A good introduction to the Tirumurai

Tirumurai – Glimpses into Tamil Saiva Poetry 

By Sharda Narayanan and Madhangi Rathnavel

Published by Ambika Aksharavali, Chennai, 2021

No. of page – 380

Price – Rs 1,200

The Panniru Tirumurai form a very important part of the priceless legacy that is ancient Tamil poetry. Post the Sangam works this would perhaps be the next most voluminous corpus. The 18,000 verses that it comprises are a valuable archive of not only the creative output of several Saiva saints but also of the various shrines they visited, their observations of life and the evolution of our language. Working down to the level of minutiae we find that they even provide us with a good idea of several other things – flora and fauna included. 

In her introduction to the book under review, Dr Sudha Seshayyan, noted scholar and the Vice Chancellor of the TN Dr MGR Medical University observes that “apart from devotion and unstinted faith, the lyrics of Thirumurai also encapsulate the history of the Tamil land and tradition, the genesis and development of Tamil Isai, the growth and style of Tamil culture, the habits and lives of Tamil people – in toto, the features and specialities of the Tamil world.” There can be no better summation. 

The best way of reading the Tirumurai is in the original Tamil, with a good guide to explain the knottier passages. But what happens when people are increasingly cut off from their mother tongue and become dependent on English alone? To such people, Tirumurai and for that matter other such works remain closed books – pieces of display in a museum as it were, to be peered at through glass cages and admired from afar. That is when English primers become necessary, and this book admirably fulfils such a role. 

For those who are not familiar with Tamil literature or poetry it may be necessary to explain here that the Panniru Tirumurai are as the name suggests a twelve-part compilation. This was a work in progress for over 600 years for it begins with the Tevaram – the hymns of Sambandar, Appar and Sundarar (the foremost of the 63 Tamil Saivite saints collectively known as the Nayanmar or Arupathumoovar). The first seven sections of the Tirumurai comprise the works of the above saints. These were compiled in the 11th century by the scholar Nambiyandar Nambi. The eighth Tirumurai is dedicated to the creations of Manikkavachakar, whose timeline is still being debated upon. The ninth Tirumurai comprises the works of nine lesser-known poets of the time of King Raja Raja Chola I (r 992-1014 CE), collectively known as the Tiruvisaippa. The tenth section is dedicated to the Tirumantiram, the deeply philosophical and often esoteric work of Tirumular, a siddha. 

The eleventh is a perfect illustration of the blurring lines between the devotees and the Lord, for it includes one verse attributed to Siva Himself! The others included in this section are several poets, including some of the arupathumoovar. It also has ten songs of Nambiyandar Nambi. The last section is the Periya Puranam of Sekkizhar, the hagiography of the arupathumoovar written in the 12th century. Thus, in 600 years, Tamil Saivite religious poetry codified itself. Is it possible to master it all in one life?

This book faithfully follows the structuring of the Tirumurai. By way of an introduction, it takes us through a masterly survey of the rise and practices of Saivism, the importance of the Chidambaram temple as a centre for the evolution of Tamil arts, the iconographic representations of Siva, the development of Pannisai or Tamil Isai. The only negative is the excessive use of Sanskrit terms to explain Tamil equivalents, especially in the introductory passage. The book then takes up each section of the Tirumurai, with a brief life sketch of the poets featured, followed by selected verses with meaning. At the end of the read, it is very likely that those who have perused this volume will want to delve deeper into the Tamil originals. The printing of the lyrics in Tamil and English is to be commended as that way, those who can read the former can enjoy the words in original. The usage of diacritical marks in the English script is indicative of much forethought and enables proper pronunciation. Also praiseworthy is the painstaking explanation of the various metres to be found in the Tirumurai. Too often, Tamil publications take such knowledge for granted and merely provide the names of the metres, leaving the bewildered reader to grope around for an explanation, puzzling through the lyrics themselves for an explanation. 

In recent years the Divya Prabandham of the twelve Azhwars have seen many translations into English. It is perhaps time that following the lead of this book, a complete translation of the Tirumurai too is taken up. 

This article appeared in The Hindu dated May 13, 2022