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Saivism or Saivam stands for the school of thought which adores and worships Siva, the auspicious, the Supreme Being. Saivism, as a religion goes back to prehistoric times in the Tamil country. Later it came to be identified with Rudra of the vedic age. Siva is mainly worshipped in the form of a Sivalinga. The origin of the linga must be traced to the worship of Agni (the God of Fire) as a shaft of fire and the identification of Rudra and Agni. Saivism was the dominant religion in the first millenium C.E. and even for several centuries later, not only throughout India but in ancient Indonesia, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. It declined, however, from 250 to 550 C.E. when the Kings were Buddhists. It was in the sixth century that the Pallavas came into prominence and there was a revival of Saivism. This rising tide of Saivism was further accelerated by the appearance of its four grandmasters: Appar, Sambandar. Sundarar and Manicka-vachagar.

Appar (600 - 681 C.E.) was the seniormost. He was left an orphan at an early age. He was brought up by a loving elder sister who was a devotee of Siva. Great was the sisterís grief when he forsook the faith of his ancestors and took to Jainism. His sister prayed to Lord Siva for his reconversion to Saivism and thereupon he was afflicted by an unbearable stomach-ache, which none of the Jains could alleviate, but of which he was cured when his sister applied the sacred ashes to him. This led to his reconversion. He wandered throughout the Tamil land, sometimes alone and sometimes with Sambandar, his junior contemporary, singing his way from shrine to shrine. Pictures show him holding in his hand a little tool for scraping grass, with which he used to scrape the stones of the temple courts. The Jains persecuted him and there are many stories of his miraculous escapes. The tone, texture, content and imagery of his songs captivated the hearts of one and all. His soul-stirring songs are clear and emphatic and show him as an exemplary devotee of the Lord. His miracles have been chronicled everywhere in Saiva literature and history.

Sambandar ( 644 - 660 C.E.) He was a genius-cum-saint-cum-poet who lived only for sixteen years, but is said to have composed 10000 devotional hymns on Siva in Tamil. He had the genius of singing hymns to the Lord for a miracle to happen and lo, it happened every time he asked for it! The wonders of his life-history begin with his third year. The earliest hymn he sang was when he was a boy of three. It seems he was left alone by his father on the banks of a temple tank while the father was bathing in the tank having his series of ritual dips. The young child missed his parents and cried 'Amma' 'Amma' and asked for milk. 'Amma' in Tamil means 'Mother'. The Mother-Goddess probably presented Herself before him and breast-fed him. The boy tasted the milk, as it were, of true knowledge from the very fountain-source of all Knowledge. At once he became an inspired Saint. When the father saw him in that state and was confused by his answers, the boy reeled off in chaste poetry one of the most famous of all Tamil hymns. The stanza contains no allusion to the story however, but that the boy had an unusual vision of the Lord and the Goddess, is obvious from the description he gives of Them in his maiden-recital. He grew up to be a pilgrim poet and a wandering minstrel. He visited most of the Saivite shrines of Tamilnad and in each place sang the praise of Lord Siva worshipped in that place. He sang poems after poems in his very short life and triumphantly re-established the Saiva branch of Hinduism in opposition to religions like Buddhism and Jainism.

Sundarar ( 710 - 735 C.E.) was born of a family of Saiva devotees. His hymns and several miracles divinely engineered in favour of this most-favourite friend of God, captivated the entire country of the Tamils. He was in such great friendly intimacy with the Lord without ever being oblivious of His Divinity, that he made use of His services even for settling domestic quarrels. He was the first to sing the praise of the 63 Nayanmars and so, must have been the last, in chronology, of the Nayanmars.. A 10th century devotee elaborated these eleven songs of Sundarar into 89 quatrains. Later in the 11th century the great poet Sekkizhar composed 4286 verses as an elaboration of the lives of these 63 saints. This work is known as Peria-puranam and is included as a canonised scripture in the Saiva fold.

'Few of the world's biographies are more interesting than that of this man of rare genius.' says G.U. Pope, of Manicka-vachagar, (660 - 692 C.E.) the fourth of the four grandmasters. In his early youth he was the favourite chief minister of a great Pandya king of Madura. He met a Saiva guru - whom he then and always believed to be Lord Siva Himself - and was converted by him to become an utterly self-renouncing ascetic and Siva mendicant. When the King perceived that his minister had become a man of God he relieved him of his duties. The saint visited several places, all the while giving out in song his spiritual experiences. Finally while in retirement, the call came to him from his king to meet the aggressive disputations of the Buddhist emissaries from Ceylon. He answered their arguments but they were not convinced. Finally he turned to His Lord Siva for help. The King pleaded that his dumb daughter should be made to speak. Acting on the suggestion and to the wonder of the audience, the daughter spoke. The Buddhists were convinced. Manickavachagar's unique bridal mysticism, undivided loyalty and exclusive devotion to the Lord, find immortal expression in his exquisite poems like Tiruvachagam which is a work of devotion-cum-wisdom par excellence, known to melt even the hardest of hearts.

With the awakening of Saivism in the land, temples sprang up in every village. Such of the temples as were visited and sung by one or more of these four grandmasters in their itineraries was considered more sanctified. They number 274.

King Rajaraja I (985 - 1013 C.E.), the most illustrious member of the Chola line of kings had in his early years been enraptured by the chantings of the Saiva hymns of the four grandmasters. The more he listened the more his ardour grew to hear more of them. But to his dismay he heard that they were all lost, except those few that lingered on in the memories of the ritual singers in the temples. The fact was that these hymns had been taken down on palm leaves as and when they were composed. But during a period of political stress they were got together for safety and deposited in one of the rooms of the Chidambaram temple. All memories of this were lost. Rajaraja hearing of the miraculous powers of a young temple priest of the land, turned to him for help. The King was told by the priest that the collections were in a room at the back of the Golden Hall of Nataraja in the Chidambaram temple. Rajaraja's delight knew no bounds. He applied to the Dikshidars, the priests and managers of the Chidambaram temple. Their answer was disquieting because they required the very grandmasters who set their seals on the rooms to come and open it. The chola king outwitted them by bringing to that very door, with great festivities, golden icons of the four grandmasters. The door was forthwith opened. But to their disappointment they found nothing but anthills over the heap of palm-leaves. Termites had eaten away a good portion of the palm leaves. Rajaraja fell into despair but was soon comforted by a divine voice that announced that all was not lost and those that were needed for the time had been saved. With a sigh of relief, the King got oil poured over the heap of ruins and leaf after leaf as were found whole, picked and treasured and copied down. What was thus recovered was probably 384 out of a supposed 10000 hymns of Sambandar, 312 out of 49000 of Appar, 100 out of 37000 of Sundarar. These are the Tevaram hymns as they are known now. Rajaraja thus made a great contribution to the growth of Tamil literature. From that time onwards these hymns are being sung in all Siva temples of Tamil origin by professionals trained for this purpose under benefactions made by successive generations of kings and philanthropists.

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Copyright. V. Krishnamurthy October 12, 2000