The Religion and Philosophy of Tevaram (Thevaram)

by M. A. Dorai Rangaswamy | 1958 | 410,072 words

This page describes “(i) symbology of the serpent and worship” from the part dealing with Nampi Arurar (Sundarar) and Mythology, viz. Puranic stories and philosophy. The 7th-century Thevaram (or Tevaram) contains devotional poems sung in praise of Shiva. These hymns form an important part of the Tamil tradition of Shaivism

Chapter 4.6 - (i) Symbology of the serpent and worship

In the Bhikshatana form there are no clothes. “Kati dese pra kartavyah phani sutrena vestitah”. ‘The serpent is tied round the waist. He is adorned with the serpent.’

Serpent worship must have been very popular in South India as is seen by the Naga stones still found under the trees. Shiva in keeping His out of the way abodes, came to be associated with serpents, as well. In the Tamil country of Naga worship, this assumed a greater importance, on account of the harmony effected between Shiva worship and this Naga worship. The serpent became the greatest symbol of Shiva, the hood of the serpent appearing as a kind of umbrella up over the crown of Shiva. In addition to this in the age of the Pallavas, there was their tradition of a Pallava marriage with a Naga kanya. This gave an additional glamour to the serpents adorning the Lord.

The psycho analysts have spoken of the significance of the serpent symbol appealing to the unconscious and the racial memory. The serpent in Hindu Philosophy represents the kundalini yoga. It also represents the Universe; the evolving Universe is the serpent with its hood spread out; when it has not the hood thus spread out, it is the Universe at rest lying in involution. All these suggestions are there imbedded in every description of the forest.


The words for serpent used by Arurar are

  1. Nakam, the Tamillian form of the Sanskrit word ‘Naga’,
  2. Puyankam from the Sanskrit word ‘Bhujangah (that which moves in a curved way),
  3. Ara’ with its variant forms ‘ara’ and ‘aravu’ and ‘aravam’,
  4. Pampu’,
  5. Pantal’.

Naga as that which moves not—that goes not—refers probably to its serpentine motion; so does ‘bhujangah’ [bhujanga] as that which moves on its shoulders. Possibly Naga itself is traceable originally to the Tamil root ‘naku to the Tamillians referring to the shining appearance of certain serpents. It is a shining serpent, says the poet: ‘Val aravu’. The poet speaks of “Kola aravu”, ‘the beautiful serpent or the serpent with the beautiful pattern’. ‘Naku meaning ‘youthful’ is also traceable to the same root. The Nakar may be the race of eternals. If Nakars are non-aryans, it is but reasonable that their name should be traced to a non-aryan root. Aravu is compared with ‘Sarpa by the Tamil Lexicon. This is indeed very unfortunate; for the form aravam is to be traced to ‘ar’, ‘ara’ [arā], ‘ara and ‘aravu according to the well established Tamil grammatical tradition which is not opposed to any canon of comparative philology. ‘Ara may mean the sound of the rattlesnake. From this has come the word ‘arakku which means to wriggle, like a serpent.

Pampu is from ‘pay , to spring forth, as pointed out by Dr. Caldwell. ‘Pantal probably means the same. Naccinarkkiniyar interprets this to mean the big snake. The other epithets which the poet uses are suggestive and realistic. It captures any cleft or crevice and makes it as its own abode—“Mulaikol aravu”. Any hole is a fit abode for many serpents and God captures the serpents there. The Tamil Lexicon gives this meaning of a hold for the word ‘pall’—“Palitorum pala pampu parri”, Any ant heap becomes its rendezvous and it dances with its hood —“Purratu aravam”; “Purril vat aravu”. It is the cruel serpent of the jungles or uncultivated areas—“Kollai val aravam”. It has the hood which it spreads and dances. The hood is known as ‘patam’, ‘paz’.and ‘panam’,—“Patam koi nakam”, “Paitta patattalai”, “Paikol val aravu”, “Panampatum aravam”. ' It, especially the cobra, has the spots on its hood ‘Tutti’ usually in the form of two ‘S’s.


It is an obstinate and cruel one—“Mnkkappampu”, It foams up and dances—“Ponkataravd,” “Ponkaravam”. The idea of its wriggling serpentine motion is beautifully expressed by the phrase, “Orriyurum aravu”, that which creeps attached to the thing it creeps on. It is deadly—“Koi nakam”. It is powerful—“Val aravam”. It is cruel and angry—“Veyya pampu”, “Kata nakam”. Its eyes are red with anger—“Cenkan aravam”. They become green “Painkan”, probably because of excess of anger. It opens up its mouth wide—“Paku vay”, that shows its pride—“Cerukku vay”. Its teeth, ‘Eyiru’ with the poisonous fangs are then visible and from there flows the poison—“Naccaravam”, “Vita, nakam”. The poison is suggestively described as fire—“Neruppumil aravu”, “Alate umilum”. It hisses—“Pampatu mucenum” and people are afraid of this hiss.


The serpents are of various appearances. Some are bright—“Vai ara”, “Vai aravam”. Some are white—“Vel aravu”. Some are with various lines—“Varitaru pampu”, perhaps as in the rattlesnake. Or, they may refer to those found on the cobra snake. But when the poets speak of the serpent, they usually refer to the cobra and all these descriptions must be taken as applicable to it.

There are various fables which have grown around the serpent in an attempt to express the super-human powers of the serpent. It is said to have five heads and five mouths—“Aivay aravu”. Thousand hoods and, therefore, thousand heads are also spoken of—“Pat am ayiram”. ‘Adisesa’ is said to possess thousand heads. The puranas speak of eight great serpents on the eight different points of the compass, supporting the world—representing perhaps the kundalini sakti of the world. The Lord is described by Arurar as “Attapuyanka-p piran” —‘the Lord of the eight great serpents’. There is said to be a precious stone on the head of the cobra of long life—a gem said to shine at night. Our poet refers to this great gem of the cobra—“Mamani nakam.” In the phrase he uses, “Tunai ma mani nakam araikkacaittu”, ‘tunai’ means two. Unless we take it that he is referring to a serpent of two hoods and two gems, we must interpret it to mean that the Lord is tying two serpents around his waist.

The Lord wears the serpent as the waist-string to which is attached His loin cloth which has been separately discussed. He uses the serpent as a kind of belt or sash for tightening the skin of the tiger He wears. But the Lord uses the serpent also as a variety of ornaments. It is there up above His matted hair—“Cen-cataimel ataravam cuti”. ® It is there tied round his neck and the shoulders as necklace and armlets and on His hands as bangles or wristlets and on the head as a crown. Because of the gem, the serpent possesses, it is really a necklace of gems—“Aram pampu”, “Aramavatu nakamo”. It is worn as an ear-ring. Because of the serpent surrounding the Lord thus, Arurar speaks of God as the flaming light of the surrounding serpents—“Culum arava-c cutar-c coti suggestive of the description of Kankala murti by the Agamas. The poet rhetorically interrogates, ‘Do you live adorning with (tying round) the serpents?’—“Katti valvatu nakamo?”. "Katti” may mean neutralizing their cruelty or poison when this will mean, “Do you live by neutralizing the serpents?”. In the Bhikshatana form, He is described as coming with a serpent held in one of His hands. This is referred to in other places also. The love-sick maidens become afraid of this serpent and beg of Him not to come with it. This form of serpent adornment is looked upon as beauty, “Alakan. But the Lord in this form is described as deceitful, “Patiran” probably because it is all a show implying something mystical especially when He goes a-begging. Not only He is called “Patiran”, He is also derided as a “Patti” —a lawless and unbridled person, because of His unbridled Love for the soul—“Naccaravartta patti”.


The serpent seems to play an important part in the dance of Shiva. It is one of the weapons which grew out of the great sacrificial fire of the Rsis of Daruka vana, for being hurled against Shiva. Shiva caught hold of it and danced. Tn the hands which dance fast, the Lord, holds the drum, the plate of fire and the dark serpent and dances’—thus sings our poet. The serpent as held in one of the hands of Shiva is seen in some of the sculptures of the Kailasanatha Temple. In Rea’s Plate XXXIV, fig. 1, one of the right hands, the third from the front holds a three headed serpent. So is the fig. 1, Plate CIX, holding the serpent in the right hand, the third from the back. In fig. 3, Plate CXVIH, Shiva dances holding a three-headed serpent in the left hand, the third from the back. In Plate LXI, the Bhikshatana murti, in addition to his clothes hanging in front has also a serpent round his waist and a look is seen hanging down in the front row. Another threeheaded serpent is twining round his right hand; the three headed serpents are found in abundance in the sculptures of the Kailasanatha Temple. There is a serpent near the Daksinamurti form in Plate LXII. In Plate CIX in the Urdhva Tandava, we find the snakes of the waist also moving fast hanging low. So also in fig. 3 of Plate CXVIII.


The serpent is mentioned in juxtaposition to the mat-lock, the crescent moon and the Ganges. There is a suggestion of the serpent spreading like a creeper round the mat-lock. The harmony which we have been often emphasizing is described by the grouping of ‘kura’ flower, ‘konrai’, the moon, the datura flower, the damsel of Ganges and the serpent and the poet used the suggestive word ‘viravukinra’—commingling. In another place, he speaks of the serpent, vanni and moon and the datura flower in the mat-lock. The contrast is emphasized between the moon and the serpent and their harmony is described as the beauty of divinity. The Lord makes them sleep together in peace. In another place the poet brings about a group of terrible things—the serpent, the bones and the ashes and he asks the Lord, ‘What is the significance of this?’

There is one phrase which is not clear in Arurar. He speaks of “Aravuri irantavar”. No story is known where the Lord begs lor the serpent’s skin. One wonders whether the correct reading may not be “Naravuri trntavar” as referring to Shiva’s feet as Sarabesa’ flaying the skin of Narasimha.

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