Sundarar (Tamil: சுந்தரர்), also known affectionately as Tampiran Tōḻan (Comrade of the Master, meaning friend of Shiva)[1] was an eighth-century poet who was one of the most prominent Nayanars, the Shaiva bhakti (devotional) poets of Tamil Nadu. He was a contemporary of Cheraman Perumal and Kotpuli Nayanar who also figure in the 63 Nayanmars.[2][3] The songs of praise are called Thiruthondathogai and is the original nucleus around which the Periyapuranam is based.[4] The Periya Puranam, which collects the legends of the Nayanars, starts and ends with him. The hymns of seventh volume of the Tirumurai, the twelve-volume compendium of the poetry of Tamil Shaiva Siddhanta, were composed by him. His songs are considered the most musical in Tirumurai in Tamil language.[5]

Sundarar is unique among the Nayanars in that both of his parents are also recognized as Nayanars. He was born in Thirunavalur into an Adi Saiva family who worked as temple priests. His original name was Nambi Aroorar. The chieftain ruler of the local kingdom (Thirumunaipadi-Nadu), Narasingamunaiarayar, enthralled by the divine aesthetic possessed by young Sundarar who was playing in the street, adopted him and brought him up as his own son. Sundarar was a contemporary of the great Pallava emperor Rajasimha, who was also a Nayanmar saint as well as the author of many devotional hymns works in Tamil literature. A temple inscription in Tiruvarur states that Sundarar's father, Sadayan Nayanmar, belonged to the same ″gotram″ (lineage) of the renowned sage Bharadwaja. His mother Isaignani, also a Nayanmar saint, belonged to same the ″gotram″ of the great sage Gautama. From epigraphs, it is also inferred that a hagiography on Sundarar named Sva Swami Mitra Prabhandam translated as travelogues of how he got in the good graces of the Lord, Sri Shiva.

After he came of age, his parents wanted him to get married. Sadaiyanar sought Sandakavi Sivachariar’s consent to obtain his daughter’s hand for Sundarar. Sandakavi Sivachariar’s and his daughter Kamalagnana Poongathai were living in Puthur (modern-day Manamthaviznthaputhur) at the time. Sivachariar gladly consented, but the wedding was not to take place. All lavish arrangements had been made in Arulmigu Sokkantheeshwarar Temple at Puthur for the wedding. According to a legend, while Sundarar was being married, the service was interrupted by an old ascetic who asked for Sundarar as his servant, making a namesake claim that Sundarar's grandfather pledged him according to an ancient palm leaf manuscript in his possession. Sundarar and those assembled at the wedding were outraged and belittled the old man as a madman (piththaan: Tamil).[6] Nonetheless, a court of Vedic scholars concluded that the palm leaf was legally valid. Crestfallen, Sundarar resigned himself to servitude in the old man's household and in following him to Thiruvennainallur village, was led to the Thiruvarutturai Shiva temple.

The old man was said to be Shiva (Lord Thyagaraja) himself, who told him "That the document shown was only a namesake reason and he wanted Sundarar to be reminded of his actual form as Alalasundarar, a servitor in the holy abode Kailasam, who had to be born on Earth both due to moments of worldly thoughts that arose in him. The fact that the southern Tamil region that had done great ″thavam″ during a period of the Kali Yuga and needed to be blessed with an account of lives of great Nayanmars called Tiru-Thondar Thokai also contributed to my decision. You will henceforth be known as Vanthondan, the argumentative devotee. Did you not call me a mad man just a short while ago? Begin your hymn addressing me 'O mad man!'".[7] Lord Sivan also advised vanthondar that while on earth he should sing in Tamil. Accordingly, Sundarar began his first poem by addressing Shiva as Pittaa pirai chudi.. meaning O mad man, who has the crescent as his crown...[6][8][9]

Subsequently, Sundarar moved around Tamil Nadu, visiting several Shiva Temples of Tamil Nadu. In Tiruvarur, he fell in love with a girl named Paravayar, of the Rudra Kanigayar caste of female ascetics, and married her. It is said that Lord Thiyagarajar residing in the Thiruvarur Temple himself acted as an envoy to deliver messages from Sundarar to Paravayar, along the streets surrounding the temple. Hence the sand in thiruvarur is said to have imprinted by the foot of Lord Thiyagarajar himself. Sundarar was held in such a high regard by his contemporary Nayanmar saints like Viranmindar, Kalikamanar etc. that he was offered royal treatment by those rich servitors. One another Nayanmar saint namely Kotpuliyar, a Vellala, praised for some magnificent services also offers sundarar hand of his daughter but the saint politely declines and instantly picks up the girl and puts in his lap and dedicates a hymn to siva in the end of which he says that he considers the girl equivalent to his daughter. The same treatment is accorded by the saint to yet another girl namely singati. In many hymns, Sundarar makes this declaration of love filled, gracious patronage to the children that he accorded.[5]

In Thiruvottriyur, a sea-side suburb of Madras, he prayed at the Padampakkanathar/Thyagarajar/Vadivudaiamman Temple, where he saw a farmer's girl, Sangiliyar, who was preparing flower garlands and married her, promising never to leave.[7]

Sundarar is also famous for declaring in many hymns that one reality of lord Sivan is apprehended by selfless, dispassionate and attachment free service to him. He also declares that all beings are created equal by the lord.

At Tirupunkoor near Thillai Chidambaram a famous saivite temple, the region was devoid of rains for a long time. A local chola prince requested sundarar to address the problem, thereupon the saint put up a wail for justice saying that 12 of land be given to the temple if it rains by his service and upon completing the song to lord sivan rains lashed incessantly. After many such days, sundarar was summoned by the prince again to fix the problem of heavy rains. sundarar once again insisted that 12 more acres be given to the temple should the rains cease after his song. The same happened and the temple became richer by 24 acres more.

Scene of boy coming back to life from crocodile after Sundarar sings hymn. wood sculpture

At Avinashi, near Coimbatore, There is an ancient Siva temple where Sundarar prayed to lord sivan to give back life to an eight-year-old boy who had died untimely many years ago. On hearing his hymn lord sivan bestowed his grace and the boy who was swallowed by a crocodile was instantly returned by the same crocodile.

The legend states that at Tiruvarur he recited the names of all sixty-three future Nayanars: this recitation is called Tiruttondar-Tokai. In it, he refers to himself as the servant of servants of these saints.[4] His fame reached the ears of the Cheraman Perumal, who came to Tiruvarur. Both embarked on a pilgrimage. But Sundarar became tired of life and was taken up to heaven by a white elephant. The king followed him on his horse. Sundarar prayed to Shiva to take Cheraman Peruman along with him to heaven, which was readily accepted.[10] This occurred in "Swathi Nakshatra" in the Tamil month of "Aadi".[11]

Raja Raja Chola I (985-1013 CE) embarked on a mission to recover the hymns after hearing short excerpts of Tevaram in his court.[12] He sought the help of Nambiyandar Nambi, who was a priest in a temple.[13] It is believed that by divine intervention Nambi found the presence of scripts, in the form of cadijam leaves half eaten by white ants in a chamber inside the second precinct in Thillai Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram.[12][13] The brahmanas (Dikshitars) in the temple are supposed to have disagreed with the king by saying that the works were too divine,and that only by the arrival of the "Naalvar"(The four saints)-Appar, Sundarar, Thirugnana Sambandar and Manikkavacakar would they allow for the chambers to be opened.Rajaraja,however,created idols of them and prepared for them to be brought to the temple through a procession. but Rajaraja is said to have prevailed.[12][14] Rajaraja thus became known as Tirumurai Kanda Cholan meaning one who saved the Tirumurai.[14]

In another version of the story, Rajaraja is said to have experienced a dream from lord Shiva telling Rajaraja that the hymns in Thillai Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram are in a state of destruction and to recover the remaining hymns from the chambers.The brahmanas (Dikshitars) in the temple,however,are supposed to have disagreed with the king by saying that the works were too divine to be accessed,and that only by the arrival of the 63 Nayanmars would they allow for the chambers to be opened.Rajaraja,devising a plan,consecrated idols of each of them and prepared for them to be brought into the temple through a procession.It is said that the 63 idols are still present in the Thillai Nataraja Temple.When the vault was opened, Rajaraja is said to have found the room infested with white ants,and that the hymns were salvaged as much as possible.

Thus far Shiva temples only had images of god forms, but after the advent of Rajaraja, the images of the Nayanar saints were also placed inside the temple.[14] Nambi arranged the hymns of three saint poets Sambandar, Appar and Sundarar as the first seven books, Manickavasagar's Tirukovayar and Tiruvacakam as the 8th book, the 28 hymns of nine other saints as the 9th book, the Tirumandiram of Tirumular as the 10th book, 40 hymns by 12 other poets as the 10th book, Tirutotanar Tiruvanthathi - the sacred anthathi of the labours of the 63 nayanar saints and added his own hymns as the 11th book.[15] The first seven books were later called as Tevaram, and the whole Saiva canon, to which was added, as the 12th book, Sekkizhar's Periya Puranam (1135 CE) is wholly known as Tirumurai, the holy book. Thus Saiva literature which covers about 600 years of religious, philosophical and literary development.[15]

The earlier Pallava inscriptions of Dantivarman and Kampavarman inform about the singing of Tirumurai in temples to the sounding of udukkai(small drum) and talam(cymbals).

In 1921, an English translation of Sundarar's hymns was done by Francis Kingsbury and GE Phillips, both of United Theological College, Bangalore (Edited by Fred Goodwill) and published in a book as Hymns of the Tamil Śaivite Saints, by the Oxford University Press.[16]

Tirumurai was one of the sole reasons for converting Vedic ritual to Agamic puja followed in Shiva temples.[17] Though these two systems are overlapping, Agamic tradition ensures the perpetuation of the Vedic religion's emphasis on the efficacy of ritual as per Davis.[17] Odhuvars, Sthanikars, or Kattalaiyars offer musical programmes in Shiva temples of Tamil Nadu by singing Tevaram after the daily rituals.[18] These are usually carried out as chorus programme soon after the divine offering. There are records from Kulothunga Chola III from Nallanyanar temple in South Arcot indicating singing of Tiruvempavai and Tiruvalam of Manickavasagar during special occasion in the temple.[14] From the 13th century, the texts were passed on to the Odhuvars by the Adheenams or charitable establishments. The charitable establishments that ran on the philanthropy of individuals and merchant caravans had come to be because after the 13th century, the time of ancient nation states viz. cholas etc. was finished and the temples became only denominated, voluntary, charitable places. This is briefed by a 15th-century, Chidambaram temple inscription.During the time of cholas etc. the temple hymn service workers were known as uvacchar and marars. These terms are of very ancient origin and traceable to even early sangam times.

Periya Puranam, the 11th-century Tamil book on the Nayanars that forms the last volume of the Tirumurai primarily had references only to Tevaram and subsequently expanded to 12 parts and is one of the first anthologies of Tirumurai.[19] One of the first anthologies of moovars hymns called the Tevara Arulmuraitirattu is linked to Tamil Saiva siddhantha philosophy by grouping ninety-nine verses into 10 categories.[19] The category headings are God, soul, bond, grace, divine intiation, methodology, enlightenment, bliss, mantra and liberation - correspond to Umapthi's work, Tiruvarutpayan.[20] Tirumurai kanda puranam is another anthology for Tirumurai as a whole, but primarily focuses on Tevaram. It is the first of the works to refer the collection of volumes as Tirumurai.[20]

The Paadal Petra Sthalams are 276[21] temples that are revered in the verses of Tevaram and are amongst the greatest Siva temples of the continent. Vaippu Sthalangal are places that were mentioned casually in the songs in Tevaram.[22] The focus of the moovars (first three poets) hymns suggests darshan (seeing and being seen by God) within the puja (worship) offering.[23] The hymnists made classificatory lists of places like katu (forest), turai (port or refuge), kulam (water tank) and kalam (field) being used - thus both structured and unstructured places in the religious context find a mention in Tevaram.[23] Out of the 276 locations only one is in Kerala at Mahadeva Temple, Thiruvanchikulam.