Azhagar Koil – The Sangam Song
Updated: Dec 6, 2020
The Sangam literature is a collection of poems on diverse topics composed and compiled in the first few centuries of the Common Era in the Tamil country. One such collection of songs is the ‘Paripadal’. Scholars attribute a period which is around a century after the Puram/Agam set of collections to Paripadal.
Unlike the Purananuru or agananuru which were poems meant to be recited, Paripadal is a collection of poems that were tuned to music. The author and composer are mentioned before every poem. This set of songs sings the praise of Krishna, Kartikeya and that of the mighty river Vaigai. One such song that praises the qualities of Vishnu who resides in the ‘mAlirumsOlai mountain’ (today’s Azhagar Koyil in Madurai), is the subject matter of this article. It is very interesting to observe that a poem composed around 1600 years ago, praise a temple, whose worship is very much an integral part of the society today. For a cult to have developed into a common practice and to have obtained the patronage of the ruling class and society, the dating of the origins have to be taken a few more centuries further before. It is indeed safe to state that the worship of Krishna-Balarama has been a part of Tamil culture for more than 2 millennia.
The author of the said poem is a Pandyan King ‘Ilamperuvazhuthi’. Probably he was a king who was seated on the throne at a young age, hence the prefix of ‘Ilam’. One of the Azhwar saints, Nammazhwar who was instrumental in the propaganda of the Vishnu faith sings in his poem that before one’s youth is to be a matter of past, they should go to Azhagar Koil in Madurai and worship Vishnu. Probably, this Pandya knew of the Azhwar’s commandment before the Azhwar’s birth. The king must have been an ardent follower of the Vaishnava faith (Krishna-Vasudeva) cult as is evident from his poems. What survives of the Pandyas from the Sangam age are only the poems sung by the kings or on the kings by other poets, hence not much of history or chronology can be obtained from these evidences. This poem is composed in the tune (paN) called ‘nOthiram’ and was composed by ‘Maruttuvan nallachyuthanAr’.
"அரா அணர் கயந்தலைத் தம்முன் மார்பின் மரா மலர்த்தாரின் மாண் வரத் தோன்றி அலங்கும் அருவி ஆர்த்து இமிழ்பு இழிய சிலம்பாறு அணிந்த சீர் கெழு திருவின்-சோலை"
The poet visualizes the mountain’s beauty. He starts to describe the beauty of the SilambAru (the river of the temple) and says that many waterfalls cascade to empty themselves into the river, which appear like flower garlands on the chest of Balarama, Krishna’s brother.
Koorathazhwan, a Vaishnava saint who lived a thousand years before in his ‘Sundarabahusthavam’ also adopts a beautiful example to extol the beauty of this river. He says in the third verse that ‘nUpurAhvA nadi (sanskritised version of silambAru) runs fast at certain places and becomes slow at others. She jumps when nearing boulders and moves leisurely at others. The poet says that she is behaving mad because she is intoxicated with the beauty of Vishnu (sundarabAhujAhvayam madhu nipIya mattA yathA).
The Sounds of the mountain:
The Sangam poem describes in detail the sounds that emanate in the vicinity of the mountain. It says that the delicate peacocks that are in the colour of a sapphire stone, sing. The cuckoo birds drop leaves with their beak from trees as per the rhythm of their song. Flutes and cymbals are played with perfect scale alignments. The music of the singers is accompanied by drum beats in the mountain of Krishna.
Koorathazhwan in his stotra also gives a wonderful picture of how the music of nature is orchestrated at the mountain. The gait of swans that walk near the river forms the rhythm of the songs that the female bees sing (hamsa tAla nibhrutam bhrungI gAyati). The female nightingale bird takes cue from where the bees left and starts her song. The delicate creeper that winds the tree of the nightingale is overwhelmed in emotion due to the song and sheds tears from its flowers in the form of drops of honey. The deers that run stumble and stop to close their eyes and listen. Even stones of the mountain melt.
The King’s wish:
The sangam poet wants a reward from Krishna for the songs he sang. He asks a return favour from his favorite god. His desire was not that of territory or wealth, he begs Krishna of Malirumsolai to give him a boon that he shall live near the feet of the brothers (Krishna and Balarama) in the mountain of Malirumsolai forever.
A householder Brahmin, Periyazhwar (one amoing the 12 Azhwar saints) in his old age wishes to be near the feet of this temple’s Vishnu. He says in his Periyazhwar Thirumozhi (5-3) that he has found no shelter like that of this deity’s feet and that he will never let go of it in his life.
It is interesting to note that the feelings in poetry, music and worship have continued for centuries in the Tamil culture. Unlike many cultures where these have disappeared and had to be reconstructed, in the premises of Azhagar Kovil, we find people singing and dancing to such songs even today. The indigenous traditions of deities like Karuppu and the celebration of goat sacrifice outside the temple, the vedic and agamic customs inside the temple, the mountain in the background along with the history and sentiment associated with it are heritage and customs that have been flowing for time immemorial.
References: Paripadal - 15
Periyazhwar Thirumozhi 5-3-4
Lecture of Sri.Pasupathy (Jan 2012)