Saint Poets of Tamil Nadu

  • By Dr Seshadri Kannan
  • November 26, 2022
Saint Tirunavukkarasar (Appar), Saint Sundarar, Manikkavasagar and Gyanasambandar
  • Read about the important saint poets of Tamil Nadu.

There were three great Tamil kingdoms viz., known as Moovendar: Chera, Chozha and Pandya collectively known as Tamizhagam signalling the integration Chozha Nadu (essentially Thanjavur and Thiruchy), Pandya Nadu (Madurai and Tirunelveli), and the Chera Nadu (present Kerala and parts of Tamizh region viz., Karur). The Pandyas were the earliest of the three rulers and are mentioned in ancient writings of Valmiki.  


There were frequent fights amongst them creating instability, which however was put to an end by the then most powerful Chola king Rajaraja I who united them into one kingdom under his rule, Kerala excluded.


During the 6th through 9th centuries CE, South India was home to 63 fervent devotees of Lord Siva who became known as the Nayanmars (or Nayanars). Several among these pious souls, coming from all segments of society—potter, fisherman, farmer, merchant, priest, hunter, washerman—composed devotional hyms that are sung to this day by devotees worldwide. A festival dedicated to the 63 Nayanmars, the Arupathu Moovar Thiruvila, is held annually at Kapaleeswarar Temple in Chennai, Tamil Nadu.


First published in Journal of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.


Thirugyana Sambandar was a young Saiva poet-saint who lived between the sixth and the tenth centuries CE. His hymns to Shiva form the first three volumes of the Tirumurai, depicting the Saiva Siddhanta. He was a contemporary of another Saiva saint, Appar. Tirumurai is a collection of poetic verses in praise of God, converting Vedic rituals to Agama form of Puja in Shiva temples. Odhuvars, Sthanikars, or Kattalaiyars are specialised in singing Tevaram in Shiva temples, about 275 of them, usually carried out as chorus programmes soon after the divine offering of puja. 


Tiruvempavai and Tiruvalam of Manickavasagar were also included during special occasions. During the times of Cholas and Pallavas, the hymn reciters and musicians were known as uvacchar (chanters) and marars; the terms are also found in the works of the Sangam period.

The saints namely Appar, Sundarar, Manikkavasagar and Gyanasambandar are deeply revered by Tamilians.


Tirunavukkarasar, or Appar, travelled and visited many temples and is said to have swept the temple walks and courtyards as service to God. Sundarar is known for his many visions of Lord Shiva and the miraculous events in his life. He was poor and often prayed to Shiva for money or food for his family and his prayers were always answered. Manikkavasagar was the minister to the king of Madurai. He had a grand vision of Lord Shiva sitting under a banyan tree.


Thirunavukkarasar belonged to the family of Saivites (Maruneekkiyar) who lived in Tiruvamur village. He lost his parents as a child and was brought up by his sister Tilakavathiyar. As though destined, the transience of life stimulated in him a yearning for everlasting truth. He joined a Jain monastery, and his sister prayed to Shiva to bring him back to Saivism. The boy fell severely ill and returned home. Brother and sister prayed at Thiruvadigai Temple, and Maruneekkiyar was cured. Becoming a fervent Shiva devotee, he composed many hymns (Thirumurai volumes 4-6) and was thus named Thirunavukkarasar, ‘king of divine speech’. At 81, Appar attained mukti at Agnipureeswarar Shiva Temple in Thirupugalur. 


Sundarar, or Sundaramurti Nayanar, was born to parents who were also Nayanars, in around 800 CE. His hymns comprise the seventh Thirumurai volume. When he was about to get married, an old ascetic covered in sacred ash and rudraksha beads interrupted the wedding, claiming that Sundarar was his slave, citing a palm-leaf manuscript. Sundarar called him a paithyan (lunatic). But the palm leaf proved valid, and Sundarar followed the man to the Thiruvennainallur Shiva temple, where the ascetic disappeared into the sanctum. Lord Siva asked Sundarar to compose a hymn with the word paithyan as per his initial address. Sundarar sang this first hymn, ‘Pittha pirai choodi’ (O crazy one wearing the crescent moon), venerating the Lord at TiruArul-Turai Temple (today’s Kripapureeswarar Perumal Temple), one of 82 Siva temples he visited in his life. 


Sundarar lived only 18 years but became one of the foremost saints of Tamil Saiva Siddhanta.


Manikkavasagar was born as Vadavurar in a Saivite priest family in 9th-century Thiruvadavur, near Madurai, and rose to become the Prime Minister to the Pandyan king. According to later accounts, one day the king gave him a large sum of money to purchase war horses. On the way, the minister was drawn to an ascetic (who was in fact Lord Siva) sitting with disciples under a tree. Vadavurar, taking the sage as his guru, sat at his feet in meditation and received enlightenment. Totally forgetting the king’s assignment, he renounced the world and used the royal funds to build the Athmanathaswami Temple (Avudaiyarkoil). 

The hymns of Manikkavasagar (‘he of ruby-like utterances’), comprising Thirumurai volume 8, express his aspirations, trials and yogic realisations, praise the Namasivaya mantra, and stress cultivating love for Siva. The king, too, was blessed by Lord Siva and gave up his throne to pursue spiritual life. 


Sculptures illustrating the poet-saint’s life can be found in the Madurai Meenakshi Sundaresvarar Temple and in the Chidambaram Nataraja Temple, where he spent his final days. 


Last, but not the least, is the saint Nandanar whose devotion to Lord Shiva was beyond any description and equally fascinating. While narrating his life, it was beautifully brought out by a great devotee of Shri Nataraja of Chidambaram, Shri Gopalakrishna Bharathi who composed several ‘kritis’ perhaps most popular one is about Nandanar, one of the sixtythree Tamil ‘Saivite’ saints which made a great impact on the Nationalist movement in India. Bharati’s ‘kathakalakshepams’ were very popular in Karaikal which was then a French colony. 


The story goes that his kathakalakshepams were so popular in Karaikal that several government officials would sleep at work after spending the whole night listening to his performances. The French government official Cisse was curious to find the reason behind the inefficiency of his employees and personally visited one of Bharathi’s concerts, and was so impressed that he helped him publish his work as a book Nandan Charithram.


Nandanar was an outcast who was devoted to Shiva, and in particular, Shiva as Nataraja at the famous Chidambaram temple.

Shivalokanathar temple. 

Nandanar visited the Shivalokanathar temple at Thirupunkur. When he visited, he found that there was a massive bull (a statue of Nandi) blocking his view of the lord. As an outcast, he cannot sidestep the bull and enter the temple. So he pleaded to the lord and requested Nandi to adjust his position a little bit so that he could then have the darshan of Lord Shiva without entering the temple. Lord Shiva granted his prayer and moved the bull a few feet away and Nandanar could get darshan. At Sivaloka Nathar temple today, one can see Nandi sitting slightly off centre. Nandanar was known to have dug a tank within the temple premises, the water from which could be used for abhishekam and such purposes. 


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal, 15 November 2022 issue. This article is courtesy and copyright Bhavan’s Journal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai-400007. eSamskriti has obtained permission from Bhavan’s Journal to share. Do subscribe to the Bhavan’s Journal – it is very good.

Also read

1. Lives of Indian Saints  

Receive Site Updates