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The Nayanar Saints – Exploration through Art

Who expected to be learning history through art?

And what will we do with learning all this history?

I didn’t ever think it was important to know what other did once upon a time. But, in the recent times, when my children begin a discussion to explore their options (also known as asking for advice!) I am always surprised by the examples that I am able to find to give them definitive pros and cons. And all these examples come from history. History of the world, histories of friends & of family that illustrate my point well.

Naturally all these stories have been collected over the years listening to everyone’s ramblings, not knowing what use they might be of, if ever.

And one day these stories do earn their keep in my memory.

And so here I have a story that I have just learnt, that will probably just lie dormant for an unknown period. I learnt it through art and so I shall use the same to tell the story.

The Nayanars

The Nayanars were 63 devotees of Shiva who lived in Tamil Nadu in South India [the state that Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google is from].

It is said that their acts of extreme devotion to Shiva impressed Shiva and he appeared before each of them.

As a result of their life of service, they enjoy the elevated status of sainthood.

Here are stories of some:

1) Kanampulla Nayanar

Legend has it that Shiva decided to test KanampullaNayanar’s devotion.

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Due to a famine, he was unable a to sell grass,

but the Nayanar saint wanted to continue to serve Shiva by lighting lamps in his temple. He prepared a wick from the dry grass and burnt it, but it soon extinguished. In despair, he offered his own hair for burning.

He extended his head near the lamp and spread his hair to be burnt. Pleased by the Nayanar’s deep devotion, Shiva appeared before him and released him from the cycle of rebirth.

2) Kali Nayanar

He was a devotee of Shiva and used to serve the devotees of Shiva (Shaivas). Every day, he welcomed them, washed their feet, and worshipped them. He also served lunch to the devotees and offered them money and gifts. Once, when the devotees gathered for lunch at Kalikamba’s house,

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he started with his daily ritual of pada-puja (washing of feet to show respect) of the devotees. His wife helped him in the service. The wife would pour water from the pot, as Kalikamba washed the feet. When Kalikamba was about to wash the feet of a devotee, she recognised the devotee as their former servant and hesitated from pouring water from the pot. Kalikamba felt that the wife has desecrated the sacred service. He took the pot from her hand and cut off the hand by his sword. He continued to wash the feet of the devotees and served them food, a duty generally performed by his wife. For his act of devotion, he attained the grace of Shiva.

3. Seruthunai Nayanar

In Hinduism, it is taboo to use or smell flowers meant for God, before they are offered to him.. Though she accompanied the king on official visits to temples, as a non-Hindu, she did not worship Shiva. The queen picked the flower and smelt it.

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Seruthunai Nayanar  another Nayanar, served at the temple noticed the queen’s actions. He was enraged by the conduct of the Pallava queen. Ignoring her royal status, he dragged her by her hair and pushed her on the ground.

Shiva revealed his divine form and blessed him.

4. Chandeshwar Nayanar

The South Indian legend, narrated, for instance, in the Periyapuranam, states that he was born into a Brahmin family and was called Visarasarm When he was a young boy, he found that cows remain uncared for, and hence he himself commenced tendering and caring for the cows. While doing so, he would pour some milk on a lingam, which he made of sand. The news of this wastage of milk reached the ear of his father, Datta; and he himself came to the field to scold his son. Chandesha was deep in meditation in front of the sand lingam, and he did not see his father. The enraged father kicked the sand lingam.

At this Chandesha’s meditation was interrupted, and he struck his father’s leg with a staff. The staff turned into an axe and his father’s leg was severed. At this point, Shiva manifested himself, and blessed Chandesha, declared that he would become a father to Chandesha;

and restored the severed leg of Datta to normal state.

5. Viralminda Nayanar

Viralminda settled in the village of Vandampalai outside Thiruvarur. He used to serve lunch to the devotees every day and would ask for their village before serving them. He would kill any one who came from Thiruvarur with his axe. Once, Thyagaraja, disguised himself as a devotee and came to Viralminda’s house. Viralminda’s wife welcomed him and asked him his village. He said he belonged to Thiruvarur; she immediately warned him about Viralminda’s hatred of Thiruvarur and its people and requested him to lie about his village.

The devotee refused to do so, but requested the wife to keep the axe on Viralminda’s left hand, instead of the usual right. She complied. When Viralminda heard the devotee belonged to Thiruvarur, he reached for his axe, but did not find it in its usual place. The delay helped the devotee escape, but Viralminda chased him with his axe. The devotee entered the limits of Thiruvarur and Viralminda unconsciously broke his vow, following him. Viralminda chopped off his own legs as penance. Thyagaraja revealed his divine form as Shiva and blessed Viralminda for his devotion.The divine vision also led to a truce between Viralminda, Thyagaraja and Sundarar. The Shiva temple in Vandampalai was built in memory of the event.


There are 63 such dramatic stories …

And here is the complete gemset Tanjore painting from the 1800s or earlier:

The top panel has Shiva & Parvati presiding and their children Ganesh & Karthik looking on.

The story of the Nayanars became famous in the 10th century after Raja Raja Chola I heard about hymns about these saints in his court and collected the volumes of “Tevaram” in which these are narrated. From the time of Raja Raja Chola 1, images or statues of the Nayanars are also found in Shiva temples in the region.


And so, through a work of art, I’ve learnt some history & some culture.

It seems to me that one lifetime is not enough to know India and all its stories.





One comment on “The Nayanar Saints – Exploration through Art

  1. happynessqueen
    May 4, 2021

    What a marvelous gallery. Thank you for sharing your pieces. This is probably the oldest Tanjore painting I’ve seen.

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This entry was posted on October 27, 2020 by in Art Kaleidoscope and tagged , , , , .



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