Natalie Savelyeva

Bhakti movement in Tamilnadu

Political context

The Tamizh land was ruled by Kalabras who spoke Pali and Parakrit and has Sanskrit for administrative purpose. They were staunch followers of Buddhism and Jainism. Tamizh language was neglected and all tamils were cast out. Music and dance was shunned in society since they were thought of being capable of kindling lesser instincts [1].

Pallavas came to rule the Tamizh land after the Kalabras in second half of the 5th century AD. Originally followers of Jainism, but from the time of Mahendran they converted to Saivism [1].

Mahendravarman I (7 cen AD) was the famous ruler, established stability in his land. He was great patron of arts and architecture (rock-cut temples of Mahabalipuram). Buddhism and Jainism were predominant religions in the kingdom of Mahendravarman.

Pallava successors of Mahendravarman I and Colas who consolidated their power in Tamil region on 10th century AD were great patrons of Tamil Bhakti groups. This time Saiva and Vaishnava saints went from temple to temple in various places and sung songs praising the glory of the gods. Thus music and dance got a fresh spring of life once again in history [1]. Temples were constructed and renovated, and dance also got attached with temple and divinity.

Following Pallavas came Colas to rule the Tamizh land. Vijayalaya, later Cola king defeated Pallava king Aparajita and established the Cola dynasty [1].

Tamil Colas favored Saivism and gave it royal support. Thiruvarur and Thillai located in Kaveri Delta, a region ruled by Colas in Sangam age, became the important centers of Tamil Bhakti cult. Cola kings enlarged and rebuilt Siva shrines, built structural temples in stone in places visited by Nayanars (patal patra talam). Iconography, inscriptions, sculptures and bronzes of Cola period give a lot of knowledge about Saivism and cult of Bhakti and Nayanars.

Local roots of Bhakti cult

According to [2], Bhakti was a popular religion of intimate relationship with a gracious God. It was characterized by ecstatic modes of expression. Hymns of Bhakti saints were full of passion and devotion. Poet-saints composed and sung their hymns in Tamil, not in Sanskrit, thus all people of Tamil society can understand it in spite of the caste, sex and other divisions.

Bhakti movement was based on Hindu religion. Nayanars and Alwars considered Buddhist and Jain monks as their enemies. There were several reasons for it:

  • Buddhist and Jain ideology was alien to Tamil culture. These new cults came to Tamil Nadu from outside. These heterodox religions had no connection with local cults and deities.
  • Language of Buddhist and Jain sacred texts was not Tamil. According to [2], Jain and Buddhist monks spoke nether Tamil, nor Sanskrit, but mutilated both with Pracrit dialects.
  • Many groups of Buddist and Jain monks arrived from Kannasa and Telugu areas, they were true strangers to Tamil culture and language.
  • Jain ascetic practices of nudity, tonsure and abstaining from bathing and cleaning teeth were revolving for the peasants.
  • Ascetic nature of these two heterodox religions was good for life of monks. Bhakti devotion was more of sensuous, often erotic, aesthetic nature, was characterized with "exaltation of personal, ecstatic experience of God, exuberant expression of love" [2].
  • Buddhism and Jainism were competitors of traditional Hindu Brahmanism (with which Bhakti cult formed a kind of alliance).
  • Bhakti cult leaders had to compete with Buddhist and Jain monks to gain and retain royal support for their religion.

Features of Bhakti cult

Bhakti was connected with ritual religion at one hand and classical culture and aesthetic of Tamils at the other. The mythology and cultural context of the Hindu Gods were more congenial to the spirit of a new personal religion in the framework of Tamil civilization then Buddhism and Jainism could be [2].

Salient feature of early Bhakti cult was a great importance given to the temple and ritual worship. Temple or shrine occupied a central position in the literature and practice of Tami; Saivism and Vaisnavism. Saiva Agamas give detailed expositions of ritual practice in connection with temple worship. Tevaram songs are distinguished by their pervasive orientation to shrines and sacred places. The poet-saints dedicated nearly every one of their hymns to a temple of Siva. Together, Appar, Campantar and Cuntarar sang hymns to Siva as the god of shrines situated in 274 sacred places (pati, talam) [2].

Sangam worship of the king residing in sacred place and having sacred power was transferred into Bhakti cult of local deity, representation of Siva or Vishnu residing in sacred place (a loci or shrine or town) located in sacred landscape. In Tevaram Siva is addressed as the god of the place, the dweller or the Lord of particular shrine. Siva became a local hero instead of heroes praised in Sangam Puram poetry [2]. Thus, songs that were made in praise of kings in Sangam age, shifted to songs praising the Gods, royal celebrations became temple festivals and royal processions became temple processions when the deity was taken round [1].

Bhakti connotes not only devotion in sense of loyalty and attachment, but also love (anpu, katal) in sense of powerful mutual, intimate bond created between two living creatures. To show this king of relationships tradition of Sangam Akam poetry was employed.


  1. History of Tamizh Dance by Dr. S. Raghuraman, Nandini Pathippagam, Chennai, 2007
  2. Poems to Siva. The hymns of the Tamil Saints by Indira Viswanathan Peterson, Motilal Banarsidas Publishers, Delhi, 2007
  3. Five Naayanmaar by Dr. G. U. Pope, International Institute of Saiva Siddhanta Research, Dharmapura Aadhinam, Dharmapuram, 1991
  4. Hymns of the Tamil Saivite Saints by F. Kingsbury, G. E. Phillips, Association Press, Calcutta, 1921
  5. The Tiruvacagam Or "Sacred Utterances" of the Tamil poet-saint and sage Manikka-vacagar, by Dr. G. U. Pope, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1900