This article was written as a sleeve note for a CD in which Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi and SP Ramh have sung verses from the Tiruppugazh. The CD details are given in this link.

Tiruppugazh – the matchless prayer in verse

To sing the glory of God was the chosen mission in life of many great savants. Saint Arunagirinathar is among the foremost in the pantheon of such devotees who were steeped in bhakti. Details on the great composer’s life are at best sketchy and his biography as we know it today has been essentially culled out from the internal evidence that his compositions present.

It is believed that Arunagirinathar lived circa 1450 AD. In his verses he claims that his youth was spent in debauchery. This cannot be accepted as a fact completely, for it is customary for bhakti composers to ascribe all worldly sins unto themselves as a method of helping the laity understand the common temptations that lead one away from moral uprightness and devotion. At a certain stage in life Arunagirinathar appears to have become disenchanted with his lifestyle and contemplated suicide. As he was about to perpetrate the act, Lord Subrahmanya appeared before him and with his vEl (spear) inscribed the words OM SHARAVANABHAVA on his tongue. This changed the man completely. He gave up all thoughts of putting an end to his life and burst into song, singing of his patron deity. As per one version, the Lord himself gave the composer the first word for his songs namely “mutti”. The verse beginning with the word muttaittaru is considered to be his first composition. Later he is said to have visited Vayalur (a Subrahmanya shrine near Tiruchirapalli) where he is said to have begun composing in real earnest. He then proceeded to visit many of the great shrines of Subrahmanya in India and Sri Lanka and sang of them. In addition he also composed hymns at the panca bhUta sthalAs of Kanchipuram, Tiruvanaikka, Tiruvannamalai, Kalahasti and Chidambaram.

It is with Tiruvannamalai that the composer is most closely associated. He is said to have subdued those who believed in human sacrifices, in a duel fought at the sixteen pillared hall near the Sivaganga tank inside the temple precincts. Lord Subrahmanya is said to have manifested on one of the pillars in support of his devotee. Some of his compositions speak of a King by name Praudha Deva Raja. An interesting legend says that when the King was suffering from poor vision, he sought Arunagirinathar’s help. The saint left his mortal body and assuming the form of a parrot, flew into the heavens and brought back the dEva pArijAtam, a divine flower, which restored the King’s sight. The composer then resumed his natural form. The tower from which he flew as a parrot is said to be the “kiLi” (parrot) gOpuram in the Tiruvannamalai temple.

Putting legends to one side, historians have identified Praudha Deva Raja to be King Deva Raya II of Vijayanagar (ruled 1421 to 1448 AD). Arunagirinathar must have been a contemporary. He is said to have composed over 16000 songs of which only 1300 or so survive. Credit for their resurrection goes to VT Subramania Pillai (1846-1909) who published them in six parts. Working as an English Writer in the office of a British judge in a court at Manjakuppam, he was fascinated to hear a verse being offered as evidence by the priests of the Chidambaram temple in the process of a religious dispute that was a subject of litigation. He resolved to collect at least 1000 verses of the Tiruppugazh and devoted his lifetime to it. The first volume was released in 1894/5 and Pillai lived to see the third volume’s release. He formed a lifelong friendship with Vallimalai Saccidananda Swamigal (1870-1951) who began singing and popularising the verses. Pillai’s sons brought out the remaining volumes after his death. Pillai’s second son “Tanikaimani” VS Chengalvaraya Pillai wrote an authoritative commentary on the work.

As per the available verses, it is possible to identify 226 shrines that Arunagirinathar composed upon. It is also significant that out of these, 117 are also pADal pETra sthalams, or those sung by the 63 devotees of Shiva.

The internal evidence in the songs shows that Arunagirinathar was well-versed in music. He mentions paNs (rAgAs) such as varALi, shikhaNDi, dhanAshi, lalita, kaishiki, gauDi, bhairavi, malahari, bhauLi, gauLi, kuranji, vipanci and others. It is not certain if some of the familiar names can be identified as the same rAgAs as are sung today. However the tunes are now lost and it is conventional to sing the verses in rAgAs such as nATa, Ananda bhairavi, cenjuruTTi, hamsAnandi, kuranji, mOhanam and dEvagAndhAri. It is in the sphere to tALa that Arunagirinathar shows his deep insight into musical forms. He mentions five mArgi tALAs, namely udghaTitam, chachAtpuTam, chAchApuTam, ShaTpITha putrikam and sampat vEShTikam. He also gives the names of three dEsi tALAs, namely utsava tALa, darpaNa tALa and carcari tALa. However, the actual tALAs used are so varied that scholars have struggled to classify them in any of the well known groups of tALAs. Research is still going on in this area.

Carnatic Music made Tiruppugazh its own sometime early in the twentieth century. The family of Kanchipuram Dhanakoti Ammal was famed for its extensive repertoire. Her nephew Kanchipuram Naina Pillai made them an integral part of his concerts and several were his fans who stayed on till the end of the concert to hear him sing them. Alathur Venkatesa Iyer, thanks to his close friendship with Pudukottai Dakshinamurthi Pillai, became enamoured of the songs and having set them to music, taught them to the Alathur Brothers comprising his son Sivasubramania Iyer and disciple Srinivasa Iyer. The duo gave concerts comprising Tiruppugazh pieces alone, a feat later achieved by TN Seshagopalan as well. The arrival of the Tiruppugazh in Carnatic repertoire was catalyst for the Tamizh Isai movement of the 1940s. Naina Pillai’s school represented by his disciple Chittoor Subramanya Pillai and his school, of which Madurai Somu was a famous student, continued the tradition. In the 1940s and 50s, the eminent singer KB Sundarambal and the well known lawyer “Tiruppugazh Mani” TM Krishnaswami Ayyar did yeoman service in propagating Tiruppugazh.