Arutprakasa Vallalar or Ramalinga Swamigal was a savant of the 19th century whose teachings were startlingly refreshing for his times and remain so even today. The concepts of universal love, recognising hunger as the greatest impediment to spiritual growth and the worship of God as light remain utopian and yet cherished ideals and may be so for all time to come. The biographical details of Vallalar are well known and this article focuses on locations in and around Chennai where he composed some of his 5,818 verses, collectively known as the arutpa.
The city was the setting in which the first half of Ramalinga Swamigal’s life played out. Though he was born on October 5, 1823 to Ramiah Pillai and Chinnammai at Marudur village in South Arcot district, the family moved to Madras when Ramalingam was very young. Ramiah Pillai had passed on and Chinnammai shifted to the city to be with her elder son Sabhapathi and his family. The house where they lived in still stands at Veeraswami Street, George Town. The first floor is maintained as a shrine for Vallalar. It was here that he meditated long by gazing into the flame of a lamp, much to the irritation of his elder brother who would have preferred his focusing on conventional studies.
Not far from here is Rasappa Chetty Street with its famed Kandar Kottam Temple. It was to the Murugan in this shrine that young Ramalingam was attracted and one of his songs, Orumaiyudan Ninadu Malar Adi is dedicated to the deity here. The line Dharumamigu Chennaiyir Kandakkottathul Valar Thalamongu Kanda Vele not only identifies the shrine but also pays tribute to the metropolis as charitable Chennai. The song, long featured in theatre and Carnatic music concerts shot to fame with a delectable setting in Bilahari for the film Konjum Salangai (1962) starring Savitri and Gemini Ganesan. The music was by SM Subbiah Naidu and the song was rendered in playback for Savitri by Soolamangalam Rajalakshmi. The song is followed by a nagaswaram version of the same by Karukuruchi Arunachalam.
Ramalingam’s talents as a discourser were first identified when he had to stand in for his indisposed brother at an event that was held in the Thondaimandala Thuluva Vellalar School. He spoke on the Periya Puranam and the audience was spellbound. The building and the institution still survive, on Mint Street. From then on, his spiritual evolution grew as did his following and in 1858, he left Madras for good, to carry on his good work from elsewhere. But while he was here, it would appear he spent considerable time meditating at and praying in some of the famous shrines here. In fact, after Chidambaram, to which the bulk of his compositions are dedicated, it is the shrine at Tiruvottriyur that ranks next. There are numerous poems by him in various formats dedicated to the deities at the shrine.
The Tiruvottriyur temple complex comprising the sanctums to Lord Adipuriswarar and Goddess Vadivudaiamman exerted a great attraction on him and it is said he spent several hours here. The Vadivudaimaanikkamaalai was composed here and takes it name from the fact that every one of its 100 verses ends with the line Vadivudaimanikkame. To a researcher on the city, apart from the delectable Tamil and the boundless devotion in the verses, what is of greater interest are the small descriptors of Tiruvottriyur that Ramalinga Swamigal packs in many of the verses. He refers to the proximity of the ocean, the verdant fields and the groves that abound in the area. Less than 200 years later we can only imagine all of this. If the Malai is a huge work, equally exquisite is a set of five verses titled Muktiupaayam. This is on Lord Adupuriswarar. Apart from these deities, there is a processional icon of Somaskanda at the temple, referred to as Tyagesa. In keeping with other shrines where Shiva is Tyagaraja, here too this deity acquires significance of its own. Ramalinga Swamigal dedicated several verses to Him. The Avalathamungal (a lament on human frailty) has ten verses, each ending with the phrase Thigazhum Orriyur Tyaaga Maa Maniye. Another is the Pazhamozhi Melvaitthu Parivu Koorthal – which as the name suggests has each of its ten verses beginning with a proverb (‘Like a man who buries treasure in a flood I try to meditate – I request you to shower your grace’ is one rough translation). This was clearly modelled on a Tevaram by Appar, composed at Tiruvarur. Tyagesa is a common factor to both compositions and it is very likely that the theme must have inspired Vallalar to compose on the same lines as Appar. Like the Tevara Pathigam this too has ten verses. Each verse ends with the line Thigazhum Orriyur Tyaaga Naayakane. Another set of ten verses on Shiva here is the Aparaathathaatraamai.
The Kodamadapugazchi is a hilarious ninda stuti. Set in ten verses it is in the style of a devotee who having heard of past miracles of the Lord (blessing Vishnu and Brahma, helping the Tevara Moovar, etc) comes to pray but is given nothing beyond a fleeting smile. There are lines that even say that I came to seek a favour but found you were begging anyway!
The works of Vallalar are divided into six sections, each known as Tirumurai. The third of these is largely dedicated to Tiruvottriyur and is structured as a devotee’s progress in spirituality depicted as a maiden’s love for the Lord. Three poems in this section are fashioned as ula-s – the Lord going around the streets of Tiruvottriyur in procession and the maiden falling in love with Him at first sight. The words and the structure of lines bring alive the temple’s festivals as they must have happened in the 19th century. It would be impossible to comprehensively describe all of Vallalar’s works on Tiruvottriyur and I hope to come back to deal with some of them in detail in subsequent articles
Ramalinga Swamigal visited the Thirumullaivayil shrine to Lord Masilamaniswarar as well. Like Tiruvottriyur, this too is a paadal petra sthalam – honoured by verses in the Tevaram. Of course, while the former has verses by all three saints – Appar, Sambandar and Sundarar, this has a pathigam only by the last named. Vallalar’s Thiruvinnappam is a set of ten verses dedicated to this shrine. Another is the Aruliyavinaval, also of ten verses. Likewise, Thiruvalidayam is a temple sacred to Lord Shiva in the industrial area of Padi. It has a pathikam in its honour by Sambandar. The Katchiperumidam of Vallalar is a set of ten of verses in praise of the Lord here.
Besides his numerous verses, Ramalinga Swamigal clearly defines some of his works as kirtanai, for which he provides ragas. These are in the pallavi, anupallavi and charanam formats. The absence of notation has resulted in these being retuned and sung in other ragas and talas. However, none of these is on a Chennai specific temple. For a note on these compositions read this article.
This write-up appeared in the Sruti magazine of August 2021.