Overwhelmed in devotion, Muthamma, a pious lady of Tiruvannamalai, prayed that she should be blessed with a child who would excel not only in her devotion but also in her knowledge. It was sometime in 15th century and the God she prayed was Lord Arunachala. The Lord heard her prayer and blessed her with a son. The son, named after the mountain of Tiruvannamalai, as Arunagiri, rose as high as the mountain in his vision and devotion. He composed many songs, giving expression to his devotion and knowledge and the first song he rendered before Lord Muruga, “Muthai Tharu”, began with the name of his mother.
Arunagiri was a born genius. He was very receptive to new doctrines and philosophies coming from different directions. At a very young age, he studied scriptures, Itihas and Puranas. He started contemplating on Vedanta, Saiva Sidhantam and was proceeding in the right path of spiritual fulfillment. But however enlightened one may be, there comes a time when the five-thieves called senses make silent entry into the person and cause obstacles to his spiritual pursuits. When a fish gets caught in the net of fisherman because of its desire for food and the elephant gets hooked because it wants to satisfy its urge, think of the plight of man caught in the grip of five senses. Though his body started making its demands, Arunagiri did not succumb to its temptations. He was conscious of the divinity within and was unwilling to surrender to the dictates of his body. Apparently, a struggle went on between Arunagiri, who found his identity with Muruga and Arunagiri who sought to identify himself with his body. He then decided to dispense with his body and fell from the tower of Turuvannamalai.
But rather than falling in the hard surface of the ground Arunagiri found himself in the strong hands of a savior. “Why have you saved me? How can I continue with this body which causes hindrance to me?” Arunagiri asked the savior. “You are born not to die but to live”, the savior replied. “Your body has many better uses. You are the chosen one to sing the glory of Lord Muruga. Render the songs that would liberate the devotees from bondages and uplift them to the state of infinite happiness at the feet of Lord Muruga”, the savior said.
Soon, Arunagiri realized that the saviour was none other than Lord Muruga. He saw in his vision, Muruga standing majestically, the sparkling Vel in the hold of his hands, the beautiful peacock nearby. It was as if thousand suns were rising simultaneously, radiating brilliant rays of grace. Arunagiri stood still for a while, unable to believe his eyes. He folded his hands before the Lord and sought His blessings.
Arunagiri realized that Muruga has come before him not as a God to dispense favours but as a Guru to impart Jnana. Muruga gave Arunagiri the advice (Upadesa) on the eternal truth and initiated him to sainthood by giving the sacred chain of beads (Japamalai Thanta Sadh Gurunatha…..Song Apakara).
Arunagirinathar then emerged as the enlightened saint endowed with the grace of knowledge (Arul Jnana Inbam Athu Tharuvaye ….). Arunagirinathar thus became the privileged three who directly received saintly advice from Muruga; the other two were Lord Siva and sage Agastya. As Arunagiri did not know how to go about, the Lord commanded him to come to Vayalur. Arunagirinathar then proceeded to the temple at Vayalur and stood praying before the deity of Muruga. It is believed that the Lord has come to his vision again and set out the task before him. “Sing about me, about my Vel (lance), about my peacock (Mayil) about Seval (rooster) about Vayalur and about my various other abodes”. It is indeed a rare honour to be able to sing Thy glory”, Arunagiri said and prostrated before Vayalur Muruga in total surrender. After worshipping the shrine of Poyya Ganapathy nearby, he rendered his second song “Pakkaravi Sitramani”.
Having received the blessings of Muruga and Ganapati, Arunagirinathar has set out his divine journey. Having got a new direction, he started visiting different temples. He visited the six sacred abodes of Muruga (Aaru padai Veedu), many other holy shrines in South India, the distant Kasi in North and beyond the border at Sri Lanka in Kadirkamam. In one of his songs he said: “Oh God, give me the avocation of singing your glory (Paadum Paniye Paniyai Arulvai). Wherever he went, Lord of Vayalur was always at his heart and Arunagiri made pointed reference to Vayalooran in most of his songs. Arunagirinathar visited over 300 temples of Siva, Muruga, Vishnu and other deities.
At every temple he visited, he composed songs highlighting the importance of the shrine there. While referring the history of a temple, we often find special mention being made about Arunagiri’s visit there, as if his mere visit has brought sanctity and sacredness to the temple. After extensive visit of temples Arunagirinathar returned to Tiruvannamalai and continued his spiritual mission. Prabhuda Devaraja, the reigning king of Tiruvannamalai, honoured him with the title “Poet of the Royal Court” (Asthana Vidwan).
The influence of Thiru Jnana Sambhandar, a great Saivite saint, is overwhelmingly present in Arunagirinatha Swamigal’s works. Arunagirinathar followed the Chandam method, which Jnana Sambhandar first used in his songs. Arunagirinathar also followed the footsteps of Jnana Sambhandar and undertaken pilgrimage to different temples. Like Jnana Sambhandar Arunagirinatha Swamigal also stressed the value of knowledge. Just as Sambhandar composed a composite work as essence of all the songs he composed and presented to his father, Arunagirinathar also composed a song “Thiru Ezhu koottirukkai” (Or Uru Vakiya) that contained the essence of all his songs. There is a belief that Lord Muruga Himself has manifested as Sambhandar to sing the glory of his father, Siva. Since Arunagirinathar also held such a belief, he has addressed Muruga as one who appeared in Pugaliyur, the birth place of Jnana Sambandar. There is also a belief that Arunagirinathar was the manifestation of Lord Siva who rendered songs in praise of his son, Muruga to return the compliments Muruga has given as Sambhandar.
Arunagirinathar is believed to have composed over 16,000 songs from different temples in India. He said he would never forget the blessings bestowed on him by Muruga. (Seippathiyum Vaithuyar Thiruppugazh Viruppamodu Seppana Enakkarulgai Maravene….Pakkaraivi Chitramani ….Vayalur song). In another song, Arunagirinathar says: “Oh Lord, how gracious you are! You have blessed me the talent and skill to compose Thiruppugazh that excels in poetic grandeur that resonates in Chandam style and radiates the light of knowledge. What a grace that you made me a messenger to highlight the glory of Thiruppugazh to all corners of the world. I would never forget this kind gesture on your part.” (“Sithra Kavithva Satham Mikuntha Thiruppugazhai Sirithu Adiyenum Seppena Vaithu Ulakir Parava Therisitha Anugraham Maravene”) (Bhakta Gana Priya…Thiruchengodu song).
It was the time when people grouped themselves under the label, Saivisim and Vaishnivism. Arunagiri, as the enlightened disciple of Muruga, the eternal Guru, shattered these concepts and brought about a sense of unity among devotees. He related Muruga to Perumal (Lord Vishnu) by describing him as Malon Marugane (son in law of Thirumal). In his song, Sivanar Manam Kulira, He described the various acts of frolics done by Krishna (stealing the butter from the neighboring houses). References to Ramayana can be found in many songs of Thiruppugazh (Udukka Thukil Vendum). While describing the events of Yudha Kandam, Arunairinathar states that the entire events took place somewhere around Kadir Kamam, the abode of Muruga.
In his song, ‘Niramaya’ , the poet says that Lord Rama has manifested in human form to destroy the evil forces represented by Ravana. In another song, Arunagirinathar says that lord Surya, Lord Indira and other Devas joined the forces led by Sri Ramachandra in his crusade against evil forces. There are Ramayana written by various saint-poets known as Valmiki Ramayana, Kamba Ramayana, Tulsidas Ramayana, etc. Glimpses of Ramayana are so widespread in Thiruppugazh that there is a scope for compiling an exclusive work titled as ‘Arunagiri Ramayana’ as well.
The word ‘Thiruppugazh’ means glory to God. When all devotional works that hail the glory of the Lord, come under the general category of ‘Thiruppugazh’, the question arises why only the songs of Arunagirinathar got the title “Thiruppugazh”. Many reasons are given for this title exclusively given to Arunagirinathar’s works. While many saints underwent penance and meditation and realized God at the end, Arunagirinathar was among the privileged few who attained God realization at the very beginning. While others rendered songs and then realized God at the end, Arunagirinathar realized the God at the very beginning and then rendered his songs. Since the songs were rendered after he realized God, it is believed that they were rendered by the blessings of God. Besides, many poets and pundits hailed the glory of Muruga in magnificent verses but perhaps no one described Muruga, his qualities, his knowledge, his velour, his compassion, his beauty, his Vel, his peacock, his lance as completely as Arunagirinathar. That perhaps may be reason why Arunagirinathar’s works got the name “Thiruppugazh”.
As the individual progresses, his goal and priorities keep changing at every stage. Thiruppugazh seeks fulfillment of all that one aspires in every stage of his development. It prays for the grace of Muruga for a smooth sailing in this ocean of life. But a true spiritual aspirant seeks not just a smooth sailing only. He seeks to reach the shore, the shore of Lord Muruga and ever remain there without an occasion to come back to the ocean of life (Samsara) again. While the first set of Arunagiri’s songs seek the grace of Muruga for a smooth sailing through this turbulent ocean of Samsara (material life), the second set of songs seek Self-Realisation and ultimate liberation. In one of his songs, he said: “Bless me Oh Lord so that I do not get caught in the cycle of death and birth (Piravamal Iravamal)”
Apart from Thiruppugazh, the three most wonderful creations of Arunagirinathar are Kandar Anubhuti, Kandar Alamgaram and Kandar Anthadi. A brief introduction to these outstanding works is given below:
Kandar Anubhuti: Kandar Anubhuti, consisting of 52 verses is considered as the most important work of Arunagirinathar because it reveals his own experience. It is considered as the quintessence of all Arunagirinatha Swamigal’s works and acknowledged by Pundits as the essence of Vedic wisdom. Apart from poetic excellence, the songs show the way towards Jnana (knowledge). In his song on Arumuga temple of Kuthalam, the poet said that the Lord had invited him and blessed him to sing Anubhuti so that devotees can perceive the eternal truth. (Adaikkala Porulam Ena Enai Azhaithu Muthiyadham Anubhuti Ena Arut Thiruppugazh Othuka). Rather than realizing the divinity within, the supreme consciousness of the Self, the individual is carried away by the glittering images of the world. It is believed that one who recites Kandar Anubuthi would easily overcome the internal obstacles like senses and ego, the external illusions and attain Self-realization.
Kandar Alamgaram: Arunagirinathar has weaved a beautiful garland to adore his God. He weaved not a garland of flowers (Poomalai), but a garland of exquisite verses (Paamalai) by way of Kandar Alamgaram. Each word appeared like a selectively chosen flower to adore the God. Like an artist painting a portrait, Arunagirinathar has presented before devotees the splendid appearance of the Lord, His various benevolent qualities, His flag of rooster, the diamond-studded Vel and the beautiful peacock. It was not the outward beauty alone that impressed the poet. His God, Muruga was full of compassion, kindness and Jnana and ever ready to shower His blessings on anyone who worships Him with pure devotion. Alangaram is not all about adoring the Lord. It deals with various aspects of life. It describes how this precious life gifted to us should be taken forward, how it should be utilized for the good of all. In the song: “Tholal Suvar Vaithu”. Arunagirinathar says that this body is a house made of flesh and veins, skin and bones. While the mind is always in a state of disturbance and turmoil, the senses are pulling in different directions. Arunagirinathar solicited the grace of Muruga so that one can free himself from the influence of the body, mind and senses and realize his true Self.
Kandar Andhati: Kandar Andhati, a set of hymns consisting of 100 stanzas, is remarkable for its many wonderful features. The entire composition of 100 verses of four lines starts with 8 letters: Si, See, Se, Saay, Thi, Thee, Thei, Theey. Besides, all the four lines start with same word, yet each word carry different meaning. Another notable feature is that the same first letter of the ending word of a stanza is used as the first letter of the beginning word of the new stanza. Andhati means the end and the beginning. The saint has composed the Andhati in chaste verses that portrays the magnificent divine qualities of Lord Muruga. It is believed that Andhati was composed in the course of the contest with Villipathoorar. While, Villipathoorar could explain meaning of all the verses, he could not make out anything when Arunagirinathar composed the 54th stanza, using only the root word ‘th’. Later, Arunagirinathar himself explained its meaning thus: “Oh Lord who is worshipped by Lord Nataraja, dancing in tune with the Thala like “Thitha Thath Thatha Thathitha”, the Lord who is worshipped by Lord Vishnu resting on the Adi Sesha serpent lying on the ocean of milk, the Lord who has Devayanai as consort; before my body being burned to ashes, let me think of you and your Lotus Feet.”
Thiruppugazh is composed in the Chandam style which means setting the verses in metre, conforming to beats or rhythm. Varying rhythms were in-built into the songs in a way that every song has a distinct Thala or time measure. Tamil language has acquired a unique dimension and sanctity in the hands of Arunagirinathar who handled the language very beautifully in poetic verses. According to Tamil scholars, the poetic expression of Arunagirinathar, his language and style, the metaphors and similes all went into making his works an outstanding literary masterpiece. It is difficult to judge who is great; Arunagirinathar, the saint or Arunagirinathar, the poet. Literary critics hailed him as the master craftsman of letters. ‘Just as Arjuna was the master in the art of archery, Arunagirinathar was the master in the art of handling letters.‘ (Villukku Vijayan, Vakkirkku Arunagiri).
Arunagirinathar has made a profound impact in Tamil Nadu because he hailed the glory of the God of Tamils (Thamizh Kadavul) eloquently in sweet Tamil. Never before devotion and literature were blended so harmoniously as in Thiruppugazh. Other Tamil writers like Kambar or Thiruvalluvar stuck to their norm of using only Tamil words (Ilakkana Thamizh) in their compositions, by virtue of his universal outlook, Arunaginathar weaved a colourful set of poems blended in Tamil and Sanskrit. It is doubtful whether such fusion of the beauty of Tamil and the sublimity of Sanskrit was ever been attempted before or after Arunagirinatha Swamigal’s time.
We find the three powers, Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva as the manifestation of the eternal power; the Brahman. There were three luminaries, Thyagaraja Bhagawathar, Muthuswamy Dikshithar and Shyama Sastrigal who founded the tradition of classical devotional music, and there were three stalwarts, Sri Bhodendra Saraswati Swamigal, Sri Sridhara Ayyaval, and Sri Marudanallur Sadguru Swamigal who espoused the importance of Nama Sangeerthanam. Similarly, we find the triumvirate in the tradition of Thiruppugazh too. They are Sri Sachidananda Swamigal, ‘Thanigaimani’ Sri Chengalvarayan and Guruji, Sri A.S. Raghavan.
Sri Sachiidananda Swamigal: Ardhanari was bedeviled with many personal problems and at the advice of his friends; he visited Palani. He was eagerly waiting for the opening of the doors of Palani Dhandayuthapani. At that time, he heard a song rendered by a woman with great devotion. Though he did not know Tamil, he could perceive a great power in that song. He wanted to know what that song was about, who composed it and what its meaning was. Having remembered the first two words “Vengara Marbil’, he made discreet enquiries about this song. Then, he came to know the background of the song that is popularly known as Tiruppugazh. Some unknown power pulled him towards Thiruppugazh and he made it his life’s mission to learn Thiruppugazh and highlight its glory. He gained some knowledge about Thiruppugazh but still he looked for a Guru who could initiate him to the Thiruppugazh form of worship. While returning from Ramanasramam, he happened to meet Sri Seshadri Swamigal. “Thiruppugazh is a Maha Mantra. It contains the philosophy of Adi Sankara. Adopt it as your way of life”, advised Seshadri Swamigal. That piece of advice was enough and Ardhanari who came to be known as Sachidananda Swamigal, extolled the glory of Thiruppugazh to enormous height.
As advised by Sri Seshadri Swamigal, Ardanari started his divine mission of highlighting Thiruppugazh by proceeding to Vallimalai, the birthplace of Vallinayaki, who has dedicated her entire life to the worship of Lord Muruga and has become His consort. He was always on the move visiting Tiruttani, Tiruchendur, Tiruverakam and other temples in Tamil Nadu and conducting Thiruppugazh recitals. One of his favourite stop-over at Chennai was 292, Lingi Chetti Street, Madras where resided his friend Sri Chengalvaraya Pillai. Sri Sachidananda Swamigal has also authored a book called “Thiruppugazh Parayana Thavaneri Thirumurai” in which he set out the methods of rendering Thiruppugazh. He also authored various other books titled: “Mei Kaval”, “Anushtana Thiruppugazh”, Markazhi Parayana Thirumurai etc.
The country was under British dominion and freedom was still many years away. Whenever a New Year dawned, it became a practice for some officials to see the top Executives of the East India Company to convey New Year Greetings with some compliments, apparently with the motive of getting some favours. The resentment Swamigal felt over this practice gave rise to a new idea; to see the Master of all, Muruga with some offerings. From the dawn of 1917, Swamigal introduced a new form of worship called ‘Padi Vizha’ at Tiruttani. During this function, devotees climb the hill step by step, singing Thiruppugazh songs and carrying various offerings for the real Executive of all, Lord Muruga. This form of worship received overwhelming participation. Devotees from all over Tamil Nadu continue to congregate here on the eve of New Year to participate in the event. They believe that by climbing up the 365 steps of the hills singing Thiruppugazh on the day of the New Year, it will herald the beginning of 365 days of happiness and prosperity in their life. The ‘Padi Vizha’ gained widespread popularity and other hilly temples like Maruda Malai, Vrali Malai etc. have also adopted the practice. Over the years, this has become the most effective, collective and regular form of Muruga worship, thanks to the favour-seekers of East India Company. Similarly, Sachidananda Swamigal also introduced the festival of ‘Arunagirinathar Jayanthi’ on the day of Moolam star in the month of Karthigai.
2. Thanigaimani Sri Chengalvaraya Pillai: Though Arunagirinathar has composed over 16,000 songs, the value of these works was not recognized in his time and no conscious efforts were made to record or compile them. The songs were not heard, recited or even known. They were scattered at different places, lying unrecognized in some dark rooms. First, it was Sri V.T. Subramania Pillai who took the initiative to locate the songs lying in different places in manuscript form.
Following the foot-steps of his father, Thanigaimani Sri Va Su Chengalvaraya Pillai continued the mission of locating and publishing the songs. He attained success in his efforts and obtained the manuscripts from different sources. He studied them and made research on them. These were published in the magazine Viveka Bhodini. He brought out a beautiful and comprehensive biography of Arunagirinathar in the title “Arunagirinathar Varalarum Nool Araichiyum”. He also composed an excellent work that prescribed the proper practice of rendering Thiruppugazh (Thiruppugazh Parayana Thirumurai)
Guruji Sri A.S. Raghavan: While Vallimalai Sri Sachidananda Swamigal highlighted Thiruppugazh as Gjanamrutham (the nectar of knowledge), Sri Raghavan focused it as Ganamrutham (the nectar of music). The songs of Thiruppugazh have attained the pinnacle of glory in the hands of Guruji Sri A.S. Raghavan. He set them to music based on Karnatic style of Ragas. Devakkottai Sri Sundararaja Iyengar and Sikkil Sri Ramaswamy Pillai rendered their helping hands to Sri Raghavan. The Thiruppugazh tree for which Sri Raghavan has sowed the seed has grown like a giant banyan tree extending its branches all over. Sri Raghavan has performed Thiruppugazh recitals and Valli Kalyanam at many places in India and abroad. Wherever he performed, devotees assembled in large number to immerse themselves in the shower of music. Among the dignitaries who turned up to hear him, one could spot Tamil litterateur, Ki Va Jagannathan or Seetha Ravi, Editor of Kalki and Columnist Subbudu. Subbudu said: “There is none equal Sri Raghavan in composing Thiruppugazh to music”. The movement initiated by Sri Raghavan has come to be known as Thiruppugazh Anbargal. It grew up enormously extending its branches all over the country and abroad.
When Sri Raghavan sings, the music originates from the soul and flows through his heart. Just as Lord Krishna graced the voice of Meera, Jayadevar and Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagawathar, Lord Muruga too had blessed the voice of his devotee, Sri Raghavan. When Guruji sings Thiruppugazh, it seems, Lord Muruga himself is giving him a good ‘vocal support’.
What is unique about Thiruppuazh is its universality. While hailing the glory of Lord Muruga, Thiruppugazh also delves deep into different aspects of spirituality. One can find glimpses of Vedas, Upanishads, Itihas and Purana in Thiruppugazh. Thiruppugazh is considered as an effective form of prayer, a panacea for all ills as it is composed by the blessings of Muruga. Every song of Thiruppugazh is powerful in its own way. It is powerful enough to ward off all ill effects arising out of Karma or planetary influence. A hymn from Kandar Alamgaram says:
“Oh Lord Kumara, it is delightful to watch your
enchanting six sacred faces.
As I get your delightful vision, your Lotus feet
adorned by the ornaments of Sadhangai and Thandai,
your ankles adorned by Silambu
and your twelve shoulders adorned by the Kadappa garlands,
what can the planetary or other influence do to me?
So long you are beside me, how an inauspicious day harm me?
What can the ill-fate arising from past karmas do to me?
How can disaster fall on me?
What can the Lord of Death do to me?
(Nal En Seyum……Kandhar Alamgaram 38)
Matchless in its appeal, Thiruppugazh songs not only delight the heart, they enlighten the intellect, heal the disease, steady the mind, ensure happiness and take the devotees to the right destination in life.
Sri Seshadri Swamigal described Thiruppugazh as the Maha Mantra which can transcend the devotees to a state of Sath Chith Ananda (truth, Consciousness and Bliss). Thayumanavar said: “Oh Arunagiri! Who else can compose a word of truth as beautifully like you” (‘Ayya Arunagiri’). Chidambara Swamigal said: “Oh Thiru Porur Kumara, as your enchanting body is adorned with garlands composed by Arunagiri and Nakkeerar, I feel the fabulous fragrance from you.”. Arunachala Reddiar said the songs of Thiruppugazh are so powerful that they would reverberate all over the world.