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Nayanar statue of the Bhakti movement. Source: Lightofchairat / Adobe Stock.

Who Were the Tamil Saints of the Bhakti Movement?


Broadly speaking, the Tamil saints refers to the holy men and women of Hinduism who lived in Tamilakam, the geographical area inhabited by the ancient Tamil people which covers the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent. The Tamil saints are closely associated with Bhakti (Sanskrit for ‘devotion’), a devotional movement in Hinduism commonly believed to have originated in the Tamil region of southern India.

These Tamil saints are divided into two groups, the Nayanars and the Alwars. The former were the devotees of Shiva, while the latter the worshippers of Vishnu.

In order to understand the Tamil saints, one has to first have some knowledge about Bhakti. As mentioned already, this is a Hindu devotional movement that started in the land of the Tamils. A key tenet of this movement is the mutual intense emotional attachment of a devotee to his / her deity, and of the deity to his / her devotee. Bhakti is also considered to be superior to the other two religious approaches in Hinduism, i.e. the path of knowledge and the path of ritual and good works, known as jnana and karma respectively in Sanskrit.

Tamilakam - the area of the Bhakti movement. (Copperchloride / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Bhakti Movement

The Bhakti movement started around the 6th of 7th century AD and spread across India in the centuries that followed. For instance, the Bhakti movement took root in the neighboring Kannada region (in the southwest of India, corresponding to the modern state of Karnataka) during the 12th century, while Maharashtra (in west-central India) and northern India saw the arrival of the movement during the 13th century. The movement’s popularity may have been due partly to the unfulfilling method of worship that was current in mainstream Hinduism, characterized by a series of complicated rituals.

The Bhakti movement was not merely a religious movement but had a social dimension as well. Looking from this perspective, it may be said that those who joined the movement desired to free themselves from the rigid caste system embedded in mainstream Hinduism. Thus, the followers of this movement come from all walks of life. For instance, Basavanna, who started the Bhakti movement in the Kannada region, was a minister of King Bijjala II. Tukaram, a well-known proponent of Bhakti in Maharashtra, belonged to the Shudra caste (the fourth and lowest rank in the caste system), while Ravi Dass, who lived between the 15th and 16th centuries, was born into a family of leather workers in Varanasi, and belonged to the Dalit (known also as Untouchable) caste.

Basavanna of the Bhakti movement. (Opoorna / CC BY-SA 3.0)

As the caste system was disregarded by the Bhakti movement, it had a particular appeal to those occupying the lower classes of Indian society. Moreover, wherever the movement went, its followers challenged and threatened the existing social hierarchy in their own capacity.

For instance, Basavanna used his powers as a minister to initiate social reform programs and brought his message to the masses through his works. On the other hand, Guru Nanak, who, like Ravi Dass, lived during the 15th and 16th centuries, put his words and beliefs into practice by founding a new religion, Sikhism.

Needless to say, the Bhakti movement was regarded as a threat by those who wanted to maintain the status quo, who were often those in positions of power. Thus, the proponents of this movement were often dealt with severely. As an example, Tukaram was forced by the authorities to throw his works into a river.

He decided to undertake a fast to the death, and, according to legend, on the 13th day the manuscripts miraculously floated to the surface of the river, undamaged. Even Basavanna, who was himself in a position of power, was eventually defeated by his rivals. In spite of this, the ideas initiated by members of the Bhakti movement survived.

The legend of Tukaram, for instance, is probably apocryphal, but may be taken to be an allegory for the survival of his ideas beyond his own death. As for Basavanna, his ideas have survived till the present day, and he remains a well-respected figure in Karnataka even today.

Tukaram of the Bhakti movement. (Lemonjam / Public Domain)

Adherents of the Bhakti movement were free to choose which deities they would like to devote themselves to. Shiva and Vishnu were the two main deities who received the devotion of the Tamil saints. The Tamil saints who worshiped Shiva are known as the Nayanars, while those who followed Vishnu are called the Alwars.

There are as many as 63 Nayanars, and only 12 Alwars. This is not entirely surprising, considering that Shiva is the more popular of the two gods in that part of India.

The name Nayanar may be literally translated to mean ‘hounds of Shiva’, and took on the meaning ‘teachers of Siva’ later on. Like the followers of the Bhakti movement in other parts of India, the 63 Nayanars came from a variety of backgrounds. The egalitarian nature of the movement may be seen in the fact that there were both male and female Nayanars who belonged to different stages of life, and from different castes, economic backgrounds, and occupations.

For instance, Murthi and Maiporul were kings (the former belonging to the Vaishya caste, and attained kingship later on), Kungiliya Kalayar and Aputhi Adigal belonged to the Brahmin class, while Thirunalai Povar was a Dalit. The lives of the 63 Nayanars are depicted in a poetic account called the Periya Puranam, which was compiled during the 12th century AD by Sekkizhar, a poet and chief minister of Kulothunga Chola II. The three most important saints among the Nayanars were Sambandar (known also as Nanachampantar), Appar, and Sundarar (known also as Chuntaramurtti), known collectively as ‘The Three’.

Sambandar – Saint of the Bhakti Movement

Sambandar was the son of Sivapada Hridayar, a pious Brahmin, and Bhagavathiar, his virtuous wife. Sivapada and his wife lived during a time when Jainism was the dominant religion of the elites. In spite of that, Sambandar’s parents remained faithful to Saivism and refused to become Jains. Sivapada is said to have prayed to Shiva for a boon, a son who would reestablish Saivism in the region, and this was granted in the form of Sambandar.

According to legend, Sambandar’ real parents were in fact Shiva and his wife, Parvathi, and was therefore divine. There are numerous stories about Sambandar as a child. In one of these stories, for instance, Sambandar went on a pilgrimage to Chidambaram, as he had heard of the greatness of the Brahmins there.

Saint Sambandar - of the Bhakti movement. (Joe Bielawa / CC BY-SA 2.0)

When he saw the Brahmins, he realized that they were actually Shiva Ganas (Shiva’s celestial guardians) and revealed it to his companion, Yalpannar, a musician and fellow Nayanar saint. The Brahmins, recognizing Sambandar, prepared to fall at his feet, but before they could do so the child had already fallen at their feet. There are many other legends surrounding Sambandar, some of which were meant to show the superiority of Saivism over rival religions, Jainism in particular, and in one case, Buddhism.

Appar (meaning ‘father’) is recorded to have lived during the 7th century AD. He was the son of Pukalanar and Mathiniyar, and his birthplace was Thiruvamoor in Thirumunaipadi. Appar was known initially as Marulneekiar (meaning ‘the dispeller of darkness / ignorance’). As a youth, Appar was keen to seek out the best religion, and to follow it.

He had heard of Jainism, was attracted by its practice of Ahimsa and therefore embraced that faith. Appar’s older sister, who had been taking care of him, was disappointed by her brother’s conversion and prayed fervently to Shiva to save him. One day, the god appeared to her in a dream and told her that he would bring her brother back to Saivism by inflicting a severe colic on him.

The pain that Appar suffered was unbearable and the Jains were unable to cure him. Thus, Appar lost faith in Jainism, threw away his Jain garb, and returned home to his sister without telling anyone. With his sister’s help, Appar returned to Saivism, and having pledged his allegiance to Shiva once more, the pain disappeared.

It was also at this time that he received a new name, Thirunavukkarasar, which means ‘Lord of Speech’. Like Sambandar, there are many miraculous tales about Appar as well. For instance, there is one in which the king tries to put him to death, but Shiva protected and rescued his devotee from death. Appar lived to a ripe old age of 81.

Sundarar – Saint of the Bhakti Movement

Sundarar is recorded to have lived during the 8th century AD, and was the son of Sadaiyar and Isaijnani Ammaiyar, both of whom were also Nayanars. He was born in Thirunavalur, and was originally named Nambi Arurar, in honor of his grandfather. It is believed, however, that in his previous incarnation, the saint was Alala Sundarar, an attendant of Shiva who was present during the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. When the process released the lethal poison known as Halahala, it was Sundarar who brought it to Shiva in his hands.

According to one story, Sundarar fell in love with Aninditi and Kamalini, two attendants of Parvathi, while the three were in a garden collecting flowers for their respective deities. Shiva saw this, and called Sundarar, telling him that he, along with the two attendants, will be incarnated as humans, and thereby be able to get married, and to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh.

According to another version of the story, it was Shiva himself who caused Sundarar to have this lustful desire, and therefore causing him to be reborn as a human. This was done so that Shiva could use him to sing the Thiruthondathogai for the benefit of humanity. This is a collection of songs of praise and served as the original core of Sekkizhar’s Periya Puranam.

Unlike Appar, Sundarar only lived for a brief 18 years. Nevertheless, there are also numerous stories about his deeds, the most important of which being the pilgrimages he made to the various important Indian temples dedicated to Shiva.

Scene of boy coming back to life from crocodile after Sundarar sings hymn. (Balajijagadesh / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Scene of boy coming back to life from crocodile after Sundarar sings hymn. (Balajijagadesh / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Alwars of the Bhakti Movement

Unlike the Nayanars, there are only 12 Alwars. The name ‘Alwar’ is said to mean ‘one who is immersed (in meditation)’, and these saints were devout adherents of the god Vishnu. They believe that it is through Vishnu, or one of his avatars, that devotees are able to obtain the grace necessary for them to completely surrender themselves to their god. Like the Nayanars, the Alwars sang hymns in adoration of their god.

Vishnu deity of the Alwars. (Redtigerxyz / Public Domain)

Vishnu deity of the Alwars. (Redtigerxyz / Public Domain)

The hymns of the Alwars were compiled during the 10th century by Nathamuni, a leader of the Shrivaishnava sect. This compilation of hymns is known as the Nalayira Prabandham (meaning ‘Collection of 4,000 Songs’), and its regular singing in Vaishnava temples of South India was initiated by Nathamuni himself.

The 12 Alwars are as follows: Poigai, Bhutat, Peyalwar, Bhaktisara (Tirumazhisai), Kulashekhara, Vipranarayana (Thondaradippodi), Thiruppaan, Thirumangai, Vishnuchitta (Periyalwar), Goda Devi (Andal), Satakopa (Nammalvar), and Madhurakavi. Among the Alwars, there is only one female saint, Goda Devi.

All of the Alwars lived between the 7th and 10th centuries AD, and each believed to be a hamsam associated with Vishnu. For instance, Poigai is said to be the hamsam of Panchajanya (Vishnu’s conch), Bhutat that of Kaumodaki (Vishnu’s mace), and Peyalwar the hamsam of Nandaka (Vishnu’s sword).

Lastly, it may be mentioned that the Poigai, Bhutat, and Peyalwar are regarded to be the first three Alwars. There is an interesting story about them, which is told in order to highlight the divine origin of the Nalayira Prabandham. In this tale, Poigai, Bhutat, and Peyalwar each went on a pilgrimage to the various Vaisnava temples in India to worship their god. At some point of time during their individual pilgrimages, the three men met by chance in Thirukollur.

It was raining heavily that day, so each of the saints sought shelter in the front room of a house. The first to arrive was Poigai and he lay down to meditate. A short while later, Bhutat arrived. As the room was rather small, the two saints sat down to mediate. Yet a while later, Peyalwar arrived and the three stood there repeating the name of Vishnu.

As they were doing that, the saints felt as though there was a fourth person pressing them together. Needless to say, this mysterious presence was Vishnu, and due to this encounter with the divine, the three men were immediately enlightened. Poigai, Bhutat, and Peyalwar each sang 100 hymns, and these 300 hymns became the starting point of the Nalayira Prabandham.

Top image: Nayanar statue of the Bhakti movement. Source: Lightofchairat / Adobe Stock.

By Wu Mingren


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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