A great kiss in progress in a pillar at the Tiruvottriyur temple

Valentine’s Day is today. Coincidentally, February/March is also when the Magizhadi Sevai is celebrated at the Tiruvottriyur Thyagarajaswami Temple. This commemorates the romance between the devotee Sundarar (c 7th to 9th century CE) and the flower girl Sangili.

Sundarar was an exalted devotee of the Lord, having the status of his friend. While at Tiruvarur, Sundarar had fallen in love with Paravai, a girl dedicated to the temple. The Lord appeared in the dreams of the village elders and instructed them to conduct the wedding of Sundarar to Paravai.

All would have been well had Sundarar not set out to see the great shrines of Shiva. When he came to Tiruvottriyur, his eye fell on Sangili. She had declared that she would only marry someone who had received the grace of God in full. Her parents had brought her thereupon to Tiruvottriyur and left her at the temple where she strung flower garlands. Smitten by her beauty, Sundarar appealed to Shiva for help. The Lord duly appeared in Sangili’s dream and proposed the match. Sangili informed Shiva that she would only marry someone who promised never to leave Tiruvottriyur, the oath to be taken in the sanctum of the temple. When Sundarar heard of this he realised that this was an impossible commitment and requested that at the time of the oath, the Lord should leave the sanctum and stay under a Magizha tree in the temple precinct. Shiva, wanting to teach Sundarar a lesson, agreed, but immediately informed Sangili that she should insist that the oath be taken under the Magizha tree and not at the sanctum.

The next day, when Sundarar proposed to Sangili, she informed him of the oath to which he readily agreed. What surprised him was her request that it be taken at the foot of the tree. He had no option and promised her solemnly after going around the tree three times. The wedding was conducted with all gaiety. But Sundarar was of a peripatetic disposition. He soon longed to be back at Tiruvarur where the temple festival would be conducted in all glory. He also missed Paravai and so one night he stole away from Tiruvottriyur. He was struck blind for this transgression. He somehow struggled on, his prayers resulting in one eye being restored in Kanchipuram and the other at Tiruvarur. But he had not contended with Paravai who shut the door on him for his perfidy. The Lord played go between and convinced Paravai to forgive Sundarar.

The records are silent on Sangili’s fate. She presumably returned to her temple duties after the brief romantic interlude. The Magizhadi Sevai at the temple recreates the promise that Sundarar made to Sangili.

This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column on February 14, 2015.