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Periya Puranam – The Life of the 63 Nayanmars

Bhūtam aintum nilaiyiṟ kalaṅkiṉum 
mātōr pākar malarttāḷ maṟappilār 
ōtukātal uṟaippiṉ neṟi niṉṟār 
kōtilāta kuṇap peruṅ kuṉṟaṉār

                                                      Periya Puranam Verse 05.07

Translation: Even if the five gross elements (earth, water, fire, wind, and ether) of creation become unsteady, they (devotees) will not fail to remember the flower-like feet of He who gave half his body to the Mother Goddess (Uma Devi). They are steadfast on the path of praising (the Lord) with love. They (because of their steadfastness in devotion) are verily a hill of flawless good qualities.

The Periya Puranam narrates the chronicles of the Nayanmars or Shaivite saints. Nayanmars refer to the 63 devotees (and 9 general devotees) of Lord Shiva who lived before or during the life time of Sundaramurthy Nayanar. Sundaramurthy Nayanar initially sang about the devotees of Lord Shiva in an august gathering of Shivanadiyars or devotees of Shiva in the famed Devashraya Mandapam at the Tiruvarur Shivalayam. This work is known as ‘Thiruththonda Thokai’ and has 11 verses. Sekkizhar’s Periya Puranam details the lives of 63 of these devotees.

The original name given by Sekkizhar to his work on the lives of the Blessed Devotees of Lord Shiva was ‘Thiruthondar Puranam’ or ‘An Epic on the lives of the Blessed Servants of the Lord’. Since the text talks about the stories of great people, it was later called ‘Periyar Puranam’ or ‘An Epic on the Great People’. This later changed to ‘Periya Puranam’ or simply ‘The Great Epic’.

Each of the 63 devotees of Shiva has a distinct life and follows a different path to attain Supreme bliss, but what connects them is the undying love for the Lord adorned with the crescent moon. Each of them followed different paths of worship - Charya, Kriya, Yoga and Jnana. They were in different stages of life - brahmacharya/celibate (Chandeshar), grihastha/householder (Thirunilakantar), vanaprastha/retired to the forest (Aiyadigal Kadavarkon), sannyasa/renunciate (Thirumular). The traditional occupation (Varna) of the devotees were different - Sambandar (brahmin), Appar (farmer), Thirunilakantar (potter), Thirunalaip Povar (tanner) and so on. Both men and women (Isaijnaniyar, Karaikal Ammaiyar) featured in the list of devotees. There were a few women who found place among the devotees of Shiva as the wives of their famed husbands and were equally devoted to the Lord (Thirunilakantar’s wife). Some devotees were very learned and followed the path of jnana (Thirumular) while others excelled in simple devotion (Kannappar). There were kings (Pugazh Chola) and there were some others who did not even have a house to stay (Thirumular). 

Irrespective of their background, all of them filled their hearts with extraordinary love and devotion to Lord Shiva and enjoyed the bliss of His grace. Instances narrated in the Periya Puranam give a glimpse into how a true devotee will act under different circumstances. None of the devotees celebrated in Periya Puranam can be compared to the other. Their lives provide us a path that we can take to worship Lord Shiva and become a recipient of His grace irrespective of our individual circumstances. 
There are a few basic learnings than can be gleaned from the Periya Puranam and adopted in our own lives. Devotion can be expressed in the simplest form within our means. Most of the Nayamars undertook a Seva (service/charity) that was close to their daily occupation like the weaver Nesar provided clothes to the devotees and the farmer Ilayankudimaarar provided food. An ordinary act such as throwing a stone on the Shivalinga every day becomes extraordinary when it is done out of true love and devotion for the Lord. It is said, there are hundreds of hurdles to cross when we serve the Lord, but the devotees show how dedication overcomes even the tallest mountain. Sekkizhar sums up this very thought in the verse “Bhutam aintum” mentioned at the top of this page. 

Reading or hearing about the lives of the 63 Shaivite saints is a blessing of Lord Shiva. To be able to assimilate it and get drenched in its fervour is Lord Shiva’s Grace. As we dwell on the lives of these saints, there is no doubt that the Lord whom even the Vedas struggle to describe, will captivate our hearts forever.

Har Har Mahadev



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