikaram. The legend is mentioned, in various forms, by Tirunanacampantar (before A.D. 650), in the Jaina poem Nilakeci , the Periyapuranam (ca. A.D. 1135), in Tiruttondarpuranacaram by Umapati Sivachariyar (fourteenth century), in Tiruppukal of Arunakirinatar (fifteenth century), in Alankattu talapuranam . Kampar (~tenth century A.D.?) mentions Palaiyanur Nlli as a deity of the ve\a\ar community. The commentary on Cekkilar Pillaittamil (of Minatcicuntaram Pillai, 1815-76), Varanaipparuvam6, gives the gist of the story of Nili: a man enjoyed sexual pleasures with other women. His wife stopped him. He went with her to the forest, pretending to invite her for a festival in the next village, and killed her. She became a demon (pey), and took
vengeance on the husband. Clipathikaram version show Nili as prelude to Kannagi who faces injustice of her husband killed due to act of injustice and she takes her life in protest and becomes a wandering soul.

Neeli – Kali Transition

Popular folk goddess is associated with Parvathi/Devi by Appar in Devaram as he mentions that Devi witness dance of Siva. Slowly the demon diety of Alankandu is superseeded by Siva in Bakthi literature. Tiruvalankadu becomes a Saiva hotspot and praised in the hymns of Campantar, Appar and Cuntarar (cf. e.g. Tirumutai I. 2010-11, IV. 2012-13, VI. 2014-15, VII. 2016-19).

Due to fierce nature of the local deity the legends had to bring in a fierce deity from Saiva cannon to be tamed by Shiva to become the Devi. So the story of Kali killing Raktabija is lifted from Sanskrit epic Devi Mahatmya (400-600 AD). Then the legend is extended to in Alankadu for a dance duel between Shiva and Kali (who replaces Nili – but both have dark, firece nature in common). Then Kali is defeated. Kali being a form of Devi, Devi continues to live with Siva as subordinate.

Hence the legend of the local goddess is appropriated, defeated and subordinated by organized religion.

Moving on to Chidambaram, the legend is very open in declaring the site of Chidamabaram was actually Kali’s temple. Chidambaram legend is justification of appropriation of place of worship of a village goddess or Korravai (who is Tamil goddess of victory and is a form of pey – ghost). Korravai – Kkali – Durga allusions have happened since late sangam period due to similarities of these deities.

Similar divine dance competitions are alluded by Appar at Tiruppaiyarrur, Tirukkadavur, Tiruvilimilalai, Tiruvinnamparam, Tirukkurankadu and by
Campantar Tirukkalumalam,Brhamapuram, Chidambaram.

We have one later version of the Divine dance competition this time Shiva and Parvathi face off. Shiva loses his ear ring during the dance and without losing cool he grabs it with his foot and fixes it to his ears (Mini Urdhvatandava). Parvathi claims victory, Shiva refuses and banishes her for her ego.

Pen Theivam (Goddess) and their Subordination in Tamil Nadu

All these point toward a story telling pattern where the Saiva legend either appropriates a local tradition and incorporates into it own tradition or an outright conversion of place of worship from local deity to temple of Shiva.

Pen Deiva Valipadu or Goddess worship has been pushed to foreground and Shiva worship brought to foreground. In most cases the local goddess legends are appropriated and they become subordinate deity to the main deity Shiva.

If you feel the logic proposed above is hard to believe, we need to review kali Traditions of North India. Especially the Dakshina Kali iconogrpahy.

In this tradition story is similar, Kali kills the demon and goes on a rampage. Shiva has to intervene to save the world. But Kali is too powerful. So he appears as a corpse over which Kali is dancing. Seeing Shiva as a corpse, Kali calms down.

Now contrast the two iconographies. Left is Tamil nadu and right is North East version. Goddess is appears defeated and subordinated in Tamil Iconography, whereas norther Iconography has Kali holding the sway and literally standing might over Shiva.

Now let us take Iconography of Shiva himself. Below is bronze from Thiruvalangadu – a early variation of urdhvathandava in Bronze. Now compare it with Trivikarama Vishnu or Ulaga alantha perumal representations in bronze and stone .

From legend point of view, Vamana avatar of Vishnu is much older than Tiruvalangadu myth of Shiva. Shiva’s iconography is probably a rip off from Trivikrama/Ulagu alanda Perumal.

This clearly shows that Kali – Shiva duel legend is completely manufactured in Tamil Nadu during the Bakthi period. This also shows unlike north India, where Goddess cult was able survive with its superiority, goddess cult in Tamil Nadu had to proceed with a subordinate status.

Conclusion – Survival of Pen Deivam in Tamil Nadu

Pen Deiva valipadu or Amma valipadu (Goddess worship) has survived through various transformations. Though Amman valipadu is now associated with Amman being form of Sakthi/Parvathi/Kali, they do operate in a semi independent state of having their own shrines.

Legend of Neeli has gone through many transformations and appropriations, yet she survives and has a own temple in Palakainallur. The Nili worship was combined with the worship of the ferocious demoness Icakki.

There is shrine at Tiruvalankatu for Kali outside the Shiva temple where she is worshipped alone. The priest of Shiva temple still call this temple as Mulasthana of Thiruvalankatu.

In Chidambaram, Tillai Goddess had her adobe in present day Nadana Sabha of Chidamabaram temple. She is now pushed out to outskirts to have her own Temple Tillai Kali temple. In this temple she has two forms of worship, one fierce Tillai kali and other pacified Brahma Camundeshwari with four heads. What is left of Kali in Chidambaram Shiva temple is sculptor of Durga/Kali in one of the walls.

Proverb to sum up the post

Onda Vantha Pidari Oor Pidariyai viratiyatham

Goddess who seeked refuge has now chased away the Goddess of the locality

Tillai Goddess was moved out her temple and set aside. Neeli/Kali the goddess of Alangadu pushed to the boundaries. New places of worship are built with imported Gods and Goddess. These occurrences were in such common place [not just true to Saiva cults, but also true of Jainism and Bhuddhism in Tamil Nadu] that this pain was recorded and transmitted for centuries. What we hear a Palamozhi or proverbs are expression of pain of seeing their beloved goddess pushed out of their own space.

Yet these Goddess survive and would continue to survive probably in different name and forms.



Tamil Temple Myths – David Shulman

The making of the Goddess – Korravai -Durga in the Tamil Traditions – R.Mahalakshmi





  1. Interestingly, no mention about Karaikkal Ammaiyar, who despite being just one of the three women amongst the 63 Nayanmars, yet was greatly honoured by Lord Himself, so much so, she is the only Nayanmar in a seated position compared to all others who are always seen standing OR the fact that it’s cultural customary to visit the Kali temple PRIOR to visiting the Sri Vadaranyeswarar Temple in Thiruvalangadu, which isn’t really an atypical custom, given it is an accepted religious norm to mention the Goddess’s name first, before mentioning Lord Siva’s name for virtually all Siva temples in South India specifically in Tamil Nadu, in keeping with the ancient religious practice, whereby, whilst Lord Siva is rarely worshipped without His Sakti either as an idol of “form” eg. Nataraja/Somaskanda murti or as an anionic deity eg. Linga placed in a Yoni, conversely Sakti can be independently worshipped without Lord Siva as seen in virtually all Sri Maha Mariamman temples both in Tamil Nadu and around the rest of the world like Malaysia and Singapore where there are substantial number of Tamil communities. These ancient religious practises of course have a profoundly deep philosophical meaning and important spiritual significance in the dynamic relationship between Siva and Sakti especially from a metaphysical view.

    But hey….let’s just conveniently exclude salient but “undesirable” features relating to ancient practices fundamental to the Saivite belief system, as long as several misconstrued points but favourable to the distorted narrative about “subordination of the divine feminine” by Saivite Tamil culture is included in an obviously hyperbolised manner, often based on erroneously bias views concocted by the academic circles, that frequently consist of prejudiced secularists and pseudo intellectual snobs, probably most neither have an Indian background nor a proper grasp of ancient Hindu cultural norms.

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