New Perspectives on Thiruvachagam – The Hindu


P. Saravanan’s new book talks about the timeless quality of Tamil hymns

In his autobiography, In Charithiram, UV Swaminatha Iyer, the great old man of Tamil literature, recounts an incident where he read the Thiruvachagam aloud to his teacher, Meenakshisundaram Pillai, who was on his deathbed. When it came to line Nunthu Kantru in the poem Thirukothumbi, he asked him the meaning and saw tears running down his teacher’s cheeks. When he pressed to know, Pillai simply said, “The hated calf that was driven away.”

New Perspectives on Thiruvachagam

Some of those who have read Swamintha Iyer’s autobiography may look for this explanation in the comments on Thiruvachagam, which is a compilation of Tamil hymns written by the 9th century poet Manickavasagar. This could be Pillai’s own interpretation, as other commentators offer different meanings. But P. Saravanan, who previously edited Swaminatha Iyer’s essays and autobiography, made special mention of Meenakshisundaram Pillai’s explanation in his book, recently published by Sandhya Pathipagam.

Of course, Saravanan, Deputy Director, Tamil Nadu Textbook and Educational Services Corporation, has included all reviewers’ version of Thiruvachagamincluding that of Dandapani Desikar.

In Tamil, there are many commentaries available in the Vaishnavite literary tradition. But the Saivites refrained from writing on it, Saravanan says, “since they believed that the spiritual experience of reading was unique for each individual.” He talks about another incident in the life of Swaminatha Iyer to drive the point home.

Iyer, whose name was recommended by Tamil scholar Thiyagaraja Chettiar for the position of Tamil lecturer at Kumbakonam college, threatened to jump into the Cauvery when a friend urged him to write a comment on Thiruvachagam. “Who am I when a great scholar like Thiyagaraja Chettiyar feared the prospect of writing it,” he asked.

What gives Saravanan’s book more color are the stories and incidents. The writing is simple and takes the reader into the spiritual world created by Manickavasagar with his hymns.

Detailed explanations

The book contains padhavurai — the meaning of the words — followed by a commentary for each poem. There are detailed explanations of the subjects under which the poems are listed. For example, the book tells the reader what ‘Arul Pathu’, ‘Anta Pathu’, ‘Thirukothumbi’ or ‘Thiruchunnam’ is before moving on to commentary.

There is also a glossary of Saiva Siddantha terms, without which it would be difficult for a reader to fully understand the volume of hymns. There is also a list of Shiva temples, proverbs, parables and incidents mentioned in Thiruvachagam.

The greatness of the Thiruvachagam is explained by the fact that the Sri Lankan Tamil scholar, K. Sivathampy, known for his Marxist approach to literary criticism, used the poem Thanthathu Unthannai in his book Drama in ancient Tamil society to express his gratitude to his teacher George Thomson, another Marxist.

Saravanan also recounts the incident of a Catholic schoolteacher who comforted himself with these words, “A broken and contrite heart, oh god, you shall not despise”, and became a great admirer of the work.

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