The sugarcane by the beach, at Thiruvottriyur

One of the earliest places I visited in Chennai after I began seriously researching the city’s history was Pattinathar’s Samadhi in Thiruvottriyur. And it featured among my earliest articles on this blog (you can read it here). It was also the piece that made this blog popular -on the first day it garnered around 500 hits, which was big for me then. And since then, it is a story that continues to remain popular on this blog. It was only when I came to know Mr S Muthiah well that I got to know the connection that Pattinathar had with the Nagarathar community. But many years prior to this, my father had told me the story of Pattinathu Adigal. It appears that there are in reality two Pattinathar-s – the first belonging to the time when the Thirumurai-s were codified (around the 10/11th centuries) and the second, to the 14th century. I must however add here that Prof KV Raman in his Early History of the Madras Region refers to only one Pattinathar, of the 10th century. There is therefore some confusion and I will leave it at that. To put it differently, there was at least one Pattinathar.

This பெரும் துரவி (great renunciate) Pattinathar as Harikatha artiste Kamala Moorthy spoke of him, lies buried by the sea, just off Thiruvottriyur. He was greatly attached to the shrine of Shiva as Adipuriswara which dominates this area, and whose sanctum is a magnificent apsidal structure built by Rajendra Chola I. And there are three verses by him, which carry some references to Thiruvotriyur as a town –

கண்டங் கரியதாம்; கண்மூன் றுடையதாம்;

அண்டத்தைப் போல வழகியதாம்; தொண்டர்

உடலுருகத் தித்திக்கு மோன்குபுகழொற்றிக்

கடலருகே நிற்குங் கரும்பு

This sugarcane by the sea at Thiruvottriyur of waxing fame

Has a dark stem, three shoots and is beautiful like the sky.

Its sweetness is such that it thrills its afficionados to their core .

The verse hinges on the similarities between the sugarcane and Lord Shiva. He has a dark throat, has three eyes and stands nude, the sky being His sole raiment. He is of such sweetness that His devotees melt into Him. His abode is Thiruvottriyur whose fame is eternal. (This imagery of the Lord here as sugar is also used by Sundarar. Please see this article – worshipping the Lord as Sugarcane) It must be remembered that as per legend, the Lord gave Pattinathar a sugarcane stalk and said it would ripen at a certain spot where he could then rest. This happened at Thiruvottriyur and Pattinathar is usually depicted carrying a stalk of sugarcane as can be seen from this block print –

Pattinathar as seen in a block print

ஐயுன் தொடர்ந்து, விழியுஞ் செருகி, யறிவழிந்து

மெய்யும்ப்பொய்யாகி விடுகின்ற போதொன்று வேண்டுவன்யான்

செய்யுன் திருவொற்றி யூருடையீர்! திரு நீறுமிட்டுக்

கையுன் தொழபண்ணி யைந்தெழுத் தோதவுங் கற்ப்பியுமே.

When phlegm takes over, the eyes darken, the mind wanders

And all truth becomes false, I pray for just this,

O bedecked Lord of Thiruvottriyur,

Teach me to wear sacred ashes, raise my hand in prayer

And utter the sacred five letters – Om Na Ma Shi Va Ya

Thiruvottriyur was known as much for its monasteries as it was for its temple and this combination must have attracted Pattinathar to this place. (see my article on the Lost Monasteries of Thiruvottriyur). The above verse clearly kindles a spirit of renunciation.

The last and final verse paints a picture of the tall walls of the temple and the streets busy with devotees –

சுடப்படு வாரறி யார்புர மூன்றயுஞ் சுட்டபிரான்

றிடப்படு மாமதிற் றென்னோற்றி யூரன் றெருப்பரப்பி

நடப்பவர் பொற்பத நந்தலை மேற்பட நன்குருண்டு

கிடப்பது காண்மன மே! விதி யேட்டைக் கிழிப்பதுவே.

At Thiruvottriyur of tall fortifying walls

Where the Lord who burnt the three worlds

And who is beyond realisation of the worldly resides,

Aim to roll on the broad streets so that

The golden feet of the devotees will touch your head,

O mind! This is what will change your fate.

And so in Pattinathar’s time, (between the 10th and 14th centuries), Thiruvottriyur had a protective wall and broad streets. The present wall that we see around the temple dates to the 19th century. The four main streets still remain broad to an extent, encroachments willing.

Pattinathar anthology – 1932

My standard reference for Pattinathar’s works is a 1932 edition whose cover I have featured above. It appears to have been purchased from a second-hand book shop in Thirunelveli sometime in the 1940s by my grandfather.

This article is part of a series that looks at Chennai as described in poetry. You can read the earlier part here