The Thevaram (Tamil: தேவாரம், Tēvāram) denotes the first seven volumes of the Tirumurai, the twelve-volume collection of Śaiva devotional poetry. These volumes contain the works of the three most prominent Tamil poets of the 7th and 8th centuries: Sambandar, Appar, and Sundarar.[1][2][3] The three poets were not only involved in portraying their personal devotion to Shiva, but also engaged a community of believers through their songs, and their work is an important source for understanding the emergence of the Bhakti movement in early medieval South India.[4][5]

In the 10th century, during the reign of Rajaraja I of the Chola dynasty, these poets' hymns were collected and arranged by Nambiyandar Nambi. Saivism came of age alongside the expansion and consolidation of Chola imperial power from the 11th to 14th centuries, and the Tirumurai–with its body of texts on rituals, philosophy, and theology–was canonized during this period.[6] Thevaram contains 796 hymns made up of more than 8,200 stanzas, and the singing of these hymns continues today as a devotional practice in many Shiva temples in Tamil Nadu.[7][8]

Three stages have been identified in the evolution of Thevaram: first, the mark of Shiva as the supreme deity during the 7th–9th century; second, the Chola kings initiating the compilation of all the hymns and the installing of the images of the three saint poets during the 10th to the 11th century; and lastly, the restructuring done by the pontiffs of the mathas who incorporated the hymns into the Shaiva Siddhanta canon in the 13th century.[9] Both the Saiva and Vaishnava textual tradition negated the Vedic orthodoxy and Smartha tradition practised during the era.[10] The authority of the hymns was established in their stead, with the Saivities calling Tevaram "the Tamil Marai" and Vaishnavities calling their contemporaneous Nalayira Divya Prabandham "the Dravida Veda".[10] The usage of Sanskrit liturgies for religion was superseded by the usage of Tamil in both Tevaram and Prabandham.[11] Sangam literature established the convention of akam (internally oriented) and puram (externally oriented) poetry.[11] Though the influence of Sangam literature is often seen in Thevaram, the strict conventions were not followed.[11] The verses were more oriented towards the folk tradition, which made them easily accessible to people.[11]

The first three volumes of Tevaram are composed by Sambandar, the next three by Appar, and the seventh by Sundarar. Appar and Sambandar lived around the 7th century, while Sundarar lived in the 8th century; all three are among the 63 Nayanars (lit. 'hounds of Siva').[12] During the Pallava period these three travelled extensively around Tamil Nadu, offering discourses and songs characterised by an emotional devotion to Shiva and objections to Vaishnavism, Jainism and Buddhism.[13]

Thirugnana Sambandar was born into a family of Saivite Brahmins in Sirkazhi. Information about Sambandar comes mainly from the Periya Puranam, the eleventh-century Tamil book on the Nayanars that forms the last volume of the Tirumurai, along with Sundarar's Tiruttondartokai and other poetry, and Nambiyandar Nambi's Tiru Tondar Tiruvandadi. A Sanskrit hagiography called Brahmapureesa Charitam is now lost.

Sambandar is said to have been breastfed by the goddess Umadevi, after which he sang his first hymn. On the request of Mangayarkkarasiyar, Sambandar went on a pilgrimage to Madurai to counter the Jain monks in her husband's court; after besting the monks in debate, the Pandya king converted to Saivism, and the Jains in Madurai were impaled to death in the aftermath.[14][15] Sambandar died around 655 CE at the age of 16, on the day of his marriage.

The first three volumes of the Tirumurai contain 384 poems, composed of 4,181 stanzas, attributed to Sambandar, which are all that survive out of a reputed oeuvre totalling more than 10,000 hymns.[16] His verses were set to tune by Tiru Nilakanta Yazhpanar, who is said to have accompanied Sambandar on his yal or lute.[17]

Appar was born during the 7th century in Tiruvamur, and his childhood name was Marulneekiar. Details of Appar's life are found in his own hymns and in Sekkizhar's Periya Puranam. His sister Thilagavathiar was betrothed to a military commander who died in action. When his sister was about to end her life, he pleaded with her not to leave him alone in the world.[17] She decided to lead an ascetic life and bring up her only brother.

During his childhood, Appar was very much interested in Jainism and started studying its scriptures. He left home and stayed in a Jain monastery, where he was renamed Dharmasena.[18] "Seeing the transient, ephemeral world he decided to probe into truth through renunciation."[19] After a while, afflicted by a painful illness, Dharmasena returned home.[20] He prayed for relief at the Shiva temple where his sister served and was cured.

He was also involved in converting the Pallava king Mahendravarman to Saivism.[21] This was a period of resurrection of the smaller Shiva temples. Appar sanctified all these temples with his verses and was also involved in cleaning of the dilapidated temples in a ritual known as uzhavaarappani.[21] He was called Tirunavukkarasar, meaning "the King of Divine Speech", and Sambandar called him Appar (transl. father) when they met.[22] He is believed to have died around the age of 81 in Tirupugalur.[22] He extolled Shiva in 49,000 stanzas, out of which 3,130 are compiled in the fourth, fifth, and sixth volumes of the Tirumurai.

Sundarar was born in Tirunavalur to Sadaiya Nayanar and Isaignaniyar during the end of the 7th century.[22] His own name was Nambi Arurar, and he was prevented from getting married owing to the divine grace of Shiva.[22] He later married a temple girl named Paravi Naachiyaar and a vellala girl, Changili Naachiyaar.[22] He was a close friend of Cheraman Perumal Nayanar and Eyarkon Kalikkama Nayanar. He is the author of 1,026 poems compiled as the Tirumurai's seventh volume.[22]

All the songs in Thevaram, called pathikam (Tamil: பதிகம்), are believed to be in sets of ten. The hymns were set to music denoted by panns and are part of the canon of Tamil music.[11] They continue to be part of temple liturgy today.[23] Several of these poems refer to historic references pointing to the saint-poets' own life, voice of devotee persona, using interior language of the mystic.[24] Multi-vocal rhetoric is commonly used taking on personal emotions and genres and some voices of classical Sangam literature.

Of the three, Sambandar's life is better interpreted by his verses.[24] According to Zvelebil, Sambandar's lyrics are characterized by egocentricism, by militancy and great ardour, by a warm feeling for the greatness and beauty of Tamil language with scholarly experimentation in meters showing familiarity with Sanskrit forms.[17] Sisir Kumar Das regards this poem by Sambandar as exemplifying the structural and thematic distinctiveness of bhakti poetry:[25]

In the temple where he is throned, who bids us not lose heart
In the hour when our senses grow confused, the way grows dim,
Our wisdom fails, and mucus chokes our struggling breath,
In Tiruvaiyar, where the girls dance around, and the drumbeats sound,
The monkeys fear the rain, run up the trees, and scan the clouds.

Appar's poems dealt with inner, emotional and psychological state of the poet saint.[17] The metaphors used in the poems have deep agrarian influence that is considered one of the striking chords for common people to get accustomed to the verse.[26] The quote below is a popular song of Appar glorifying Shiva in simple diction:[25]

Sundarar's hymns had a touch of humour, a rare thing in religious literature. In one of the verses, he playfully draws an analogy with Shiva with himself, both having two wives and the needs of nagging wives:[27]

Thou art half woman. Thyself
Ganga is in thy long hair,
Full well canst thou comprehend
Burden of woman so fair

The tendency to incorporate place names known to the folks in the idiom of the poems is another characteristic feature of Tevaram.[28] The poems also involved glorifying the feat of Shiva in the particular location–the usage of locale continuously occurring in the verses is a testament.[28] According to Prentiss, the poems do not represent social space as a contested space, the hymns represent the hymnists were free to wander and to offer their praise of Shiva.[29] The emotional intensity of the hymns represent spontaneous expression of thought as an emotional responses to God.[29]

The Paadal Petra Sthalams are 275 temples that are revered in the verses of Thevaram and are amongst the greatest Shiva temples of the continent, while the Vaippu Sthalam are places that are mentioned casually in the hymns.[30][31] The focus of the hymns suggests darshan (seeing and being seen by God) within the puja (worship) offering.[29] Both human structures and natural places find a mention in Thevaram: in addition to temples, the hymnists make classificatory lists of places like katu (forest), turai (port or refuge), kulam (water tank) and kalam (field).[29]

Raja Raja Chola I (985-1013 CE) embarked on a mission to recover the hymns after hearing short excerpts of Tevaram in his court.[32] He sought the help of Nambi Andar Nambi, who was a priest in a temple.[33][6] 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 of the Chidambaram Nataraja temple.[6][32] The brahmanas (Dikshitars) in the temple opposed the mission, but Rajaraja intervened by consecrating the images of the saint-poets through the streets of Chidambaram.[32][34] Rajaraja thus became known as Tirumurai Kanda Cholan meaning "one who saved the Tirumurai".[34] 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.[34]

Nambi arranged the hymns of three saint-poets Sambandar, Appar and Sundarar as the first seven books, Manikkavacakar's Tirukovayar and Tiruvacakam as the eighth book, the 28 hymns of nine other saints as the ninth book, the Tirumandiram of Tirumular as the tenth book, and 40 hymns by 12 other poets, Tirutotanar Tiruvanthathi–the sacred anthathi of the labours of the 63 Nayanar saints–and Nambi's own hymns as the eleventh book.[35] The first seven books were later called as Tevaram, and the whole Saiva canon, which came to include Sekkizhar's Periya Puranam (1135 CE) as the twelfth volume, is wholly known as Tirumurai, "the holy book". Thus Saiva literature which covers about 600 years of religious, philosophical and literary development.[35]

Nambi was also involved in setting musical modes for Tevaram.[36] He accomplished this by visiting the native village of Tiru Nilakanta Yazhpanar, where he met a woman of the Tamil Panar caste who learned the mode of divine revelation. She returned to Chidambaram with Nambi, where she sang and danced for Shiva.[36]

In 1918, 11 more songs were found engraved in stone temple in Tiruvidavayil in a village close to Nannilam, and it was the first instance found where Tevaram verses were found in inscriptions.[37]

Tevaram was one of the sole reasons for converting Vedic ritual to Agamic puja followed in Shiva temples.[38] Though these two systems are overlapping, the Agamic tradition ensures the perpetuation of the Vedic religion's emphasis on the efficacy of ritual as per Davis.[38]

The earliest singers of Tevaram hymns were referred to as pidarars, and were among the Tirupadiyam Vinnapam Seyvar that Nandivarman III provided for in Tiruvallam Bilavaneswara temple records dating from the 8th century.[39][34] A few earlier records also give details about the gifts rendered to the singers of Tevaram from Parantaka I.[34] Rajaraja deputed 48 pidarars and made liberal provisions for their maintenance and successors.[34] A record belonging to Rajendra I mentions Tevaranayakan, the supervisor of Tevaram and shows the institutionalisation of Tevaram with the establishment of a department.[34][failed verification] There are records from Kulothunga Chola III from Nallanyanar temple in South Arcot indicating singing of Tiruvempavai and Tiruvalam of Manikkavacakar during special occasion in the temple.[34] From the 13th century, the texts were passed on to the odhuvars by the adheenams and there was no more control by the kings or the brahmanas.[9] The odhuvars were from the vellala community and were trained in ritual singing in Tevaram schools.[9]

Today, odhuvars, sthanikars, or kattalaiyars offer musical programmes in Shiva temples of Tamil Nadu by singing Tevaram after the daily rituals.[40] These are usually carried out as a chorus programme soon after the divine offering. The singing of Tevaram is followed by musicals from the music pillars in such temples like Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple, Nellaiappar Temple and Thanumalayan Temple.[41]

Periya Puranam, the eleventh-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.[42] One of the first anthologies of Sambandar, Appar, and Sundarar's hymns, the Tevara Arulmuraitirattu, is linked to Tamil Saiva Siddhantha philosophy by grouping ninety-nine verses into 10 categories.[42] The category headings are God, soul, bond, grace, guru, methodology, enlightenment, bliss, mantra and liberation–corresponding to Umapathi Shivachariyar's work Tiruvarutpayan.[43] Tirumurai Kanda Puranam is another anthology for Tirumurai as a whole, but primarily focuses on Thevaram. It is the first of the works to refer the collection of volumes as Tirumurai.[43]