Sri Muruga and Traditional Knowledge Systems are intrinsic to Tamil Culture

  • By B S Harishankar
  • February 4 2019
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Sri Muruga or Somaskanda

Sri Muruga or Somaskanda has been the popular and presiding deity of cultural Tamilakam. Tradition eulogizes Murukan as ‘Tamizh Katuvul’ or Lord of Tamil and head of the second Sangam. Although Agastya is designated head of the first Tamil Sankam, it is traditionally believed that Murukan imparted Tamil to Agastya.

 

The concept of the deity that is deep rooted in the socio-ecological framework of the five Thinais or zones of the Sangam literature and its metamorphosis is a long process. The five zones are kurunji or the hilly tracts, mullai or the pastoral region, paalai or the desert land, neidhal or the coastal area and the marudham or the riverine plains. It is significant to note that each one of the zones was named after a flower unique to that area. In the context of Tamilakam, sacred geography is invariably associated with the ‘Aaru Patai Veetukal,’ i.e., Murukan’s six camps or sacred sites. These sites are associated with particular episodes that are spread across the Tamil cultural geography, effectively amalgamating the landscape with the deity.

 

It is essential to comprehend the importance Tamil literature attributed for Sri Murugan. This is crucial to understand his significance in traditional knowledge systems of Tamilakam.  Tolkappiyam, possibly the most ancient of the extant Sangam works, dated between the 3rd century BCE and 5th century CE glorified Murugan, “the red god seated on the blue peacock, who is ever young and resplendent,” as the favored  deity  of Tamilakam. The Cilappatikaram (Anklet Story) eulogizes Muruga as the six-headed deity who slayed the demon Sura. As narrated by the Tamil poet Nakīrar in his late Sangam period classic of Murugan devotion, Tirumurugārrupadai, these abodes are  Tirupparamkundram, Tiruchendur, Tiruvavinankudi (Palani), Tiruverakam (Swami Malai), Kundruthorādal (Tiruttani and several other hills) and Palamutircolai. The tradition of narrating the four-fold landscape, rivers and ecology in later texts has its origin in aaruppatai poems. There are five aaruppatai poems in Pattupattu anthology of Sangam literature.

 

The poem, Tirumurugārrupadai, attributed to Muruga was composed by renowned poet and scholar Nakīrar. It is by far the most popular and longest devotional Tamil poem of the Sangam period. It is still read by thousands of devout people throughout the length and breadth of the Tamil-speaking world. This is considered to be the 11th book of the sacred hymns of the Saivas, and with the devotees of Muruga it is a part of their daily liturgy. Four shrines along with others of the god are described in this poem. They are - Tiruparankunram, Tiruchiralaivai, Tiruvavinakudi and Tiruverugam. It is interesting to note that all these shrines are situated on hilltops.

 

The great Tamil poet and saint, Avvaiyar is deeply associated with Pazhamudircholai temple of Murugan on a thickly forested hill near Madurai. She is hailed as a devotee of Sri Murugan who imparted Jnana or spiritual knowledge to her. Annual Avvai Vizha is conducted by the Government of Tamil Nadu to commemorate Avvaiyar’s contribution to Tamil literature.

  

Navamanikal composed by Arunagirinatha, Kantha Purana by Kachiyappa Sivacharya,  Thiruchendur Kanthar Kalivenpa by Kumara Gurupadar, Kanthar Shashti Kavacha by Devaraya Swami, Shanmukha Kavacha by Pamban Swami, and Skanda Guru Kavacha by Santhananda Swami are classical Tamil stotras on Muruga/Somaskanda.

Murugan Temple Tiruchendur

 

Poyamoli Pulavar or Siva Kavi, Pakalli Koottar, Murugammaiyar, Arunagirinathar and Kumaragurupara Swamigal are other important saints of Sri Muruga in Tamilakam. In the historical study of Tevaram hymns, Sambandar has observed that the ladies in the hilly regions used to gather and sing songs in praise of Muruga. Sundarar eulogizes that Muruga is young and extremely handsome. Appar has explained Muruga’s marriage with Valli, the hunter girl. The Kurava hunter-gatherer people of the Sangam Period were ardent devotees of Muruga. It also shows the amalgamation of the hunting gathering and agricultural traditions in the historical development of Tamilakam. One of the foremost social reformers and spiritual saints of Kerala, Sri Narayana Guru, composed two Sanskrit and five Malayalam stotras eulogizing Sri Muruga. He also established many temples for the deity in Kerala.

 

Traditional knowledge systems play an important role in the conservation of sacred elements such as place names and its ecological significance, sacred grove, sacred tree and remnant tree worship. In ancient Tamilakam, the concept of kaaval marangal (protecting trees) was prevalent. Ancient Tamil society preserved the social, economic, medicinal and environmental importance of these plants. Traditional knowledge systems in ancient Tamilakam are deeply associated with Sri Muruga.

 

Sri Muruga is hailed as the deity of Siddha medication. Sangam literature hails him the Lord of Kurinji (hilly tracts) where there are lot of medicinal trees and plants. Apart from mango tree and lotus plant, the various trees attached to Muruga/Somaskanda temples include Marudham or Queen’s Flower (Terminalia Arjuna), Panneer or Indian Lavender (Guettarda speciosa), Punnai or Alexandrian Laurel (Calophyllum inophyllum), Nelli or gooseberry (Emblica officinalis), Mahizham (Mimusops elengi), Pala or jackfruit tree (Artocarpus integrifolia), Kura (Webra corymbosa), Padhiri (Stereospermum suaveolens), Vanni (Prosopis spicigera) and Kal Athi (Ficus retusa auct). Scholars have undertaken their study in the botanical and cultural context.

 

Murugan Temple near Madurai

 

Muruga temples in Tamilakam are famous in their ecological context of sacred groves and medicinal gardens. Marudham is the sacred tree in the Dandayudhapani temple at Marudamalai in Coimbatore. Panner is very sacred to Murukan in Tiruchendur on seashore. The Punnai tree is the sthala vriksha at Somaskanda temple in Mayilam. Mahizham is the sthala vriksha of Śrī Kandaswamy temple at Tirupporur in Kanchipuram and Śrī Kulandaivel temple at Poombarai in Madurai. Kura or Bottle Brush tree is the sthala vriksha of the Kumarasivam temple at Tiruvidaikali in Nagapattinam. Kal-Athi or Narrow Leaved Fig is the sacred tree in Tirupparankunram, the first of six abodes of the Lord near Madurai. The temple of Chennimalai situated on the banks of Noyyal is famous for its rare medicinal herbs and trees.

 

Kumārasaṃbhavam, the epic Sanskrit poem on the birth of Muruga, was composed by Kālidāsa who lived in Ujjain in Central India. The poem is widely regarded as one of Kālidāsa’s finest works, a paradigmatic example of kāvya poetry. Ujjain is a known pilgrimage centre with the Kumbh Mela known as Simhastha held here every 12 years. Ujjain continues to be an important place of pilgrimage for Shaivites, Jains, Buddhists and Shaktas. An ancient city situated on the eastern bank of the Kshipra River, Ujjain was the most prominent city on the Malwa plateau of central India for much of its history. It emerged as the political centre of central India around 600 BCE. It was the capital of the ancient Avanti kingdom, one of the sixteen Mahajanapadas. In his classic, Meghadūta, Kalidasa describes the prosperity of Ujjain and its people. Ujjain also appears in several stories as the capital of the legendary emperor Vikramaditya.

 

Ujjain emerged as an important commercial centre, partly because it lay on the trade route connecting north India to the Deccan, starting from Mathura in Ganga-Yamuna doab. It links central India with south as far as Kaveri basin. The land routes from Godavari basin in central India and Godavari-Krishna delta transcending the Raichur doab connects Madurai and Thirunelveli regions in Tamilakam. Thus Uttarapatha and Dakshinapatha emerged as two ancient trade routes of India, during the Maurya Period. It also shows the long and continuous process of mutual cultural interaction between Ganga Plains, Central India and Kaveri delta for nearly three millennia. The Cilappatikaram mentions Ujjain and Vindhya region.

 

The Atharva Veda describes Muruga or Somaskanda as ‘Agnibhuh’ or son of Agni, the fire god. The Satapatha Brahmana refers to him as the son of Rudra and the ninth form of Agni. The Taittiriya Aranyaka contains the Gayatri mantra for Shanmukha. The Chandogya Upanishad refers to Skanda as the “way that leads to wisdom”. The Baudhayana Dharmasutra mentions Skanda as ‘Mahasena’ and ‘Subrahmanya.’ The Aranya Parva canto of the Mahabharata relates the legend of Kartikeya Skanda in considerable detail. The Upanishads also constantly make reference to Guha, the indweller. In the Bhagavad Gita belonging to post-Upanishadic period, Krishna, explaining his omnipresence, says: “Among generals, I am Skanda, the lord of war.” (Ch.10, Verse 24) Muruga has been extensively referred in Puranas such as Markandeya and Skanda. The Skanda Purana is devoted to the narrative of Somaskanda.

 

Murugan Temple Palani

 

The iconography of Sri Muruga is elaborated at length in the texts, Kumaratantra and Śritattvanidhi. The Śritattvanidhi associates the other forms of Muruga like Kartikeya, Shanmukha and Desika with the peacock. They are ten, twelve and six-handed respectively. Iravatham Mahadevan emphasizes the historical tradition that Sanskrit and Tamil emerged from the two sides of the damaru (drum) of Shiva which presents in all contemplation the antiquity and equal divine status accorded in our tradition to the two languages recognized as classical (An epigraphic perspective on the antiquity of Tamil, The Hindu, June 24, 2010).

 

Siddha medicine is a system of traditional medicine originating in ancient Tamilakam and associated with Muruga. There were 22 principal siddhars. Of these 22, Agastya is believed to be the father of siddha medicine. The siddha system is believed to have been handed over to him by Murugan. The Siddhars were mainly responsible for the growth and development of Tamil medicine such as alchemy, medicine, Kundalini yoga, kayakalpa (rejuvenation therapy), varma, muppu, and thokkanam. The teaching was imparted in the form of verses, many of them in ambiguous language and handed down to posterity by guru-sishya (teacher-disciple) tradition of ancient India.

 

Nava pashanam, the image of Sri Muruga at Palani, is one of the most acclaimed Siddha elixirs. It is made of navapashanam - nava meaning nine and pashanam meaning mineral or poison. The amalgam of nine minerals is believed to have been made by Bhogar, a sage, using a unique formula. The panchamritham, of milk, honey and other materials used for abhishekam on the idol is believed to absorb the navapashanam, and hence the belief that it contains curative properties.

 

Murugan is presiding deity of zodiacal representation in the astronomical connotation. His important festivals fall in the areas representing the twelve rasis or solar months. Hence he is immensely worshipped by astrologers in South India, especially Kerala and Tamil Nadu. There is a six day period of fast and prayer in the Tamil month of Aippasi known as the Skanda Shasti. He is worshipped at Thaipusam, celebrated by Tamil communities worldwide near the full moon of the Tamil month Thai.

 

Murugan is also deity of traditional potter families and iron smelting communities in Tamilakam. Artisans and craftsmen in pottery, terracotta, bronze, textiles, jewellery, temple architecture, traditional stone cutlery and stone carvings are also immensely devoted to him. South Indian bronzes, especially belonging to Chola Period are renowned for their technology. The Chola image of Somaskanda, Shiva with Uma and Muruga are unique and popular. Somaskanda images are reported from many sites such as Pallavanīśvaram, Tirutturaippūņṭi, Vaittīcuvaran Kōvil, Kunnandar Kovil, Nidur, Mamallapuram and Kāñchipuram. The Tamil month Panguni (mid-March to mid-April) is the month of the temple festival popularly known as ‘Brahmotsavam,’ and the central processional image is Somaskanda.

 

An active agenda is working to uproot Sri Murugan and exterminate his tradition from the foundations of Tamil culture. After Dravidian ideology by Bishop Caldwell started gaining foothold in Tamil Nadu, there are frequent attempts to delink Sri Murugan even from the Hindu denomination. Others such as Kamil Zvelebil accuse forceful appropriation of Tamil ideology into Sanskrit models. He reuses the thesis of Caldwell where he says that Brahmins caused harm to Tamil society and adds that Tamil people need an upgrade from Christianity to have a valid religion. Propagandists in Chennai and elsewhere such as John Samuel, argue that Sri Muruga/ Somaskanda, worshipped throughout Tamilakam, are actually the representation of the biblical trinity, a tradition introduced by Apostle Thomas. This has much relevance when there are ongoing attempts in Tamil Nadu to associate archaeological sites with a dubious St Thomas site in Kerala.

 

First published here eSamskriti has obtained permission from www.vijayvaani.com to share.

 

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Also see pictures of

1 Murugan Temple Palani

2 Murugan Temple Madurai

3 Murugan Temple Thiruchendur

4 THAIPUSAM celebrations Singapore

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