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Home > International Conferences > First International Tamil Conference Seminar > Tiruppavai, Tiruvempavai in South East Asia - T.P.Meenakshisundaram > Tamil Heritage - Tamils are an Ancient People
|First International Tamil Conference - Seminar
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
18 - 23 April 1966
Tiruppavai, Tiruvempavai in South East Asia
Tamil Name of the Thailand Festival
At the fourth Tamil Festival celebrated at Madras, I brought to the notice of the audience that the name of the national festival held in former days at Bangkok and elsewhere was no other than the names of two works of Antal 1 and Manikkavacakar 2 viz. Tiruppavai and Tiruvempavai respectively. His Holiness Sri Sankaracharya of Kanci Kamakoti Pitam who is trying his best to build a harmonious spiritual modern society in India through his Tiruppavai-Tiruvempavai conferences has magnanimously emphasised my views and ordered me to write a book for the Tamilians which I did and placed it at His Feet as my offering on my sixty-first birthday.
Adaptation - a Creative Effort
It is not from a sense of national prestige that we must look at this question. One has to study such problems from the point of view of the other side. When two nations come into closer contact there is bound to be a give and take leading to a cultural diffusion and harmony. The native genius of the people and the historical circumstances, both political and social, will explain why particular aspects of a foreign culture alone is imbibed. The choice is certainly there and is much more important in revealing a creative activity rather than a slavish imitation. Shakespeare has borrowed all his stories from others. But that is not the important thing in his art. How he has adapted and adopted these stories to give to the world his eternal dramas of human ideals and patterns is much more important for a real understanding of his creative literary activity. Similarly in studying the cultural diffusion the emphasis should be on the creative activity of adoption and adaptation.
Tamil Colonists to the Eastern Seas
The enterprising Tamils sailed to the virgin lands of the Eastern seas sometimes founding kingdoms and sometimes helping the kingdoms there. Later the Tamilian traders went there not only to make profit but also to develop between them and the natives a closer contact and understanding, freely making endowments, permanent in nature. Therefore in all these cases there must have been some attempts on the part of these people to identify themselves with the lives and fortunes, aspirations and ambitions of the foreign land and their inhabitants. Many of them, including the Brahmins, settled down and became the citizens of the foreign land. Because it was not often that the Tamilians took their women in those days on the high seas; even the Brahmins who took with them the mantras and rituals including the hymns from Tevaram 3 and Tiruvacakam and became the Rajagurus —"royal priests" — with high sounding titles like Bhattarakas, have thus inter-married with the people there and become part of the ethnic and social stock of the country of their adoption though they still vaguely remember their coming originally from the Tamil land — from Ramanatapuram according to a tradition [told by them to me].
These lands thus came into contact with Hindus and Buddhists with their developed religions, philosophies and rituals. There was also the native culture and beliefs, festivals and ceremonies. There arose therefore a necessity for harmonising these conflicting philosophies for establishing a national and social solidarity. The king who could not afford to be the head of any one group was anxious to appear as the common leader and the crowned king of all these differing people. The very coronation ceremony had to reflect the universal attitude. These conflicting philosophies and ways of life lost their biting differences thanks to the exigencies of the social life in the far-off land without any unnecessary emphasis on caste exclusivism or dogmatic intolerance.
II. The Coronation Ceremony
Devaraja Cult and Coronation
The coronation ceremony itself became a commingling of the various beliefs, mantras and rituals of the three great religions — Native Religion, the Buddhism and the Hinduism. This itself is a great monument to the political and philosophical acumen of these people. The divine life theory and the belief that the people, especially great men like kings and saints, became one with God at their death leading to the construction of palli-c-cantam temples in the Tamil land gave place in the foreign country to a much more developed Devaraja cult in which the kings assumed divine powers as expected by the people and where the idols had the faces of the Kings. In such an atmosphere and set-up, the attempts by the kings themselves in their own interest to establish a happy commingling of the differing and conflicting rituals and mantras not only in such ceremonies as royal coronations but also in national festivals were welcomed and accepted by all the people including the Tamils who were similarly interested in moulding and enjoying a common life, so very necessary when they lived amidst foreign countries with their permanent interest therein. Here was therefore a creative social effort which should be interesting to any student of sociology.
The Age of Tamil Rituals in Thailand
The Hindus came from South India and also from Bengal. Some of the people from South India went with their Tamil hymns and the book of rituals which the Tamil priests still have with them written in the native script and which I assign to the twelfth century on palaeographic grounds. One may conclude that these rituals in which Tamil hymns were sung came a few centuries earlier when these priests could have written them in their own Tamil language and not in the native script of Thailand.
The Mantra for the Opening of the Gates of Kailas
In the coronation ceremony there is a ritual called the " Opening of the gates of Kailas". It is very interesting to note that the mantra used therein is nothing but the first song of St. Appar which begins with the words : kurrayinavaru.4 [கூற்றாயின வாறு]. This is the Tamilian contribution to the coronation ceremony where we have also the Buddhist and Sanskrit mantras. Why is this called the "opening of the gates of Kailas"?
There is a tradition preserved in Periyapuranam 5 that St. Appar went on a pilgrimage to have a sight of Kailas but he heard the divine voice that he would get this vision of Kailas at Tiruvaiyaru in Tanjavur district. We are told that when he came to Tiruvaiyaru 6 the living beings and other things of the world with which he was so much accustomed from his birth assumed a new form and shape, a new value and significance revealing everywhere the presence of the divine Mother and Father. Thus were the gates of Kailas, if one may say so, thrown open to St. Appar.
The Meaning of the Mantra
But this poem kurrayinavaru [கூற்றாயின வாறு] was sung by St. Appar. When, as a non-Saivite, he was suffering from unbearable colic pains which drove him at the instance of his sister to turn a Saivite to pray to Siva to get himself relieved of this deadly suffering. "Oh! Lord! you do not drive away these pains, the very embodiments of the Lord of Death; I have not done many cruel deeds. Indeed I do not know any of these; I have been worshipping your Feet day and night and without any sensation. But all of a sudden without my knowing from where it has come inside me the intestines are pinched and twisted violently. Alas ! I cannot bear 0 ! Lord ! My Father of Tiruvatikai on the banks of Ketilam!" That is the meaning of the first song. Tiruvatikai is a place where he took refuge at the feet of the Lord and where according to the tradition he was cured of the chronic disease as soon as he sang this hymn.
A New Meaning and its Implication
We have to connect these two traditions about this cure from pain and the vision of Kailas which must have been done vaguely by the people who went from Tamil Land. They probably remembered only this much, viz. that at the moment of suffering man takes refuge in the invincible force behind this universe and loses all his ego when the gates of Kailas are thrown open by this true submission to the Lord when the Divine vision of Kailas and "divine happiness are vouchsafed". Interpreted thus there is no conflict with any other religion, creed or philosophy as known to the people of that land. This hymn was therefore given a very honourable place in the coronation ritual and elsewhere. In the ordinary ritual in Hinduism there is first of all the mantra which the worshipper utters for the opening of the temple wherein God resides. This simple magical ritual has assumed a greater and more universal significance in the rituals of Thailand and other countries of the Eastern Seas, which perhaps might not have happened in these days in the country of its origin, which was soon getting torn by narrow religious fanaticism.
III. The National Swing Festival
This Mantra in Every Ritual
At least in the case of the coronation ceremony one may suspect political diplomacy as being at the root of such development. But this mantra for "Opening the gates of Kailas" formed part of every other religious ritual thus becoming the very starting point and therefore the inspiration so as to say of all religious ceremonies.
The Tamil Name of the National Festival
But more interesting and more significant is the fact that the national festival of Thailand, which probably went back to a hoary past amongst the native population of that land, in spite of its name in their own native language, came to be more reverentially called Tiruppavai, Tiruvempavai which are the two hymns sung by St. Antal and St. Manickkavacakar. The singing of these two great poems by the Tamilians in these parts of the Eastern Seas in the religious ceremonies which they performed in connection therewith and the interpretations which they have of these poems to the interested people of these lands not in a sectarian way but in a way which will appeal to the reason and the heart of the people of their land must have somehow attracted the latter's attention. It is significant that the Tamils of these days, because of the foreign atmosphere in which they were placed then, worked for a harmony of conflicting religions, a harmony which is growing only now in modern times in Tamil land itself, thanks to the leadership of Sri Sankarachariyar of Kanci and even then against oppositions, sanctuaries open and sometimes hidden.
Sectarian Song becomes the National Song
Tiruvempavai is the hymn which the Saivites sing, whilst Tiruppavai is what the Vaisnavites sing. The conflict between these two sects within the Hindu fold had not been as yet completely reconciled, whilst in these far-off times, the people of Thailand belonging not only to Hinduism but also to Buddhism and the native religious rituals of the land, stood united in celebrating the old national ancient festival after giving it a name after the Tamil hymns already mentioned. It is not only the kings and the politicians, but also the common men whatever be their religion that completely identified themselves with this national festival, thus called.
The Swing Festival
Their national festival was really a swing festival. It was an addition to the ancient ceremony which consisted in the ritual of throwing up water from large metal reservoirs of water, making it impossible for those who swing, to be on the swing and reach the prize hung up therein. All over the world we know this is a kind of magical ceremony trying to imitate the actual rain, so that according to the old primitive belief in magic, the actual rain will come pouring down forced by such imitation. This must have been a very old and almost a primitive ceremony in the festival of that land. To this ceremony was given a double significance by these people who came into contact with the implications of Tiruppavai and Tiruvempavai.
The Time of the Festival
Curiously enough it was often celebrated in what the Tamilians called the month of Markali, that is, from the 15th of December to 15th of January, though sometimes it came to be celebrated during what corresponds to the month of Thai which may then agree with the period of the Thai nonpu or ampa atal 7 of Paripatal, and also may be connected with pavai of Tiruppavai and Tiruvempavai. Without going into this later complication, it may be noted that the hymns Tiruppavai and Tiruvempavai are even today sung before dawn by the Saivite and Vaisnavite in the month of Markali in the Tamil country. The celebration of pavai nonpu, and the swing festival, thus at one and the same time, must have led ultimately to their identification.
Tiruvatirai-K-Kali - A Swing Festival
It has also to be remembered that what is called Tiruvatiraikkali which came on the full moon day in the said month of Markali, the last day of the Tirvempavai festival and the very full moon day referred in the first verse of Tiruppavai is the game of the swing even now celebrated as such in the Kerala country. In the Tamilnad itself though people speak of Tiruvatiraikkali, they have forgotten its relations with the swing festival. This identification with the swing ceremony must have been another reason for the harmonious commingling.
The Prayer for Rain
Thirdly this pavai nonpu [a fast which ended however in a feast] consisted of a prayer for rains to start with and even now in spite of philosophical, and mystical implications, Tiruppavai and Tiruvempavai contain the prayer for the rains. This must have still further strengthened the attempts at harmony.
The Divine Visit
Perhaps in the primitive swing festival of Thailand the medicine man was present and impersonated the unseen forces or a God and probably he went on blessing every house after the ceremony was over. Tiruppavai and Tiruvempavai are even now an universal prayer and there is a line in Tiruvacakam 8 according to which Lord is so merciful that He comes down to each one of the houses of the common man to bless him. This must have led the people to look upon the ritual of the medicine man and later of the Kings impersonating God, as nothing but a dramatic play intended to emphasise the idea of God Siva or Krisna coming to every house. There are reasons to believe that when the King later assumed the powers of the medicine man as the leader of the society, he came to represent Siva though later others were deputed for this purpose and were paid for taking part in what we may call the dramatic ritual.
Conduct of the Tamils
The Tamilians both the priests and the secular citizens must have behaved in such a respectable way with others that the latter willingly accepted their interpretation of their national ceremony so as to call it willingly Tiruppavai and Tiruvempavai. In these days when nations are aspiring for social harmony this achievement of the people of Thailand assumes a very great significance.
The Hindu Temples
It may also be noticed that in the Siva temple at Bangkok there is not only the image of Siva, Nataraja and Parvati but also of Manikkavacakar, the author of Tiruvempavai, and also of what I suspect the image of Antal though the priests for no satisfactory reasons call it Bhadrakali. The people of all castes and creeds visited this temple and the King sent his presents to the temple. These priests singing Tiruppavai and Tiruvempavai, during the festival were honoured as Rajagurus.
The Hymn Sung
They still bear those titles. The first two verses from Tiruvempavai were sung, though once upon a time all the songs of that hymn might have been sung. There was an offering also for Visnu performed in connection with this festival and though we have not received any evidence for confirming the suggestion [on the basis of the evidence of the singing of Tiruvempavai] one may suggest that the opening verses in Tiruppavai must have also been sung.
IV. A National Deity
The Visnu Temple
Coming to speak about Visnu one must remember that there are three Hindu Temples at Bangkok near the large open field where the swing festival was celebrated; now this festival is no more celebrated. One is the Siva temple. The other is dedicated to Vinayaka which shows the hold which the cult of Vinayaka came to have in the minds of the Tamilians who took that worship with them even to foreign countries, a fact which may explain the universality of this worship of Vinayaka in modern Tamil country. The third temple is dedicated to Visnu. The importance of the Visnu temple is that it suggests the significance of the addition of the phrase Tiruppavai in the name of the national festival. It was this which also forces us to conclude that verses from Tiruppavai also must have been sung during the festival.
The National Deity
In the Tamil Country the image of Visnu in any temple is considered to be a avatara of the Lord in the beautiful form of an image and each one of the images is individually named after the village or the city in which the temples are situated. Therefore in that sense this brought hope to the people of the poor villages that God is also concerned with them. There is however a certain amount of parochialism in this. But in Thailand which came to be given the beautiful name of Sukhodaya "the land where dawns happiness", Visnu whose image which came to be installed by the Kings was named Sukhodaypperumal. Perumal once again is a Tamil word. This name 'the great Lord of Sukhodaya,' shows how the concept of Visnu endearing to the people came to be thus recognised as a National Deity.
Thus this study, instead of being merely tracing the origins which then would have been of no general importance has become one of understanding the social contacts and social evolutions under the natural atmosphere changing naturally, though the period of history has revealed to us a creative activity of a growing nation to attain a happy and harmonious commingling of cultures inclusive of religious and literary influences. Especially when that kind of harmonious development did not take place universally at that age in the very land of Tiruppavai and Tiruvempavai, this study rightly emphasises the greatness of not only the great society of Thailand but also of other societies in the Eastern seas of those early days.