Patrakali Amman is believed to be an incarnate of Hindu goddesses ‘Kali’, ‘Parvati’, and the mother goddess ‘Shakti’. She is also devoutly worshipped in her manifestation as the ‘Maariamma’ or just ‘Amman’-the principal mother goddess, in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Andhra Pradesh. Patrakali Amman also bears close association with goddess ‘Durga’ who is the most venerated of all the goddesses in Eastern India as well as with ‘Shitaladevi’-the goddess who is revered in North India.
In prehistoric Tamil, ‘Maari’ meant rain and ‘Amman’ meant mother. It is alleged that Dravidians, who were the original inhabitants of the southern region of Indian subcontinent, used to offer their prayers to the mother goddess to inundate their parched regions with rains. She was a figment of human imagination and has often been referred to as ‘Renuka’ or ‘Yellama’ the mother of ‘Parasurama’, ‘Mahamaya’-Lord Vishnu’s sister.
There are many legends surrounding Patrakali Amman or Maariamman’s origin but two versions have become part of popular folklore. According to one, she was poet Thiruvalluvar’s better half who was a pariah. While begging for alms she contracted small pox and used the twigs of neem tree for treatment. She was divinely convalesced and since then, people in South India have been hanging neem branches outside their homes to ward off small pox.
Another legend has it that ‘Trinity’ comprising Lord Vishnu, Lord Shiva and Lord Brahma, the three main gods of the Hindu pantheon came down to earth to check out if ‘Nagavali’ (Maariamma) was as beautiful as it was rumoured. Nagavali was the wife of ‘Piruhu’ a Rishi. She was incensed at their incursion and cursed them to become small children. She was in turn blasphemed into becoming ‘Mari’ which meant changed. She turned ugly and doomed to become a demon in her next life who would be the chief cause of dispersing small pox. There are many temples dedicated to her in Erode (Tamil Nadu), Trincomalee (Sri Lanka), and many other cities in India and abroad.