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In many of the Siva temples in Tamil Nadu, The Prakaaram around the sanctum sanctorum (around which we perform the pradikshinam or the circumambulation) one will see a number of small stone icons, almost all looking somewhat similar, with their names inscribed in Tamil. Are they also gods? Why and how are they getting worshipped? My son, Col Suresh Ramanathan asked me the question, after he visited the famous Nataraja temple in Chidambaram in the last week of March 2012. This article is based on the question, and more so as Chidambaram is intimately associated with this.

During the later part of the 6[SUP]th[/SUP] century / early part of the 7[SUP]th[/SUP] century, there lived a number of Saivaite saints., who acquired one or more of the Siddhis , and performed many miracles, even as they were composing and singing many poems in praise of Lord Siva, of the various temples they visited in south India. Three of them were very famous and contemporaries and often came across each other and even travelled together to visit some temples, performing miracles. This was also the period when Jainism was dominant in South India and some of the kings, (and therefore many of their subjects as well) like the Pandiyan king, Koon Pandiyan (or hunch back Pandian) became Jains. Therefore, a lot rested on the Saivite saints to preserve and save Hinduism in all manners possible. I am not intending to write here the histories of these saints; for details, one may refer to the excellent compilation book called “Sivanarut Chelvar” by Kripananda Wariar.

The Chidambaram Nataraja temple is a private temple for many centuries, run by a closely knit family of 3000 Dikshatars (who hail direct descendancy from Lord Siva himself) who practice their own methods of ritual and worship which is slightly different from Siva Agama Sastras. The rich treasure trove of the compositions of these three saints were kept in a secret safe vault in the second prakaram of the Nataraja temple. This was done perhaps to save the palm leaf scripts from falling into wrong hands or Jains and their being destroyed. When and why this was done and by whom is not clearly known; but it is obvious that this must have been done after the life of these three saints.

These three saints were Appar (also known as Tirunavakku Arasar), Sundarar (also known as Sundara Murthy Nayanar) and Sambandar (Tirugnana Sambandar).

King Raja Raja Raja Chola I heard of the miracles of one Nambiandar Nambi living in one of his villages (Tirunaraiyur). The king had heard some of the compositions of these poets sung in his court and was deeply impressed and inspired by their content and deep meaning. He therefore requested Nambiandar Nambi to locate where these full palm scripts are kept so that they could be properly taught and also better preserved.

They traced it to Chidambaram Nataraja temple. The Dikshatars wouldn’t part with it, until they were satisfied. Finally, with the king’s intervention, the secret chamber was opened and lo and behold; most of the palm leaves were eaten by white ants and only 10% was recoverable and readable.

Nambiandar Nambi (of Raja Raja Chola I – 985 – 1013 CE) undertook the task and prepared a text of all the great Saivite saints’ compositions with 11 canons or chapters called Tirumurai in Tamil. The first three canons or Tirumurais consisted of the compositions of Tirugnana Sambandar. The next three were of Tirunavakku Arasar (Appar). The seventh Tirumurai was of Sundarar (Sundara Murthy Nayanar).

There lived another great poet by name Manicka Vachagar at Melur, near Madurai, who was also a minister in the court of Varaguna Pandian (862 – 885 CE). Lots of miracles are also associated with him. He composed Tiruvachagam and Tirukkoviar, both of which were included in the 8[SUP]th[/SUP] chapter. Manicka Vachigar, however, is not included with the 63 Nayanmars, though he is held in esteem next only to the three, namely, Appar, Sundarar and Sambandar.

A lot of other gifted Tamil savants have composed many divine compositions since then and upto the time of Nambiandar Nambi. Composition of about ten of them were grouped as the 9[SUP]th[/SUP] chapter.

There was yet another great saint during this period known as Tirumoolar. He is supposed to have entered the body of a dead cowherd to bring the cattle back to their respective homes. When he went back, his original body had disappeared and, therefore ,he lived as a cowherd only for 3000 years and composed one song every year! This is known as Tirumandiram. It is considered as a veritable Upanishad in Tamil. The composition was given a special status and kept as the 10[SUP]th[/SUP] Tirumurai.

The compositions of the subsequent poets were compiled together as the 11[SUP]th[/SUP] Tirumurai.

The first seven chapters were called later as Tevaram, in praise of Lord Siva.

Later during the period of Kulothunga Chola II (1133 to 1150CE) a great poet and minister in his cabinet called Arunmozhi Tevar was requested to undertake the job of updating and write a detailed biography of each one of these savants and the historical background behind each one of their compositions.

The king was attracted till then by an erotic classic called Jeevaka Chintamani , a Jain masterpiece cleverly weaving religious propaganda, Jain literature and erotic anecdotes so that one would get attracted for religious conversion. The minister was concerned about this and wanted him to read the classics of Bhakti traditions of the Saivite saints.

This was a daunting task but Arunmozhi Tevar took it upon himself, and sitting before lord Natataja at Chidambaram, was perplexed how to begin; it is said that the Lord himself gave him the first line “Ulagelam unarndu …” . The poet came to be known as Sekkizhar. This magnum opus is known as the “Peria Puranam” and this has been included as the 12[SUP]th[/SUP] canon or Tirumurai.

Thus it can be seen that the 12[SUP]th[/SUP] canon is a literary and historical composition of Tamil literary development,. the propogation of culture and bhakti over an uninterrupted period of 600 years from the 6[SUP]th[/SUP] century to the 12[SUP]th[/SUP] century. This Tirumurai was the main reason for converting the Vedic rituals to the Agama poojas being followed in Siva temples in Tamil Nadu. After all the Vedic Rituals are completed, you would see an Oduvar,. one who is accomplished to perform the Tevaram or Tiruvachagam, singing daily at least one or two compositions in the sanctum sanctorum before the rituals end (Chidambaram is an exception to this where there is a constant fight going on between the Dikshidars (the owners of the private temple) and the Tirumurai followers leading to court cases etc. This quarrel goes on till date.

Irrespective of this, a few common threads can be seen:

  • There has been a great Bhakti movement, whenever the Hindu religion was threatened, This was so in Tamil Nadu between the 6[SUP]th[/SUP] century and the 12[SUP]th[/SUP] century, when Jainism was asserting.
  • The three great saints, whose compositions are sung as Tevarams had their own history.
  • Appar (Tirunavakku Arasar) was himself converted to Jainism and then reconverted himself to Hinduism, and sang many poems bitterly critical of Jainism. Sambandar achieved many wonders at a very young age and was responsible for the almost total elimination of Jainism in the Pandian kingdom. He is credited with the famous “anal vaadam” and “punal vaadam” and to have cured the king of his sickness and his hunchback. The Jains lost the game. The king converted himself back to Hinduism and 8000 Jain priests were executed by a process called “kazhu etrutal”. The contraption used is somewhat similar to the peeling of a coconut. The blood ran in the form of a river. This occasion is marked every year in the annual festival of Meenakshi temple in Madurai, one day,during the Annual festival, every year till date.
  • The Bhakti and devotional movement reverberated in different parts of the country at slightly staggered periods, whenever and wherever the Hindu religion was threatened, be it the Krishna Bhakti movement of Namadeva and followers in Maharashtra, or the Chaitanya school of Bengal and Orissa.
  • Even Adi Sankara, apart from his establishment of the four mutts in the four regions of the country, one for propogating each one of the Vedas, is also credited with the creation of Dasanami tradition, for the preservation and propogation of each one of the ten important Upanishads. The Dasanami have their own self contained groups for each one of their material requirements, including “Akhadas,” whose only duty as Saivite saints was to fight as soldiers against other relegious intruders.
  • Performing miracles have been more or less considered as a necessity to be recognized as somebody supernatural to be considered as a saint. Adisankara did this by singing the Kanakadhara Stotra, which rained golden gooseberries (Nellikkai in Tamil) in the house of a poor woman who gave him the only eatable she had in her house ,, an old goose berry.
  • Are we then surprised by the Hindu Maha Sabha, RSS, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal and other similar local and regional constituents of the current period?

Raja Raja Chola II (1146 to 1193 CE) constructed a beautiful Siva temple in Darasuram near Kumbakonam. This is considered an architectural marvel and is included as a world heritage site by UNESCO as a great living Chola temple. A unique feature of this temple is the miniature stone sculptures of the 63 Nayanmars, depicting prominent scenes from the lives of the Nayanmars, with their respective names inscribed below. According to the scholars, this is the earliest representation of all the 63 Nayanmars in any temple. This tradition has since then been followed in all Saivite temples in Tamil Nadu.

The word of accredition to the cadre of Nayanmars is an earlier Saivite version (Azhwars in Vaishnavism) of the current more well known canonization of these saints in Christianity with a minimum number of miracles. so as to be canonized by the Pope and called a saint.

At this stage, I cannot resist quoting a chapter from my father’s life (Swargasri Subrahmanya Sastrigal).

The 19[SUP]th[/SUP] and 20[SUP]th[/SUP] centuries were excellent periods of renaissance of Saiva Agama, thanks to the immense contributions made by the Nattukottai Chettairs of Devakottai, Karaikudi region. In the early part of the 20[SUP]th[/SUP] century, an institute for study of Saiva Agama, known as Sivagama Sangam was started in Devakottai. The purpose of this institute was to collect the old palm leaves of Vedic Agama rituals from different temples, study them and reconcile them with the Tirumurai system of Tamil rituals and edit and rewrite when necessary. After completing his Vyakarana Siromani (equivalent to MA in Sanskrit grammar) from Madras University, through the then Tiruvaiyaru Sanskrit college, he joined the Sivagama Sangam as the head of the Sanskrit division and he had a colleague by name Subbiah Pillai for Tamil. My father’s responsibility was to collate the writing in palm leaves available in different famous Saiva temples mainly in Tamil Nadu, and also all over India. He found most of the material termite eaten and had Herculean tasks in evolving a cogent writing by filling in the blanks of one temple material from another where it was available. He used to quote often of one particular incident.

That was in the temple at Kizhvelur (Keevalur) near Nagapattinam. There were volumes of manuscripts in a secret chamber just above the sanctum sanctorum but when it was opened, there were a number of cobras of huge size and they could not be driven out easily, even by reputed snake charmers. Finally, they succeeded, and he took some of them to the house where he was staying with his wife. And that night, a cobra was zealously guarding the palm leaf manuscript! And my father and mother were having their honeymoon there after marriage! He used to tell that this find was a treasure trove. It is worthwhile recalling that Nagapattinam was a well known Buddhist center in the early centuries of the present era and a prominent Buddha Vihara existed in Nagapattinam. No wonder, the vedic scripts were guarded so secretly. My father wrote a number of books, big and small, by transcribing them from this old literature and by suitably interpreting them. During the second world war, the Chettiars lost much of their wealth which were all acquired from the far east (Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam) and the institute was closed.

My father had a copy each of his publications, which were safely kept in a wooden almyrah in our house in our village, Kallidaikurichi. The room was locked for two years, since we were all at Devakottai.

When the room was opened, my father found to his dismay that the wooden almyrah and all the books contained were replaced, molecule by molecule, by termites. History repeats itself. We can only hope that somebody, sometime again locates them sometime somewhere in some discernable order so as to be useful again.
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