Ramalinga Swamigal or Vallalar as he is popularly known, was one of the great mystics of the 19th century. He was born on 5th October 1823 to Ramaiah Pillai and Chinnammaiar at Marudur village in South Arcot District of the Madras Presidency. Ramaiah Pillai had had the misfortune to lose five wives in succession and Chinnammiar was the sixth. The union was blessed and the couple had five children of whom Ramalingam was the youngest. Within a few months of his birth, Ramalingam was taken to the Chidambaram shrine where when the deeparadhana took place the infant burst into laughter. In later life, this was interpreted to be his first spiritual experience.

Within a year Ramaiah Pillai passed away and his wife took her children to Madras city where her eldest son Sabhapati had made his home with his wife, Parvati. The elder brother was a discourser and desired that his younger brother received a formal education. However Ramalingam’s heart was not in it and greatly disappointed Sabhapati. He preferred to spend time at the Kandaswami Temple on Rasappa Chetty Street, George Town. By way of punishment his elder brother forbade food being served to him and it was the kind-hearted Parvati who not only ensured that he received nourishment but also convinced him of the necessity for education. He began to pursue his studies at home.

Ramalingam spent a considerable time in meditation, in a room all by himself where he placed a lamp in front of a mirror and focused his attention on it. He later became so absorbed in it that he eschewed even food and sleep. He came to define God as the divine light (arutperumjothi). The city of Madras took notice of him when one day, in the absence of his elder brother, he took his place and delivered a discourse on the 63 Nayanmars. The family, worried about his spiritual inclinations forced him to marry his niece but he shown no interest in the life of a householder. It was said that he spent the nuptial night reading the Tiruvachakam.

In 1865 he came out openly against the caste system, blaming it for all the ills of Indian society. He founded the Samarasa Suddha Sanmarga Satya Sangam which declared its motto to be universal brotherhood. Later in Vadalur he founded a free eating house where people would be fed irrespective of caste considerations. Titled the Satya Dharma Salai it came up on land donated by well-wishers and Ramalinga Swamigal lit the stove himself with a prayer that it should remain burning forever and feed people at all times. This has remained so till date. He came to be called Vallalar (the generous one) thereafter.

Ramalinga Swamigal believed in Jeeva Karunyam, kindness to all living beings and abhorred the practice of killing animals for meat. When he constructed the Satya Gnana Sabhai in Vadalur in 1872, he declared that it was open to all for worship except those who ate meat. The latter group was however, free to offer worship from outside. It was an unusual temple for it had no deity and the sanctum was marked by seven cotton fabric screens, indicative of the seven veils of ignorance that needed to be removed to realise Godhead. No fruit or flowers could be offered in worship and an oil lamp lit by Ramalinga Swamigal is kept burning in perpetuity
Ramalinga Swamigal moved to Mettukuppam and there he raised the flag of universal brotherhood from a one room building. He delivered his last discourse there and entreated his disciples to meditate on a lamp that he placed outside. On 30th January 1874 he announced that he was going into the room and requested them not to open it for they would find nothing. The doors remained locked till May when at the instance of the Government they were broken open. The room was empty and it is believed that Ramalinga Swamigal had dematerialised. The Government gazettes of the period duly made mention of this.

Ramalinga Swamigal composed 5818 poems on the theme of universal love and these are collectively called the Tiruarutpa. The lyrics had a powerful impact on Papanasam Sivan of whom it was said that when young his only worldly possession was a compilation of the verses. The lyrics have been set to music by several people and form an integral part of the Carnatic music world today.

This write-up is the sleeve note for Charsur’s CD of the same name – Arutpa, sung by Sanjay Subrahmanyan