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South Indian Deities And Their Relative Following in Tamil Nadu
Aaraaichi, September, 1976, pp. 28-33, Gift Siromoney, STAT-25/76, August 1976
Also in Indological Essays, Commemorative Volume II  for Gift Siromoney

edited by Michael Lockwood, 1992, Madras Christian College, Tambaram pp.181-189. 

More than fifty percent of the Hindu population of Tamil Nadu worship Muruga daily, but only fifteen percent worship Vinayaka daily. Twenty-five percent of the Hindu population of Thanjavur district worship village gods daily in contrast to the state average of only eight percent. In contrast to the state average of five percent who worship Rama daily, sixteen percent of the Hindu population of Thanjavur district worship Rama daily.

 These are some of the findings of a survey conducted by us at the Statistics Department of the Madras Christian College at the end of January 1976. About eighty students took part in the study and visited about four hundred villages and towns spread all over Tamil Nadu. Random sampling methods were used in selecting the villages and the respondents, and the data were processed by our students on an IBM 370/155 computer at Madras. The overall percentages for the State are based on a sample of about 1600 Hindus and can be expected to be correct to within one percent. To get more reliable results at the district level larger samples may have to be taken in each district.

Those who are not familiar with scientifically designed sample surveys may find it difficult to believe that by taking a sample of 1500 out of a population of several crores of people, one can arrive at a correct figure. We wish to point out that properly designed sample surveys give quite reliable results. For instance, in December 1972, we conducted a state-wide survey with a sample size of about 1500 respondents. We estimated the proportion of Christians and Muslims in TamilNadu to be 5.6% and 4.7% respectively. We note that according to the census conducted in 1971, Christians formed 5.7% and Muslims 5.1% of the populations of Tamil Nadu. We see how closely the sample survey figures agree with the actual values found by counting all the people.

An individual respondent may worship more than one deity every day; Each respondent was first asked whether he was a Hindu or not. If he was a Hindu he was presented with a list of about a dozen popular deities and was asked to state whether they worshipped each deity presented, daily or occasionally or not at all. The results are given in Table I.

Name of Deity Worshipped dailyWorshipped occasionally
Muruga 51.3 13.2
Perumal 23.3 15.7
Vinayaka 14.9 16.4
Siva 11.8 16.7
Saraswathi 06.6 17.8
Lakshmi 07.2 16.4
Kali, Durga 07.5 17.7
Village gods 08.1 13.6
Village goddesses 07.2 15.4
Rama 04.9 14.1
Krishna 04.8 14.5
Other gods 01.7 02.7

It is not surprising that Muruga is worshipped daily by a large proportion of people. Except for Muruga and Perumal, the other deities are worshipped more often occasionally than daily. Vinayaka is worshipped daily by only about fifteen percent of the people. If one goes by the number of temples under worship in Tamil Nadu, Siva must be worshipped by a large proportion of the people, but according to our survey he is worshipped daily by only about twelve percent of the Hindu population. The worship of village gods and goddesses continues.


Muruga, once considered the god of Kurinji, the hilly region, was identified with Skanda, the son of Siva and absorbed into Saivism. During the seventh century A.D., the theme of Somaskanda was very popular in Tondaimandalam. In the Somaskanda panel, Siva is seated as a King, Uma as the queen and Skanda as a child. Brahma and Vishnu are often portrayed standing behind the throne. Later on, there must have come a period of conflict between the different sects and one often finds the Skanda image removed from Somaskanda groups made in bronze.

According to our survey, fifty-one percent of the Hindu population of Tamilnadu worship Muruga daily and thirteen percent occasionally. However there is a great deal of variation between the different districts of Tamilnadu. Muruga worship is most widespread in Coimbatore district where about eighty percent of the Hindus worship Muruga daily and about two percent occasionally. The percentage is well above the state average for both Tirunelveli and South Arcot districts. In Tirunelveli district, sixty-three percent worship Muruga daily and eighteen percent occasionally. For South Arcot district, the corresponding percentages are sixty-one and twelve. In contrast to this, in Thanjavur district, Muruga is worshipped daily by only thirty-two percent and occasionally by five percent. In Kanyakumari, Madurai and Dharmapuri districts only about thirty percent of the Hindu population worship Muruga daily.

The study takes into account only the adult population of TamilNadu. We find that the proportion of younger people who worship Muruga daily is distinctly higher than the proportion of older people. We also note that one and the same individual may worship daily more than one deity. For instance,  among those who worship Muruga either daily or occasionally, more than forty percent also worship Perumal daily or occasionally. Among those who worship Muruga daily, eighteen percent also worship Perumal daily. In an earlier study of men students, we found that among the worshippers of Muruga, more than thirty-five percent claimed to worship Muruga alone.


In Vaishnavism, the concept of avatar is a mechanism used to absorb different cults. Krishna and Buddha are treated as avatars of Vishnu. To bring the followers of Siva and Vishnu closer together, Mahamalla introduced the theme of Harihara, a form in which one half is Siva and the other half Vishnu. There were other kings who took the side of Saivism and were unsympathetic towards Vaishnavites. For instance the Pallava king who called himself Atyantakaama, inscribed the words, "Six times cursed be those who do not have Siva in their hearts" on the floor of a Vishnu temple called Adivaraha cave at Mahabalipuram. Today there is less rivalry between the different sects.

Taking Tamil Nadu as a whole, twenty three percent of the Hindu population worship Perumal daily and sixteen percent occasionally. There is wide variation between the districts with regard to the extent of Perumal worship. We begin with the district where Perumal worship is most prevalent. Forty-two percent of the Hindu population of Dharmapuri district worship Perumal daily and ten percent occasionally. This is followed by Madras city and Chingleput, North Arcot and Ramnad districts. In Madras city, thirty-seven percent of the Hindu population worship Perumal daily and twenty-five percent occasionally. In Kanyakumari district the percentage is very low. The proportion is well below the average in the districts of Tanjore, Madurai and Coimbatore. In Coimbatore district, the centre of Muruga worship, only eleven percent worship Perumal daily and four percent occasionally. Taking Tamil Nadu as a whole it is interesting to note that among those who worship Perumal daily about forty percent also worship Muruga daily.


In the rock cut temples of Mahabalipuram, Ganapati is represented only as the chief among the ganas and not as a deity. Vinayaka is represented as a minor deity in one of the side shrines of Kailasanatha Temple, Kanchipuram, built at the beginning of the eighth century A.D. During the ninth century,  Vinayaka was found both on the Saivite and the Vaishnavite shrines. Ganapati who was once an independent deity was later absorbed into Saivism as a son of Siva.

According to our survey, Vinayaka is worshipped daily by fifteen percent and occasionally by sixteen percent of the Hindu population of Tamilnadu. For Madras city, Ramnad, Tanjore, Chingleput, and Tirunelveli, the percentages are above the average. The values are very low for Dharmapuri, Kanyakumari, Madurai and Tiruchy. In Salem district, sixteen percent worship Vinayaka daily and hardly any one, occasionally. In Coimbatore, ten percent worship Vinayaka daily, and only one percent, occasionally.


During the Pallava and Chola times, a number of huge temples were built for Siva. Those who study devotional literature in Tamil and those who study temple architecture and sculpture will get the impression that a high proportion of the people of Tamil Nadu must still continue to worship Siva regularly. Any scholar who wishes to study Hinduism spends a lot of his time studying the literature on Siva.

However, according to our survey, Siva is worshipped daily by only twelve percent and occasionally by seventeen percent of the Hindu population of Tamilnadu. Among the districts, Coimbatore comes first for those who worship Siva daily. Thirty-three percent of the Hindu population of Coimbatore district worship Siva daily and another twenty-two percent occasionally. In Ramnad district and Madras city the percentage of those who worship Siva daily is above the average. In Tanjore, seventeen percent worship Siva daily and five percent occasionally. The values are low for Madurai and Tiruchi. In Tiruchi district, for instance, only six percent worship Siva daily and seven percent,  occasionally.


Lakshmi is represented on sculpture in Mahabalipuram, first, as an independent deity in the form of Gajalakshmi. Later, during Rajasimha's period, she is represented as a consort of Vishnu. The cult of Korravai was prevalent in the Tamil country from a very early period. Later Korravai was identified with Durga and some times as Kali and absorbed into the Vedic Hinduism.

The average State values given by our survey, for the worship of Saraswathi, Lakshmi and Kali (including Durga) are about the same. On the average, seven percent worship Saraswathi daily and eighteen percent occasionally. The daily worship of Saraswathi has the highest proportion of twenty-two percent in Ramnad, followed by twenty percent in Tanjore. The lowest values for daily worship are found in Madurai, South Arcot, Dharmapuri, Coimbatore and Tiruchi.


In the Pallava sculptures of the seventh century as found in Mahabalipuram, even though Krishna is represented, Rama is not. In the Chola bronzes, only around the twelfth century, one finds on Rama images the Srivatsava mark, which identifies Rama with Vishnu. Even though the name of Rama is found in earlier inscriptions as one of the avatars of Vishnu, the deification of Rama becomes complete only around the twelfth century A.D. in Tamil Nadu. During the eighteenth century Thiagaraja sang numerous songs on Rama and during the present century, Rama was the favourite deity of Mahatma Gandhi.

According to our survey, Rama is worshipped daily by only five percent and occasionally by fourteen percent of the Hindu population of Tamilnadu. Sixteen percent of the Hindus in Tanjore district worship Rama daily and another five percent occasionally. In Madras city, twelve percent worship Rama daily and about thirty percent occasionally. In Chingleput district forty percent worship Rama occasionally and in North Arcot twenty-two percent occasionally. Taking into account both regular and occasional worship, less than five percent of the Hindu population of Tiruchi, Madurai and Kanyakumari districts worship Rama. In Coimbatore district three percent worship Rama daily and two percent,  occasionally. The percentages for Krishna are very close to  those of Rama. Compared to the older generation, a smaller percentage of the younger group worship Rama.


Different village deities are found in the different districts. Sudalai Madan is worshipped in Tirunelveli district. Madurai Veeran is found in Madurai and Tiruchi districts. At Madurai, near Nagamalai, the author has seen a Jain image worshipped as Munisvaran. One hopes that with the advent of electricity, the villagers would overcome their fear of demons lurking in the dark.

On an average,  eight percent of the Hindu population worship village gods daily and fourteen percent occasionally. The percentage for village goddesses, is about the same when the whole state is taken into account. Twenty-six percent of the Hindu population of Thanjavur district worship village gods daily,  and in Madurai district, about twenty percent. In Chingleput district,  very few people worship  village deities daily but a high proportion of thirty-seven percent worship village gods occasionally. An interesting finding is that the worship of the village deities is much less among the younger folk compared to the older people.


Is the popularity of the cult of  Muruga on the increase? Was Vinayaka worshipped by a larger proportion of people a few years ago? In order to answer these questions we give in Table II the results of a sample survey conducted in December 1972.

Muruga was worshipped then by a record figure of sixty-six percent daily and an additional proportion of twenty-three percent who worshipped him on occasions and on pilgrimages. We must remember that those were the days when people went to the movies in large numbers to see religious films on Muruga. Vinayaka came next with thirty-eight percent daily worshippers. Siva followed with about one fourth of the Hindu population worshipping him daily and in addition, about a half worshipping him occasionally.

It is difficult to explain this change that has taken place in Tamil Nadu in such a short period. Has the proportion of those who have no belief  in God increased? No, that segment  has come down from about five percent in December 1972 to about two percent in January 1976.

We know some of the changes that have taken place in Tamil Nadu. Prohibition was abolished in 1971. The common man in a village who used to spend money on films by taking the entire family to the cinema, spent the money on liquor. Prohibition was re-introduced in 1974 but apparently the damage that was done to poor families has left a clear mark. There may be other forces at play, and more work has to be done to identify the main forces that have brought about this change.

Percentages of Hindus worshipping different  deities

Name of deity worshipped daily    on special occasionsonly on pilgrimages
Muruga 65.6 19.4   4.1
Vinayaka 38.1 41.4 12.3
Perumal 32.0 33.7 12.2
Siva 25.6 48.2   3.9
Lakshmi 20.5 53.2   1.3
Saraswathi 18.8 55.2   1.7
Parvathi 18.4 46.3   5.3
Rama 15.5 49.4   2.5
Krishna 15.1 50.0   2.1
Village gods 13.9 32.7   3.4
Village goddesses 13.5 32.3   4.5
Others   4.8   8.5   0.8
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