The Religion and Philosophy of Tevaram (Thevaram)

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

This page describes “(n) symbology of ash” 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 - (n) Symbology of Ash


Shiva is described as having besmeared the sacred ashes all over the body—“Potiyar meniyane” This ash is white—“Ven niru puci”. The ash is the dust of the cremation ground and the Lord looks upon it as an adornment—“Cutalai-p poti anintu”

The Pantaranka dance is so called because of the whiteness of the ash on which Shiva dances. When He thus dances, the white dust or the ash of the burning ghat rises up and covers all His body. Arurar refers to this with the help of the word—‘Bru’—“Nirerun tirumeni” The whole body becomes full of this ash and the fullness is referred to with the verb ‘Ar’—Nirar meni”; "Potiyar meni” The body gets attached to this dust and the Lord receives this as though it were very precious—“Poti-k koi meni” The dance on the ash amounts to a diving into the dust or a sacred bath in the holy ash. The ideas of dance and bath are suggested by the verb ‘Atu’ and Arurar speaks of “Potiyati”; “Potiyatu meniyan” The verb ‘Pucu’—to besmear—is also used to suggest the sacred ash which is used by Shiva even as others use sandal paste. The poet asks in one place, “Niranri-c cantamarru illaiy 7” —‘Is there no other paste but sacred ash for you?’. In other places, he speaks of the Lord besmearing the ash as ‘Cantam’ or ornamental scented paste—“Cantamaka venniru puci”. The poet uses the phrase “Paricantam with reference to this sacred ash as the beloved paste of the Lord. Or, it may be, a Tamillian form of the phrase ‘Pariccantam’ or Royal insignia in which case, it will mean that the sacred ash is symbolical of divinity. The idea of beauty or adornment is suggested by another verb “Ani” which Arurar very often uses with reference to this sacred ash. There is another verb used by the poet ‘Cannitta’ The Tamil Lexicon gives the meaning of this verb as besmearing. The verb in the phrase “Amathur cannippanai” has the meaning of living in a place as abode. There is a word ‘canay’ for which the meaning given in Tamil Lexicon is ‘to be inflamed with passion or lust’. If ‘Cannitta’ can be taken as the original form coming from the verb whose corruption is ‘Canay’ one can interpret it as that which is loved or liked most. This meaning will be applicable to both the places in which the root ‘Can’ is appearing in Tevaram.

With reference to this adornment with sacred ashes, there is what has been referred to as the ‘Basma snana’ or “Potiyatal” when the whole body gets besmeared with ashes.

Our poet refers to this as:

Mulu niru mey pucal;
“Potittan kontu mey murrum pucutal”;
“Meyyelam potikkontu pucutal”;
“Meyyai murra-p poti pucutal":
“Mulu nirani meniyan’'

The sacred ash is worn as three horizontal lines or ‘Tripunar a’ in various parts of the body and it is very prominent and striking in the forehead and our poet refers to this also when he describes the Lord as, “Niru tankiya tiru nutalan”, ‘the Lord of the beautiful forehead, which bears the sacred ash’. The poet refers to the sacred ash specifically besmeared on His chest along with the Mother—“Tutiyitai nanmatazmlotu vidrpil potiyanivar”, The significance of mentioning the Mother will be explained later.

We have already referred to the sacred ash being considered as a precious toilet paste. It is as soft as a dust ‘poti. It is more minute, and subtle than the dust—“Nun poti”. The word “Niru” also suggests the softness of the ash. It is completely powdered and is as valuable as the cunnam or scented powder in the preparation of which the women of ancient Tamil land spent all their time, energy, money and artistic talent: cunna vennvru'; “Cunna niru”; It is white—“Ven pot i”, “Vellai nun poti”, “Venninu”, “Vellai niru”. It is white like milk, “Pal venniru” There is no admixture of any other colour. It is of pure white colour,—“Tu vanna niru”. It is beautiful ash—“Kola niru”; “Vativarnta niru”. It may be that in these two references the beauty may refer to the beauty of the ‘Tripundra’, the three lines of ash. One of the love-sick maidens is so very much enchanted with it that to her the sacred ash on Shiva’s form appears like pearls—“Niru nun tiru meni nittilam”


The Absolute as the unapproachable purity becomes of any significance to humanity only when it embraces Grace or love which alone can save us. This is visualized as Shiva’s embrace of the Mother. They are not two separate entities but a united whole, where one becomes the other. In poetic language this is expressed as an embrace of the loving pair where the characteristic feature of the one becomes the characteristic feature of the other. The honey from the lotus is taken up to the honey-comb on the sandal wood tree and there is a union effected, a union of sandal flavour and the sweetness of the lotus honey. When the rain from the cloud falls on a red soil, a union is effected; the water takes the colour of the red soil and the red soil becomes liquified taking the characteristic feature of the rain water. Thus the poets of the Cankam age spoke of the significance of the union of the lovers. Our poet Arurar speaks of the Lord’s embrace of the Mother in a similar vein. There are the strong shoulders of the Lord shining as though they will wrestle and become victorious in all such tournaments of wrestling. But there is no wrestling going on. Instead, we have the loving embrace of the Lord. He embraces Uma, the lady of the great mountain. The Lord’s chest is full of the sacred ash and in that embrace all the ashes are imprinted on the Mother’s breasts, and it is probably this that Campantar speaks of “Paravanamavatu m”—‘The sacred ash is the form of the great Mother’ The Mother’s breasts embrace in turn the chest of the Lord and their impression is eternally there to be praised by the worshippers. Shiva takes the imprint of love and the Mother takes the imprint of the pure Absolute.

Our poet sings of this in one of his beautiful hymns:

Marrikal tin puya-mum nnarpitai mru tutai mamalai mankai Umai cer cuvatum pukala”.

This reminds us of Manikkavacakar’s

Tutikol neri-taiyal curikulal matantai tunaimulai-k kankal toycuvatu potikol imntalalil pullipol irantu ponkoli tankum marpinane”.


In addition to the words ‘Poti’, ‘Niru’, our poet at least in one place uses the Sanskrit word ‘Bhuti’ otherwise called ‘Vibhuti’. The sacred ash is the wealth of the Shaivites (Bhuti). The Lord carries this ‘Bhuti’ in a small bag—“Bhuti-p pai” Because of this the ash is called “Tiru niru” or the ‘sacred ash’. It is precious to the Shaivites and our Poet uses this terminology of orthodoxy—“T irunirr an”.


We have already seen that the poet refers to it as “Poti” It is the “Cutalai-p poti” or ‘the dust of the burning ghat’, and, therefore, it is a hot dust, “Cutu poti”, or “Cutuvar poti” “Cutalai-p poti” “Cutta venniru”. It is the ash of the bodies burnt to dust, “Venta ven poti”; “Ventar ven poti”; “Venta niru”. Thus this ash refers to the final stage of the involution where the Absolute stands pure and unadulterated when nothing but the Absolute exists. Thus it becomes the emblem or “Pari-c cdntam” of the god-head. It is an emblem of purity and unselfishness and of the great sacrifice. It also stands as a symbol of the evanascence of the whole world where everything is reduced to ashes. The whole universe becomes but a handful of white ashes, “Pititta venniru.” It is this significance that Arurar refers to when he speaks of the Lord besmearing himself with the sacred ash with an import—“Kurippaki niru konta-nivard” And it is this import which he wants the Lord to make clear—“Potittdn kontu mey murrum pucirrenne?” Again he says that his besmearing of the pure white ashes has got a significance—“Maruvilata venniru pucutal mannum onrutaitte” The greatness of this ash and all its implications have been sung in a specific hymn by Jnanasambandar which is reputed to have cured his Pandya contemporary of the incurable fever, a hymn which is considered to be very sacred by the Shaivites.


The poet as usual indulges in colour contrast—the contrast between the red form of Him and His white paste of the sacred ash, “Cempon meni venniranivan; “Ceyyanai veliya tiru nirrirrikalum meniyan . His form is red like the ‘kunri’ (the red seed of the creeper called the crab’s eye) and on that the Lord besmears the white sacred ash, “Kunri polvator uruvaro kurippaki niru kon tanivaro”. The same idea of colour contrast is amplified and made poetic in relation to the various ornaments of different colours which the Lord wears.

In some places instead of colour contrast, he emphasizes the beauty of the uniformity of colour. He groups together the white ash, the white ‘teeth’ of the skull and the white crescent of the moon In another place he groups together the Vedas which stand for crystal clear knowledge, the white ash and the white loin cloth all standing for purity, knowledge and dharma In a third place he groups together the white bull that He rides and the sacred ash to be contrasted with the black neck. He also groups the white ash with the white bull-flag and the white loin cloth.

Niru has the significance of the ash coated on the burning embers and this suggests the poetic description of the Lord by Arurar—“Cemponar ti vannar tu vanna nirrar” —‘He is of the colour of the fire in which melts the gold and He is full of ashes’. There is another poetic conceit. The form of fire of the Lord is hidden behind the sacred ashes. It looks as though He is putting on this ash to submerge the fire but the fire of poison is emitted by the serpent which He wears. This is brought about by a contrast of the activity of Shiva and the activity of the serpent or Maya—“Nirani meniyan neruppumil aravinan”.

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