The sixty-three Nāyaṉārs (c. 500–750 ce) are the early leaders (Tam., nāyaṉār, "lord, leader"; pl., nāyaṉmār ) and canonized saints of the Tamil Śaivas, a Hindu sect that commands a large following in the Tamil linguistic area of South India. Along with the Vaiṣṇava Ᾱḻvārs, the Nāyaṉārs were among the first saints of a regional, vernacular bhakti (devotional) tradition in Hinduism.
Preeminent among the Nāyaṉārs are Ñāṉacampantar (also called Tiruñāṉacampantar or Campantar; c. 650), Tirunāvukkaracar (also called Appar; c. 580–670) and Cuntaramūrtti (also called Nampi Ᾱrūrar; seventh to eighth century), authors of the Tamil hymns of the Tēvāram, which form the first seven books of the Tamil Śaiva canon, and are sung during temple rituals. Māṇikkavācakar, author of the Tiruvācakam (c. ninth century), is revered as the fourth saint-teacher (camayakuru ) of the tradition, although he is not included among the Nāyaṉārs. Next in popularity to the four poet-saints are the woman hymnist Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār (c. 550–600), Tirumūlar (c. eighth century), author of the mystical text Tirumantiram, and the legendary figures Kaṇṇappar and Caṇṭēcar.
The contributions of Ñāṉacampantar, Appar, and Cuntaramūrtti are embodied in their hymns, which Tamil Śaivas consider equal to the Vedas, holiest of Hindu scriptures. In the Tamil hymns—the first vernacular religious texts in Hinduism—the saints eloquently express emotional love for a personal God (Śiva), a form of religiosity new to Hinduism. The three Nāyaṉārs traveled to 260 shrines of Śiva in Tamil country and celebrated his presence in these places. The saints' emphasis on Tamil cultural elements, such as emotional love in the setting of particular places, endeared their religion to the Tamils. The Tēvāram helped to drive Buddhism and Jainism out of the Tamil region and to establish Tamil Śaivism as the national religion of the Tamils, patronized by the kings and practiced by the masses.
In his Tamil work Periyapurāṇam (The great history), the hagiographer Cēkkiḻār (c. 1135) narrates the lives of Cuntaramūrtti and the sixty-two historical and legendary saints named in a hymn (Tēvāram 7.39). The Nāyaṉārs came from all segments in Tamil society. The majority were from the upper castes and classes—kings, brahmans, cultivators—but the list also includes a hunter, a low-caste musician, and even an untouchable. In contrast to the traditional Hindu caste hierarchy, the saints formed an ideal society, a spiritually egalitarian community of devotees of Śiva. The extreme acts of Kaṇṇappar, who dug out his own eyes to replace the miraculously bleeding eyes of the linga image of Śiva that he was worshiping, and of Ciṟuttoṇṭar, who upon request cooked and served his own son to a Śaiva devotee, are dramatic yet typical examples of the pattern of the saints' lives. At the end of such episodes, Śiva reveals himself, commending the saint as an exemplary "servant" (aṭiyār ). The lives of the Nāyaṉārs articulate the Tamil Śaiva view of devotion as love of God expressed with intensity; as emotional poetry; and as ritual service (toṇṭu ) to God and service to his devotees, rendered with total and selfless love. To this day, Tamil Śaivas celebrate the saints by worshiping their images, singing their hymns, and retelling their lives.
There is no comprehensive work on the Tamil Śaiva Nāyaṉārs. Translation of the major texts relating to these saints—the Periyapurāṇam, the Tēvāram and the Tirumantiram —remains a desideratum, as does a systematic study of the role of the sixty-three saints in the tradition.
Among the few translations available of the Tēvāram hymns, Francis Kingsbury and Godfrey E. Phillips's Hymns of the Tamil Śaivite Saints (New York, 1921) remains the best to date; though only 79 of the 8,273 verses in the Tēvāram have been translated in this book, the selections are representative, accurate, poetic, and readable. H. W. Schomerus's Śivaitische Heiligenlegenden, Periyapurāṇa und Tiruvātavūrar Purāṇa: Aus dem Tamil übersetzt (Jena, 1925) contains a careful translation of the excellent prose summary of the Periyapurāṇam hagiography done by the Jaffna Tamil scholar Ᾱṟumukanāvalar (1822–1879). M. A. Dorai Rangaswamy's The Religion and Philosophy of Tēvāram, with Special Reference to Nampi Ᾱrūrar (Sundarar ), 4 vols. in 2 (Madras, 1958–1959), is a comprehensive study of the life and hymns of Cuntaramurtti, and also includes a general discussion of Tamil Śaiva devotion and the lives of the sixty-three Nāyaṉārs. The sheer bulk and detail of this erudite study render it more useful to the scholar than to the general reader. Kamil Zvelebil has provided a stimulating and insightful analysis of the lives of the Nāyaṉārs and of the hymns of the four poet-saints as religious literature in The Smile of Murukaṉ: On Tamil Literature of South India (Leiden, 1973), chap. 12, "Śaiva Bhakti: Two Approaches," pp. 185–206. Two other recent essays of interest are George W. Spencer's "The Sacred Geography of the Tamil Shaivite Hymns," Numen 17 (December 1970): 232–244, and my article "Singing of a Place: Pilgrimage as Metaphor and Motif in the Tēvāram Songs of the Tamil Saivite Saints," Journal of the American Oriental Society 102 (January–March 1982): 69–90. The former explores the political, cultural and historical dimensions of the travels of the saints, while the latter offers translations of hitherto untranslated Tēvāram hymns and assesses the contribution of each of the three poet-saints to Tamil religion and culture.
Dehejia, Vidya. Slaves of the Lord: The Path of the Tamil Saints. New Delhi, 1988.
Indira Viswanathan Peterson (1987)