A Sivapuranam print from the collection of the late Gomathi, Alamparai

I have mentally classified them as the 63 Movers and Shakers since childhood. I think I must have heard Nandan Charittiram from my grandmother for the first time. Many years later, having attended Harikatha-s, seen movies, read Indira Parthasarathy’s play and then having learnt to think for myself, I realised that there are many more layers to that story than met the eye when grandmother narrated it. I also realised that Sekkizhar’s Periya Puranam has in most cases, and perhaps most starkly so in Nandan, a very bare bones account which others have embellished.

Reflective of Their Times

Not all the stories of the 63 Movers and Shakers are palatable going by present day standards. The treatment of women is not edifying to say the least, and there is also appalling cruelty in many of the tales. The desire to do down the Buddhists and Jains is also intense. I will not comment on caste because while it exists in the Periya Puranam, it exists even more now and with far greater hatred.

Unwavering Faith

But what makes the 63 Movers and Shakers unique and stand out is their unwavering devotion. Their adoration of Shiva. That love makes the Lord seem human. He comes down to participate in their lives – He plays tricks on them, He makes at times unconscionable demands, He puts them through all kinds of trouble and then blesses them. And they unquestioningly go along with Him. There the Periya Puranam truly elevates. And the verses of the Tevaram – they take you onto different plane altogether. In how many ways can you describe the same God, and yet make each verse seem fresh? To get an idea, we need to read the Tevaram. Or for that matter the Tiruvachakam though Manikkavachakar for reasons unknown is not one of the 63. And then we have esoteric Tirumular.

The Big Three are of course Appar/Thirunavukkarasar or the Slave of God, Sambandar the Son of God and Sundaramurti the Companion of God. They are the three whose works comprise the Tevaram, and they are the first among the equals. But then you have so many fascinating others – Tirunalaippovar (Nandan), Karaikkal Ammai (Peyar), Thiruneelakanthathu Kuyavanaar – the potter whose story is my favourite, Kannappar and Sirutthonda Nayanar aka Paranjothi, of whom Shiva demanded the greatest sacrifice.

The 63 in Art

Over the centuries, the 63 have been the subject of song, and dance. Discoursing in Tamil took their lives across the length and breadth of India and the Far East. The Nagarathars wept over them and patronised their retelling and published accounts of their lives. Composers wrote songs and operas on them, Tanjore painters did monumental works of art. Beginning with Pudukottai we have stone sculptures of the 63 in temple after temple after temple.

Arupathu Moovar at Manila

However, it is only in the Kapaliswarar Temple Mylapore that all 63 come out in procession on the 8th day of the Panguni Uththiram festival. The event starts with Sambandar resurrecting Poompavai. The duo go back to the temple with Poompavai’s father Sivanesan Chettiar and have a darshan of the Lord. The procession then begins – the 63 along with assorted other saints in palanquins, all with arms pressed together and facing Siva, begin moving out backwards. Ganesa leads them. Following them and showering His grace is Kapali as Somaskanda and then come Karpagambal, Singaravelar and Chandikeswarar. Deities from other temples – Kolavizhi, Mundagakanni, Tiruvalluvar, etc, join in. As do thousands of the faithful. Thanneer Pandals – water dispensing kiosks are set up by the munificent to cater to the needs of those coming here for the festival. That by itself is a throwback to the 63 – it was Appoothi Adigal, one of them who first set up such a facility. That today they are a conservancy nightmare is another matter altogether.

The procession will leave at 3.00 pm in the afternoon from the temple today and return to base at around 10.00 pm. It won’t be easy to navigate the crowds, the heat and the food waste but don’t miss it. You will be moved and shaken in equal measure. Like the Periya Puranam, I prefer to see what elevates and leave out what is not so appealing.

I have earlier written on the Arupathu Moovar – you can read about them here

Tanneer Pandal

The ballad of Arupathu Moovar

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