'I am the slave of the devotees of the Lord of Thillai', begins 'Thiruthonda Thokai' which comprises eleven songs sung by Sundaramurti Nayanar. In these songs, he has mentioned the names of all the Saiva saints.
Peria Puranam deals with the biography of 63 Nayanmars who were devotees of Siva. The Poet, who gave us this great work, is Sekkizhar. Based on Sundarar's Thiruthonda Thokai, this epic depicts the glory and greatness of the Saiva cult.
Since boyhood, I had developed a fascination for Peria Puranam stories. What is in the shape of verse has been rendered into prose by many writers. As one whose interest was line- drawings, I developed a skill in drawing and painting historical and Puranic characters under the guidance of my father, the late Sundaram Iyer. After my graduation in paintings, I read the puranic stories again and again and prepared many line drawings depicting the history of the Saints with a colour painting of the main aspect in the history. It took some time for me to complete the whole process - in fact, some years.
I took all the paintings to Kanchi Periavar Sri Jayandra Saraswathi Swamigal. He was immensely pleased to see them. With enthusiasm and appreciation, he blessed me whole-heartedly. I remember what he told me on seeing them. He said: 'One great industrialist, who will render service to the world, will come forward to publish this'. Days passed: months went; years too passed on; I patiently waited.
One day Dr. Mahalingam came to my house. I showed these paintings to him. He spent some time with me and examined every drawing carefully and finally said: 'Please entrust these pictures to me'. I did accordingly.
With joy and mental satisfaction I gave the drawings to him. He published them under the name 'Chithira Peria Puranam'. I pray that his love and patronage for the Tamil language should continue to flourish and that he should be bestowed with wealth, health and happiness by the Lord who presides at Thillai.
It is my desire that these stories should be beneficial not only to the Tamil people but also to others. That is why Dr. Mahalingam has decided to bring out publications of Chitra Peria Puranam in other languages too. In this line of his thought, the English version, 'Peria Puranam in pictures' is being published now.
The Tamil epic genius first blossomed as the Buddhist epic, Manimekalai and the great Silappadhikaram which is attributed to a Jain ascetic. Even the lost epics, Valayapati and Kundalakesi had non-Vedic inspirations. Certainly there was a time when the fifth of the 'five great epics', Jeevaka Chintamani, was most popular. Tradition avers that King Anapaya Chola (Kulottunga II) was immersed in this epic story of Prince Jeevakan that celebrates the glory of the Jain religion.
During the reign of Kulottunga II in the 12th century, Arulmozhi Devar of Sekkizhar family was the Chief Minister of the realm. Arulmozhi was not happy with the king's attraction for Jeevaka Chintamani. More than the epic's inspiration, it was the sex- laden romanticism of the poem that frightened him. The king who should be leading the community by his own self-discipline was fast becoming a victim of moral decadence!
When Sekkizhar protested, the king did not deny the truth in the minister's words. But how could one turn away from such beautiful poetry? On his request, Sekkizhar is said to have indited the Peria Puranam which assures us that pathways other than romance are attractive too, and can bring us the supernal joy of divine consciousness. There is a rare beauty in these sixty-three lives of Shiva's devotees. Here is the romance of utter selflessness, unflinching regard for duty, the deeper heroism of the self that transcends political and social barriers, the sheer beauty of a good and blameless life.
Peria Puranam is, of course, more than mere hagiology. Tamil literature that had dawned with the spring-freshness of Sang am poetry, gathered epic glory in Silappadhikaram and Manimekalai and exploded as the many-splendoured devotional hymns of the Alwars and the Nayanmars: reached its noon-day brilliance in Sekkizhar's Peria Puranam. Indeed, such is the power exerted by the epic that it brings up the rear in the Tamil Saiva Canon of Twelve Tirumurais.
For, even to recall the names of the 'sixty-three' is holy. Their lives are varied, they come from all regions of Tamil Nadu and from all castes, classes and professions. There are young and aged devotees, men and women. Almost all of them are house-holder devotees, yet they are intensely ascetic in their approach to Shiva. The 'sixty-three' make a world of ardours, aspirations, intensities, contradictions, seeming aberrations, sore trials, startling transcendences; yet it is a world wonderfully held together and sustained by the Bhakti elan vital, by the love of God, and of the God in all, and the unfailing ambience of Divine Grace.
The eleven verses of Thiruthonda Thokai form the prime inspiration for Sekkizhar's Peria Puranam which has thirteen sargas. The 'Sarga of the Holy Mount' opens the epic with a magnificent description of Mount Kailas and proceeds to retell in picturesque detail the story of how Sundarar was chosen by Shiva as his serviteur. The following eleven sargas take their titles from the first line of each of the eleven verses of Thiruthonda Thokai. The finale is the 'Sarga of the White Elephant' and is about the latter part of Sundarar's life when he ascends Mount Kailas on a divine white elephant.
This is a world of pure devotion to Shiva. Indeed, so deep is the devotion that nothing else matters in life for the devotees. Riches, the sacred bonds of familial relationship, the societal notions of what is right and what is not, have no relevance here. Though time here is in terms of para-Einsteinian relativity, it is clear that most of the saints belong to an age when Hindu society had begun to release itself from the shackles of Vedic sacrifice. The notion that God could be approached only by performing elaborate yajnas was being questioned. The saints of the Peria Puranam assure us that there need be no veil between the devotee and the deity. This easier approach to God by personal worship was of immense help in popularising the Hindu religion and in throwing back the ascendency of non-Vedic religions like Buddhism and Jainism.
In India the worship of the transcendent divine as a visible idol had blossomed into the unique temple culture that brings together man and God in the aesthesis of sculpture, the offering of flowers and cooked food, and respecting the symbols of divinity such as the rudraksha beads, sacred ash and matted hair. The advent of the Nayanmars drew poetry and music into the movement of popularising Saivism. For, while the temple culture had undoubtedly given a focus to the divine aspirations of the society, the Agamas (rules for the consecration and administration of temples and worship of the deity) had once again begun to draw a veil between man and God. The Nayanmars stepped in to strengthen the common man's faith in Shiva.
The Nayanmars found music and poetry to be sterling aids in strengthening our faith in Shiva. Many of the Nayanmars were experts in music. Sundarar's mother is called Isaignaniyar (Expert in Music), Jnanasambandhar always carried a pair of cymbals - a present from the Lord - to keep time to music, and Tiruneelakanda Yazhpanar accompanied him often on his yazh. Sekkizhar waxes eloquent when describing the expertise of Anayar in playing the flute. While the Arcadian simplicity of the tale takes us to the lap of Mother Earth, Sekkizhar's mastery of the technicalities of flute-playing speaks of a highly cultured milieu. Anayar delighted in playing the panchakshara repeatedly in ever so many ways. The classical modes like kurinchi, mullai and uzha