Until recently, and even today in the rural crevices of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, the slur Moo-Devi (or Moodevi) was a fact of nature. Like breathing. In the delightful world of such rustic slurs, Moodevi is a unique absorbent in the sense that you can pretty much assign it any derogatory connotation and it will be understood as such by both the giver and the recipient. As its suffix implies, it is the exclusive property of the female, and can mean anything from “dumb-wit,” “stupid,” “fool,” “incompetent,” “loose-tongued,” “contemptuous,” and “immoral.”
However, Moodevi was originally a Goddess in the infinite and ever-expanding pantheon of Sanatana Deities. The story of Her transformation over thousand five hundred years is intriguing, illuminative, chequered, and enchanting.
The first mention of the original Moodevi occurs in a story in the encyclopedic Padmapurana. It is the familiar, immortal story of the samudramanthana or amṛtamanthana, one of the great foundation-stones that continues to inspire the Sanatana cultural sensibility. However, there’s a slight twist in this particular story. Accordingly, as this Great Ocean of Milk was being churned to obtain amṛta (the Divine Ambrosia), Jyeshta Devi materialized from its depths much before the more renowned Lakshmi Devi. As her name suggests, she was the eldest or seniormost. Thus, she occupied the exalted status as Lakshmi’s elder sister.
Unfortunately, there is almost no record of either her exact status in the Hindu pantheon or the tradition of her worship in North India. South India was more fortunate. The earliest mention of Jyeshta Devi is in a bilingual inscription found in a cave temple for Durga Devi in Tirupparangunram near Madurai built 773-74 CE by the devout Nakkan Kori, wife of Sattan Ganapati, a general of the Pandya King, Varagunavarman I. Research and epigraphic evidence shows that Jyeshta Devi was already an enormously popular deity in the Tamil Desha by the seventh century itself. And so, Nakkan Kori who built the Durga Devi temple also built a dedicated shrine for Jyeshta Devi.
The shrine is actually a panel engraved on the back wall of the cave, i.e., behind the Durga temple. It comprises three deities. The main deity, obviously, is Jyeshta Devi, and this is how she looks: a full, round face with hanging lips, dwarfish nose, pendent breasts, and a large belly. Her left palm rests on her left thigh and her right holds a lotus. Her daughter flanks her to the left and she is depicted similarly. To her right, her bull-faced son holds a bludgeon and looks severe. The picture on the right is completed by an ornamental stand on which a crow is perched. This is her Vahana, or vehicle.
There a beautiful unity and artistic integrity in this entire shrine. Like all Hindu temple architecture and sculpture, nothing is accidental or random. It scrupulously adheres to Sastra. To which we now return.
While Lakshmi is the visible deity of wealth, Jyeshta Devi bestows wealth by her absence. The Padmapurana says that Jyestha Devi resides in undesirable locations associated with poverty, illness, etc. Thus, by being absent in this fashion, she creates conditions for Lakshmi to flourish. Next, the bodhāyana-gṛhyasūtra stipulates that the Vigraha of Jyeshta Devi should be installed in a secret or obscure spot in the premises of a temple. This explains why she has been installed in the back wall of the aforementioned cave temple near Madurai.
With time, her popularity in the Tamil Desha only soared. Inscriptions of the Chola King Rajaraja I mention various shrines of Jyeshta Devi in his domain, most notably in Anbanur, Tiruchirappalli. The tenth hymn in the Tirumalai, portion of the Nalayira Divya Prabandham contains a mention of Jyeshta Devi as the Goddess Chettai whom devotees worship for getting the wealth that lies hidden inside her crown. The linguistic derivation of Chettai is clearly from the Sanskrit Jyeshta. She is also known by other names like Sri Kapilapatni, Kumbhi, and Vighnaparshada.
But the other name that Jyeshta Devi eventually acquired in the Tamil Desha was Mutta Devi or seniormost Goddess, entirely consonant with the meaning of Jyeshta. The corruption of Mutta Devi is Moo-Devi.
The story of this transformation is equally interesting.
Over time, the original name Jyeshta Devi was forgotten but her iconographic and sculptural representation remained largely intact. Even fifty years ago, her worship in the Tamil Desha remained unchanged. However, in this substantial passage of time, that is, after she became Moodevi, her status was relegated to that of a local or village Deity: the ubiquitous Grama Devata. The scholar Krishnan describes this transformation beautifully:
This is the real underlying strength of Sanatana Dharma. Transformation. Inclusivity, absorption, and not destruction, the most extreme example of which we see in Muhammed’s heartless annihilation of all the pre-Islamic deities in Arabia except Allah.
However, a different transformation occurred with Jyeshta Devi in Karnataka as well. Specifically, in the famous Mahamaya Devi temple in Kukkanur, Yalaburgi Taluk, Raichur district. Even today, the Mahamaya Devi temple remains a magnetic place of pilgrimage.
In 1178, the Kalachuri King, Sangamadeva commissioned an inscription, now found on a slab in the temple. Accordingly, it declares that this was the holiest place in the whole world because of the presence of the deities of Kalika, Jyeshta, and Kapalisa. It devotes special detail to Kalika or Jyestha Devi, and mentions the power bestowed on the kingdom by worshipping female divinities like Ambika and Kali. Interestingly, it mentions Kali as the synonym of Jyeshta.
This is how Jyeshta Devi is described: she is seated on a pedestal in the center. To her left is praḻayāmba and to her right is kapālīśa. Thus, the transformation of Jyeshta Devi in Karnataka is complete: from being Lakshmi’s elder sister in the Tamil Desha, she is now Rudra’s wife, Kalika. The praḻayāmba aspect indicates her ultimate power of destruction (praḻaya) and the other fierce aspect kapālīśa (the Deity of Skulls) completes the severe picture.
Still, the aforementioned unity and artistic integrity remains intact. In the Madurai cave temple, Jyeshta Devi is accompanied by her son and daughter. Here, they are named for the first time. Jyeshta Devi who was worshipped in Tamil Nadu for bestowing wealth in a negative fashion is now elevated as Kali herself, the most supreme status given to feminine divinity in the Sanatana pantheon.
Excavations conducted more than sixty years ago in Tamil Nadu revealed two more sculptures of Jyeshta Devi. The first was found in Mylapore and the second in Tiruvellavayil. Both were identical to the Madurai cave temple with slight variations. Apparently, one sculpture is still housed in the Madras Museum. I haven’t seen it personally.
The next time you hear someone casually hurling the slur Moo-Devi at you, fold your hands in reverence or bask in glory or bless him or her because the person is actually worshipping you.
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