Tag Archives: Tamizh Poetry

Personalities: Nandanaar

"அன்று இரவு கண் துயிலார் 
புலர்ந்து அதற்பின் அங்கு எய்த 
ஒன்றியணை தரு தன்மை உறு 
குலத்தோடு இசைவு இல்லை 
என்று இதுவும் எம்பெருமான் ஏவல் 
எனப் போக்கு ஒழிவார் 
நன்றுமெழுங் காதல் மிக 
நாளைப் போவேன் என்பார்."

– Sekkizhar, Periyapuranam [4].

Introduction

Nandanaar, the peerless Siva Bhakta is worshiped as one of the sixty-three Naayanmars (Naayanars) in Tamizh Nadu. His life story is recounted in 37 Tamizh stanzas in the திருநாளைப் போவர் நாயனார் புராணம் as part of the hallowed Periyapuranam of Sekkizhar (சேக்கிழார்) composed in the 12th century. These uplifting verses capture the deepest of human emotions and dharmic ideals and never fail to touch our Atma. The puranam of ‘Thiru Naalai-ppovaar Naayanar’ takes us to the very roots of Sanatana Dharma.  Let us recall with reverence our Naayanars and Alvars who ensured that our Kalacharam, Dharma, and Tamizh Mozhi flourish in Bharatam to this day.

Biography

Sekkizhar’s verses on Nandanaar start by describing the prosperity of the town of Aaathanoor (ஆதனூர்) in Melkanadu (மேற்காநாட்டு) of the Chola country whose fertile lands are irrigated by the pristine waters of the Kollidam river. The Pulaiyar community lived in the outskirts of this town in thatched huts. They were farmers, agricultural workers, and leather craftsmen. Sekkizhar describes the different kinds of trees that grow there and talks about the daily activities of the men, women, and children who lived there. In this community was born Nandanaar. From a very young age, he continually meditated on Siva even as he engaged in the profession of leather craft he inherited.

 "He came to be born with the continuum of consciousness 
  Of true love for the ankleted feet of the Lord; 
  He, the peerless one, called Nandanar, flourished 
  In that slum of Pulaiyas; he was entitled 
  To the hereditary rights of his clan."
- A translation of Periyapuranam [2].

Nandanaar met his basic needs from the money given by the town for his services as the ‘town-crier’ who beats the drum and makes announcements. He gave up all worldly desires and dedicated his life to the worship and service of Siva. His leather-work profession was performed entirely as a Seva to all the nearby temples. For their Pooja, he provided Gorochanai. For their drums and other musical instruments, he provided the leather covers, animal skins, and binding straps. For their Veenas and the ancient stringed Tamizh instrument, the Yazh, he produced the various animal ‘guts’ derived from their intestines.

Yet this enlightened and most humble devotee of Siva would not enter any of the temples he served with great devotion lest his ‘low birth’ desecrate the temple traditions. He would visit a temple carrying his leather straps on his back, and stand outside the entrance trying to catch a glimpse of the deity. He would then dance and sing songs in praise of Siva and return home to continue his seva.

Once Nandanaar meditated on the feet of Sivalokanathan, the deity at Tirupoonkur and drawn to that deity, he decided to visit the temple. There he sang songs in praise of Siva and pleaded with him so he could get a direct glimpse of the divine he had worshiped for long but had not yet fully seen. The large Nandi of the Siva temple there that faces the deity blocked his direct view.  Sivalokanathar commanded Nandi to move aside so his devotee could have his darisanam. Overjoyed, the Siva Bhakta sang songs in praise of Siva. Next, Nandanaar eyed a depression in the land next to the temple, and proceeded to excavate a water tank for the service of the temple. He then performed a pradakshina (circumambulation) of the temple before taking his leave.

Since Nandanaar's visit, the large Nandi in Tirupoonkur sits slightly aside.

Saint Nandanaar eventually visited and served all the nearby temples in this manner. Over time, the desire to see and worship the magnificent Nataraja at Tillai (Chidambaram) with his own eyes grew. He contemplated this night and day and the intensity of his devotion and love for the deity grew.  This most sacred of spaces was managed by the ‘three thousand servitors’ (தில்லை மூவாயிரம்) who bound themselves completely to Tillai in the service of the same deity that Nandanaar wanted to behold and worship. Sekkizhar’s Periyapuranam praises the Dikshitars, who are compared to the Ganas of Siva.

pic link source: chidambaramnataraja.org

Every night, Nandanaar would remain awake and meditate on Siva as Nataraja and every morning, he would decide against going to Chidambaram that day.  The Tamizh verses describing the inner conflict and anguish of the Bhakta will melt even the hardest of heart:

அன்று இரவு கண் துயிலார் 
  புலர்ந்து அதற்பின் அங்கு எய்த
ஒன்றியணை தரு தன்மை உறு 
  குலத்தோடு இசைவு இல்லை
என்று இதுவும் எம்பெருமான் ஏவல் 
  எனப் போக்கு ஒழிவார்
நன்றுமெழுங் காதல் மிக 
  நாளைப் போவேன் என்பார்." - [4].

He would not sleep during night; when day broke 
He would think thus: “My low and inferior birth 
Will not suffer my adoring at that holy shrine; 
Even this thought comes to me by my Lord’s fiat.” 
Thus thinking he would smother all attempts of visit; 
Yet when nobly-bred love increasingly importuned him 
He would say: “I’ll go to-morrow.” - [2].

Nandanaar’s distress regarding his birth and Kulam (clan/community) barring his spiritual union with Nataraja is brought out in multiple verses [4]:

  • “ஒன்றியணை தரு தன்மை உறு
  • குலத்தோடு இசைவு இல்லை” – 21

 

  • “மடங்கள் நெருங்கினவும் கண்டு
  • அல்கும் தம் குலம் நினைந்தே”- 23

 

  • “இன்னல் தரும் இழி பிறவி இது” – 27

Through this unending tussle every night and day, he became known as ‘Thiru Naalaippovaar’ (he who would go tomorrow). And then one day, his love for his lord prevailed and he set out for Chidambaram and made it as far as the outskirts where he could see the smoke rising from the sacrificial fires of the Dikshitars in the town. He could hear them chanting the Vedas. He imagined the inside of the fortified town as it had been described. He knew the sacred mathams were nearby and remembered his kulam and ‘low’ birth and did not go further. He went around the town in circles for days and nights wondering when he could catch a glimpse of Nataraja. Nandanaar’s conflict had merely relocated closer to Tillai; his worldly identity could not move any further toward his deity and nor would the true enlightened self consider retreat.  Finally, the Supreme deity of Chitrambalam reached out to his Bhaktas.

“This (my wretched birth) is sure the clog.”
Thus thinking he slept; the gracious Lord
Of the Ambalam sensed his distress and to end
All the miseries of the aeviternal servitor,
He appeared in his dream with a gracious smile. ” – [2]

The gracious Dancing Lord now chose to allay all the sorrow of His devotee. With a gentle smile playing on His lips, He spoke: “To get rid of this birth, you may enter the flaming fire and emerge hallowed in the company of those wearing the three-stranded sacred thread.”” – [1].

The Vedic Brahmanas of Tillai were struck with fear hearing the command of Siva to prepare a fire for Nandanaar. With only Siva in his thoughts, Nandanaar entered their fire without hesitation and emerged unscathed to everyone’s joy. The apparent duality dissolved and the true self beyond limited identities was revealed. He arose from the fire as a ‘Marai Muni’, a self-realized Vedic sage who has experienced the truth of the Shruti. Everyone in Tillai bowed in reverence and adoration. Nandanaar, followed by the assembly, proceeded into the temple for the first time and worshiped the dancing deity and thereafter merged into Siva.

Thus did the Lord out of His grace, cut asunder the bonds of all ‘karmas’ of the devotee and made him delight for ever in the bliss of His Lotus feet.” [1].

மாசு உடம்பு விடத் தீயின் 
  மஞ்சனம் செய்து அருளி எழுந்து
ஆசில் மறை முனியாகி 
  அம்பலவர் தாள் அடைந்தார்
தேசுடைய கழல் வாழ்த்தித் திருக் 
  குறிப்புத் தொண்டர் வினைப்
பாசம் உற முயன்றவர்தம் திருத் 
  தொண்டின் பரிசு உரைப்பாம் - [4]

Humbled was the ego of those among the guardians of Tillai who could not see Siva within Nandanaar.  The final act establishes the inner fire of spiritual purity as supreme and brilliantly inverts the meaning of ‘untouchable’ in the case of Nandanaar who was beyond mortal desires:

An unexampled exception in the mode of worship was made by the Lord in the case of Nandanar, the untouchable.  Yes, he was an untouchable and no evil or pollution could ever touch him.  The Lord demonstrated to the world the fact that he was even greater than the Tillai Brahmins“- [2].

Thus ends the mortal portion of the story of Thiru Naalaippovaar Nayanaar documented in the Periyapuranam. Nandanaar lives forever as one among the 63 Nayanmars whose Murthis grace multiple prominent Hindu temples including the Meenakshi Amman Kovil in Madurai.

Periyapuranam

The Periyapuranam is the twelfth among the twelve devotional Stotram canons (Panniru Tirumurai) in the Tamizh Saiva tradition and consists of 4253 verses. Its author Sekkizhar was a contemporary of Chola king Anapaya (Kulathunga Chola-2) who was a great devotee of Nataraja at Chidambaram. Sekkizhar authored the Periyapuranam in the 12th century and called it the Thiruthondar Puranam, the Sacred Anthology of the Servitors of Siva. The main purpose of reading or listening to these verses is the purification of one’s mind (Chitta Shuddhi). Sekkizhar expanded upon the prior work Thiruthondatthohai of Sundarar (one of the divine trinity of Saivite Saints that includes Appar and Sambandar) in the 8th century, followed by Nambiyaandaar Nambi’s Thiruthondar Thiruantadi in the 11th century.

As Sundarar’s original work only provided a brief summary of the Nayanaars, Sekkizhar visited all the locations associated with the Nayanaars and studied the inscriptions and other material to document an authoritative and more detailed account of their lives and contributions. Ramana Maharishi‘s spiritual journey was inspired by his reading of the Periyapuranam at a young age:

Towards the end of 1895 (perhaps a few months after hearing about Arunachalam from a relation) he found at home a copy of the Periya Puraanam which his uncle had borrowed. This was the first religious book that he went through apart from his class lessons and it interested him greatly…. It transported him to a different world….

The 63 Nayanmars in the Periyapuranam come from all sections of the society and include both women and men. Nandanaar was a leather worker whose raw materials were the carcasses of domestic animals, while Thiru Neelakanta Naayanar was born in a potter clan. The revered Saint Kannappan was a hunter, while several others were vendors, merchants, priests, kings, soldiers, etc.  All are recognized as Jivanmuktas who had gave up all worldly desires to seek refuge at the feet of Siva [1].  Each of their life stories are remarkable and teach us lessons in self-realization and dharma. In the case of Nandanaar whose Siva-Consciousness was evident from an early age, it was not only about Mukti but also about Nataraja imparting a valuable and timeless lesson to devotees.

Later Narratives

Sri Gopalakrishna Bharathi, a great composer of Carnatic Sangeetam came up with an operatic musical version, the Nandana Charitram in the 1860s. This work is recognized for its highest musical and lyrical quality. However, Sri Bharathi introduced imaginary events inspired by the social-political churn in British-occupied India. Few doubted the reformative intent of Bharathi and this part-fictional version became popular all over India through Carnatic compositions, Bharatanatyam recitals, Harikatha, and feature films. An interesting story of Bharathi’s work and its critique by the renowned scholar, Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai is recounted here [3].

It should come as no great surprise to contemporary readers that this version has been seized upon by western academia and politicians for its ‘Breaking India’ propaganda value. Using a western lens, Itihasa is dismissed as mythology and Periyapuranam is reduced to hagiography. In this framework, the spiritual context, the transcendental nature of the millennium-old story of dharma, the seva and tapas of Nandanaar, and the central idea of Siva Bhakti are either distorted or discarded. Instead, speculative and divisive commentaries totally contrary to the Periyapuranam are  produced.

Nandanaar’s Legacy

The life of Nandanaar as told by Sekkizhar brings to mind other sacred stories from our Itihasa and Puranas including Bhakta Prahalad who emerged from the fire unscathed while the ‘fireproof materialist’ Holika did not;  we find parallels in the life of Bhakti saint Mira who overcame many barriers and ultimately merged into Krishna. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s book on The Untouchables is dedicated to a trinity of Hindu saints [7]: Nandanaar, along with Sant Chokamela, the great devotee of Vithoba from Maharashtra, and Sant Ravidas the disciple of the Vaishnava Saint Sri Ramananda, and the guru of Mira.

The Chidambaram temple where Nandanaar Muni merged into Siva has endured many trials and violent attacks in the last millennium and has emerged stronger each time. The Dikshitars have protected the Tillai deity throughout history and many gave their lives defending the temple against a barbaric assault by Malik Kafur in 1310-11. The temple became one of the first to welcome people from all sections of the society to worship Nataraja. The Dikshitars continue their millennia-old hereditary tradition of serving the Tillai deity despite severe economic and social hardship [5].

Today, leather workers in India can not only set up thriving businesses, they are leaders of the Samaj who inspire and support others in distress. Such achievements have been recognized by the Indian Government, and by the Prime Minister’s ‘Mann ki Baat’ social media handle on Women’s day.

 

Ultimately, the story of Nandanaar is a celebration of Sanatana Dharma and its fundamental principle of harmony and well-being of all barring none.

 

References

  1. Saint Sekkizhar. Periyapuranam. Sri Ramanasramam. 2013.
  2. Shaivam.org: The Puranam of Tiru Nalai-p-povar – Periyapuranam as English poetry.
  3. Nandanar: the imagination that won over truth. 2008.
  4. Shaivam.org:  12.024 திருநாளைப்போவார் நாயனார் புராணம்.
  5. http://www.chidambaramnataraja.org/deekshithar.html.
  6. HinduismToday: A Priestly Clan Under Siege. 2009.
  7. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. The Untouchables: Who They Were And Why They Became Untouchables? 1948.

Personalities: Periyalvar

pic source V. Rajagopalan [6].

Biography

Vishnuchittar was born to Mukunda Bhattar and Padumavalli in Srivilliputtur (less than 100 Km from Madurai) in the Pandya Kingdom. A date range given for his birth is the 8th-9th century CE. The boy developed a sense of devotion and service toward Mahavishnu from a very young age, and he thought of the best way he could serve his deity every day. His natural affinity for the Krishna avatar reminded him of a story of Sri Krishna who sought out Kamsa’s garland maker in Mathura and wore his garlands with joy. Vishnuchittar thereafter created a beautiful flower garden in Srivilliputtur, and would pick a variety of flowers from there to prepare garlands and offer it to Vatapatrasayee, the deity of the temple there. Vishnuchittar continued this practice for long and it is clear from the amazing incidents in his life that Bhagavan bestowed his grace upon this ardent devotee.

A main reference for this introduction to the life and work of Periyalvar is the book by Thiru M.P. Srinivasan [1].

During this time, Sree Vallabha Devan was the Pandya king who ruled from the capital city of Madurai. He was a great and dharmic ruler like so many Tamizh kings and leaders who built Tamil Nadu, the land of the Vedas. While doing a round of the city one night, the king chanced upon a person sleeping alone outside and woke him up. After learning that he was a Brahman who’d returned after bathing in the sacred waters of Mother Ganga, the king requested him to share a dharmic truth with him. The Brahman’s reply was a simple yet amazing Shloka that said:

search what you want during the rainy season in the previous eight months, what is needed in the night during day-time, what is required in old age during youthful days, and what is essential for the other life, search in the life now.” [1].

The king was lost in thought especially about the direction given in the last part of a shloka that seamlessly blends the earthly cycles and spiritual realm to make that transcendental point so natural. The King’s adviser suggested he invite the dharmic scholars in his kingdom to find a convincing answer to the nature of ultimate reality; regarding paratvam, which could also answer the King’s question- ‘what effort do we put it today, in this world, to attain transcendental bliss’. The King agreed, and offered a purse of gold to any scholar in the land who could debate this issue and convincingly answer this question. Vishnuchittar was directed by the Srivilliputtur deity, Vatapatrasayee, to proceed to Madurai. Vishnuchittar was able to debate and explain to the august gathering present that indeed, Vishnu was the ultimate reality, ‘the indisputable truth that cannot be surpassed by any reality’; surrendering to the feet of Vishnu, the one who grants the Purusharthas would bring Moksha. He was able to substantiate his response on paratvam, and the story goes that the golden purse tied atop the pole bent down toward Vishnuchittar.

The king was overjoyed by the words of Vishnuchittar that eloquently reflected the teachings of Vedanta and answered the question that had confounded him, and hailed him as ’Bhattarpiraan’. As the seer was being taken in an open procession around the city on an elephant, he experienced a divine vision of Bhagavan Vishnu and Mahalakshmi atop Garuda. The devotee of Vishnu was overcome with love and affection for his deity and sang the twelve great verses of ‘Pallandu’, wishing for the welfare and well-being of the infinite divine for many, many years. After this amazing event, he became known as Periyalvar.

source link: dinamalar.com

Periyalvar returned to Srivilliputtur, dedicated the gold purse to the temple, and continued his service of preparing flower garlands for his deity. He immersed himself within the Krishna avataram and composed his profound Thirumozhi. Baby Andal (Godai Devi) was found near the Tulasi plant in his garden, and Periyalvar brought her up as his daughter. Andal as an ardent devotee of Vishnu, continued the divine service of Periyalvar.  She learned from her father’s teachings of the Vedas and Vedanta and soon became an accomplished scholar of dharma. She composed great works, and is revered as one of the twelve alvars. You can read more about Andal in this sublime essay.

Āṇḍāḷ – The Girl Divine

It is said that Periyalvar spent his last mortal years in Thirumaliruncholai and at age 85 reached the lotus feet of his deity he had served from birth. This is a brief biography of the peerless Periyalvar. Let us remember the twelve alvars who dedicated their lives to dharma and brought the genuine message of love and peace to the common people through their shraddha and sadhana.

The Twelve Alvars

Poikai Alvar

Puttatalvar

Peyalvar

Thirumalicai Alvar

Nammalvar

Maturakavi Alvar

Kulasekaralvar

Periyalvar

Andal

Tontaratippotialvar

Thiruppanalvar

Thirumankai Alvar

The divine songs of the twelve Alvars form the Nalayira Divya Prabandam. The songs of the Alvars and Nayanmars sung in the native language of Tamizh cut across all classes of the society to touch all people of Tamilnadu. Eventually the Bhakti movement of Hinduism spread all over India and profoundly influenced Indic thought. The Alvars and Nayanmars are a major reason for the unbroken dharmika beliefs of Tamizhs and the prosperity of தமிழ் மொழி itself, which continues to this day. It is simply not possible to fully understand Tamilnadu’s dynamics until one comprehends the depth of its diverse dharma traditions.

A brief review of two important works of Periyalvar is presented noting that this can only be a layperson understanding of the profound ideas they contain. The references and recommended reading at the end of the post may guide readers deeper into these sacred works.

Thirupallandu

ThiruPallandu comprise the opening verses of the sacred Divya Prabandam and has 12 pasurams, each of which end with the words ‘Pallandu Pallandu’ (many, many years). In Tamizh, the prefix ‘Thiru’ signifies the qualities of divinity, sacredness, and respect. The first Pasuram has two lines and the remaining have four lines each.

Embedded within these verses are the deepest truths of Vendanta. A remarkable aspect of these verses is that the devotee’s plea to Mahavishnu is not for himself, but for the welfare of the supreme deity Vishnu. And since Narayana is the One, ultimate reality as Periyalvar explained with Pramanas in the Pandyan capital city, as a layman reader we can understand this plea as one that is automatically for the welfare of everything within and without the cosmos.

The linked video provides brief English translations for each of the 12 verses. A simple translation of the first verse is given below.

For many years, many years, many thousands of years, many crores of hundred thousands more, The Gem-hued One with mighty shoulders that defeated wrestlers, may your blissful feet (entire form) be well protected and safe.

Scholars say that just like the Pranavam/Omkaram is chanted before and after the Vedas are recited, so too is the Pallandu, whose depth and meaning is like the Omkaram, chanted before the Divya Prabandam. Vishnuchittar, ardent devotee of Sri Vishnu since childhood, and then a celebrated Vedic scholar after his discourse in the Pandya King’s court, became revered as Periyalvar after reciting the Pallandu. It can be asked how and why this pride of place is given to Vishnuchittar, who was not the first Alvar. Dharma scholars have responded and shed light on a truly remarkable quality of Periyalvar:

When mere mortals and Bhaktas appear before their deity, the request is usually for the all-powerful Bhagavan to protect them and guide them along the path of dharma. But Vishnuchittar asked not for his own protection or guidance, but instead, asked for the welfare of the all-powerful. He is concerned about the well-being of his lord and sings the Pallandu. The thought does not cross his mind, even for an instant, about his ‘status’ and ‘propriety’ and ‘rationality’ behind his request to protect the One who is the supreme protector! Scholar Pillailokaachaariyyar [1] explains this apparent paradox, noting that in the Jnana stage, the protector-protege state remains, and is transcended in the Prema stage where this relationship is reversed by the overflowing love and immeasurable affection of the devotee for the lord.  Periyalvar is doing his Mangalaasaasanam to the lord, just as in the Ramayana, the noble Jatayu blesses the divine and all-powerful Sri Rama. The Srivaishnava tradition recognizes Jatayu as Periya Udaiyaar and likewise, Vishnuchittar became Periyalvar and the wise elders accept the Thirupallandu completely.

Scholars note that this Thirupallandu tradition can also be seen in the pasurams of Thiruppavai composed by Periyalvar’s daughter, the divine Andal.  They also state that within the twelve pasurams of the Pallandu [1], theessence of the Vedanta has been concisely rendered and the meanings of the Thirumantiram and Arthapanchakam are also provided succinctly.There exists a long tradition of the musical rendering of the Pallandu, and as mentioned in the Thiruppavai, the singers were known as ‘Pallantisaippar’ [1]. Bhakta-scholars who experienced the depth and beauty of the Thirupallandu wonder if there is any art comparable to this work and if there is anyone comparable to Periyalvar?

Periyalvar Thirumozhi

Periyalvar’s work has a total of 461 pasurams (473, when we include the Thirupallandu) celebrating the young Sri Krishna starting with his birth and continuing through his divine childhood pranks and events of his early youth. There are 43 Patikams each with 10 or 11 pasurams, with each Patikam considered a Thirumozhi. There is a total of 5 decads (sets of 10 Thirumozhi).  In these verses, Periyalvar’s affection for little Krishna, avatar of Mahavishnu, knows no bounds and such is his goodness, such is the integrity of Periyalvar’s devotion that he transcends powerful worldly identities including ‘Jati’ and ‘gender’ to speak of his blissful experiences of the childhood of Krishna as his mother Yashodha, and as the gopikas who adore Krishna. When we listen to the verses, we do not hear Periyalvar the towering scholar and accomplished poet; we simply behold mother Yashodha in front of us bathing little Krishna, singing to Kannan, pleading with him, in awe of her boy, admonishing the divine child for his mischief. It is difficult to find a parallel to this, as another great devotee of Sri Krishna, the Bhakti poet-saint Surdas would later sing: “jo sukh Sur Amar-Muni duralabh, so nandabhamini paavai” – This joy that Yashodha experienced is so special and rare, it cannot be attained even by the Devatas and Munis.

A refocus on these contributions of Periyalvar and Andal would greatly benefit a world that is increasingly divided by gender and class wars and losing itself in a maze of identity-driven dualities.

The above ‘Manikkam Katti’ verse is part of a cradle song (தாலாட்டு பாடல்) sung by mother Yashodha as she puts Kannan to sleep in an ornate gem-lined golden cradle. She sings a lullaby to the divine baby ensconced within this small cradle while recalling his Vamana avatar whose strides measure the cosmos! [6].

The verses are full of genuine ‘Krishna-consciousness’ and those fortunate enough to listen to the Thirumozhi without distraction will surely experience bliss too. Such verses could only have emerged from the deepest realized experiences of Periyalvar, and like we saw with Kavichakravarthi Kamban and his Ramavataram before, the literary artistry does not come across as a separate material addition, but could only have poured out of Bhakti and Consciousness.

Two examples from the Thirumozhi are given below to bring out some interesting literary aspects of its poetry.

This above verse is focused on Krishna the cowherd who is grazing the cattle and wearing a traditional pendant made of peacock feathers. It is but one of the many verses that is at ease with the folk language, rural themes and traditions, which is very different from the western ‘ivory tower’ erudition that is intended for an academic audience. The verses often include common dialect, and in other places introduces Sanskrit words that are understood and used by Tamizhs. Scholars found several Tamizh words that have no direct English equivalent and have to be retained as is the English translation as Tamizh non-translatables. The commentators note the clear influence of folk literature that makes this work accessible to everyone.

The part-verse shown above is an example of the use of simile by Periyalvar. He transforms an everyday, common creature like a lizard into poetic delight. He compares the effortless compactness and firmness with which Kannan wears the sword on his waist to the grip of a lizard on the wall without any gap. ‘To be so is the lizard’s nature’ [1].

Scholars note that Periyalvar’s work is of the highest caliber in skill, imagination, emotion, and poetic expression. Beyond aesthetics, scholars have also explained how the verses reflect Vendantic concepts and Srivaishnava philosophy. They note that this ending pasuram below brings out a profound concept of Vishishtadvaita, where Periyalvar ultimately places himself in the lord who also resides within him.

 

What is presented here is a mere glimpse of the contributions of Periyalvar. Let us listen to the Thirupallandu and Thirumozhi and recall Periyalvar whose enlightened thoughts and steadfast Bhakti continue to guide generations of Tamizhs and dharmikas all over the world.

The book by Thiru M.P.Srinivasan can be purchased here.

 

References and Further Reading

  1. Makers of Indian Literature Series. Periyalvar. M.P. Srinivasan. English translation by Padma Srinivasan. Sahitya Akademi. 2014.
  2. Vedics.org: Thirupallandu.
  3. https://4000divyaprabandham.wordpress.com/category/2-periyalvar/periyalvar-thirumozhi/
  4. https://alvarsandacharyas.blogspot.com/2007/02/peria-azawar.html
  5. http://divyaprabandham.koyil.org/index.php/2015/11/thiruppallandu-12-pallandu-enru
  6. Periyazhvar Thirumozhi: Sublime Hymns of Mystic Consciousness. Vankeepuram Rajagopalan. 2008.

Acknowledgment

TCP thanks dharma scholar Smt. Prakruti Prativadi for her critical feedback. Any error in this article belongs solely to its author.

Personalities: Kavichakravarthi Kamban

cover pic, Kamba Ramayanam, Dr. H. V Hande [2].

After having the privilege of publishing this sublime essay on Andal Devi, it is only appropriate to devote this post to Kamban, the emperor of poetry and devotee of Nammalwar.

Background

Kamban was born in Thiruvazhundur in the Thanjavur area of the Chola kingdom. Multiple scholars and historians place him in the 9th century CE, while others trace Kamban to the 12th-13th century CE. A 9th century birth may locate Kamban after Adi Sankara and before Sri Ramanujacharya, while the latter date places him after the two great Acharyas. In any event, Kamban belongs to the third great wave of Tamizh literature that started with the Sangam period (dated before the Common Era), followed by the widespread impact of Bhakti literature of the Alwars and Nayanmars between the 6th-9th century CE [4] (noting that many trace the start of the Alwars to a few thousand years ago or to the early part of the 1st millennium). The are many popular stories about how Kamban got his name. It has been mentioned that Kamban’s father, Athavan was a priest, although some claim that he was a temple drummer. Growing up within a temple environment would have aided his learning of Hindu scriptures and contributed to his expertise in both Sanskrit and Tamizh. It is known without doubt that his patron was Sadayappan Vallal (possibly a landlord or chieftain) of Thiruvennainallur as he is acknowledged several times in Kamban’s works. Kamban was a devotee of Nammalwar and his Kula Deivam (family deity) was Sri Narasimha. It is said that he finalized his Ramavataram Mahakavyam in Srirangam and presented the கம்ப ராமாயணம் to the world. The story of how this divine poem came about is a quintessentially Indian one.

There were other literary luminaries in the Kamban era include Ottakuttan and Pugazhendi. The story [3] goes that Ottakuttan, a poet in the Chola court was a noted critic of poetry and a master of the prevailing norms of grammar, syntax, and prosody. None were able to challenge this ‘tyranny’ until Kamban emerged as a literary rival whose brilliance would transcend prevailing conventions. Kamban soon established himself as the leading poet in the royal court. Both poets were challenged with the task of putting the Ramayana to Tamizh verse. The days went by and Ottakuttan worked away industriously while Kamban appeared to be taking his own sweet time to get started.

One day, the King queried them about their progress and Kamban’s response was that he was now working on the Rama Setu story. Ottakuttan felt that this was impossible and challenged him to recite a verse from that portion, which Kamban did. Did Kamban’s genius produce that beautiful verse impromptu to stun the listeners, or was the entire Ramayana embedded in Kamban’s consciousness all the time? In any case, Ottakuttan challenged the use of the word ‘thumi’ for ‘droplet’ instead of ‘thuli’. Kamban’s response was that it was part of popular usage. To verify Kamban’s claim, the trio traveled to the town where they saw and heard a shepherd maid churning curd using ‘thumi’ to refer to a drop of curd, and vanish thereafter. Was ‘thumi’ already part of popular usage, or did, as Ottakuttan felt, Mother Saraswati arrive in the guise of a shepherd maid to support Kamban’s invention and protect the sacred work that he would soon be gifting to the world?

The legend has a beautiful ending. A frustrated Ottakuttan tore up his grammatically and syntactically perfect work. How could one hope to compete with Devi Saraswati’s son? Kamban arrives at Ottakuttan’s house to find his ‘Uttara Ramayanam’ intact. He gets Ottakuttan’s permission to include it as the final canto of his work. Their diverse literary approaches are harmonized, and this Tamizh unity dissolves any rivalry to serve the higher cause of dharma. Scholars mention that in addition to Valimiki’s Ramayana, Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa may have been the other Sanskrit source studied by Kamban to compose his masterpiece. Thus Kamban’s Ramavataram also embodies the unity of Sanskrit and Tamizh Kaviyam [5].

“Kamba Ramayanam was composed by him about the eight hundred and eighties and according to the procedure of those days was recited by him for approval to an audience of the literary elite — a sort of Academy of Letters — assembled in Srirangam in the month of Panguni (March-April) of the year 807 of the Salivahana Sakabda (885 a.d.) on the full-moon day when the star Uttaram was in the ascendant.” [4].

Kamba Ramyanam Mandapam. credit for pic: thehindu.com

The original Ramavataram [1] contains more than 10,000 verses (40,000 lines) and is divided into six Kandams that are further subdivided into several padalams.

  • Bala Kandam
  • Ayodhya Kandam
  • Aranya Kandam
  • Kishkinda Kandam
  • Sundara Kandam
  • Yuddha Kandam

The composition uses nearly 100 variations of Tamizh metres: Kali, Viruttum, and Turai [5]. Kamban’s composition ends with the return of Sri Rama and Devi Sita to Ayodhya after the victory over Ravana. It occupies the pride of place in Tamizh poetry and literature, and influenced Tamizh, Indian, and Asian art, aesthetics, and literature over centuries. For this monumental contribution, Kamban is rightly hailed as Kavichakravarthi, the emperor of poetry.

This brief post merely recalls some findings of many great Indian scholars of Sanskrit and Tamizh who immersed themselves in Kamban’s Ramavataram for decades.

Achievements

At least four other works have been attributed to Kamban including Saraswati Antadi, Sadagopar Antadi, Silaiyezhupathu, and Aerezhupathu. Not surprisingly, his Ramayanam overshadows these contributions and the remainder of the post focuses on this work.

Indic scholars have noted the importance of context in the literary works of India [7]. Kavyas were not secular poem fragments written in a top-down manner for ivory-tower intellectuals like it is in Europe. Kavyas are extraordinary multi-layered integral works that transcend the mundane and resonate with a variety of audiences [2], and the Kamba Ramayanam has to be viewed in this context. By the 9th century, Sri Ramachandra Murthi and Mother Sita of Adikavi Valmiki were beloved deities of the Tamizhs and all of India and parts of Asia. They are mentioned with reverence in Tamizh literature right from the ancient Silapatikaram and Manimekalai. Songs composed by Alwar Saints further elevated their place in the minds of the ordinary Tamizh.  It would appear that Tamizh literature had already reached its peak. However, Kamban took Tamizh to a different level.

It appeared as if all the potentialities of the language had been thoroughly exploited before Kamban’s arrival. But, in spite of these handicaps, Kamban’s genius gave to the language fresh powers of articulation and made it serve the pure perfection of poetry… whose intense poetic genius broke the accepted moulds of grammar and who invented patterns of verbal harmonics which far transcended the conventional scales..”  – S. Maharajan.

The Ramavataram Mahakavyam is first and foremost a work of dharma. Starting from the latter half of the 9th century and until the 13th century, the Tamizhs were at the peak of their economic, cultural, and military prosperity during the long rule of the great Chola dynasty. The vast ocean space around the east coast of India, Sri Lanka, and South East Asia were coming under Tamizh suzerainty. Commentator and author A. S. Gnanasambandan’s views [6, 8] suggest that an unbridled material and artistic progress also brought along undesirable behavioral changes across the society, from king to commoner. Sita Devi was always the epitome of virtue and an exemplar for women and queens. Kamban’s work reinforced the need for kings and men to look up to Rama’s conduct and emulate Sri Ramachandra who was devoted only to Sita Devi. More generally, an excessive focus on Artha and Kama in the society has to be moderated by re-emphasizing Dharma and Moksha. A dry Tamizh translation of Sage Valmiki’s Sanskrit kavya was unlikely to produce the impact required to stir and elevate the consciousness of a people. Just as Mahavishnu’s avatar descends down to earth from time to time in diverse forms to restore dharma, so too, it seems, will the transcendental Kavya of Ramayana be recreated with Shraddha and retold for the spiritual benefit of many generations.

Kamban’s Kosala leaps out of the pages as they depict his vision of a dharmic Tamizh land; the king was guided by dharma; women were blessed with wealth and lasting education; everyone was a scholar there; the country was prosperous and its people were generous, and beautiful because their external beauty mirrored their inner culture. “The people of Kosala did not live illusory lives” – H.V. Hande [2]. As India makes rapid material progress in the 21st century, it becomes doubly important to not lose its dharmic mooring. Tamil Nadu needs Kamba Ramayanam today more than ever.

Ramavataram is not a translation of Valmiki Ramayana. Indeed, all the great poet-saints of India knew the ineffectiveness and loss in transmission that occurs when we try to translate prior works across languages [4]. This is especially true of Sanskrit kavyas, which are rich in dharmic non-translatable keywords [7].  Kamban’s work is an original masterpiece that is full of Rama Bhakti. It is built on and celebrates Rishi Valmiki’s work in Sanskrit, the devabhasha. Kamban’s Tamizh are the blessings of Mother Saraswati and therefore it is not surprising that a true seeker will be able to find embedded within its exquisite Tamizh, the nuanced concepts of enlightenment, the purusharthas and the wisdom of the Upanishads.

“[Kamban] has not merely taken his theme from the greatest of Samskrit epics but has followed it in almost every detail step by step. He has himself challenged comparison, though in all humility, with the first of Samskrit poets, and yet not one of the critics who have compared his work with that of Valmiki has ever denied him place among the greatest poets of the world. It is now for the larger critical audience of India and of the rest of the world to appraise Kamban’s work and adjudge to him his proper place among the sons of Saraswati.” – V Venkatesa Subramanya Iyer [4].

How does Kamban himself view his work and Sage Valmiki’s? Kamban’s preface verses translated below reveal the humility and Shraddha with which an enlightened master like Kamban approached the Ramayana in order to compose his own verses.

My efforts to narrate the story of the flawless and victorious Rama can be compared to the efforts of a cat reaching the roaring ocean of milk and trying to drink it all up. Rama’s arrows are as infallible as the curse of the learned. The history of this great Rama was written by Sage Valmeeki. While his poem has been widely acclaimed as the best in the country, I, the humblest of the humble, have dared to compose my own verses. In spite of the worldly humiliation that I might suffer and the consequent blemish that I might attract, if I have composed these verses, it is solely because of my earnest desire to show to the world the greatness of the divine poem composed by Valmeeki, who has mastered the art of flawless poetic creation.”- H. V. Hande [2].

The entire cosmos joyfully and vividly participates in the Kamba Ramayanam. The very first verse contains a profound exposition of the Hindu dharmic worldview, invoking and surrendering to god (as cosmos and human) who in an endless divine play creates and resides in the universe, protects, and dissolves it. Popular commentator Suki Sivam notes here that Kamban does not use the word ‘padaitthal’ that would indicate an external agency, but the phrase ‘thaam ula aakkalum’ that is consistent with Vedic cosmology.

உலகம் யாவையும் தாம் உள ஆக்கலும்
நிலை பெறுத்தலும் நீக்கலும் நீங்கலா
அலகு இலா விளையாட்டு உடையார் அவர்
தலைவர் அன்னவர்க்கே சரண் நாங்களே  -[1]

This profound concept is discussed in different ways in various Kandams. For example, the responses of Rama are so human at times that it initially puzzles others.  In the Yuddha Kandam, upon seeing the seemingly lifeless body of Ilakkuvan (Lakshmana) on the battlefield, Rama becomes agitated and overcome by a sense of failure and grief; he is rendered speechless and swoons. The Devas are distraught after witnessing this scene. Their response as they unravel this puzzle enlightens the listeners about god’s divine game (leelai) and the nature of ultimate reality.

அண்டம் பலவும்; அனைத்து உயிரும்,
அகத்தும் புறத்தும் உள ஆக்கி,
உண்டும் உமிழ்ந்தும், அளந்து இடந்தும்,
உள்ளும் புறத்தும் உளை ஆகிக்
கொண்டு, சிலம்பிதன் வாயின்
நூலால் இயையக் கூடு இயற்றி,
பண்டும் இன்றும் அமைக்கின்ற
படியை ஒருவாய் பரமேட்டி!

… [1]

O Lord Vishnu, you had swallowed all the worlds and all beings and brought
them out later. You had kept them within and without, measured them, dug them out
and remained in and out of them. You emulate the spider which spins its web with
a thin thread produced from its mouth. You keep on indulging in these acts
perennially. O Lord, sorrow really never overtakes you. Your sufferings are only
your pleasant pranks! To those who do not understand all this, your sufferings will
cause agony which can be relieved only at your will. You have no beginning, middle
or end. You appear as if you can be discerned by one’s senses, but in reality it is not
so…” – translation [2].

Kamban’s use of the spider web metaphor brings home a fundamental Vedantic principle: “there is one Ultimate Reality that is Supreme Consciousness and that there is nothing independent of this reality. This Ultimate Reality is the raw material that turns itself into the universe…” – Rajiv Malhotra. Seers and Swadeshi scholars have used this metaphor for Ishwara or Brahman as the material as well as efficient cause of the universe [7].

Unless one is touched by the bliss of Rama Bhakti and realizes these truths in Kamban’s work, merely intellectualizing the Ramavataram, limiting its contribution to literary wizardry, or pulling verses out of context to prove the superiority or inferiority of some Sampradaya or language is an exercise in futility. The Ramayana is not just a socio-political text as seen by the materialist lens of western academia, but an integral, transmundane “magnificent work that is aligned to the ultimate purpose of life” [9].

Some favorite verses of the Tamizhs

A Verse from the Ayodhya Kandam

Kamban finds it impossible to express the infinite beauty and grace of Rama in a limited number of verses and expresses his anguish at this limitation [6].

வெய்யோன் ஒளி தன்மேனியில் விரிசோதியின் மறையப்

பொய்யோ எனும் இடையாளொடும் இளையானொடும், போனான்-

“மையோ, மரகதமோ, மறிகடலோ, மழை முகிலோ,

ஐயோ, இவன் வடிவு!” என்பதோர் அழியா அழகு உடையான்.  [1]

“Maiyyo, Maragathamo, Marikadalo, Mazhai Muhilo, Aiyyoo… ivan vaidivu!” – Is the dark Rama like the Mai (kohl) or the solid emerald, the ocean waves, or the dark vaporous clouds, alas, … no element in nature can completely express his beauty.

Hanuman’s first words to Rama after returning from Lanka.

Mihai Paadal

Over time, many extraneous verses (about 2000) crept into the Ramavataram, and were later considered to be ‘Mihai Paadal’. Many of these verses are beautiful in their own right, such as this description of a key character of the Ramayana that is recited to this day in many Tamizh households. The simple and pleasant task of identifying this powerful deity is left to the reader.

அஞ்சிலே ஒன்று பெற்றான், அஞ்சிலே ஒன்றைத் தாவி
அஞ்சிலே ஒன்று ஆறு ஆக ஆரியர்காக ஏகி
அஞ்சிலே ஒன்று பெற்ற அணங்கைக் கண்டு அயலார் ஊரில்
அஞ்சிலே ஒன்றை வைத்தான் அவன் நம்மை அளித்துக் காப்பான்

He who was born from one of the five crossed over one of the five

and made a path through one of the five for the noble prince (Arya)

to the city and find the one who was born from one of the five

where he ‘let loose’/’set’ one of the five. He will always protect us.

Legacy

Kamban’s profound and exquisite verses naturally produced several generations of commentators and Tamizh scholars. It is said in Tamizh that even an inanimate object in Kamban’s house can recite poetry! Thousand years later, he inspired scholar-warriors from Tamil Nadu to selflessly participate in the Indian freedom movement of the 20th century. There have been many Ramayana works in Tamizh before and after, but it is Kamba Ramayanam and its lessons of dharma, karuna, prema, achara, and Bhakti that has remained in the Tamizh consciousness.

1910. Freedom fighter V. Venkatesa Subramanya Aiyar is in a London hotel, being tracked by the British police for his involvement in revolutionary activities aimed at overthrowing the colonial British Raj. To make a quick night escape to Amsterdam, he abandons most belongings, taking only the bare essentials. This includes a copy of the Kamba Ramayanam, a work he would later write a brilliant commentary on. -[4].

Kamban’s influence on Tamizh art and literature lasts to this day. The lyrical beauty of his verses, as well as the underlying Hindu cosmology are discussed. Reciting the verses from Kamba Ramayanam or a discourse is an art form that can be pleasing to the ear and spiritually healing and remains popular among diverse audiences from Madurai to San Jose, California, to Sydney, Australia.

Quotes

“[Kamban] has been adjudged by his contemporaries, no mean judges of poetry, as the Emperor of the Realms of Poesy — a title which every succeeding generation in the Tamil country has been but confirming ever since.” – V Venkatesa Suramanya Iyer [4].

with the birth of Kamba Ramayana the whole future of Tamil poetry was altered, and this masterpiece has been exercising the most profound impact upon the poetic sensibility of the Tamils during the last eleven centuries. A long series of learned men have been thrilling the masses, from the time of Kamban down to our own, with recitations from, and exposition of the Kamba Ramayana.”. – S. Maharajan [3].

Influence on Art and Culture

Dr R. Nagaswamy has studied Kamban’s impact on Indian sculpture from the 10th century CE [5]: “his picturisation of Hanuman as the very incarnation of Vinaya, is a noteworthy feature of Kamban in his Tamil Ramayana. That this picturisation of Hanuman is found in all bronzes of 10th and 11th century A.D. shows the impact of Kamban’s concept of Hanuman on contemporary art and religious motifs. This also indicates that Kamban should have lived in 9th century A.D.

Tholpavakoothu, the shadow-puppet play enacted in a few Kali temples in the Palakkadu District of Kerala is based on characters from the Ramayana, using the Kamba Ramayanam text as the basis for the performance. Similarly, the Nang Yai/Nang Talung shadow puppetry art of Thailand also includes scenes from the Thai Ramayana (Ramakien) that may have been influenced by Kamban’s work. One can also find the influence of Kamban’s work in Sinhala literature of the 19th century [5].

Tholpava koothu shadow puppet Ramayana show (21).jpg
Tholpavakoothu. By Suyash Dwivedi Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Kamban’s mastery over simile, metaphor, and delightful alliteration has left generations in awe. For example, in the Kishkinda Kandam, popular speaker Suki Sivam mentions how the words literally bound, leap, and skip inside a joyous Anjaneya as he announces the arrival of  Rama and Lakshmana to King Sugriva after his first meeting with the brothers.

மண் உளார், விண்ணுளார்,
மாறு உளார், வேறு உளார்,
எண் உளார், இயலுளார்,
இசை உளார், திசை உளார்
கண் உளார் ஆயினார்;
பகை உளார், கழிநெடும்
புண் உளார் ஆருயிர்க்கு
அமிழ்தமே போல் உளார்…[1]

Kamban’s Tamizh, like an intricately carved kovil, is an aesthetic delight that a superficial reader can get lost in, and thereby miss out on a darisanam of Sri Ramachandra Murthi, a primary purpose of Ramavataram [6]. For example, a most talked-about ‘annalum nokkinaan, avalum nokkinaal’ verse in popular culture occurs in the Bala Kandam, vividly describing the meeting of the eyes and hearts of Sri Rama and Mother Sita in Mithila before the Sita-Rama Kalyanam. This and a few other events in the Ramavataram are not part of the Valmiki Ramayana but are included in the later 16th century Awadhi epic Ramacharitamanas of Sant Goswami Tulsidas.

எண் அரும் நலத்தினாள்
இனையள் நின்றுழி,
கண்ணொடு கண் இணை
கவ்வி, ஒன்றை ஒன்று
உண்ணவும், நிலை பெறாது
உணர்வும் ஒன்றிட,
அண்ணலும் நோக்கினான்!
அவளும் நோக்கினாள். [1]

This is not the materialistic “love at first sight” of Indian movies and teen novels. The verses are full of Sringara, and ultimately  subordinated to the highest Vedic truth. Kamban draws in the listener, and the verses gradually transform and elevate their consciousness into successively higher realms, beyond sensory gratification and aesthetic delight, and finally, the transcendental nature of that meeting can be realized. This is a divine, cosmic reunion of Mahavishnu and Mahalakshmi [6].

மருங்கு இலா நங்கையும்,
வசை இல் ஐயனும்,
ஒருங்கிய இரண்டு உடற்கு
உயிர் ஒன்று ஆயினார்,
கருங் கடல் பள்ளியில்
கலவி நீங்கிப் போய்ப்
பிரிந்தவர் கூடினால்,
பேசல் வேண்டுமோ. [1]

Multiple traditions in Tamil Nadu are attributed to the influence of the Ramayanam. After the victory over Ravana, Anjaneya is sent by Sri Rama to share the news with Mother Sita. It is said that even the most powerful and wise Hanuman was rendered speechless in his happiness and wrote ‘ஸ்ரீராமஜெயம்’ (Sri Rama Jayam) on the ground to convey the news of Rama’s victory to Mother Sita. To this day, many Tamizhs continue the practice of writing this sacred phrase several times in their notebooks. Upon hearing this news, Sitamma realized that she had no precious jewels to reward Hanuman; instead she plucked and presented some betel leaves to Hanuman, and this tradition continues to this day in the form of offering betel leaf garlands to Anjaneya Swami. The Sundara Kandam that describes the successful quest of Hanuman to locate Mother Sita has a special place in all our hearts and reciting it properly with devotion is of great benefit. As long as Kamba Ramayanam is recited, discussed, and listened to with Shraddha, Tamizh and dharma will never die in Tamil Nadu.

pic credit: www.dattapeetham.org
References

[1] கம்ப ராமாயணம். Kambar. Pustaka Digital Media. 2016.

[2] Kamba Ramayanam: An English Prose Rendering. Dr. H. V. Hande. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1996.

[3] Makers of Indian Literature: Kamban. S. Maharajan. Sahitya Akademi, 1972.

[4] Kamba Ramayanam – A Study. With Translations in Verse or Poetic Prose of Over Four of the Original Poems. Varaganeri Venkatesa Subramanya Aiyar. Delhi Tamil Sangam. 1950.

[5] The Ramayana Tradition in Asia. Papers presented at the International Seminar on The Ramayana Tradition in Asia. New Delhi. Edited by V. Raghavan. Sahitya Akademi. 1980.

[6] Kamba Ramayanam. Tamil Discourse by Sri Suki Sivam. Madurai. Circa 2001.

[7] Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism. Rajiv Malhotra. Harper Collins. 2011.

[8] A Reliable Guide to Kamban: Review of ‘Kamban—Putiya Parvai’ (Critical Study in Tamil) by A.S. Gnanasambandan. Prema Nandakumar. Indian Literature, vol. 29 (5). 1986.

[9] Reclaiming Ramayana: Disentangling the Discourses (Reclaiming Sanskrit Series Book 3). Manjushree Hegde. Infinity Foundation India.  2018.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to TCP and ICP authors and editor for their invaluable feedback.