The Tamizh month of ‘Purattasi’ when the star ‘Rohini’ is on the ascent is said to be the day whence Nandanaar mingled with His Beloved Lord Siva in Chidambaram. This year (2008), today (Sep 21) is this auspicious day. On this day, we bring you the divine life history of the great devotee Nandanaar!
A Holy place (‘kshetra’) is remembered not so much for the Deity there as for the devotee associated with the place. When we visit any holy place, we are at once reminded of the name and life-sketch of the devotees who were devoted to the deity there. Thus the name of the holy Chidambaram (a temple-town in Tamil Nadu) brings to our mind Nandanaar, one of the 63 ‘Nayanmars’ (the prominent devotees of Lord Siva). The life history of Nandanaar, in ‘Periyapuranam’ (a piece of literature that extols the lives of the 63 ‘Nayanmars’), depicts the deep devotion that this humble devotee had for Lord Siva and the grace of Lord Siva in conferring His love on His devotees, going beyond all worldly considerations like caste and creed.
Nandanaar was born in what was then classified as a low caste, in a slum in Adhanur village on the banks of River Kollidam (in Tamil Nadu). He worked as a farm hand of a landlord in the village. Exemplary in character, born out of his devotion to his Lord, he served his landlord sincerely. He served Lord Siva as much as he could. He made drums out of cow hide and also musical instruments such as ‘yaazh’, ‘iyazhai’ from the guts of animals and offered them to the temple for use in worship.
Deeply devoted to Lord Siva, the Divine Name of his favorite Lord constantly played on his tongue. How deep was Nandanaar’s yearning for his Lord! Today, we speak of ‘Nama Siddantha’. It was Nandanaar who first propounded ‘Nama siddhanta’! He gathered the people in his neighborhood and pleaded with them to sing the Name of the Lord
He pleaded, “Chant Namah SivAya! Namah SivAya! Chant Umapathe! Chant SAmbasivAya!” The people of the slum objected and refused to chant the Name of Lord Siva while they had their own deities.
They said to him, “Nanda! Why do you insist on our chanting tongue twisting Names?” But Nandanaar was not to be bogged down by their disinterest and opposition. Amidst them lived a dumb girl who everyone called ‘Oomacchhi’ (dumb girl in Tamil language).
Nandanaar advised the people, “Say ‘Oomacchi vA’!” (oh, the dumb! come!). So, they all called out to her, “Oomacchi vA! Oomacchi va!” and it sounded as ‘Uma Ch(S)iva!’ Nandanaar thus succeeded in making the Lord’s Divine Name play on the tongue of those who could not even utter it! In this way all the people around began chanting the Name of the Lord.
Quite frequently he gathered the people of his slum around him and engaged them in chanting the Divine Names of the Lord. Ever since people joined Nandanaar in performing Nama Kirtan, none went to attend to his work in the fields, on time. So those affected by this tried to bring ‘sense’ into Nanda through a local leader of their slum. All of them together approached Nandanaar.
They said to him, “Nanda! You are forever singing the Nama. Will singing the Nama earn food?” (‘Namam pAdi kondirundAl soru kidaikuma?’) Nanda replied, “Even the dog eats food. But can it chant ‘Bhagavan Nama’ – the Name of the Lord? (‘nAyum kooda choru thinnum Namam pAdumo?’)
Nandanaar nurtured the deep desire to visit Lord Siva’s Temple at Thiruppungur. Thiruppungur is about 4 kms from Vaitheeswaran Koil (a famous temple town in Tamil Nadu). Here, Lord Siva bears the name ‘Sivalokanathan’. One day, picking up courage, Nandanaar spoke about his desire to his landlord and sought his permission to visit Thiruppungur to have darshan of his beloved Lord. It was only that day the 40 acres of land had been ploughed and seeds sown. It would take at least another six months for the harvest. To put him off, the landlord told Nandanaar, “Hey, Nanda! Once they are ready for harvest you may leave for Thiruppungur!”
A disappointed and grief stricken Nandanaar went to bed. In a divine dream he saw that the grains had grown to full and the vast field of his employer was all set for harvest! He immediately rushed to the fields and found it to be true and not just a dream. He could not believe his eyes. In that hour of the night he ran up to his landlord’s house and called out to him, “Sir! Please come out. Come with me to the fields. They are ready for harvest!” Hearing the loud call of his farm hand, the landlord rushed out and hearing him repeat his request said to him, “Oh, mad fellow! Have you lost your wits totally due to your devotion to Lord Siva?”
But Nandanaar insisted on the landlord accompanying him to the field. The landlord accompanied him and lo! What did his eyes behold? The field was all set for harvest! He could not believe what he saw.
Well! How did these fields get ready for harvest overnight? The Lord is omnipotent. Is anything impossible for the Almighty? However, an interesting feature is shown here. Inside the Temple of Madurai Meenakshi is the sanctum of Lord Ganesha bearing the name Mukkuruni Pillaiyar. Three ‘kurunni’ (a measure) of grains are used to make ‘modaka’ ( a dish made of rice flour) for offering to this Ganesha, and hence the name.
Legends have it that everyone teased Ganesha for sitting idle with his pot belly. So, Ganesha decided to find some employment! Taking the form of a young boy, he approached a devotee of his who was working on the fields and offered to assist him. This man asked, “How much wage do you expect?” Ganesha in the form of a young boy said, “Three (‘moonru’) ‘kurunnai’ grains”. At the end of the work he earned the grains and returned home happily. Ganesha went to his father Lord Siva and gave it to him. Lord Siva who behaves like a mad one (‘pithhan’) knows not what He does. He took the grains from Ganesha and emptied the whole sack on his own head!
Lord Siva’s head was already filled with sand that He had thrown over His head in play while participating in the construction of the embankment on behalf of His devotee Vandi (the famous episode which talk about Lord Siva carrying sand during the floods in the Vaigai river, in return for ‘pittu’). He held the Ganga on His head. When the Lord now emptied the sack of grains over His head, it sprouted up! So, when he wondered what to do with these, Nandanaar’s dire requirement came in and the Lord blessed him with these!
The landlord realizing the greatness of Nandanaar’s Bhakti fell at his feet, seeking his pardon. The landlord also helped him in his journey to Tiruppungur. Nandanaar gathered all the people from his slum and went to have darshan of Lord Sivalokanatha in Tiruppungur.
There is a Ganesha here known by the name ‘kullam vettiya Vinayakar’ (Ganesha who dug a pond). It is said that this Ganesha dug a pond for Nandanaar and his people to bathe! In those days people considered to be from low caste were not permitted to enter temples. So, they had to have darshan of the Lord from outside the gate. To the dismay of Nandanaar the huge ‘Nandi’ (the Divine Bull of Lord Siva) in this temple obstructed his view of the Lord.
The great carnatic music composer,Gopalakrishna Bharati has sung the kirtan: ‘chatre vilagiyirum pillAi! sannidhi maraikudu’ (Oh! ‘Nandi;! Please move aside, for, you are blocking the Sanctum Sanctorum!).
It is not Nandanaar who requested ‘Nandi’ to move aside but it was Lord Siva who made the request as He desired to see His devotee!’ This is the reason that the ‘Nandi’ here sits aside, even today (and not in straight line with Lord Siva in the sactum sactorum). And, one can also find the two ‘dwArapAlAs’ (sentinels at the Lord’s Sanctum Sanctorum) in a bending position, as if trying to see this great devotee that their Lord desired to see!
This is the Holy place where ‘Nandi’ moved aside so that Nandanaar and his people could have the Lord’s darshan. It is said that Nandanaar earned this name as he made Nandi move! Nandanaar’s joy knew no bounds on receiving darshan of his Beloved Lord. Elated, he wished to offer his services to the Lord in some way. He, therefore, dug a pond before returning to his village with his people.
Nandanaar now deeply yearned to visit Chidambaram (the Holy Place of Lord Siva known as ‘Bhoo loka KailAs’ – Kailash on earth). Chidambaram was not too far from the village where he lived. Somehow this remained only a dream for a long time. People knew of his deep yearning to visit Chidambaram and would, therefore, ask him, “Hey, Nanda! when do you propose to leave for Chidambaram?”
Nandanaar would say, “Tomorrow!” This was his reply every time anybody enquired this of him. Thus he earned the name ‘ThirunALaipovAr!” – one who would leave for Chidambaram on the morrow (‘nALai povAr’ means ‘go on the morrow’).
He kept saying, “I am leaving for ‘Thillai’ (Chidambaram) tomorrow!” Poor Nanda was criticized by everyone and he earned the name ‘ThirunAllaipovAr’!
Nandanaar possessed deep ‘BhAva Bhakti’.
The supreme state of one who possesses deep ‘BhAva Bhakti’ is absolutely incomprehensible. Even hearing the Name of his Lord would push the devotee into ecstasy! A deep desire to hear his beloved Lord’s Name repeatedly would be felt. He will experience horripilation. The very name of the temple-town of the Lord would bring joy to him. He would experience thrill at the very sight of any object related to His Lord.
Let’s say he is a Krishna Bhakta. The very sight of a river will bring the thought of Yamuna to him, the sight of a mountain will remind him of Govardana and little children would remind him of the play-mates of his Beloved Krishna. Anything and everything will only bring up the thought of their favourite god. This is the highest state of Love (‘Prema uthkrishttam’). Radha hears about Krishna. She hears the sound of Krishna’s flute; and she ‘sees’ a form of Krishna in her mind’s eyes. She is perturbed, “By listening about Krishna my heart goes out to him! Listening to the sound of the flute my heart goes out to the player of flute! And there is the form of a ‘Purusha’ that is being ‘seen’ within, quite naturally! Are these three different?”
But, she learns that all these three are one and the same and heaves a sigh of relief! So, in such kind of deep, unfathomable love the sound of his beloved Lord’s Name, the name of the Lord’s ‘Kshetra’ or any object connected to the Lord will create strange and boundless joy in the devotee’s heart. This joy is inexplicable and is comprehended only through experience.
While Nandanaar worked on the field some pilgrims would come up to him and enquire of him, “Thillai ambalathukku pogumo ivazhi” – does this road lead to the temple at Chidambaram?”
Feeling thrilled to hear the very name ‘Thillai’ (Chidambaram) he woud yearn to hear it again. So, instead offering a reply, he would plead with them, “Innum oru dharam solungallaiya!” – please utter that Name (‘Thillai’) once again! “oh, what did you say? Please say it again!”
Thinking that he had not heard him, the pilgrims would repeat their question, “Does this road lead to ‘Thillai’ (Chidambaram)?” The very name ‘Thillai’ would throw him into ecstasy! The very sound ‘Thillai’ was melodious to his ears due to his deep desire to have darshan of Lord Nataraja (Siva). He would, therefore, tell them, “Oh, please repeat your question once more!” It would go on like this and those who had stopped to enquire would leave, mistaking him to be a crazy fellow!
At last one fine day his dream came true. He set out for Chidambaram by foot. The deep desire to have darshan of the Lord inside the Sanctum Sanctorum of Chidambaram temple took hold of him. But when Nandanaar reached Chidambaram, remembering his birth in what was then considered a low caste, he hesitated to step into the holy town. Tired after the long walk he slumped down outside the holy town. But would the gracious, compassionate Lord, a devotee of the devotees, turn a blind eye to the plight of His devotee? Is He not verily the indweller of all? Would He then not hear the murmur of the devotee’s loved filled heart?
Lord Siva deeply moved by His beloved devotee appeared in the dream of the temple priests and informed them of his great devotee outside and instructed them to build a fire through which His devotee would enter and come out unscathed. This was only to illustrate the glory of His devotee to the world. The priests rushed out in all eagerness to meet this great devotee who the Lord Himself desired to receive. They informed him of the Lord’s order. The priests then built a fire which Nandanaar entered and came out unscathed. With due respect and honor, the priests guided him through the town to the temple. Nandanaar had darshan of the ‘gopuram’ (Tower) of the temple and entered the temple. Nandanaar rushed to the Sanctum Sanctorum in all eagerness to meet his Lord and mingled with Him and attained beatitude.
Gopalakrishna Bharati’s opera ‘Nandanaar charitram’ is highly acclaimed. One of his kirtans is ‘VarugalAmo, ayya? — may I, oh, Lord! come to Thee? – Nandanaar seeking the Lord’s permission, in all earnestness and humility, to come to His Divine Presence.
varugalAmo ayya! undan arugil ninru kondAdavum pAdavum, nAn? (varugalAmo)
(May I, oh, Lord! come to Thy proximity to adore and worship Thee?)
parama krupAnidhi allavo! inda parayan upachAram sollavo!
undan paramAnanda tAndavam pArkkave nAn-ange! (varugalAmo)
([Oh, Lord!] Aren’t Thee ocean of mercy! the lowly one that I am, shall I sing in praise of Thee? Can I, [Oh, Lord!] come over to witness Thy Blissful dance?)
bhoomiyil pulaiyanAi pirandene; nAn punniyam seyyAmal irundene!
sAmi un sannidhi vandene; bhavasAgaram tannaiyum izhandene!
karai kadandhene sharanam adaindene!
tillai varadA! paritApamum, pApamum theerave! (varugalAmo)
(Oh, born as a lowly one on this earth, I have failed to perform merit earning deeds! Oh, Lord! Here I come to Thy Divine Presence! rising up from the ocean of samsArA! I shall swim across to its shores! surrendering unto Thee! Hey! bestower of boons! who dwells in ‘Thillai’ (Chidambaram)!
for cooling the feverish yearning to see Thee and erase out my sins, (May I, oh, Lord! come to…)