Thursday, January 22, 2015
Tracing the roots of the Tamil God
“Is there something called Tamil religion?” asks Dr. V.A. Vidya, Academic Director, CM (Chella Meenakshi) Centre for Educational Research and services. Noting how the north has Ram and Krishna while in the south, gods like Murugan and other demi-gods are venerated, Vidya says, “There are numerous aspects to people’s religion. It contains folk myths, personal and cultural histories.” CM Centre has been working since 2008 in documenting the trends in Murugan worship and the constantly growing pilgrim centres across the globe, especially in Tamil peopled nations. The project that commenced from Thirvappudaiyar Temple, a Siva Shrine on the banks of Vaigai, got completed on the shores of the Indian Ocean, at Tiruchendur Murugan Temple.
The result is a 45-minute film Lord Murugan and South Indian Hinduism, which takes the viewers on a journey of how the ancient Dravidian Civilization mingled with the Vedic religion from the north to result in the complex multi-layered faith we find in the current times. “The data we gathered from pilgrims, art historians and scholars was so vast that it could make 100 more projects,” says Vidya, who framed the concept. “We have 60 million gods in India, but somehow the peculiarity of the folk religion in Tamil Nadu and the Murugan cult fascinated me.”
Professor Joseph W. Elder, Professor Emeritus of Wisconsin State University who is the Script Writer for the documentary, says, “I found the ardent faith of Palani padayatris extremely moving. Murugan cult is characterized by overt depiction of Bhakti, where devotees dance in trance, pierce themselves with spears, carry kavadis and walk bare-foot for miles.” “The cult has a visible folk tradition,” he observes.
The group of researchers behind the film also read Sangam works on Lord Murugan such as Tirumugratrupadai by Nakkirar and Tirupugazh by poet-saint Arunagirinathar.
“Murugan was originally a hero warrior who was worshipped by the tribals of the Kurunji land, which later emerged into a separate cult,” says Retd., Professor of Art History, Dr. R. Venkatraman. “The lord was characterized as an eternally youthful, handsome and mighty warrior. After the Bhakti movement that swept the south, bigger Vedic gods like Shiva and Vishnu became popular and Muruga cult became restricted to pockets of Tamil Nadu.”
Venkatraman elaborates on the interesting myths and tales behind the six faces or roots and the various names of Muruga.
One of Muruga’s names is Skanda, which is actually derived from the word ‘Sikandar’, denoting Alexander the Great. “Alexander rode a horse and carried a lance in hand. The similar kind of imagery was attributed to Lord Muruga and hence he got the name Skanda,” says Venkatraman. “Ancient Tamils had the tradition of giving natural elements as symbols to their Gods. Such divine representations of Lord Muruga are the Peacock, rooster, the Vel and the Kadamba tree.”
Lynn Ate, a Doctorate in Classical Tamil Literature, from the US, who has been researching on religious reference in Sangam literary works for the past four decades, notes, “Early Tamils defined God as immanent, existing within a space. They demarcated sacred space with a flag post and worshipped it. That’s why we still find Kodi Maram only in the temples of the south.”
She adds, “In contrast to the Vedic gods which were sky-dwelling, the Dravidian deities were positioned on earth. The concept of God was not placed upon a pedestal and was more accessible.”
Lynn who is currently researching on Vaishnava Tamil and the works of Azhwars, points out how worship in ancient Tamil was in the form of poetry and songs.
“For instance, Periyazhwar in his poems brings out the kid in Krishna, while the Sanskrit scriptures portray him as a heroic superpower who slays demons,” she says. “This kind of earthy compositions on God stems from the Sangam literary tradition.”