Saint Poet Faith

Appar — epitome of devotion

A view of the Tiruvathigai Tiruvirattaneswarar temple  

It was on Chitirai Sathayam (falls tomorrow, Saturday, this Tamil year) that the Saivite saint poet Thirunavukarasar (addressed as Appar by Tirugnana Sambandar) attained Mukti at the Agneeswarar temple in Thiru Pugalur. Every year, a grand 10 day-festival is held in celebration of Appar at the Veerataneswarar temple in Thiruvathigai, near Panruti, where his devotional transformation began. The events include an episode from his life re-enacted each day invoking the devotion of Appar and the selfless service he rendered to the deity and his worshippers.

Born as Marul Neekiyar (the one who dispels darkness) in Tirumavur, about 10 km west of Thiru Vathigai on the Panruti-Tirunavalur (birth place of Sundarar) Highway, he encountered tragedy early in life. The wedding of his elder sister Thilagavathy, who would become his mentor, was postponed when the bridegroom, Kalipagayanar, a chieftain had to go to war against the marauding forces from the west. Heartbroken, his father died and his mother jumped into the pyre. When she heard that her bridegroom-to-be was killed in the skirmish, Thilagavathy too wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps. She was stopped by Marul Neekiyar, who pleaded with her to take care of him in the absence of their parents.

With Jainism gaining a strangle hold in the region, Marul Neekiyar embraced that faith much to the disappointment of his sister. Assuming the name of Dharmasena, he remained faithful to Jainism while a frustrated Thilagavathi moved away from Thirumavur and settled down in Thiru Vathigai. However, Lord Veerataneswarar decided to intervene and bring him back to the the fold.

The beautiful tank of Sri Agneeswarar Temple at Tiruppugalur. In the background are the two majestic temple towers

The beautiful tank of Sri Agneeswarar Temple at Tiruppugalur. In the background are the two majestic temple towers   | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

Struck with acute stomach pain and unable to find relief anywhere, he finally knocked on the doors of his sister. As he made his way into the temple through the Raja Gopuram, a devotional wave swept through him seeing the Kolam drawn by his caring sister. He presented his first Thevaram verse in front of Lord Veerateswarar – ‘Kootraayina Vaaru Vilakagaleer..’ If relieved from the pain, he promised to dedicate the rest of his life in selfless service to Lord Siva. Such was his devotional rendition that by the time he finished his song, the stomach pain had vanished and he was called out as Thirunavukarasar, the one with the golden devotional voice.

The Appar Mandapam at Sri Neelivaneswarar Temple, Tiruppainjeeli near Mannachanallur in Tiruchi district.

The Appar Mandapam at Sri Neelivaneswarar Temple, Tiruppainjeeli near Mannachanallur in Tiruchi district.   | Photo Credit: M_SRINATH

Angered by this sudden devotional transformation, the Jains tortured him repeatedly in many different ways, each of which is enacted during the 10-day Utsavam at Thiru Vathigai. He was set aflame but in his verse he says that with the Lord having saved him from the excruciating stomach pain, he does not fear anything in life and that no flame could consume him. The king’s elephant meant to kill him, instead trampled the Mahout to death. Thrown into the sea, he came floating up. This episode is now celebrated as the Theppotsavam.

Tirunavukkarasar visited several temples singing verses in praise of Lord Siva. It was at the Pralaya Kaleswarar temple in Pennadam that he inscribed his hands with the Trishul and smeared himself with the sacred ash (vibhuti). He met Thiru Gnana Sambandar in Sirkazhi, where his young contemporary addressed him as ‘Appa.’ Ever since, he has come to be referred as Appar.

Appoothi Adigal

At Thingalur, 2 km east of Tiruvaiyaru on the northern banks of Cauvery, he encountered something truly special. Every location inside this ancient temple town was attributed to Thirunavukarasar. And he found that this was the work of Appoothi Adigal, a great follower of Appar who had named everything and everyone, including his two sons, after Thirunavukarasarar. Adigal was so devoted that he went ahead to serve Appar food even as his beloved son lay dead. Appar appealed to his deity, who brought the boy back to life.

At Thiruveezhimizhalai, near Kudavasal, he found the Lord’s devotees in dire straits struggling to meet even their daily needs. He sang songs, which caused a shower of gold on the town,

Craving for Siva’s Kailash darshan, Appar started walking. When his legs gave way, he crawled and pushed himself with his chest. A man appeared and asked him to take a dip in the pond nearby. When he emerged, he was in Tiruvaiyaru from where he had Kailaya Darshan.

Service at Siva temples

Appar spent the final days of his life at the Agneeswarar temple in Thiru Pugalur, a town near Nannilam on the banks of Mudikondan. There, he attained Mukti, but not before convincing the Lord — who thus showcased Appar’s unswerving devotion. The episode of Thirunavukarasar attaining Mukthi at Thiru Pugalur is played out at the Agneeswarar temple on Chitirai-Sathayam.

Appar stood out for ‘Uzhavarappani’ — the service he rendered at Siva temples, which needed sprucing up. His image bears the tool he carried to remove the overgrowth and thorny bushes, which might hurt the feet of devotees.

Festival highlights

Highlights of Tiruvathigai festival

Day 1 Marul Neekiyar becomes Thirunavukarasar

Day 3 Theppotsavam – Appar thrown into the sea episode

Day 5 Appar revives Appoothi Adigal’s son

Day 6 Appar meets Gnanasambandar

Day 7 Thiruveezhi Mizhalai Episode

Day 10 Mukti at Tirupugalur on Chitirai Sathayam

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 1:25:27 AM |

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