Sabarimala is also connected with Tamil Culture

  • By B S Harishankar
  • January 1 2019
  • Article tells you about Left government strategy to supress the ancient Tamil legacy of Kerala, the deep cultural connect between the two modern states and the Madurai roots of the royal family of Pandalam who enjoy rights over rituals and traditions at the temple. What article implies is how creation of linguistic states have gradually erased memory of deep cultural roots between regions.


Veteran scholar R Nagaswamy narrated in 2013 the importance of Kodungallur, the one-time cultural capital of early Kerala, which, he says, has an antiquity going back to 2000 years. His observations have much importance when controversies are unleashed by left lobbies to terminate and jeopardize the Hindu identity of Sabarimala shrine in Kerala. Currently, the Left government has designated Sabarimala as a ‘secular temple’, and declared that the Waqf Board, Muslim organizations and Christian organizations were necessary parties before taking any decision regarding the shrine. (Kerala Govt. Opposes Plea to Restrain Non-Hindus in Sabarimala Temple, The Week, Nov.12, 2018)


While framing a regional history and multi-religious claim for the Sabarimala shrine, the Left has suppressed and submerged the ancient Tamil legacy of Kerala.


There are two objectives for this recent strategy. Primarily, it aims to highlight that the current secular fabric of Sabarimala, as argued by them, is history, due to the legendary role of Semitic religious groups with the formation of the shrine. Hence their inclusion as trustees is a necessity. Secondly, they want to establish that such a ‘secular shrine’ has been formed exclusively by the effort of leftists as a sequel to Kerala’s social reform movement that was initiated a century back by great reformists. Finally, the Left and organized religious lobbies want to erase the great role of Tamil culture in shaping the early history of Kerala, and fasten it with west Asia, thus providing a new cultural identity to the region, which shall be different from mainstream India.


The Sastha/Sri Ayyappa shrine at Sabarimala is not an exclusive regional deity of Kerala. The Kerala state was formed in 1956. Sabarimala existed centuries back, and is associated with the common people and also the Pandalam royal family, which has a Tamil lineage. The present Kerala region was part of the ancient Tamil country and the Sangam works, Patittupattu and Ahananuru provide valuable information of early Cheras of Vanchi near Kodungallur on the Periyar basin. The Chera ruler, Senguttuvan, figures in the Tamil classic Cilappatikaram.


The ‘Cilappatikaram’ or ‘Anklet Story,’ composed by Jaina ascetic Ilango Adikal, is still revered as a priceless gem in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The work is a laudation of the virtues of Kannagi who is still worshipped as the epitome of Kali in temples of these two states. Ilango Adikal, who composed the work at Trikkanaa-Mathilakam near Kodungallur in Kerala, was the brother of the Chera monarch, Senguttuvan. Cilappatikaram eulogizes the Great Goddess Mahishamardini Durga in her multiple manifestations adored by various vanvasi communities, such as the Maravans. The major temples of Kannagi in Kerala are found at Kodungallur, Mangaladevi and Attukal.


Among the major centres of Saivism in the ancient Tamil country, comprising present Tamil Nadu and Kerala, only two sites are located in the ancient Cheranadu or Malanadu, as Kerala was known in Sangam literature. Other centers are distributed at Cholanadu, Thondanadu, Pandinadu, Kongunadu and Nadunadu, all in present Tamil Nadu. The cultural capital and great pilgrim centre in ancient Cheranadu in Kerala was the Thiruvanchikkulam Siva temple. This is the only shrine in Kerala commemorated in Thevaram hymns sung by the Shaivaite saint, Sundaramurti Nayanar. The shrine is also believed to be the place where Sundara Murti, along with Chera ruler Cheraman Perumal Nayanar, who was also one among the 63 Shaiva saints, spent their last days. Hence, it is still an annual pilgrimage centre, especially for Shaivaites from Tamil Nadu, and is the only site designated by them as ‘Thevaram Paadal Petra Shiva Sthalam’, in Kerala. There is a consecration of Sri Ayyappa in this temple complex.


K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, K.V. Raman, K.V. Soundararajan, C. Sivaramamurti, H. Sarkar, M.G.S. Narayanan, R. Nagaswamy, Kapila Vatsyayan, R. Vasudeva Poduval and other scholars have highlighted the Thiruvanchikkulam site in historical and archaeological context, like a mosaic, depicting Malanadu/Kerala with different textures and flourish in the eighth century AD. Music also gained importance during this period, from the ideas and expressions of ‘Thevaaram’ and ‘Tiruvaachakam’ of the Shaivites and also ‘Tiruvaaymozhi’ of the Vaishnavites, which were collected later, under one volume called ‘Naalayira Prabandham’ by Naadamuni. The current Left historians have marginalized its importance.


The importance of Malanadu/Kerala in Tamil Sangam literature is also narrated by the Shaivaite ascetic, Sekkizhar, of the eleventh century AD, who compiled and wrote the ‘Periya Puranam’ (Great Story or Narrative) recounting the life stories of the sixty-three Shaiva Nayanars. Composed in the reign of Kulottunga II, it is a landmark in the history of Tamil Saivism. Cheraman Perumal Nayanar at Thiruvanchikkulam and Viranminda Nayanar at Chengannur, both Shaiva saints in Kerala are narrated in Periya Puranam. Interestingly, Chengannur is located on the Pampa basin, which is also the sacred river of Sabarimala.


Cheraman Perumal Nayanar, for his scholarship, was designated ‘Kazharittarivar Nayanar’ in Periya Puranam. He has composed classic works such as ‘Tirumummani-kovai’, ‘Ponvannattandadi’, and ‘Adiyula’ or ‘Trukailasajnanayula,’ sacred for Shaivaites. Similarly, Aiyanartinar, author of the tenth century grammatical work, ‘Purapporul Venpamalai’, hailed from Kerala. It was in this context that eminent Tamil scholar Mu. Varadarajan observed that there is greater affinity between Tamil and Malayalam than between Tamil, Kannada and Telugu.


Former director of Tamil Nadu archaeology, Prof. R. Nagaswamy, recalls the importance of Vanchi, the Chera capital, in the context of Kodungallur Kali temple festival, which, he says, has an antiquity going back to 2000 years. According to Nagaswamy, even now, in the suburbs of Kodungallur stands the famous Thiruvanchikkulam Shiva temple connected with the Tamil Saiva saint, Sundaramurti Nayanar (Faith, fervour, festivity, The Hindu, March 29, 2013).


Regarding Bharani festival celebrated throughout the Kali/Durga temples in Kerala, especially at Kodungallur, Nagaswamy draws astonishing parallels with ancient Tamil country, which exhibits the cultural integrity between the two regions. There are 96 different types of poetic compositions in Tamil, of which one was called Bharani composition. The other famous Bharani poem in Tamil is ‘Takkayagabharani’ by Ottakkuttan on the battle victories of Chola king, Rajaraja II.


A recent event provides us insight into the importance of ancient Tamil heritage in Kerala. Near Thiruvanchikkulam Shiva temple, a shrine in the memory of Kulasekhara Azhvar was consecrated at Thirukulasekharapuram, considered to be the birth-place of this saintly Vaishnavite Chera king of the 8th century. He is the author of ‘Mukundamala’ and ‘Aazhvar Thirumozhi,’ two classical works on Vaishnavism. The ceremony was organized by Vaishnavites from Tamil Nadu. It is one among the 13 Vaishnavite shrines in Kerala. Along with that of Kulasekhara Azhvar, idols of Tamil saints of the Vaishnavite sect - Naadamuni, Alavandar, Ramanuja, Desika and Manavalamamunigal - were also installed. (Shrine in memory of Kulasekhara Azhvar, The Hindu, Nov.23, 2004)


The importance of the Tamil Shaiva-Vaishnava sects in Kerala has been discussed above to understand the importance of Mahasastha/Sri Ayyappa who is considered an amalgamation of the Shaiva-Vaishnava systems in the ancient Tamil country.


Tradition says that Sri Ayyappa in Sabarimala as an ascetic is believed to have merged with ‘Mahasastha’ who is essentially a tantric deity of the Shakta tradition in early Tamil country. Textual sources show that the Mahasastha tradition in Kerala takes its root from the ancient historic city of Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu, from the 7th century A.D. The main literary evidence is the sacred Sanskrit text, Sri Lalithopaakhyana, in Kanchi, which is part of the Brahmanda Purana and a very important tantric work associated with the Srividya tradition. The text narrates Mahasastha in the context of rituals associated with Kali, Bhairava and Saptamatrkas. It highlights the importance of Mahasatha as a manifestation of Vishnu and Siva. The work associated with Agastya also describes the importance of Mahasastha in association with Bhairavas and Kshetrapaalas at the coronation of the Great Goddess Sri Lalitha Parameswari, the fountainhead of Srividya tradition.


Kanchi and Kerala were culturally well-linked according to historical sources. In his Avantisundari Kathasara, Dandin reveals a vivid knowledge of Kerala and refers to several scholars of Kerala who visited Kanchi while he was at the Pallava court.


The Tamil song, Shasta Varavu, states that there are eight important incarnations and forms of Shasta (Shrines for Sastha, in eight forms, The Hindu, Dec. 5, 2013). Among the Ashta-Shasta, the Adi Maha Sastha (Aiyanar) and Dharma Shasta (Ayyappan) are widely worshipped. Aiyanar (Adi Maha Sastha) is worshiped as the protector of villages in Tamil Nadu and in Sri Lanka (as Ayyanayake). Ayyappan is worshipped in Kerala.


T.A. Gopinatha Rao who has extensively worked on Indian iconography, describes Sastha or Aiyyanar as a Tamil deity. Rao highlights that the iconography of Sastha is discussed in Agama texts such as Amsumadbhedaagama, Karanaagama and Suprabhedaagama. Like various aspects of Shiva, he is described as also associated with pastoral and hunter-gatherer communities of the Tamil Nadu-Kerala region.


Sastha or Ayyappa was essentially a Tamil deity, according to H. Sarkar, who conducted one of the most comprehensive architectural surveys of Kerala temples. He observed that Sastha worship in Kerala occurs from the early phase of temple architecture of Cheras, Ays and Mushika dynasties, beginning from 800 A.D. Sastha images have been recovered from Ramantali, Maniyur and Vizhinjam in Kerala, while a number of such images come from Cholamandalam region of the Tamil country. 


Early Kerala was well linked with Madurai from early times. The Bodinayakkanur, Thevaram, Kambam, Kumily, Gudallur, Sivagiri and Aryankavu are among major passes and routes that link Sabarimala with Madurai and Ramnad in Tamil Nadu, which promoted the movement of ideas and commodities from early times.


Tradition accords Kannagi’s entry into Kerala from Madurai, after burning down the ancient city. Cheraman Perumal Nayanar conducted pilgrimages to Madurai as narrated in Periya Puranam. Shaivaite saint Viranminda Nayanar hailed from Chengannur, near Pandalam, where the ancestral royal family of Ayyappa is situated. Arasar Peruman, the royal saint from Kerala, also conducted his pilgrimage with Antanar Peruman of Tiruvarur and together they arrived at Madurai. Thiruvilayadal Purana by the ascetic Paranjyothi, narrating the sports of Sundaramurti-Shiva at Madurai, is considered a very sacred work in southern Kerala, which has more access with Madurai region.


After the tenth century, two offshoots of Pandyas of Madurai migrated towards Kerala following political calamities. One branch proceeded via the Western Ghats mountainous region and settled in Kottayam and established the Poonjar royal family. The other branch settled in Pandalam by 1312 AD. The deity of Sabarimala has its origins in the royal family of Pandalam, who enjoy rights over rituals and traditions at the temple, and are also custodians of the ornaments worn by the lord. The shrine of Malikappuram at Sabarimala is the consecration of Goddess Meenakshi, patron deity of the ancient temple city of Madurai. As Pandalam royal family traces its roots to Madurai, so is the cult of Sastha. The claim that Sastha or Ayyappan is essentially a Kerala deity, and currently a secular shrine, is an unsubstantiated argument that overlooks a grand Tamil legacy.


Ulloor S. Paramesvara Iyer was one of the triumvirate poets of Kerala in the first half of the 20th century, and a renowned historian, who has extensively worked on Malayalam history, culture and literature. He highlights the Malayalam poems associated with oral tradition in erstwhile Travancore, known as the southern ballads. The Saasthampattu, or Songs of Sastha, in southern ballads narrate the entire legends associated with Sri Ayyappan, not in context with Pandalam, but with the Pandyas of Madurai. It includes the taming of wild leopards by Sri Ayyappa for its milk, and his adventures, in the streets of the Madurai temple city. According to Iyer, the legend and tradition of Sri Ayyappa in Madurai was later shifted to Pandalam by its royal family, which owes a kinship and lineage to Pandyas of Madurai.


Hence,  P. Marudanayagam at the Central Institute of Classical Tamil, Chennai, said at Kozhikode  that  Keralites and Tamils are common inheritors of the Sangam classics, and the remnants of the Sangam Period are still visible in Kerala linguistically, culturally and  socially (Keralites and Tamils common inheritors of Sangam literature, says expert, The Hindu, March 31, 2012).


Today, a secular framework is given to Sabarimala, intercepting and eliminating its ancient Tamil tradition and thereby attempting to link it with the culture of West Asia in the context of maritime trade.


Currently, thousands of devotees from Kerala and Tamil Nadu offer worship on Chitrapournami every year at the Kannagi shrine at Mangaladevi, situated at Vannathiparai in Kerala, inside the Periyar Tiger Reserve. The stone temple is believed to have been built by Chera ruler, Chenguttuvan, while the inscriptions at the temple date back to the Chola dynasty of the 11th century. Priests representing the two states lead the sacred rituals in Malayalam and Tamil.


If this can be managed as a symbol of a rich past by the two States, why not Sabarimala? The Sabarimala trust should include people from Tamil Nadu, especially Madurai. Does Kerala prefer a secular legacy with fake West Asian links for its Sabarimala shrine, or a traditional affinity with an ancient Tamil Hindu heritage?


First published here


Also read

1 All you wanted to know about Swami Aiyyapan

2 Was Sabarimala a Buddhist shrine and Jains persecuted

3 Why Sabarimala is unlike any other Hindu temple 

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