SEKKIRAR AND THE PERIYA PURANAM,
GREAT SAIVA HISTORY.
ABOUT the end of the eleventh century it would seem, arose a Tamil poet whose influence throughout South India has been very great, and is probably increasing. He came from the village of Kundrattur ('hill-town'), and was called Arul-mori-devar, 'He of the
Gracious Word.' His brother was called Pal-arra-vayar, 'He from whose mouth milk ever flows.' These may have been epithets afterwards given but the name of Sekkirar which was originally that of the tribe (a sub-division of the Vellalar, or Yeomen), was given to the poet as being preeminently the glory of his race. The Sora king of that day was called Anapayar ('the imperishable'; an epithet of Siva), whose date is between A.D. 1063 and 1112, and is said to have been greatly addicted to the study of Jain literature, and especially of their great epic, the Jivaga-Chintamani, an account of which is given elsewhere. There were many good reasons against this heretical study, but the chief one urged was that its teachings were opposed to the Saiva faith. The Sekkirar, who for his learning and piety had been made prime minister of the kingdom, a position greatly affected in old times by Saiva devotees, reproved his master for these heretical studies. The king answered 'But where are the lives of your Saiva Saints? Give them to me, that I may obtain pleasure and edification from their perusal. To this the minister replied, that Sundara Murthi had summed up, in eleven poems, * [* This is a famous poem composed by the Saint. See his life.] the history of the Saiva devotees, and that Nambi-andar-Nambi had amplified this work in verse. These works were brought to the king, who read them with delight, but found them all too brief. He therefore requested his minister, the Sekkirar, to compose a poem that should be a great epic like the Jivaga Chintamani and should make these histories popular through all the Tamil speaking lands. Sekkirar undertook the task, and at once proceeded to Chithambaram, the Siva metropolis, where, after bathing in the sacred tank, and performing all holy rites, he presented himself before the God, who there ever performs the mystic dance that symbolizes his five divine operations. There worshipping, he made his prayer for inspiration to perform the assigned task. In response a voice was heard from the shrine which uttered the line –
'He who is hard to be understood and expressed in words.'
These words both the poet and the three thousand devotees of the temple heard, and understood that the God sanctioned the undertaking, and commanded that the poem should commence with this line.
The bard now set himself to collect from every quarter, arrange, and versify the legends, while the impatient king continually sent messengers to enquire as to the progress of the work and to urge it on. At length the poem was completed, and the king himself, learning that the great poem, whose initial line the god himself had vouch-safed to dictate, was completed, came to the sacred place, and bowed in reverence before his poet-laureate and minister. And now epistles were dispatched to all parts of the Tamil country, to the devotees of the God of every order, who came thronging in until the city was crowded with sages and ascetics. In the Golden Hall – the Ponnambalam – a seat was placed for the bard, and with royal pomp the finished poem was placed upon a pedestal, while flowers were scattered around and incense offered. So the first reading began on the 6th of the month Sittirai (April); and continued day by day till the same time of the following year, while in the interval, all the auditors from every region were daily feasted by the bounty of the king. After the reading was completed, the book was wrapped up in a silken covering fringed with gold, then deposited in a golden casket, and with the bard placed in the howdah of a royal elephant, where the king stationed himself with a fan to cool the distinguished compiler; and thus in royal pomp they returned to the royal abode. The king then assigned to the poet the Tondai land* [* The Tonda-mandalam was a subordinate kingdom, subject to the Soras.] as a kingdom, which, with his brother, he governed for sometime, and then returning to the presence of the God, in due time obtained his final release.
The collection of legends which this poet has thus versified consists of seventy-two cantos, in which the lives of sixty-three devotees of Siva are given, with every species of embellishment. It would seem that the Saiva gurus had come to the conclusion that they could not retain hold upon the people without something that should be equivalent to the Jatakas current among both Buddhists and Jains, and probably beginning then to be used by the Vaishnavites also. It is curious that the same species of legendary history was commencing at that very time to play a very great part in the religion of the Western peoples. About this period, the Nestorian Christians on the Western Coast of South India were in full force, and though it would seem very corrupt, and mingling a great deal of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Mahomedanism with their Christianity, still possessed and valued, and vaunted their own legends together with and above the sacred authentic Christian history.
Our poet and the devotees at Chithambaram, who seem to have formed an Editorial Committee, had abundant sources of inspiration. Every village throughout the Tamil lands was made to give up its traditions, and additional matter was sought for in all directions. The result is a very remarkable and composite Hagiography.
I have translated a few of these almost in their entireness, and given (in the pages of this Magazine) a very brief abstract of some others, being compelled to omit all reference to a considerable number whose character is absolutely unedifying. It is hardly fair to give extracts from writings which are beautiful in the main, without noticing the fact that many of them are exceedingly silly, and some of them most repugnant to all good feeling. There is a good deal of Indian wisdom in these poems there is, alas! mingled with things that are affecting and admirable, very much folly, ineptitude, and evil.*
Yet every Tamil student must read the truly marvelous PERIYA PURANAM.